Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Am I a benefit fraudster?

Campaigning is finally getting going in New Zealand in preparation for September’s general election. In the weekend, Metiria Turei, the co-leader of the Green Party and my first choice for Prime Minister, admitted that back in the ’90s she lied to Work & Income New Zealand (WINZ) in order to get enough money to keep her young child fed. The context was that she was announcing a new Green Party policy on the social welfare benefit intended to ensure that no-one has to go through the same thing again.

After five years I am still grateful every day to have a part-time, seasonal job that gives me – most of the time – enough money to save that I don’t have to go back on the benefit. (Living with a partner who bought her house before the pricing bubble is also a critical factor, and I don’t express my gratitude for that often enough either.) I’ve previously been employed as the editor of a very small monthly student magazine which then went out of circulation due to the present Government making student association membership opt-in instead of opt-out in their first term; I loved that job too, but even with full membership the students’ association couldn’t afford to pay me enough to live, and I had to supplement it with the sickness benefit and, for two of those years, the student allowance.

I didn’t start out on the sickness benefit. I borrowed my way through university hoping to become an academic, but I suffered depression and sleep disorders and couldn’t cope with the energy demands of graduate study, so I ended up on the unemployment benefit. Back then, and I think it’s only gotten worse since, that meant you had to apply for two different jobs per day and bring proof of it in to regular meetings with your case-worker. That was how I discovered that I have a social anxiety condition. I physically couldn’t do it. I had to get counselling later for the terror I came to feel just opening the automated e-mails I’d signed up to with lists of job vacancies. Besides, given my life history then, I didn’t believe anyone would ever want me to work for them, only “believe” is far too weak a word. I just wasn’t a person who could persuade someone to employ them, with the same certainty as that I wasn’t a person who could get pregnant and give birth.

That caused a misunderstanding which nearly lost me my benefit, actually. I had a blog back then on LiveJournal which was mostly me saying “Sorry, nothing to blog about today,” but one day I wrote something along the lines of “Oh well, back to pretending to look for work tomorrow,” and was very shortly called in for an urgent meeting with my case-worker. I managed to explain to her what I really meant that time. But the unemployment benefit had a strict time limit, and despite the mandatory “how to get a job” workshops they sent me to, I eventually ran over it. I got called in again and told I was going to lose my dole. I had prepared a bunch of counter-arguments to present, but instead I had a shutdown and couldn’t speak and I think I sat there sort of rocking and crying silently, which was when my case-worker referred me to the sickness benefit instead.

The process of getting the sickness benefit was slightly more complicated, but considerably more pleasant, than getting the unemployment benefit. You needed six-monthly medical certificates, which involved regular doctors’ visits, but doctors unlike WINZ staff are kind to their patients and will generally take your word that you’re not lying about your symptoms. (Some WINZ staff have worse attitudes than others, but all of them work in a system which rewards suspicion and punishes empathy.) You do have to be getting assistance with your condition if assistance is available, and that’s how I ended up getting referred to the graduate clinical psychology student who diagnosed me with Asperger’s syndrome – as it was still called in 2005 – and the succession of students who helped me learn ways to overcome some of the difficulties the condition presents.

Here’s the thing, though. To get the sickness benefit your doctor had to explain on the reapplication form, every six months, how your condition prevented you from working in full-time employment. I would tell them that I still suffered from depression and that I had time management issues. These statements weren’t false, but they also weren’t the real reason why I couldn’t get work. There wasn’t an option on the form for “This person is able to work but their social disabilities and anxieties prevent them from applying for jobs anywhere near as often as they would have to in order to stand a chance of actually landing one.” My depression is mild enough that I can keep it at bay nearly all the time without pharmaceutical assistance, which I know is better fortune than many people enjoy. With counselling I’ve learned to manage time well enough that I actually reliably turn up for the beginnings of lectures, an improvement which would astonish anyone who knew me as a student.

So what do you think? Should I have been kicked off the sickness benefit because the difficulties my condition actually caused fell between the cracks of the official criteria? Does that make me a benefit fraudster? Or is the problem an overly harsh, strict, and dismissive social welfare system? What does that imply for other welfare beneficiaries in New Zealand? We have a growing problem with poverty; what does this experience say about its causes? I think I have a pretty good idea. And I have a pretty good idea who to vote for this September.

Monday, 17 July 2017

A philosophical quibble to upend the global order

One thing I like about philosophy is how often I can find real-world applications for it. I guess that’s because it’s so abstract, compared with, say (to pick another of my interests), zoology. It is very unlikely that I will ever find a use for my knowledge that elephants have two distinct charging behaviours, one when they’re charging to threaten and the other when they intend to kill. Cats and dogs and rabbits just aren’t the same. On the other hand, it’s a rare week when I don’t have to think about essentialism, or game theory, or survivorship bias, or some other concept at the intersection of philosophy and mathematics, for some reason or another.

Recently I came across a singularly important philosophical paradox. Oh, its importance isn’t instantly obvious. To be honest, at first glance it looks footling, one of those little quibbles that just go to show philosophers need to get out in the fresh air a bit more. I’ll take you through it first, but let me assure you: the deepest, most fundamental question in global politics for the last thirty years hangs on the resolution to this paradox. But I have to tell you what the paradox is first, before I can explain how. It’s called the Mere Addition Problem, or alternatively the Repugnant Conclusion. Here to explain it is the philosopher Julia Galef (whose work I regret not discovering years ago):

In case you scrolled past that without playing it, the problem is the three contradictory premises, all of which seem reasonable, but which can’t all be true. Galef phrases them as follows:

  1. Creating new people with lives worth living doesn’t make things worse.
  2. Increasing total and average happiness makes things better.
  3. A smaller number of very happy people is preferable to a larger number of unhappy people.

Consider three possible worlds. First, a world with a small number of very, very happy people. Second, a world with that same number of very, very happy people, plus a similar number of other people who are just kind of contented, but not actively unhappy. Third, a world with the same total number of people as the second world, who are all just a little bet less happy than the very-very-happy people but a whole lot happier than the kind-of-contented people. Now according to premise (1), the first world is no better than the second world. According to premise (2), the third world is better than the second world. But that means the third world is also better than the first world – a larger number of less happy people is better than a smaller number of very happy people – which contradicts premise (3). Look, it all makes sense with Galef’s visual aids, I promise.

This is called the Mere Addition Paradox because all you’re doing with premise (1) is “merely adding” people to the world, who just happen not to be as happy as the people already in it. It’s called the Repugnant Conclusion because, if you go through the same reasoning several times over, you end up concluding that a world with a vast population so unhappy they have just one thing keeping them from suicide is better than a world with a tiny population whose lives are healthy, fulfilling, exciting, and blissful. Mind you, given only those premises, it is possible to cheat our way out of the paradox, because there are a couple of additional premises which are necessary for the Repugnant Conclusion to follow:

  1. The law of transitivity applies to goodness.
  2. There is no threshold of happiness (above the zero point of “I’d rather be dead”) at which this logic stops working.

I say “cheat our way out” because, although we can avoid the Repugnant Conclusion if either one of these is false, either way we end up not making much sense. To falsify premise (5), we would not only need to quantify a threshold of happiness below which the logic did stop working; we would also need to specify which of the other premises broke down at that threshold and why. So that gives us a whole lot of extra work figuring out how to quantify happiness, and gets us no closer to a solution than we already were.

Premise (4) looks more promising at first sight. “The law of transitivity” is a jargony, technical sort of term; it looks like it means something complicated and esoteric. Actually all it means is the simple rule that if Thing A is better than Thing B, and Thing C is not better than Thing B, then Thing A must also be better than Thing C – in whatever sense we might be using the word “better”. So, for instance, if democracy is better than absolute monarchy, and military dictatorship is not better than absolute monarchy, it follows that democracy is better than military dictatorship. If solar power is better than gas, and coal is not better than gas, it follows that solar power is better than coal. If Wonder Woman is better than Batman v. Superman, and Suicide Squad is not better than Batman v. Superman, then Wonder Woman is better than Suicide Squad. If teriyaki beef is better than cheese-on-toast, and baked beans are not better than cheese-on-toast, then teriyaki beef is better than baked beans. Without a rule like that, we’d have to compare every possible pair of alternatives independently to determine which was the better of the two. It would be impossible to generalize about what makes one thing better than another, and hence meaningless to compare hypotheticals like the made-up worlds in the Mere Addition Problem. Any attempt at reasoning about values would boggle. Premise (4) stands.

Let me now clear up a further red herring – an attack on the problem which does make a certain amount of sense but doesn’t remove the Repugnant Conclusion. It goes “I’m not a utilitarian. Morality isn’t the same as maximizing happiness.” I, for instance, think morality is about maximizing trust rather than happiness. The reason this doesn’t work here is that the Mere Addition Problem is about goodness rather than morality. These two concepts are related but not the same. Morality is an intensely practical matter; it poses questions of the form “What shall I do?” If I answer “Earn people’s trust,” well, the way to do that is to consistently do good for other people, so I’m still left asking “What counts as ‘good’?” – which is the question that the Repugnant Conclusion raises problems for.

If you don’t make the subtle distinction between goodness and morality, you might think you had found another way to disarm the Repugnant Conclusion: “Creating worlds and manipulating people’s happiness by way of experiment is deeply immoral anyway.” I’d be inclined to agree. You, the Manipulator of Worlds, might personally know that you would never intentionally use your power to create misery, but you can’t reasonably expect your subjects – who live or die, rejoice or suffer, at your merest whim – to have the same certainty. By holding that power at all you create a situation in which you cannot be trusted. But the Repugnant Conclusion doesn’t in fact depend on the supposition that you (or anyone) are responsible for the existence of the world, its people, or their happiness. The unfortunate language used, of “creating” worlds and “adding” people to them, is not necessary to the Problem. As long as the posited worlds and people could conceivably exist, we’re still faced with the question “Which one would be better?”

So we’re back to Galef’s three premises. Which one is wrong? I’m going to eliminate premise (3) from the get-go. If the words “good” and “better” mean anything at all, then a world with a small happy population is better than a world with a large miserable population. Premise (3) is true. The Repugnant Conclusion is false. To call misery better than happiness is to talk nonsense. If that’s goodness, give me evil.

There remain premises (1) and (2), and this is where things begin to get political. I maintain, and will demonstrate, that the great global political question of my lifetime comes down to which one of these premises is false. I believe that policy-makers have chosen the wrong one, and that the disasters of recent decades – global warming, the financial crisis, Donald Trump – are all partly, and some entirely, consequences of that choice.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Were Māori the first New Zealanders?

(Spoilers: Yes. Yes, they were. Unequivocally, yes.)

In this time of resurgent racism and “alternative facts”, I suppose we should have expected to see yet another version of the “Māori Were Not Here First” myth bob up to the surface. And so it has. First, a couple of months ago, one Jaylene Cook posed nude for photos high up Mt Taranaki, which is sacred to the local Māori people, and so sparked a comment-war on Instagram. I’m not going to pass judgement on the photoshoot – I haven’t seen the photos and don’t know how sexual or otherwise disrespectful they were. I mention it because, during the comment-war, Cook stated that “Maori are not indigenous you ignorant t...” (redaction by Stuff).

Not long after that, some guy called Noel Hilliam dug up some Māori skulls and reportedly sent them to an Edinburgh University pathologist, who told him they were three thousand years old and Welsh. Whether he told the pathologist where they came from is a critical, and unanswered, question. See, if I were a pathologist and somebody sent me a skull, I’d assume they’d found it somewhere near my place of work and contacted me because I was local, and I’d start my search for matching features in nearby collections. To determine the age, you might first think of carbon-dating, but bones can easily be contaminated with ancient carbon and no archaeologist trusts an uncorroborated carbon-date anyway. I’d most likely look at the teeth, get some idea of what the person ate, and match it to a place and period when people seemed to be eating a similar diet – to a standard of “close as we’re going to get, probably”. So even if the nameless pathologist was an actual qualified pathologist (Edinburgh University denies having had any such contact), Hilliam’s ignorance of scientific procedure would pretty much guarantee a worthless result.

But, being so demonstrably ignorant of scientific procedure, Hilliam of course drew sweeping conclusions about New Zealand’s prehistory from this one piece of data. Or rather, he had already drawn those conclusions and desecrated a Māori burial site merely to confirm them. He went public with a “reconstruction” of one of the skulls:

Sketch of a woman’s face, showing white skin, blond hair, narrow nose and thin lips, with a very wide jaw-line and solid cheek-bones.

There is of course no such thing as a distinctive “Welsh skull”, but there are some characteristic features you can use, if you come across a skeleton in the South Pacific, to tell whether it belonged to an Islander or an early European visitor. In this case, I have to say those are an awfully wide, rounded jaw-line and robust cheek-bones for a European woman; they would be entirely unremarkable in a Polynesian face. The hair, skin tone, nose profile and thin lips are all guesses on the part of the sketch artist. I gather Hilliam claims his “expert” told him this person had blond hair, which means that either he or the “expert” are talking nonsense. You can’t tell hair colour from a skull.

Hilliam didn’t get his notion of white pre-Māori New Zealanders from the facts, but he didn’t get it out of the blue either. These “alternative prehistory” ideas have been going around since at least the 1990s in certain sectors of the Pākehā (white New Zealander) population. No surprise, they’re closely correlated with racist politics. Hypothetically, it should be possible to believe that someone else settled New Zealand before the Māori did and still support Māori rights under the Treaty of Waitangi, since nothing in the Treaty is predicated on Māori being indigenous. But no-one actually seems to take that position. Conversely, people who publicly maintain that Māori are unfairly privileged by the Treaty disturbingly often turn out, in unguarded conversation, to also believe that Māori are a bunch of primitive savages who couldn’t possibly have navigated the oceans by themselves.

Friday, 9 June 2017

A lesson for the Left

Would Sanders have beat Trump? We’ll never know for sure. The polls seemed to say he would, but then the polls also seemed to say that Clinton would, and for that matter they also said that the UK would stay in the EU. Actually, given the parallels between this election and the Brexit vote, we might have a test for that. The UK’s Labour Party is currently led by Jeremy Corbyn, who is very similar in both politics and temperament to Bernie Sanders. If the UK were to hold a general election next year and Corbyn won convincingly, that might be an indication that Sanders could have beaten Trump. Unfortunately the UK’s next general election is not until 2020, by which time things will have changed a lot and it won’t be much of an indication either way.

That’s what I said seven months ago after Donald Trump won the US presidential election. Well, a couple of days ago the UK did hold a general election. Corbyn can’t exactly be said to have “won convincingly” – the result was a hung Parliament (no party holding a majority). On the other hand, given that only weeks ago the polls had Labour riding towards the biggest trouncing in a century, I think this result does strengthen the case for Sanders’ beating Trump if only he had been nominated. Assuming of course, as before, that the US and UK are riding on broadly the same political currents.

What happens now for the UK? Too early to say. Clearly Prime Minister Theresa May’s hope of negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union with an improved mandate has gone to pot. Will her Conservatives and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party manage to form a stable enough government to hold a majority in the House? I wouldn’t bet money on it. The DUP’s beef with Labour is purely due to Corbyn having entered talks with Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army decades ago to end the chronic violence between Catholic separatists and Protestant unionists in Northern Ireland, apparently successfully as it turned out, rather than – well, rather than what? Wiping Irish Catholics from the face of the Earth? You’d have to ask the DUP.

I’m not as surprised as most commentators seem to be by Corbyn’s success; in a country ravaged by unending austerity and stale promises of improvement just around the corner, promising to stop austerity politics was always going to be popular. The biggest surprise to me is Scotland. What has the Conservative Party done for Scotland lately, and how has the Scottish National Party failed it, that so many votes swung from the latter to the former? Did Scots see the SNP’s renewed calls for independence after Brexit as cynical opportunism? I don’t know how to answer that question. If, as seems likely, May loses her position as Conservative leader and it all triggers yet another election in a few months’ time, Scotland would be the place to watch. In any case, my prediction that the United Kingdom will cease to be United within a decade so that Scotland can remain European appears presently to have been wrong.

You wouldn’t know it yet to look at our news media, but New Zealand has a general election of our own coming up in a few months. Should any Labour or Green politician happen to read this post, I would urge them to take the lessons of the UK to heart. For a generation, nominally Left parties throughout the English-speaking world have put all their energy into winning centrist voters away from the Right. This strategy is not going to work any more. Business as usual is over. You need to get young people voting again, and to do that you need to provide them with a bold and credible alternative to the status quo. You are competing with the seductive, poisonous notion that immigrants and brown people are the cause of our economic struggles and we need to kick them all out. You won’t counter that with “Everything is fine, let’s just keep on the way we’re going.” Hillary Clinton, David Cameron, and Theresa May all tried that, and look where it’s got them. Please don’t deliver us into the hands of racists and bigots like they did. Please be strong.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Debating bigots: the role of allies

This post was originally published on my Tumblr about a week ago.

I’m autistic. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome back when it was still called that, in 2005; I was 27.

I like to think I can discuss most topics dispassionately and let my opinions be guided by the facts and reason rather than letting my feelings about it cloud my judgement. But I can’t stay calm when debating with anti-vaxxers. Well, I can as long as the debate stays within the bounds of “Do vaccines cause autism? Do they cause other health problems? Why should the mandate to vaccinate over-ride a parent’s personal choices about their children?”

When it gets into the realms of “Supposing vaccines might cause autism, are the benefits worth the risks?” – that’s my danger zone, because so many anti-vaxxers so quickly start saying things that I can’t help hearing as “I’d rather my child died of measles than ended up like you.” And I can’t debate that calmly. That person just told me I ought to be dead.

So I’ve learned to avoid those debates. But here’s the thing. I know perfectly well that just because I don’t get into those discussions, doesn’t mean they don’t happen. I know that there are people who think a child’s autism is a mitigating factor if that child’s parents murder them. I know there are people who think my neurological condition is a scourge on the Earth and humanity would be better off if people like me were eradicated.

I can’t engage those people in debate. So, allistic allies, I need you to do that for me.

Not necessarily to convince the bigots themselves; it’s extremely rare for someone to change their ethical or political belief for being confronted, no matter how rational the argument. Sometimes they go away and think about it and change their minds later and come back when they’ve figured out a way to save face. But far more importantly, the bigot isn’t the only one listening. I need you to demonstrate to people who haven’t made up their minds on the question, why the bigots are wrong. I need you to keep the bigots from expanding their numbers by converting impressionable outsiders.

I should not have to debate whether I have the right to exist. But because that debate is happening whether I join in or not, I need you, allies, to pitch in and take my side. Please don’t refuse to engage on the basis that there shouldn’t even be an argument. There shouldn’t, but that’s not how you stop bigotry.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Nudity: ethics and etiquette

In March I went with a local naturist group on an overnight retreat to Quarantine Island, in the middle of Otago Harbour. True to Dunedin’s weather – or maybe my life, I’m not sure – it was cloudy and cold all weekend and it was only comfortable to get naked in the lodge in the evening with the fire going. After we’d come home it was sunny every day for a week, of course.

I am a naturist, or nudist to use the more common word. I have two main reasons for this, both of them about equally important in my own life. One is purely personal. Presumably because I’m on the autistic spectrum, I suffer from a mild hyperaesthesia which makes clothes slightly but permanently uncomfortable. I’m told other people stop feeling their clothes after wearing them for a while; I don’t. Shoes in particular – conditions underfoot have to be very unpleasant indeed before it’s worse than squelching around in my own sweat, so I don’t wear shoes much. But there are no such things as comfortable clothes, not for me.

The other reason is ethical. A human body is a human being and vice versa. Everyone has one; indeed, everyone is one. It isn’t good for people to revile themselves as obscenities, and it’s worse to enforce that revulsion with the power of the state. And it’s dehumanizing to treat another person as an object for the purpose of sexual gratification. Human beings have the moral right to be treated as human beings regardless of what they wear, including if it’s nothing at all – which means not being arrested, fined, locked up, or subjected to any other legal penalty, if they’re not hurting anyone. In short, public nudity morally ought to be both legal and acceptable.

The word “naturism” obviously implies that the value of nudity lies in its naturalness, which is problematic in several different ways. Not all natural things are good, so being natural doesn’t automatically make nudity good. Also, it is arguably natural for humans to adorn themselves, since every culture does it. Naturists shave, style their hair, and wear jewellery, tattoos and piercings just like clothed people. But “naturism” is the name of the movement now, and there’s no point complaining about it. “Nudism” is a broader word; anyone who chooses not to wear clothes can call themselves a “nudist”, whereas to be a “naturist” implies alignment with the naturist ethos. Back in the early 2000s an Altavista search for naturis* would mostly filter out the voyeur sites that nudis* tended to dredge up, and that may have helped the spread of the term. Unfortunately the porn peddlers have gotten wise to this now.

Naturism is one of the more marginalized alternative lifestyles out there. Unlike those “lifestyles” which consist of opting out of various public health measures (like vaccines or water fluoridation), it doesn’t cause actual harm; yet it’s illegal to practise it in public almost everywhere in the world. I suppose we can at least be naturists in our own homes without police harassment, which makes us more fortunate than pot-smokers. On the other hand, there’s less restrictions on sharing pictures of pot-smoking than on sharing pictures of nudity. And ours is surely, bar none, the one lifestyle that is most sexualized by outsiders.

What does “sexualization” mean, and what’s wrong with it? I’m tempted to say “Ask any woman,” and leave it at that. I’ve seen confusion about this in other contexts as well. Does it make sense, for instance, to ask casual bloggers not to “sexualize” particular sexual orientations? Bisexuality is sexual, isn’t it? It’s right there in the name! How can you help “sexualizing” it if it’s already sexual? The answer is that “sexualizing” something doesn’t mean connecting it to sex as a topic; it means making it sexy (or trying to), which is not the same thing at all.

A medical lecture on the physiology of fertilization in humans will discuss sex in some detail, which makes it “sexual” in a reasonable, if technical, sense of the word. But it isn’t remotely sexy – trust me on this. That’s not sexualization. Conversely, I’m sure you’ve seen advertisements that associate all kinds of completely non-sexual things with revealingly-clad yet concealingly-posed women looking suggestively at the camera. I used to regularly walk past a local fish-shop van (I haven’t seen it in a few months now and I’m not inquiring after it) which was adorned with a head-and-shoulders photo of a young woman, apparently topless, caressing a dead fish whilst assuming what was admittedly a more successful attempt at a come-hither expression than I would have been able to muster in her position. That’s sexualization.

Now the foundation of the naturist platform is the proposition that nudity can, and should, be desexualized. I’ve seen a few blogs now – pretty much all on Tumblr, for some reason – claiming that naturist environments feature unrestrained public sex. If you find one of these, you should know it’s lying to you. It’s somebody’s sexual fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with having sexual fantasies, but there’s everything wrong with slandering a worldwide category of people in the course of expressing them. Again, ask any woman.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Syria: what I get and what I don’t get

So Donald Trump has fired missiles at Syria. So much for the theory that he was better than Hillary Clinton because he wasn’t a warmonger. I did tell you. If this isn’t the beginning of a war to dwarf Iraq and Afghanistan, I will publicly eat these words. I’m not betting either way on whether there will be a nuclear strike, but if there is it will be Trump’s doing.

At least some of the people who voted for Trump did so because they thought he wouldn’t do this. I get that. Clearly they were wrong, and frankly it should have been obvious that the reason he never voted for war was because he was never in politics. But I get why that would be your concern. What I don’t get is why some of his opponents are now suddenly calling him “presidential”. I mean, sure, yes, blowing people up in other countries without asking the people they’re pretending to try to help is something American presidents do, but that’s not supposed to be a good thing.

There’s so many conspiracy theories going around at the moment that it’s hard to get a handle on what’s true. I used to trust Wikileaks, but they’ve been so nakedly partisan for the last year or so that I’ve given up on them. The evidence for some kind of Russian interference with the American election continues to pile up, and denials from Wikileaks aren’t going to sweep it away. On the other hand, Putin is buddies with Assad, isn’t he? How is Trump’s attack on Syria supposed to advance a hidden Russian agenda? Or did Trump just get pissed off with everybody calling him Putin’s puppet? Is that what this is about?

The other thing I don’t get is why so many people who would proudly call themselves “radical” seem to support, or at least sympathize with, Putin and Assad. Putin is an aggressively homophobic dictator, and Assad is a lesser dictator with zero concern for human rights. I’ve seen a video of two journalists disagreeing over what’s happening in Syria, and the one who the viewer was supposed to agree with claimed that Assad was loved by his people because he got so many votes in Syria’s elections. How does an international journalist not know how elections work in dictatorships?

I think I do get why so many people think, “Well, the US has to do something.” I guess it’s like the recent trailer for Deadpool II, where the inept superhero title character tries to prevent a murder but can’t change into his superhero costume in time. The US with its giant military is the superhero, and superheroes are not supposed to sit around watching other people kill each other. Only, so far, the US’s record for solving problems with its powers is worse than Deadpool’s. Trump’s “rush in without a strategy” strategy will change that only for the worse.

I don’t know where the world goes from here. I don’t know how we solve this problem. I don’t know how we get rid of a dictator who kills lots of people without a war that kills lots of people and ends up installing a worse dictator who kills lots more people.

Trump doesn’t know either. But Trump will bring the whole world down around all our ears before he admits that.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Why abortion isn’t murder

A fertility clinic is on fire. In the storage area at the back of the building there’s a portable freezer unit containing 100 live human embryos. In the reception lounge at the front, trapped under a chair, there’s a screaming three-year-old child. You can save one, but as soon as you open the door and let in the oxygen the fire will take the building. Which one do you save?

You see where I’m going here, right? This sort of question is bread and butter for moral philosophers: think of a scenario where the answer is obvious, then extrapolate principles that can be applied to situations where the answer isn’t obvious. Most people choose to save the child. From this it must follow that they don’t value an embryo’s life the same as a child’s, or even at one-hundredth the price.

Try asking a pro-lifer this question and see how they respond. I’ll tell you how they don’t respond, or at least haven’t lately in my many arguments with them since joining Tumblr: they don’t answer “I would save the embryos, of course. It’s very sad about the one child in the reception lounge, but it would be immeasurably sadder to lose all the children in the freezer.” Instead the answer you repeatedly get is “I would probably save the one child, but that’s an emotional response and doesn’t have anything to do with right and wrong.” And you have to prod them to get even that much. Generally they evade the question until you’ve asked it three or four times.

First off, if morality isn’t about emotions, what is it about? Most moral philosophers will tell you that morality isn’t objective, because you can’t get from an “is” statement like (in this instance) “A child is in danger” to a “should” statement like “I should save the child” except by calling in another “should” statement like “One should always protect children”, and if you try and prove that second “should” statement you just go around the circle again, and so on forever. Without rational proofs or empirical backing, all you have to call on is your moral instincts. And here they’re pretty clear.

Pro-lifers, as a rule, seldom get their morality from philosophers, but they are disproportionately likely to pay at least lip service to a certain 1st-century populist rabbi who will be found to have said (following Rabbi Hillel) that morality is an expression of love and consists of doing for other people what you would want for yourself, and obviously love and empathy are both subjective emotional states. But religion doesn’t break the circle; “You should do what God says” is just another “should”.

Personally I think the philosophers are overly pessimistic. A “should” statement can, in fact, be objectively true if it rests on an “I want” statement; if I want functional teeth then I should cut back on sugar, if I want to sleep tonight then I should get off the internet. (To use more technical language, “should” statements may have no truth-value, but they do have utility-value.) Might there be some “should” statement that applies to any possible “I want”?

Well, if we’re really pedantic about what counts as “possible”, then no there won’t be, because for any “should”, someone can always say “I want to do the opposite of that.” But there are some “should”s that at least apply to any plausible “I want”, and one of them is “You should not destroy anything you might need”, and one thing you can count on always needing is other people’s trust. And it just so happens that our moral instincts evolved to allow us to trust one another. I have made a longer, but not necessarily clearer, case for trust-based morality here.

Now if you want to earn people’s trust, you can’t weigh every decision separately according to how much it’ll make them trust you, because then they have to worry that one day your calculations might tell you to harm them. You have to behave in a way that allows them to predict you won’t do that. Your actions must not only be benevolent, but clearly and consistently benevolent. For an individual, that means practising virtues – kindness, fairness, courtesy, charity, patience, and so on. For an institution or a society, it means treating people according to a consistent code of rights. And this is where we can start to buckle down to the abortion problem, because here it seems that one person’s right to life conflicts with another person’s right to bodily autonomy. It’s conflicts like this that send us looking for a deeper principle that can resolve them, and I say that principle is trust.

The pro-life position is that abortion is murder. Murder is the breach of the human right to life, and I do hope I don’t need to explain how that might erode trust between people. Two questions arise here. First, who or what has the right to life, and who or what does not? Where do you draw the boundary? And second, if you have to choose between one person’s right to life and another’s right to bodily autonomy, which one should win? Always life, always bodily autonomy, or sometimes one and sometimes the other?

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Jobs or wages: pick one

It’s getting to that time of year when the Government once again explains to the nation, with tears in their eyes, why they can’t raise the minimum wage to keep up with inflation. And it’s always the same excuse: employers can’t pay a cent more than they already do, so if the wage goes up there will be less jobs. Geez, you guys, you want steady jobs and livable wages? What rabbit do you want us to pull out of our hats next? Affordable education?

Well, they’d better be sure they’re right. Of all the reasons I’ve seen for why so much of the American working class voted for Donald Trump, the most convincing is that they were sick of the established order and Trump was a handy sledgehammer to bash it with, and the reason they were sick of the established order was that it kept telling them they had to choose between wages and jobs. Which doesn’t explain why they turned to the Right instead of the Left, but that’s an issue for another time.

They are sure they’re right, of course. In fact, to the National Party’s way of thinking it’s dangerously over-generous to have a minimum wage at all. It’s basic economics (and middle-level economics as well, come to that). A minimum wage is what economists call a “price distortion”. Here’s the theory. If the government sets a minimum price for any product which is above the natural market price of that product, some buyers can no longer pay for it – that’s what the natural market price is – so people buy less of it, the sellers have to compete to attract customers, and everybody ends up worse than before. Actually, in an economics class, any time the government lifts a finger you can pretty much jump straight to “everybody ends up worse than before”. And of course to economists labour is just another product, sold by the worker and bought by the employer.

There are several questionable assumptions here, but I’m going to focus on one key one, because without it the entire argument collapses. That’s the assumption that the employers are paying as much as they possibly can. This only follows if the workers have just as much power to turn down work as the employers have to set wages. If that’s not true, then the market will shift in the employers’ favour. By economic logic that would be a price distortion, which would reduce the wage below its natural market value.

So how good is that assumption? What indications might we look for? Here’s one. I’ve never gambled on the stock exchange or anywhere else, but you can’t sit through three semesters of finance lectures and not become familiar with the phrase “close of trading”. That basically means 5pm every weekday, local time, after which the stockbrokers all go home and do whatever stockbrokers do when they’re not broking stocks (I wouldn’t know). On Saturdays and Sundays they do no broking at all. Same as everybody else, right?

No, not everybody else. Before the National Government’s bold, exciting new job-creating economic policies forced it to close, the railway-carriage factory near my house was always busy. And I mean always. Didn’t matter what time of night you walked past it, you’d hear motors humming and sparks spitting, and there’d be lights in the windows. Factory workers work nights and weekends if they’re told to. Stockbrokers, despite the quadruple profit they’d get by trading all 168 hours of the week instead of just 40, don’t.

There are several possible explanations for this discrepancy. The one any economist will think of first is that factory work pays much better than stockbroking, with better bonuses and holidays, to encourage people to work nights and weekends. Or perhaps factory work attracts a demographic of people who love darkness and cold and closed shops during their free time, and sunlight and traffic noise when they’re trying to sleep. Or just possibly, and I really think this hypothesis might deserve some consideration, it’s that stockbrokers have more power than factory workers to determine their pay and conditions.

Now if some people have more power to influence the labour market than others, it necessarily follows that the less powerful people will end up getting less benefits than the more powerful people. If that’s the case, then the economic objection to raising the minimum wage is false. There is some slack in the rope. Employers could pay more than they do and still employ just as many people. They don’t because they don’t want to. The workers put up with it or lose their jobs.

In such a case the government would be well-advised to iron out the distortion, because not paying people enough is bad for the economy. Henry Ford (no friend to anything smelling of unions or socialism) paid his employees well and gave them the whole weekend off because he understood that they were also his customers. People who haven’t got much money can’t buy your stuff. Pretty basic principle, I’d have thought. Unlike the free-market apologetics above, I have yet to hear about it in an economics lecture.

The trouble with this is of course the free-rider problem. In an economy with lots of employers, each one can bet that nearly all their customers are other people’s employees, and pay their own ones less than anybody else. The first employer to do this will get big savings in labour costs and minimal loss of revenue. As more and more pile on, the whole system will go down the drain. But no matter how bad it gets, it will always be cheaper for any one person to pay just that little bit less. Rational self-interest won’t save us here.

Government intervention might – if we had a government that could be bothered to stand up to the employers. National obviously can’t, but there’s an election coming up in September. Just putting that out there.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The question of punching Nazis

This blog tends to straggle a fortnight or so behind the news, but people haven’t stopped talking about this yet:

You know, if there were two propositions I’d always have thought were established beyond doubt, it’s that the world is round and that the Nazis were bad. But in the last year there have arisen fad movements questioning both. I imagine, though I admit I don’t have any data here, that there’s quite a large membership overlap between the two movements. I don’t intend to defend either proposition here. My question instead is whether it’s morally defensible to do what that guy in the GIF is doing, i.e., punching Richard Spencer in the face.

This is an interesting test case for the ethics around free speech; it’s so extreme, in two different ways. On the one hand, the usual defences for limiting speech do not apply. Spencer in that clip is not being argued with angrily, blocked from an internet forum, disinvited from a speaking engagement, or having a newspaper refuse to publish his letters – he’s getting punched in the face while trying to speak to a camera. We can’t say that he’s merely being “shown the door” or that the attacker is exercising his right to free speech. This was a violent act, an act of physical force. On that basis many people have condemned it, including Jerry Coyne:

If the Left is to keep the moral high ground, we simply can’t go around physically attacking those whose views we don’t like. In fact it’s ironic, because when progressives do this, they’re implicitly denying someone a real safe space: a space to be free to express your opinions and remain physically safe. “Safety” refers to freedom from physical attack or illegal harassment, not to freedom from hearing views you don’t like.
As a conscientious objector, I’ve always adhered to the nonviolent philosophies of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, for if you start violence, you lose credibility.

But Coyne is misrepresenting the situation when he lumps Spencer under “those whose views we don’t like”. Elsewhere he has disputed the characterization of Spencer as a “Nazi”, since Spencer is not a formal member of a National Socialist party. Given that Spencer is on record as questioning whether Jews are people and proposing that Africans be exterminated, I’d call that hair-splitting. Coyne is Jewish; if he wants to forgive a man who denies his humanity, that’s his prerogative. But I think other Jewish and African people might want a say in the matter as well.

Spencer’s racist views constitute the second way in which this is an extreme case. The usual arguments for protecting offensive speech also do not apply here. Spencer is not speaking truth to power. He is not proposing a crackpot idea that just might be true, or even one whose falsehood offers us teaching opportunities in the effort of rebuttal. We already know what happens when the assumptions he is challenging cease to hold; that’s what the 1930s and 40s were all about. And the punch doesn’t set a precedent for violent state intervention against dissidents, because it wasn’t delivered by an agent of the state.

What about the moral high ground, as per Coyne’s objection? The moral high ground isn’t just a place to keep your own self-image squeaky-clean; it’s a critical strategic position which any resistance movement abandons at its peril. At some point, you must gain the support of the public or abandon your cause. To do that, you must inspire them either with sympathy or with fear. Fear has short-term advantages that make it tempting – not least that you control the media’s attention. But it is fatal in the long run. If the citizens sympathize, some of them may help you stay off the state’s radar; if they’re afraid, they’ll hold the state’s coat while it swats you like a fly. India is no longer a British colony because Gandhi didn’t terrorize people. Northern Ireland is still a British colony because the IRA did terrorize people.

(Worse still, you might buck the odds and win. The English Civil War, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution are examples. It’s no coincidence that these were followed by the tyrannies of, respectively, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Joseph Stalin. Power gained by fear can only be held by fear.)

But America is in an even sorrier state than I thought if one sucker-punch is all it’s going to take to divert the sympathy of the public to “alt-right” Nazis. Not many resistance movements can survive without being prepared to occasionally defend themselves, either. Martin Luther King didn’t riot, but he openly sympathized with those who did. The gay rights movement in the US began when the patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back – yes, fought back – against police harassment. The boundary between sympathy and terror is not the same as the boundary between using force and not using force. Most people are not complete fools; they can tell the difference between hitting people to make them do what you say and hitting people to stop them kicking you around.

All in all, I can’t see that the person who punched Richard Spencer in the face did anything wrong. What does bother me is the idea some people seem to have that more punching is the way we’re going to win this thing. It’s not. This is one of the deep cognitive flaws in the human psyche: “Find out whose fault the problem is and hurt them until it goes away.” That very flaw is the core of Nazism and fascism, and for that reason Nazis and fascists are always going to be better at hurting people than we who oppose them. Force may sometimes be necessary, but if the decisive contest is our force against theirs, they will win.

What we’re better at doing than they are is telling the truth. (The Trump White House has already, in its first month, invented three non-existent terrorist attacks to justify Trump’s anti-Muslim measures.) The Nazis themselves are obviously not going to be listening, but other people are. They need to see that we have answers to every one of the fascists’ lies. I salute the brave scientists, reporters, judges, and bloggers who are standing up for the truth. We need more of you. Kia kaha.

Friday, 27 January 2017

What price progress?

Several of the blogs I follow, I follow because they frequently say things I disagree with, but say them reasonably enough that I don’t end up lying awake all night thinking of things to snap back at them. This is a delicate balance; I read things I disagree with because that’s what inspires me to write, but lying awake thinking of things to snap back at people on the internet vacuumed up a lot of valuable sleep hours in my 20s. Two of the blogs I’m talking about are David Brin’s Contrary Brin and the one which inspired this post, John Michael Greer’s Archdruid Report.

Brin and Greer are both further right, politically, than I am, but neither one is so far right as to think that people on welfare just need to grow a work ethic, that being the point at which I stop listening for insights and start listening for gotcha points. Which just goes to prove that there’s more than one dimension to politics, because on today’s topic they are polar opposites, and I’m somewhere in the middle. Today, with Greer’s recent post “The Embarrassments of Chronocentrism” as my launch-pad, I’m going to be talking about progress.

Yes, “chronocentrism” is a word Greer coined to make his point. It’s modelled on “ethnocentrism”, which is when someone thinks that every other culture is to be judged by their own. (Usually, in fact, what they think is that there is a Right Way to do things and a whole lot of Wrong Ways, and they’ve never thought about it enough to realize that the only thing Right about the Right Way is that it’s how their own culture happens to do things.) Greer replaces the ethno- element, meaning “culture”, with chrono-, “time”, to criticize the attitude that every other period in history is to be judged by our own.

Now I would be tempted to use this word mostly when my generation do the exact same tutting and sighing over Kids These Days that we used to roll our eyes at when we were Kids These Days. Did you know that when some teenager has their head bent over a smart-phone, they’re almost always using it either to gain knowledge or to communicate with another person somewhere? Mind-boggling, I know, but true. The way some people go on about Kids And Their Phones reminds me of nothing so much as William James’ (I think it was) speculation on what dogs think about their masters’ reading: what strange compulsion could drive you to stare at bits of paper for hours on end, when you could be doing something worthwhile like playing fetch? But I’d better get back on track before this tangent gets any longer.

What Greer takes issue with is the idea that society has some kind of natural drive to get better and better; and, correspondingly, that past societies should be considered inferior because they don’t live up to the standards that we have achieved. Which, when you think about it, is a paradox in itself. If society naturally gets better and better, shouldn’t we be especially forgiving of the faults of past societies? They couldn’t help being bad, could they, since they didn’t have the good fortune to be born in our time? We don’t blame children for being childish, do we?

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Why 2017 will probably be no better than 2016

Yes, I know, downer of a title. Let’s start with the good news: 2016 wasn’t actually as uniformly bad as some of us made it out to be. The last remaining war in the Americas finally ended. Renewable energy overtook coal. The world tiger population rose. Giant pandas are officially no longer endangered; nor are humpback whales or green sea turtles. Ebola was eradicated from West Africa. World hunger reached a 25-year low. Equally good things may happen in 2017 – or they may not.

The whole “2016 hates us” meme got started on 10 January, when David Bowie died aged 69. Actually, no, make that 14 January, when Alan Rickman died, also aged 69, and people found the coincidence eerie. After that, whenever somebody famous died, the word was “2016 strikes again.” 69 is far too young to die nowadays, of course; a few of 2016’s victims were even younger, like Prince (57) or George Michael (53) or, when people had already started to say “Thank God 2016’s over”, Carrie Fisher (60). But far more of them were in their 80s and 90s: Gene Wilder was 83; Leonard Cohen was 82; John Glenn was 95; Zsa Zsa Gabor was an incredible 99. I’m sure every one will be dearly missed by those who loved them. But there’s nothing inexplicable about dying at that age. Nor did it suddenly begin in 2016. Have we all so soon forgotten Terry Pratchett, Leonard Nimoy, and Christopher Lee?

So what happened, then? I can think of a couple of entirely non-sinister possibilities. One is that there’s been no increase in the frequency of celebrity deaths at all, that they just happen to have fallen into a cluster as random events do. It’ll be harder to quantify than you might think, because how famous do you have to be to count as a “celebrity”? Who decides? I would certainly want to include the great New Zealand singer-songwriter and television presenter Marcus Turner, a man whose wide circle of friends and acquaintances I was proud and a little overawed to inhabit, who died on 2 February a couple of weeks shy of his 60th birthday. But I didn’t see him on the lists of 2016 casualties I pulled up from Google to write the previous paragraph.

Given the reputation 2016 now suffers, the temptation will be to count people as “celebrities” who happened to die in 2016, who we wouldn’t have considered “celebrities” if they were still alive or if they had died in some earlier year. So there may be nothing in it at all. If, on the other hand, there really have been more of them dying lately, the other possibility is that they’re all getting old. The Baby Boomers who embodied the radical cultural shift of the 1960s were in their teens; the rock- and pop-stars who led it were in their 20s. “Never trust anyone over thirty,” remember? The Boomers themselves in their turn contributed to the wave of new stars as the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, which must have further swelled the number of stars merely because there were so many Boomers.

It’s now the 2010s; the ’60s happened fifty years ago. Plausibly, what we’re now seeing is that cohort of stars approaching their average life expectancy. (Perhaps I’m over-fond of bitter irony, but I can’t help smiling just a little at the thought that the Boomer cult of youth might have given direct rise to society’s new-found consciousness of mortality.) If that’s the case, then the frequency of celebrity deaths will certainly continue to rise over the next few years before levelling off at a new, higher norm. Get used to it.

The other shock 2016 brought, in two goes – the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump – is far more ominous. The soupçon of schadenfreude I confess I feel to think of the complacency of the neoliberals immediately beforehand dissipates when I remember that the Left was also completely unprepared for what should have been our fight to win. We’re supposed to have the solutions to inequality, poverty, and corporate dominance, aren’t we? How did the fascists convince so many voters that bigotry was the answer? Important as these questions are, right now we need to contain the consequences. And whether or not my predictions turn out right in detail, it’s safe to say that those consequences are going to be negative.

If there’s a sliver of good news, current indications are that I overestimated Donald Trump’s intelligence considerably when I made those predictions. Impeachment might be an easy road after all. The cloud to that silver lining? Farewell, President Donald Trump – hello, President Mike Pence.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

The false meaning of Christmas

’Tis the season to be sappy. Twee cartoon reindeer and Santas, pointy trees and beribboned boxes, tinsel wreaths and spray-painted snow, and above all, inescapably, in every shop, that dreary treacly music that is the aural equivalent of sitting in a bath as it goes lukewarm. The fact that late December is midsummer in New Zealand gives all the doggedly wintry imagery an extra edge of falseness. You can tell that people are feeling it, because the other thing you get this time of year is movies and TV specials offering to reveal the true meaning of Christmas, which evidently is hard to find otherwise.

Well, if it’s hard to find, then the true meaning can’t be money worries and time pressure. Which is pretty much what Christmas is nowadays, if you’re an adult: a time to lavish gifts and food and hospitality on your friends and family or they’ll think you don’t love them. Even that wouldn’t be so bad, if only the gifts were things that were useful, beautiful, thought-provoking or informative. But no. As George Monbiot recently noted, businesses ravage the environment and sweat poor workers half to death so that we can present each other with

a solar-powered waving queen; a belly button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub holder; a “hilarious” inflatable zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle... a Scratch Off World wall map... An electronic drum-machine t-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped iPhone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog...

Monbiot’s right. These things amuse us for a day or two and then we compound the damage done in their manufacture by adding them to the world’s overflowing landfills. They end up in the ocean. Plastic doesn’t rot. Tools exist that we can use to clean it up, but not at the rate it keeps arriving. And once we’ve cleaned it up, what do we do with it? Burn it, and release the carbon to the atmosphere? Another bad idea. The best I can think of is to recycle it as building materials – say, underfloor insulation – since that’s at least something we would like to have last forever.

It’s become a kind of society-level addiction: better to buy cheap plastic crap than be that one guy who doesn’t give Christmas presents. And of course, the more people who behave like this, the more of a Scrooge you’ll look like if you don’t join in as well – ironically, considering Dickens’ original Scrooge was motivated by profit maximization just like the businesses foisting the cheap plastic crap on us. I don’t know how long the cycle of guilt and cheap plastic crap would go on if it weren’t regularly given a kick along by all the advertising.

This commercialism has even managed to infect the “true meaning” stories. Back in 1956, Ted Geisel (aka Dr Seuss) could write How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, in which the townsfolk of Whoville wake to find all their presents and decorations gone and still sing for joy that it’s Christmas. Contrast that with the 2011 movie Arthur Christmas, whose plot-driving problem is that a single present has fallen off the sleigh, destined for a child who already has lots of presents from her family but will apparently nevertheless be absolutely devastated if she doesn’t get something from Santa as well. Hear that, parents? Better nip out and buy one more just in case.

Monday, 5 December 2016

A big news day

Whoa. I should write to world leaders more often!

Yesterday there were two big, startling pieces of news, and for a change both of them were good news – if you happen to share my political views. The Dakota Access Pipeline has been stopped at Standing Rock. And John Key has resigned as Prime Minister of New Zealand.

I don’t imagine, of course, that the e-mail I sent to President Obama and posted on this blog last week had anything to do with the first piece of news. (Well, that’s not technically true. I do imagine it, because it’s a nice little ego boost, but I don’t seriously imagine it.) The people who won this fight are the Water Protectors who stood their ground so long and so bravely. If you asked me to guess what changed the state’s mind, my best guess is the army veterans who pledged to stand with the protesters. Armies are held together by honouring loyalty and bravery, and you can’t honour loyalty and bravery and also point weapons at veterans from your own side.

The Standing Rock news is cause for celebration – for now. It’s not the end of the war. The Pipeline will be put somewhere else, not scrapped altogether, which is good news for the Lakota people and their water supply but not great for stopping climate change. And there will be more pipelines to come. This time, Donald Trump didn’t get his hands on the situation. Next time will be on his watch. It will be worse than this one. But for now, we can celebrate.

John Key’s resignation I’m not so positive about. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good news for my side. Not that Key is an unpleasant person as National leaders go; he’s always presented himself as a cheerful, friendly, down-to-earth Kiwi bloke. That’s why his resignation is good news, because that persona – I’m not committing myself to any hypothesis about how genuine it was – has been the cornerstone of the National Party’s election strategy for over a decade, and now they’re going to have to come up with a new one. One lecturer a couple of years ago pointed out that whenever the Government was getting criticized in the news it was always some other minister facing the cameras, but whenever they were getting praised it would be John Key we saw. The lecture in question was on Machiavelli. I’m just putting that out there.

No, what concerns me about John Key resigning is the why. All indications up till now, including Key’s own public statements, were that he intended to run for a fourth National term in Government and, if he got it, to lead it through. The only reason he gave yesterday was that he wanted to spend more time with his family, which if you’ve watched any political dramas you will recognise as Politician Blackmail Avoidance 101. But what kind of pending scandal would spook the man who, in 2014, won an election with a book about him titled Dirty Politics fresh off the press?

It surely can’t be coincidence that National just lost a by-election to Labour in Mt Roskill, by a landslide comparable to those we recently had in Canterbury – and that National apparently had no plan for winning it. But that just compounds the mystery. What happened in Mt Roskill? Why has the National Party suddenly lost its will to fight? There is something going on here that we haven’t seen yet. And, much as I want National out next year, it bugs me that my country’s government can be thrown off balance by things that the public don’t get to see.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

An open letter to President Obama regarding the Standing Rock crisis

To: president@whitehouse.gov

Dear President Obama,

I am writing to express my deep and urgent concern regarding the crisis presently unfolding at Standing Rock.

I am not (and have never been) an American citizen. My concern is that of a citizen of the world, and it is fourfold. First, for the injustice the Dakota Access Pipeline represents to the indigenous people of Standing Rock, whose trust with the United States it will violate. Second, for the acceleration of global warming by the use of fossil fuels, which the Pipeline is designed to facilitate. Third, for the precious water supplies it endangers. And fourth, for the human rights abuses which have been perpetrated, contrary to the First Amendment of your Constitution, against those exercising their sovereign right to oppose it.

I have been given to understand that the State intends to bring military force to bear on the activists within four days of this writing. I ask you, Mr President, to exercise your power, as perhaps the final act for which your Presidency will be remembered, to bring about a resolution to the crisis that is favourable with respect to the fourfold concerns I have outlined.

As a private citizen who cannot vote in the United States I have no inducement to offer. I implore you, however, to consider what your successor is likely to make of the situation if it remains unresolved when he takes office; and what precedent it will provide for him if it is resolved by the use of military force against a legitimate, peaceful demonstration.

Yours with the greatest and most urgent of sincerity,

Daniel Copeland

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

We won’t defeat bigotry by ignoring it

“We really should just be completely ignoring Tamaki,” said a friend of mine (whose name is Andy) on Facebook last week. “I’m thoroughly sick of giving time and space to nonentities. Sign of the times unfortunately – lazy, sensationalistic journalism, and all that.”

Tamaki who? Well, my little country made international news a couple of days previously when we had a gigantic earthquake, which fortunately hit a rural area in the early hours of Tuesday morning with very few people in harm’s way, and I think the death toll stands at 2. Now Brian Tamaki, self-anointed Bishop of Destiny Church, had preached on Sunday that major earthquakes (such as those that devastated Christchurch, our second-largest city, back in 2011) are Nature crying out to God in grief at human sin – sin being murder, gay marriage, and Lloyd Geering. After Monday night’s events he put up a blog post claiming that the sermon had been a prophecy.

Maybe Andy is right in the specific case of Brian Tamaki. He gets media space because his Destiny Party was the second-latest in the ongoing series of attempts to forge authoritarian Christianity here in New Zealand into the kind of political force that it is in the US. The pattern is: rebuke sin, claim endorsement from God, announce a nationwide revival, fail to cross the 5% vote threshold required to get your party into Parliament, fall off the radar, surface a year or two later in a sex scandal. Except in Tamaki’s case it was a money scandal, and it didn’t sully his standing within the small group of devout followers who are his season-pass on the gravy train.

I can’t fault Andy’s opinion of current standards of journalism either. Objectionable behaviour from public figures gets clicks, and clicks get advertising dollars. But in the light of the recent US election, it’s now clear that the Left has catching up to do; and one thing we need to catch up on is convincing people that we have answers worth listening to. During my time in student political activism there was a general practice – nothing ever so concrete as a policy – of avoiding engaging with our opponents’ arguments directly so as not to give the impression we thought them worth bothering with. In effect we assumed that our target audience’s default position was to agree with us as long as they didn’t encounter opposing views. I believe a similar assumption was a big part of Hillary Clinton’s failure.

So if certain people blame earthquakes on deviant sexual activity, does that mean we need to go out and hold educational community seminars on plate tectonics? Not what I have in mind. Apart from anything else, we don’t know why earthquakes strike at one point on a fault rather than another, and for people who think like Tamaki, that sort of gap in our knowledge means there’s still room for God (or aggrieved Nature) as an explanatory factor. Anyway, the earthquakes per se aren’t the point. The point is whether being LGBT, or tolerating LGBT partnerships, is the sort of thing that makes a country deserve earthquakes. We progressives say “No.” Many people still say “Yes.” We have not worked hard enough at convincing them otherwise.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Are you awake yet?

Politics as usual is over.

There are two questions on everyone’s mind, I’m sure. What the hell just happened? And what the hell’s going to happen now?

I’ll start with the second one. If the UK after the Brexit vote is any guide, before the new President is even sworn in there’ll be a groundswell of criminal violence against people of colour – Latin Americans and Muslims in particular, but I don’t imagine they’ll be too picky. The word will be “We just voted to kick you lot out.” That was, after all, Trump’s main platform.

(Just so you know: I wrote that paragraph before I read the innumerable news reports confirming it.)

You needn’t bother arguing with me on this part, by the way. You may have a different view of Trump’s character than I do; but I’m not going to drag you through a whole bunch of news items and political analyses you can Google for yourself and a discussion you won’t read, just to provide back-up evidence of who he is. Instead I’m going to make predictions, and the next few years will prove me right or wrong.

Trump will begin his Presidential career with an aggressive and vindictive purge of every high-ranking Republican who walked out on him. (“You’re fired.”) He will then issue an executive order to deport undocumented immigrants. Existing law enforcement and military will not be up to the job, so he will create a special taskforce and recruit the kind of people who were chanting his name at rallies to staff it – i.e. men who relish the chance to point guns at brown people with the government’s blessing. There will be deaths.

Work will begin on the Mexico border wall fairly early on. It will have to be financed. Even the President of the United States doesn’t have the power to make Mexico pay for it, as he promised. He will demand payment, and Mexico will say “No.” Most likely he’ll stump up the cash in the meantime by gutting some public service he doesn’t think important, like the unemployment benefit – hey, with all the lazy illegals gone who needs it, right? But he’ll also threaten Mexico with military action if they don’t pay up. He will eventually carry out that threat.

Yes, I know Trump has promised not to send more soldiers to war. Of all the promises he’s made, that’s the one I’m most sure he’ll break. He may only rattle sabres at Mexico, but there will definitely be another Middle East bloodbath. Trump is an over-confident man, and that’s the biggest risk factor there is both for starting wars and for escalating wars. The decision-makers on both sides in World War I were certain they’d be holding victory parades before Christmas 1914. That’s why there was a World War I.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Americans, please vote for Hillary Clinton

It’s a week till the big day. Much as I like to surprise readers with new perspectives on things, I don’t have one this time. I don’t know how far this will go, it’s not like this blog has a big readership. But this is perhaps the most urgent thing I’ve ever blogged about. So, small as my part must be, I’m doing what I can do. Maybe this will reach a few people who are wavering and tip them the right way. In 2000 the election was lost on a whisker-thin count in Florida, and this election is more consequential than that one.

I can’t vote for anyone, I’m not an American. But this election will reverberate around the world. I suspect it’ll have more impact on our lives here in New Zealand than our own election next year will. I have no rewards or threats to offer. All I can do is beg, and American readers, I’m begging you: please vote for Hillary Clinton this week.

It’s not the Trump voters I’m trying to reach, or not mainly. The people we see at those scary-looking rallies on the news wouldn’t listen to me if I did have anything to say to them. I mean, I could yell insults at them if I thought that would be helpful, but it wouldn’t change any minds. They might listen to this guy from GQ, perhaps. He seems at least to be in their world – I’m not.

There does exist at least one Trump supporter who is not a hateful bigot, because I’ve seen him on YouTube: his name’s Peter Thiel. [EDIT: I’m informed that this is not actually true, that Thiel doesn’t, for instance, see anything wrong with apartheid. But he’s not a thoughtless hateful bigot; he produces arguments that are worth answering.] But the arguments he uses are the same ones that other people use, the ones who I am trying to reach, so I’ll address them in a minute. No, the people I’m trying to reach are those who aren’t voting, or (equivalently) are voting Jill Stein or Gary Johnson or writing some other name in on the ballot. People who claim that yes, Trump is bad, but Clinton is just as bad. Because it’s them I fear. If everyone who understands what Trump is votes for Clinton, the election is a shoo-in. If enough people sit it out or vote third parties in protest, it’s not. Again, 2000 stands as a warning.

Yes, you guys, your grievances with the American electoral system are absolutely legitimate. Yes, it’s ridiculous that the self-proclaimed inventors of democracy are still using non-proportional voting. Yes, it is a serious problem that only two points of view get a go at the Presidency. You need to amend your Constitution. But you can’t do that at a presidential election. I understand why that’s when these problems get attention. Plebiscites are like magazine covers; they sell better with a human face on them. But you can’t fix a whole system by bringing in one new person. You need to run a referendum to change your electoral system, like New Zealand did in 1993. You can’t do that this week. You’ll have to wait, and plan.

No, Hillary Clinton is not guaranteed to get in no matter what happens. The Presidency goes to the candidate who gets the single highest number of Electoral College votes. Remember 2000 – that’s going to be the refrain for this post. Suppose that next week, as then, the Presidency depends on a single swing state. Suppose, in that swing state, Trump gets 48% of the vote and Clinton gets 47% and Jill Stein and Gary Johnson between them get 5%. If that happens, who’s President? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not a Clinton-Stein-Johnson co-presidency. That’s not how America works.

No, Hillary Clinton is not guaranteed to get in no matter what happens. If 2000 is too distant, remember Brexit. We all thought that was bound to lose. None of the politicians pushing it had a plan for what to do if they won. Yes, that is indeed due to the failures of neoliberalism, but xenophobia and racism are not better than neoliberalism. They are worse. And right now they are rallying.

No, Clinton is not just as bad as Trump. Consider the e-mail scandal going on around her right now. Clearly the FBI, or at least some very influential people in the FBI, are trying to stop her from becoming President – and those e-mails are the worst thing they’ve found on her, or they would be trumpeting whatever they’d found that was worse. Trump, by contrast, has among other things been indicted on child sex charges.

No, Clinton is not just as bad as Trump. Yes, she’s called for more American military engagement in the Middle East – America is currently involved in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia, if I recall correctly. Her stance is that American intervention will prevent more deaths than it causes. I think she’s wrong about this and if I were in a position to argue with her directly I would take a very strong line. Trump, on the other hand, favours pulling the troops out. That was Peter Thiel’s big argument for supporting Trump. And I’d agree – except that “pulling the troops out” might mean either of two utterly different things.

  1. Send all the soldiers and military trainers home. Send diplomats to the governments of the various countries with this message (worded diplomatically): “We’re not going to kill for you any more. If you need a hand rebuilding civil institutions, we can talk. But no more bullets, no more drones, no more weapons.”
  2. Send all the soldiers, military trainers, and every other American home. Fire nuclear missiles at Damascus, Baghdad, Aden, Tripoli, and Mogadishu. Declare victory.

Which of these options do you think will be favoured by a man who has publicly said that all Muslims are potential terrorists and that he doesn’t know why America can’t use its nuclear weapons?

No, Clinton is really not just as bad as Trump. We on the Left have a bad habit of overusing the word “fascism”, with much the same effect as the boy who cried “wolf!” in Aesop’s fable. It’s not a lie, exactly, but it’s a worn-out hyperbole, and the trouble with wearing out a word with hyperbolic use is that you’ve then lost the impact of the word when it literally applies. Donald Trump really is a fascist. No scare-quotes, no “almost” or “virtually” or “practically” or any other hedge-word, he’s a fascist.

Fascism (unlike communism or neoliberalism) lacks any single definable credo, because it doesn’t seek international cooperation. It has, nevertheless, certain characteristic diagnostic features, and Trump displays them all. He preaches a lost era of national greatness; he proposes to restore it by purifying the nation of undesirable nationalities, religions, and races; he idolizes ruthless businessmen, or at least one ruthless businessman. These things he inherits from the Republican party he has commandeered. But he also has the other, still more sinister symptoms of fascism. He threatens his political opponents with the police; he chafes at the democratic restraints on his power; he encourages his followers to promote the cause through violence. Even George W. Bush didn’t do that.

This is not a drill. This is not a joke. This is not politics as usual. This is how democracies are overthrown. Just because you’re the United States of America doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you. Don’t let it. Vote Hillary Clinton on 8 November. I’m begging you.

And then, on 9 November, go and protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. Tell the President-Elect that you think it’s wrong. Tell her loudly, tell her angrily. Anger is appropriate. But remember, as you do, what the other potential President-Elect does to protesters.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Oh, the humanities

My employers’ employer, the University of Otago, has decided to cut staff positions in the humanities. Music is going to be hit the worst. As usual, the justification is money. It’s been suggested that maybe the University should ease off on its endless construction drive if it needs to free up some cash. (In twenty years I’ve never known the campus be without a big hole in the ground somewhere. Face it, Otago, the Richardson Building is a plug-ugly wodge of concrete and no amount of landscaping around it is going to change that.)

However, this wouldn’t fix the bigger problem, which is the government’s attitude. Statements from the Ministry make it clear – education is for fitting young people for the workforce; anything else is an indulgence. Here’s the official position in their Tertiary Education Strategy.

Skilled, knowledgeable individuals are essential to the success of businesses and other organizations. Access to skilled workers allows businesses to increase the value of their products and services and to pay higher wages. In turn, people are better off, healthier and happier, and New Zealand is a more attractive place to live and work.
For most young people, achieving a tertiary qualification is a crucial milestone towards a successful working career. Whether they study at a university, polytechnic, wānanga, private training establishment, or through an apprenticeship, a qualification gives them a concrete record of knowledge learned and skills gained that they can use to move up the employment ladder.

And in the Minister of Education’s own words, prefacing that document:

The new Tertiary Education Strategy 2014–19 has been developed to... contribute to the Government’s focus on improving New Zealand’s economic outcomes. The “Building Skilled and Safe Workplaces” programme of the Government’s Business Growth Agenda aims to materially lift New Zealand’s long-run productivity growth rate while maintaining our high rate of labour force participation. This requires tertiary education to better equip individuals with the skills and qualifications needed to participate effectively in the labour market and in an innovative and successful New Zealand.

Sure enough, Priority 1 in the Strategy is “delivering skills for industry”. There is nothing anywhere about developing insight or critical thinking. Public education, to this government, is solely a means of polishing up new cogs to slot into the commercial-industrial machine.

My instinctive response to this is a string of expletives, but that’s not the way to build a counter-argument. If you want rational debate, start by taking your opponent’s concerns seriously. Education costs society money; don’t we then have a responsibility to pay that money back? Granted that some people derive personal value from knowing all about, say, the anti-imperial politics encoded in the Book of Revelation or the practice of cannibalism in indigenous South American funerary rites, shouldn’t they stump up their own cash for it?

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Why women are better than men

Once upon a time, people say, you could tell the plain truth about things and be admired for it. Now they make you shut up and call you, as it might be, racist, sexist, or homophobic. I’ve had my quarrels with these people before and I expect I will again. But today I share their experience. I have a truth to tell which will offend people because it upsets the illusion that we are all equal. Here it is:

Women are better than men.

This is not hyperbole, rhetorical or otherwise. Nor is it a joke, though I confess myself slightly amused to imagine the offended huffing and puffing it will cause among some who pride themselves on being immune to offended huffing and puffing. It is, I admit, a generalization; but it is, I insist, a valid generalization.

Consider, as a parallel, the statement “Women are shorter than men.” That’s a generalization, but a valid one. It doesn’t mean that women can walk upright under toilet stall doors while men frequently get their hair tangled in power lines. It doesn’t even mean that the tallest woman is shorter than the shortest man. You can’t falsify it by picking Gwendoline Christie as your exemplar of women and Peter Dinklage as your exemplar of men. No-one denies that the distributions overlap – that many men are shorter than many women. But you still know perfectly well that women, in general, are shorter than men, in general.

Likewise, I’m not claiming that all women are saints and all men are serial killers. I’m not claiming that the worst woman in the world is better than the best man. I am claiming that women, in general, are of better moral character than men, in general. This claim being a generalization, you can’t falsify it by picking, say, Ann Coulter as your woman versus William Kamkwamba as your man. And in case you didn’t believe me the first time, this is neither a hyperbole nor a joke. So you’re going to want some evidence, aren’t you?