Wednesday, 30 November 2016

An open letter to President Obama regarding the Standing Rock crisis


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.