Friday, 20 October 2017

I thought I would feel better about this than I do

As of when Winston Peters finally made up his mind who to go with yesterday, Jacinda Ardern is now Prime Minister of New Zealand, in a coalition government formed of Labour, New Zealand First, and the Green Party. I have mixed feelings about this. There was no big surprise in the special votes; as commentators evidently better-informed than me predicted, they took two seats off National and handed one to the Greens and one to Labour. And, as any New Zealander with half a brain could have told you, the prospect of a National-Green coalition (raised in all seriousness by some pundits evidently lacking that endowment) was a chimaera.

The good part of my mixed feelings is obviously that we’ve got a new government, which – if not for the presence of New Zealand First – would have been the left-most one of my lifetime. In concrete terms, this country’s decades-long trajectory towards Dickensian inequality and poverty might actually go into reverse. We might get a liveable minimum wage. We might get housing for homeless people. We might get unions strong enough to make a difference. We might get an economic strategy that doesn’t depend on turning our rivers into sewers and lying to the world about it.

The bad part starts with New Zealand First. I don’t think we’re in for a three-ring circus like the National-New Zealand First coalition government of 1997, because this time Winston hasn’t brought in a cadre of loudmouths with egos as big as his own. Jim Anderton’s old gibe, calling the party “Winston First”, is even truer now than when he made it in the 1990s. But I don’t know, and I’m not looking forward to finding out, how much of its left-wing promise the Labour-Greens bloc has had to concede in order to secure Winston’s support.

I do know, as I’ve said on this blog more than once, that Winston’s anti-immigrant stance is a cynical façade put on to garner votes. I also know that Winston is 72 years old, and likely to retire within a decade – possibly by next election, depending on how well his health weathers old age. What happens to New Zealand First then? Will it crumble, leaderless, into irrelevance? Or will Winston be succeeded by one of his many sincerely racist admirers? And then will New Zealand have its own Brexit, its own Trump, to deal with? These questions scare me.

Also not comforting is the fact that National still has two more seats than Labour and the Greens combined. I’m not confident enough in my expectation of a stable coalition not to worry about what that will mean if it does fall apart; and I’m bamboozled, frankly, by the fact that it happened at all. How does a government preside over as big a social and economic crisis as this one has and still attract more votes than its competitors? What does it say about my country’s soul that nearly half of us are prepared to shrug off the child poverty and homelessness we’re seeing now as long as the men in suits get to hang on to more cash come tax time? Are we all clones of Cersei Lannister?

I don’t like not understanding these things, I honestly don’t. It’s a cheap rhetorical trick to claim to be mystified by your opponents’ stupidity and malice, and more to the point it’s purely performative. It makes a good show if all you want is to assure people on your own side that you’re one of them, but it doesn’t budge your opponents an inch except to confirm their belief in your stupidity and malice. And if you really care about your political ideals, it’s your opponents you want to be shifting. The fact that I don’t understand what motivates people to vote National means I have no idea how we can motivate them to vote more leftward. Maybe that’s the real reason why this election result brings me so little joy.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Mass shootings are not a mental health problem

A few days ago, an old white man fired a lot of guns into a crowd of people at a music festival in Las Vegas. Apparently he also shot at a nearby fuel storage site in a failed attempt to cause an explosion. You can find his name on the news sites; in the distant hope of setting some kind of example with the ultimate goal of cutting off the notoriety that motivates others to emulate these killers, I’m not going to repeat it. He killed 59 people, I think the current count is, and wounded a number estimated at over 500. Some people are calling this the biggest mass shooting in US history, which of course has prompted others to bring up bigger ones, like the Greenwood Massacre of 1921 and the “Battle” of Wounded Knee in 1890. Perhaps they mean the biggest mass shooting by a single shooter.

Last month I said the following about the politics of climate change in the hurricane-torn US, and it goes treble for gun control and mass shootings:

More often, however, “Don’t politicize this problem” means “Your politics offer a better way of fixing it than mine do, and I’d rather people didn’t figure that out.” I can sympathize with a preference for peace over contention, but politics can be operationally defined as the set of problems which are more important than not being contentious.

Gun control laws work. They don’t prevent every single possible shooting, but they cut them down dramatically. Here in New Zealand, we have civilized gun laws. You cannot buy a gun in The Warehouse here like you can in Walmart in the US. You can’t open-carry in New Zealand. Nobody keeps a handgun for “protection” – you don’t need one, because you know other people don’t have them either. The last time anyone shot and killed members of the public here was in 1990, when I was twelve, at Aramoana north of Dunedin. (There have been a handful of incidents since when angry men shot their family members.) In Australia thirty-five people were killed at a place called Port Arthur in 1996, so they tightened up their gun laws and the government bought everybody’s guns off them, and they haven’t had a mass shooting since. You can Google other countries and their gun laws and mass-shooting prevalences for yourself. You’ll find the pattern holds.

Yes, there have been scary incidents in my life when I was exceedingly grateful that the person confronting me wasn’t allowed a gun; and no, they weren’t carrying guns illegally. Turns out our firearms licensing laws actually do make it difficult for dangerous people to get hold of them. So not many people in New Zealand want American-style gun “freedom”. But I’ve met one or two who do, enough to have figured out what’s wrong with their arguments. First up: no, America, you do not have more freedoms or better-functioning democracy as a result of your guns. New Zealand has the same freedom of expression that you do, rather better freedom of religion in practice, a much more representative electoral system, far less gerrymandering, automatic voter registration, and vastly more time to vote when elections roll around. Your idea that your guns keep dictatorship and corruption at bay is a peculiarly American fantasy.

The guy I’m thinking of reckoned the whole problem with American mass shootings was that they let people have guns without taking a mental health exam. He was recommending target-shooting as, he said, a tremendously calming sport. Apparently it’s meditative to squeeze a trigger and see a hole appear in the centre of a target. I told him this wouldn’t work for me because I have terrible, terrible aim. I can’t skip a stone over a lake or win a game of pool against a three-year-old or get past level 1 of a first-person-shooter video game. I didn’t add that I would fail his mental health criterion, that I have exactly the same psychiatric diagnosis as the guy who killed six people in Santa Barbara in 2014 – and also, at his age, the same difficulties with romance and sexuality that he was so enraged about.

Now if you’re wondering, no, I’ve never killed anybody, and no, I don’t think I would have done if only I’d had access to a gun at age 22. Which just goes to show: mental health is not the problem. Though hyperbolic, Michel Foucault’s assertion that mental health diagnoses are primarily a method of social control isn’t completely off the mark. I’ve seen an otherwise pleasant-seeming person try to get library security to eject another library user who was making a bit of noise, not because of the noise primarily but because – in a harsh, horrified whisper – “She’s a handicap!” As a funny-looking person myself (my fashion options are basically “deliberate eccentric” or “aimed at normal and missed”), I occasionally get things thrown at me in the street: usually water-balloons, once an egg, once a lighted cigarette. One acquaintance, when I mentioned this, responded with sympathetic incredulity “I guess some people just have mental problems.” No. This is how people treat people with mental problems. This is the behaviour of a mentally normal human being towards someone they feel entitled to disrespect.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t concede that like most laws, in practice if not on paper, gun restrictions disproportionately target people of colour. That has certainly been the case in New Zealand, from 1869 when selling guns to Māori became a crime to 2007 when armed police stopped traffic and raided people’s homes and arrested seventeen people, most of them Māori, on dodgy charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act. It’ll be the tenth anniversary in about a week, and I don’t think we should let them forget. But to suggest that Americans of colour are better off with their on-paper right to bear arms would be a joke in very poor taste. Ask Tamir Rice or Philando Castile how that worked out for them.

There’s always a lot of discourse about either race or mental illness after mass killings, depending on whether the killer was white. You don’t hear so much about gender, despite the fact that it’s a better predictor of deadly violence than either. I know of only one mass shooting by a woman ever, that being the one that inspired the Boomtown Rats song I Don’t Like Mondays. What does seem to come out repeatedly when people analyse these killers’ backgrounds after the police have shot them dead is anger, hatred, possessiveness, and entitlement, and especially towards women. It’s entirely unsurprising to me that people remember the Las Vegas killer pushing his girlfriend around.

Anger and possessiveness are going to take a lot of time and work to expunge from the culture. In the meantime, the quickest way to make a difference is to prevent these people from getting their hands on the means to kill dozens from a distance. In the longer term I can’t help thinking that the American sanctification of the right to bear arms – that is, the right to have the power to kill – itself encourages the attitude that deadly violence is an appropriate response to perceived social wrongs. Either way, America, you’re never going to fix this problem you have without gun control.