Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Some thoughts on the British Labour Party

I posted this on my Te Whare Whero Facebook page some time back. It's a compilation of some replies I made to a post on a dear friend's FB page. It is about the contest for leadership of the British Labour Party but has direct relevance to us in NZ. 

Some people argue against Jeremy Corbyn for leader of the British Labour Party because he's too old. This is foolish and misses the all important point that, if Corbyn can lead the British LP to become the party of progress and build a genuine mass base, progressive younger people will come through to take over the leadership. 

More importantly, no single person leads a political party, a company or a country. However useful it is for the Right (and some sections of the Left) to create the notion of the all-powerful single leader, it's always a team effort.

The only way to counter the enormous and increasingly destructive power of corporate capitalism and its servant state, is through a genuine mass movement. The greatest threats to building such a mass movement are the tendency of sections of the Left to indulge themselves in infantile and destructive sectarian squabbling, and the tendency of significant numbers of others to write it all off as just 'too hard' because the Right has sucked too many people into a state of self-indulgence and stupidity so we might as well all just give up and let them get on with it.

If it's 'human nature' to be greedy and self-seeking, how come there are people who not only help out those who are less fortunate, but who fight - and die - for a better, fairer world? According to the bleak vision of human nature as inherently competitive and self-serving - altruism, self-sacrifice and the struggle for a better world shouldn't happen, except as a strategy for self-advancement. 

The fact is that it's as much 'human nature' to be cooperative, compassionate and caring about others as it is to be cruelly competitive and self serving. The problem is how to boost the former in order that the latter ends up in the 'dustbin of history' along with the patriarchal order that gave rise to it. 

The notion of humans as inherently selfish and greedy is a product of Right-wing ideology - it justifies a world order that is based on individualism, selfishness and greed. It's the creator and motivator of the mindset that turns the phrase 'do-gooding' into an insult. 

Supporting the LP in Britain is not a question of blind loyalty - quite the reverse. It's as much pragmatism as anything. 

People have a deep need for something to believe in, for there to be a light at the end of the corporatist tunnel. Corbyn and the people supporting him are shining a light and it's beginning to break through the awful torpor that corporatism has created and nurtured - and that can only be to the good. 

And that is why the Right is turning themselves inside out to damn him. The best thing any progressive person in Britain can do is join the only party which, at present, has the potential to be a mass movement to make it work for the people and, through it, make the state work for the people not for Korporate Kleptomaniacal Kapitalism - my new slogan.

We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The broad Left has been in self-destruct mode since the1980s. It's time we stopped being self-indulgent ninnies and realised that the only way little people can ever win against the might of the state and the forces the state works for, is through combination. Why else do the Right expend so much time and energy, not just physically destroying collectives, but destroying the very idea of them?

People of conscience really don't have a choice because it's not just us, it's the entire planet that's at risk. 

Even if the LP do not win the next election, every expression of resistance to the current destructive world order sends out positive messages to the world's oppressed and exploited people. 

Corporate capitalism stole socialism's internationalist ideology and went global - it's time we took it back.

An open letter to Tony Veitch

Dear Tony,

The current media storm you're at the centre of started when you made a comment about an incident in a rugby match which, if made by anyone else, very likely would have been viewed as a harmless observation on the referee's odd distinction between a 'punch' and a 'push with a fist'.   

I hadn't seen the meme until the controversy blew up but I think it's no more offensive than it was insightful or witty. 

However, some people - no doubt remembering the time when you made a clear distinction between a 'kick' and a 'push with a foot' - thought you were advocating or trivialising violence, and criticised you for it on your Facebook page. The details of your domestic violence conviction were circulated and much was said about your failure to take responsibility for your actions. The fact that you were widely perceived to have failed to 'own' your actions and to have blamed your victim is what has given this so much traction. 

You then posted an emotionally charged comment on your Facebook page attacking your critics and seeming to taunt them with your popularity and success, and you referred to the domestic violence as having occurred in the context of a 'hideous relationship'. It was an unfortunate choice of words. 

Social media - as it is wont to do - immediately split into warring factions. 

On one side are those who think that what you were charged with in 2009 wasn't your fault; it wasn't a serious assault; your ex-partner exaggerated her injuries; it was in the past and should stay there, and anyone who raises it now has a dodgy political agenda of some sort. 

On the other side, are those who see you as one of those men who say they're sorry for inflicting violence on their partner but whose subsequent conduct shouts the opposite, and who like to cast themselves in the role of a hapless victim of a scheming / unreasonable / mad / cheating / domineering woman. Take your pick of adjective. 

The upshot of it all is that you're back in the sort of spotlight you don't like -  one that's harsh, unflattering and too revealing.

I must confess that I never listen to you or read anything you write and never have; and, in terms of your work as a sports commentator or 'news personality', you seldom come up in the sorts of commentary I read or the conversations I have.  

But I had formed an opinion about you which predates your domestic violence conviction.  It's of course that infamous statement you made on radio about Serena Williams :

"Do you know where apes one from? She's a reminder."

That wasn't just racist, cruel and misogynistic -  it was also profoundly stupid.  It was even more stupid than your boss's claim - after he told you to apologise on air - that what you had said was 'not a racial slur.'   

This was the first time you got handed the career equivalent of a get out of jail free card.  

But, perhaps you learned from that. Perhaps you understood just how harmful and hurtful a statement like that is.  Perhaps you realised how very lucky you were that you worked for an organisation, and appealed to an audience which had a very high tolerance for that sort of grossly unprofessional and unpleasant behaviour. 

Or perhaps not.

Enough has been said about your domestic violence conviction without me revisiting it in detail apart from saying that a man who kicks a woman in the back when she's on the ground is giving vent to a depth of rage and contempt that says a great deal about him, and none of it good.

The fact that you were charged with recklessly injuring your partner instead of a more serious charge such as actual or grievous bodily harm was due to your celebrity and the considerable efforts that had been made to ensure that, in the court of popular opinion, you'd been found not guilty. It was the Kiwi equivalent of a plea bargain.  The dropping of most of the charges and your guilty plea to a lower order of offence than a less influential man would have faced, allowed you to continue to rebuild your life and to build your profile as a wronged man.

That was your second get out of jail free card - a more literal one that time.  Had you the wisdom and the heart to play it right you could have come up from it smelling sweet. But, there was always that hint of angry arrogance that makes some people doubt the authenticity of your public persona.

However, I firmly believe that, whatever the crime - if the person who committed it has faced up to what they did, wants to make amends and be a better person and citizen - they have the absolute right to live their lives without having their past used against them.  We don't have double jeopardy in our court system and nor should we have it in the court of social media.

A lot of your supporters profess to believe the same but I'd lay odds that many of those who shout loudest about your right to a second chance would happily deny that to others. I've no doubt that there would be certain sorts of crimes committed by certain sorts of people that many of your supporters would never forgive and that they would rub the perpetrator's face in their past whenever they had the chance, rejecting mitigating circumstances as 'PC nonsense', and self-righteously demanding maximum and on-gong retribution. 

In the interests of fairness, it must be said there are some like that among your critics as well. 

 In NZ the physical and emotional battering of women by men is as commonplace as it is indefensible. I don't expect you to speak out against domestic violence although it would be great if people like you used your considerable influence to such an end - recognising that the soil in which male violence against women and children grows is well watered by the run off from laddish, 'locker room' behaviour - that striving for one of the 50 shades of machismo - that is still prevalent in some parts of the sporting world and which flows into the consciousness and conduct of affluent and powerful men as well as poor and relatively powerless ones. 

Sometimes violent behaviour by men towards women has its roots in a personal insecurity and inadequacy.  Sometimes it occurs when a narcissist's sense of aggrandisement or entitlement has been challenged. Sometimes it's when power over women is an illusory compensation for a wider social and economic powerlessness. 

Whatever the root cause - it's of little comfort to the person who's on the receiving end.

If I tread on someone's foot and break it, even if I didn't mean to do it, and even if I say I'm sorry, it still hurts and it takes time to heal. 

If I tread on someone's foot and break it and I don't apologise, or my apology is insincere, or I blame the person for getting in my way, I add insult to injury and may delay healing. 

If I deliberately stamp on someone's foot and break it and then claim that - not only did they put their foot under mine but, in so doing, they caused me to hurt my foot and damaged my Italian shoes which cost me a lot of money, I can hardly complain if people call me a liar and a bully.

Creating the Myths

The piece that follows was originally written in late 2006 – pre-blog - after a major story in The Press about a policing operation aimed at ‘Maori crime families’.

The article offended me deeply for its cavalier treatment of statistics and its failure to deal with the ethnic and class dimensions of the social problems it purported to address.

I wrote a reply to it and sent it off to various politicians and publications. It was met with a resounding silence. 

The following year the writer of the Press article won a Quantas Media Award for it.  

I was reminded of my piece when I heard Anne Tolley on RNZ, raising the issue of compulsory contraception for women who have children who are deemed to be at risk. Given the socio-economic profile of the sort of women Tolley is referring to, it's obvious that a disproportionate number of those affected by such a move would be Maori. 

It's also obvious that such a move will be very popular with some people and seen as regrettable but necessary by a large number of others. 
The targeting of certain women for contraception or sterilization is an issue that pops up again and again, as politicians test the waters to see if the 'public' will accept it this time round.  It is ground that has been stomped over before by such right-wing luminaries as Michael Laws, David Garrett and Paula Bennett.

The way it works is you create a sub-set of society and you give it a label - the feral underclass. Those who belong to it can be caricatured and stereotyped at will.  They don't have relationships, they have ‘sexual unions’; they don't have children, they ‘breed’ or ‘spawn’.

Such language is not accidental – it not only dehumanizes, it pushes these people so far into the social distance that they become an anonymous, amorphous mass but one that is seen as so threatening, the coercive arms of the state are given free rein to deal with it as they see fit.

                                                          + + + + + + + + +

In The Press's full frontal expose of Canterbury's top 10 crime families (2nd Dec 2006), it was revealed that all the families are Maori.  Leading the Mainland section, the story continued across two pages. In places it read like a tabloid screamer, peopled with 'faceless felons' and 'rampant recidivists' who are operating in a district-wide 'crime empire'.

A diagram was used to illustrate the composition and activities of one of the families, which comprises 26 individuals across three generations. The type and scale of this one family's criminal activities were said to be typical of the 'top 10 families' and are the motivation and justification for an 'in-your-face' policing strategy of round-the-clock surveillance and intensified bail and vehicle checks.

How 'typical' the type and scale of this family's activities actually are must be judged against the fact that, according to the article, it comprises 20.5% of the targeted offenders, and has been charged with 37% of the offences.

A side bar stated in prominent type, that "the criminal branch of one of Canterbury's 10 worst offending families which are being targeted by Police…. clocked up 673 charges for burglary, assaults, car thefts and drugs, of which 284 were in Canterbury." (My emphasis)

This family had actually been charged with a total of 246 offences in those categories (36.5% of the total) of which 88 were for burglary, 39 for assault, 103 for vehicle theft, and 16 for drugs offences.

Why did The Press claim so prominently that all the charges fell into those 4 categories?  

As journalists know, headlines powerfully influence people's responses to, and understanding of the facts contained in the text. Journalists also know that an article may mislead as much by what it doesn't say, as by what it does say.

Over one third of the 673 total charges fell into the category of 'other', which includes minor traffic offences, breaches of court orders, probation, bail conditions etc.

This is certainly statistically significant. It is also journalistically significant in that at least some of the offences in this category could have resulted from the policing strategy itself. But the article does not even acknowledge this as a possibility.

Nor does it provide a breakdown of the 42% of charges that have been clocked up in Canterbury. This is a surprising omission, given the way the family has been conducting itself here would be relevant to the article and of interest to local people.

To give such prominence to 36.5 % of the charges and to ignore the possible significance of 34%, is either negligent, or deliberately skewing data to beef up the story.

But these are not my only concerns.

The cost to the tax payer, and youth offending are another two issues of public concern which the article highlighted.

It stated that 127 individuals from the 10 families have 'been apprehended for' 1808 offences over 5 years and, in total, they have cost the country $53m.

The article also stated that people under 19 comprise 33% of the district’s population but account for almost half of all apprehensions, the costs of which are calculated separately from those of adults.

There is no detail on how many of the 127 individuals from the 10 families are youth offenders but, if the national average applies, around 60 or so young members of the families have been charged with around 900 offences.

These youth offenders in the 10 families cost around 87% of the total cost of the families' offending last year but account for just under 3% of the District's total apprehensions for burglary, 4.4% of vehicle thefts and 1.6% of theft from vehicles.

The article didn't state what proportion of the District's remaining 97% of burglaries, 95.4% of vehicle thefts and 98.4% of thefts from vehicles were committed by the adult members of these crime families.

But, as the total adult offending for these families last year cost $900k against the $6.1m for youth offending, we can assume that it was not very much.  

If so, how much attention is being paid to all the other criminals who are obviously pretty busy throughout the District?

There were many other obvious flaws and omissions in the article. We were not told what the overall clear up rate is for the highlighted offences, or how much the initiative is affecting clear up rates. Nor were we told how much the strategy is costing, and whether it is diverting police away from other crimes.

The analysis of the significant civil liberties issues was cursory as was the attention paid to the 'diversion strategy' aimed at young non-offenders within the families.

The cartoon used to illustrate the article, which appeared to be a group of fat, anthropomorphised dogs in burglar masks, was gratuitous and distasteful. 

Some language was emotive and inflammatory, for example, a woman was said to have had 'sexual unions' that 'spawn' criminals. Why use such morally charged words?

The unusually high profile given to the story and its potential to confirm negative stereotypes and to fuel racism demand a far more rigorous examination of the politics of the situation, the statistics and the assumptions flowing from them.

It is reasonable to ask, would this story have been given the same prominence and form if all the 'rampant recidivists' had white faces?  

A senior police officer was quoted as saying: 'sadly the 10 families are Maori families. It a sad indictment that so many Maori people want to make a difference to their Maori community and every time they hear crimes on the radio… they think 'I hope that wasn't a Maori'.

If the word Pakeha is substituted for Maori the statement sounds absurd because white people are seldom highlighted on the grounds of their ethnicity in this way.

There are crimes that mostly poor people do, and there are crimes that only well-off people can do. An intellectually and politically meaningful analysis of crime would look at rates of similar crimes within populations with similar socio-economic profiles.

Maori are over-represented in the lower socio-economic categories and Maori children are significantly over-represented in poverty statistics. We are told that Maori are over-represented in crime statistics, but what this article doesn't even ask is whether they are over-represented in apprehensions and convictions for some types of crime, and equally or under-represented in others?  For example, what are the offending rates for Maori in serious fraud cases?

The public's perception of and reaction to crime, like that of the police and other branches of the criminal justice system, is often affected by both conscious and unconscious prejudice. Judgments about the degree of seriousness and of mitigation enter into definitions of the crime itself, perceptions of the criminal and how he or she should be treated.

Leaving aside all the examples of corporate and serious organised crime where the really big money is made, the fact is that most 'everyday, law-abiding citizens' commit crimes. People steal from their employers, in the obvious ways of stealing equipment, materials, goods etc and in less obvious ways of making personal phone calls, inflating expense claims, spending time on personal business, taking unwarranted sick leave etc.

Many people speed, drink and drive, drive their vehicles over environmentally protected areas, illegally dump rubbish, avoid paying GST and income tax, and inflate insurance claims. The car fetishists who make rural people's lives a misery in Canterbury break the law in dozens of ways every week – with virtual impunity.

Very often, not only do the perpetrators of this sort of 'white collar' crime get away with it, they don't even think they're doing anything wrong.

This policing strategy is likely to glamourise and/or make martyrs of what appear on the whole to be habitual but essentially petty criminals. It may marginally improve the District's poor clear up rates for some crimes. It will inflate police officers' pay packets. It will, inevitably divert resources away from other areas.

Possibly more importantly than any of that, like the 'sus' laws in Britain in the 1980s, this policing strategy and the sort of coverage given it by The Press will be highly effective – not in stopping crime but in turning it into a race issue.