Sunday, 11 December 2016

On the question of abortion

I had a discussion about abortion with someone on Facebook.  This person - who is an animal rights activist - asked whether 'a man should have a say if a woman wanted to kill their unborn child'. 
I always try to engage in sensible debate so I said that he should have a say but the ultimate decision has to be the woman's. A lively discussion ensued. She then asked me if I thought a woman who has an abortion was a 'murderer'. 
This was my reply:
"Human life starts as an embryo which may be expelled or resorbed without a woman even knowing it was there. An embryo may develop into a foetus which may naturally die and be expelled at any point in the pregnancy.  A foetus may go full term and be stillborn. A foetus becomes viable in medical terms these days at around 24 weeks - assuming of course that its family has access to the sophisticated medical care that such a premature infant needs to survive. That sort of care is not available universally and  a baby born that prematurely to a poor family or at a distance from advanced pre-term care, is highly unlikely to survive.
"Even if a child is born full term, if it is born into a poor family - especially in the less developed world - it may become one of the 3 million babies that are stillborn each year, or one of the 6 million children who die every year before the age of 5 - 45% of whom die in the first 28 days of life.  It might end up being a slave or trafficked as a sex object or be killed in a drone strike or any of the many hideous fates that befall so many innocent little children.
"You might stop and consider, in the time it took you to write your question, how many hundreds of innocent children worldwide died from a myriad of mainly preventible causes - e.g. for want of clean water, basic medicines and food?  How many women died in childbirth? How many women became pregnant who do not want a child because they simply don’t have the financial, emotional or physical resources to carry it and care for it? How many women became pregnant as a result of forced sex?
"As things stand in our society,  the new human stops being a foetus and becomes a baby when it can live independently of its mother and in legal terms that is the point at which ending its life may be deemed to be murder - or infanticide or manslaughter or failing to provide the necessities of life …..depending on circumstance. 
" Clearly a woman who has an abortion within legal limits is not a murderer but the sub-text of your question is whether a foetus should be seen as a human being with full legal rights from the point of conception and therefore the deliberate ending of its life be classified as murder - i.e. whether anti-abortionists are right in their attempts to turn back the clock to the time when women could not get safe, medically supervised abortions. 
"I think anti-abortionists are wrong - in pretty much the same way as I thought the burning of witches and heretics was wrong. 
"If they succeed - anti-abortionists will be responsible for killing many women and children because women will still try to terminate unwanted pregnancies as they always have done - and they will suffer and some will die as a consequence. You might also like to consider that the leading cause of infanticide is - as it always has been throughout human history - an unwanted pregnancy. 
"The answer is safe, reliable, easily available contraception and education,  full legal equality and full employment - and an end to religious fundamentalism, phallocracy and bigotry."
If you are wondering if my words had any effect on the woman - I doubt it.  You can lead a dogmatist to the facts but you can't make them think.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Impoverished Nation

I had  a conversation recently with someone who refused to acknowledge that there is 'actual poverty' in NZ because people aren't starving. This person's belief was that unless a person is starving, dressed in rags, and living on the streets, they are not poor, they are just not as well off as some others.  Moreover, the fact that this person is so much better off than most other Kiwis is all down to her having made good choices. She chose to pay attention at school, get a good education, work hard, buy a house etc etc. 

She completely blanked out the considerable privilege that underpinned ALL her choices. Only child of well off parents, living in a warm and dry house with her own bedroom, going to a prestigious school, being helped through university, coming of age at a time of full employment, inheriting a signifiant sum of money from her grandparents and standing to inherit even more from her parents - in those circumstances there is nothing remarkable or praiseworthy about making good choices. She is not to be condemned for her situation but she is at fault for believing it reflects anything but a good fortune that is denied to the majority of other human beings and a significant number of her fellow countrywomen and men.

We have had 3 decades of a steady erosion of workers' rights, the loss of collective bargaining and spread of individually negotiated contracts; the loss of and further threats to job security  - at its most vicious, the notorious zero hours contracts; an increase in unemployment and under-employment, and a removal or failure to maintain social safety nets. 

This has resulted not just in unemployment and homelessness but the return of large numbers of working poor many of whom have been priced out of the housing market, the inflation of which makes loads of money for banks and private investors - and with a reducing pool of social housing, are left hugely vulnerable.

We all have to have enough money to be able to live and to contribute in a meaningful way to society.  People have to look and to behave in certain ways in order to get and to keep a job. They need to be clean and reasonably well presented.  They need to be well enough nourished and rested to be able to do their job efficiently.  They have to travel to and from their job which, unless they can walk to work, will cost them money, and they may have to clothe and feed themselves while they are doing their work.  

This may be said to be the cost of subsistence which the workers' wages need to be cover.  The dependence of the working poor on state funds to maintain that essential subsistence level is never described or decried as low paying employers bludging off the state - although that precisely is what is happening. Instead, the blame is transferred to the low paid workers and to the unemployed.

Being unable to afford even the basics of life is and being forced into dependence on state benefits in a society which treats beneficiaries as somehow parasitic on the social body, is  iniquitous. 

The fact is that the poor spend ALL or close to all their income on the bare essentials - basic food, water, power, housing, clothing, transport - one reason why a blanket goods and services tax is so  unfair. 

They have nothing to very little to spend on desirables such as good quality and varied food, warm and dry housing with adequate space, supplementary education, good quality clothing, dental care and regular eye checks, helping their kids through university, having meals out, entertainment, holidays or building a reserve of savings

Luxuries - such as a large and expensively appointed home or second or third homes, servants,  overseas travel, new cars, boats, expensive clothing, appearance enhancement, private medical care, investments or other substantial savings - are completely beyond their grasp. 

And before anyone retreats into that clichéd and oh so distasteful argument that the poor could have more money for desirables if they just made the right choices - a few may be feckless but the vast majority are not. 

That aside, how disgusting is it, that people who have benefited from an advantageous place in the lineup for the race to success, or who made it because of some other sort of good fortune such as having inherited wealth,  feel justified in making those sort of judgments.  

Just what the hell do they know about the physical and psychological stresses of being poor in a society in which being poor shuts you out of so many opportunities and - if you are noticed at all - makes you the object of either pity or contempt?

No, we don't have people starving in the streets in NZ but we do have people who are poorly nourished. We have people whose reliance on high sugar foods has created a host of health and life threatening conditions, from dental caries to the outcomes of morbid obesity.  We have pensioners whose inability to heat their homes or eat well leads to fatal health problems that are never attributed to cold damp housing and poor nutrition.

We have increasing numbers of homeless people and we have many more who live in sub-standard housing. We have an appalling number of kids whose ability to take advantage of such educational opportunities that are available to them is compromised by a poor diet and the ill-effects of bad housing. 

Of course there's all the cheap 'stuff' that global capitalism has made available to us courtesy of hyper-exploited workers in other countries - baubles and beads to distract and divert.   The smug and the soulless point to this as evidence of how efficient, effective and economic global corporate capitalism is, or - when it suits and with typical disregard of the hypocrisy  -  as evidence of how feckless the poor are for spending their resources on 'luxuries'.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Quit While You Are A Head

Well, well, the Great Kiwi Communicator has quit while still a head - of state - a decision that has taken all the political pundits by surprise and left them arguing about his political legacy or lack of it, or struggling to find enough superlatives to describe his ‘political astuteness’ and his immense personal popularity that’s apparently based on his embodiment of a ‘quintessential Kiwiness'.  (That no-one has yet managed to define that slippery little sucker of a concept does nothing to diminish its popularity in the media.)

Key is being lauded as the most popular PM ever, a man who built up enormous amounts of political capital through his clever management and political dexterity.  The question of the moment is not how he was able to do that but whether or not he should have invested more of his immense political capital in his political legacy - the things by which he will be remembered after people have forgotten what a nice bloke they once thought he was.

There’s no doubt that the polls show Key is popular with enough people for commentators and pundits to extrapolate that popularity across the entire country - a fact which aggravates the hell out of me given I feel a deep distrust of him and I know I’m not alone in that. I remain deeply worried about what that popularity says about my fellow New Zealanders - or at least about those New Zealanders whose opinions are routinely canvassed and counted.

So why is he popular and what has he actually done to deserve it?

Key is perceived by those who like him and quite a few who don’t - as being a good economic manager who will leave the country in a better state than he found it - despite the global financial crisis. The deglossed reality of that ‘better state’ remains to be seen but in the meantime, most in the media will continue to brush aside the fact that the GFC was precipitated by the very economic paradigm and political ideology which enabled Key to make his personal fortune and which he remained committed to, and wanted to reinforce via the TPP.

In a world in which Left and Right have become unreliable indicators of political ideology and place - in which fascists are rebranded as  ‘alt-Right’ and anyone who is vaguely liberal is deemed to be 'of the Left’ - Key is regarded as a 'centrist' which is deemed to be a good thing because, well it just is.   But if left and right are outmoded and inaccurate descriptors of ideology and political place, where does that leave the centre?

Key says he resisted rightwing pressure within his party to 'pull the rug out' from under vulnerable New Zealanders - ie. dismantle what is left of the social safety nets that stand between many Kiwis and destitution.  Presumably we are to be grateful to him for not allowing the rabid ideologues to finish off the vulnerable and be thankful he just presided over a widening gap between rich and poor, sold off state assets, froze the budgets of key government services, instituted unpopular education changes, allowed a dangerous housing bubble to form and homelessness to increase and - close to my heart - removed Cantabrians' right to vote for their regional authority.

There’s not nearly enough criticism of his prevarications and equivocations on the question of local democracy in Canterbury or on what many regard as his government’s mismanagement of the Christchurch rebuild. But - like so much else that had the potential to be unpopular - Key was a master delegator - always sharing the bonus of the limelight and kudos but pretty much avoiding the brickbats and infamy.

Browniee fronted the government’s response to the Canterbury earthquakes while Key did the high-vis PR shots; Parata fronted the government’s education changes and was detested for it; Tolley has carried the can and been roasted publicly for refusing a public inquiry into the appalling abuse of kids in state care; Kate Wilkinson paid the price for Pike River  - and so it goes.

And how about Pike River?  Key, the reassuring, affable, approachable presence, has not been held to account for the indescribably horrible reality of 29 miners - the youngest just 17 and on his first day at work - lying entombed in what was known to be a highly dangerous mine that was permitted to operate with inadequate safety measures and inappropriate equipment in the context of a depleted and defanged mines’ safety inspectorate.  It was a classic example of the operation of the state in the callous and short-termist interests of big business and to my mind shows Key’s common man act is skin-deep. That Pike River had a history going back to the 1970s and was granted access arrangements by a Labour Government is not an excuse for the Key government's failure to address weak regulations and inspection procedures that led directly to the deaths of 29 men.

It is fair to ask how much we owe the media for Key’s popularity.  Did they back off him because the pollsters said he was so popular, or did they help create and sustain his popularity by being easy on him?   If Key had been mocked and vilified or even consistently held to account for his gaffes, errors and equivocations with the intensity and viciousness that the likes of Cunliffe experienced, how would the PM’s much vaunted personal popularity have fared?

And there's the fact that alongside the affable, don’t take anything too seriously John Key stands the smiling assassin Key and the snarling, triumphalist and vicious put down merchant Key.  It’s said to be a measure of the man that he can lay into political opponents in the house with gleeful malice but have a beer with them in the bar afterwards.  Some argue that’s a good thing, that it means he doesn’t hold a grudge. It might also be said to be a measure of his essential pragmatism and of course pragmatism is a fixture and fitting of mainstream politics, but, let’s not forget that if you take pragmatism too far, it utterly destroys principle and starts to skirt the borders of sociopathy.

The people who form the foundation stone of Key’s popularity are mainly those who are doing very nicely thank you very much: the comfortable and the smug, the acquisitive and the heedless, the insensitive and the uncharitable - those sections of our society whose ranks have been swelled by the naked self-interest and individualism of the neo-liberalism that was introduced into NZ in the 1980s by the Labour Party - and which, to its electoral disadvantage and political discredit, that party has not disavowed or distanced itself from in any meaningful way. 

It's failure to do so makes it a hostage to fortune and has resulted in a disengagement from the political process by many of those who have been left behind over the past 30 years.  What price democracy when fully one third of those eligible to vote do not bother because they see no point in it?

The Mr Popularity title granted to Key throughout his tenure has survived scandals that would have sunk other politicians and the media has played a large role in that.  For example, his persistent pulling of a young woman’s pony tail was called a ‘goof’ or a ‘prank’ and condemnation of his actions was widely counter-condemned as political correctness or point scoring. At the end of it, as with Dirty Politics, Key came up with his popularity intact.

Last month, courtesy of Key’s far-Right parliamentary ally’s obeisance to the law and order brigade, a Judge was forced, by the three strikes legislation, to sentence a man to 7 years incarceration for pinching a prison guard’s bottom.  

A prisoner of the state who pinched a guard’s bottom and the most powerful man in that  state who persistently pulled a young woman’s pony tail against her wishes - how does one get to be a ‘goof’ or a 'prank' and the other deserving of 7 years in prison?

This example of a deepening inequality and a dangerous erosion of both formal and natural justice is part of Key’s legacy.  It’s an example of the double standards that run through this country like a social fault line and which he did nothing to change for the better.

The politics of appearance with its substitution of froth for substance, the influence of cults of celebrity, the dumbing down and diversion of significant sections of the first world, the destruction of the fourth estate and the rise of asocial media,  the oppression and hyper-exploitation of the workers and natural resources of the less developed world, the mass extinction of other species and damage to the planet itself due to some humans’ unbridled greed and wastefulness - these are not small things - they are the very stuff our future is made of.   If we are to measure John Key's or any politician's political legacy - it has to in that context. 

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Not so much losing as failing to win ...

Only 25.5% of  US electorate voted for Trump. 25.6% voted for Clinton and 3% or so for other candidates. 46% of eligible voters distrusted/disliked Clinton and Trump, or were disengaged from the political process or were unable to vote - and it is they who made the difference. 

The burning question is WHY were almost HALF of the American electorate unwilling or unable to vote in such an important election?  Add in all the people who are not eligible to vote - mainly working class and disproportionately black - and Trump is President-elect courtesy of about one in five adult American citizens. 

This was NOT simply a victory for conservatism and bigotry; it was NOT simply a racist, misogynistic white working class lashing out at more privileged and/or progressive people or immigrants any more than the Brexit vote was simply about that. Of course there is an element of that but it is a far more complex issue. 

At the forefront was the abject failure of the Democrats to provide a viable alternative, to capture people’s imaginations, to make them believe in the possibility of a better future. They dumped the candidate who might have done that. 

For some in the Democratic Party that was done for the same reasons the party machine cynically manoeuvred to dump the very popular left-wing candidate for Vice President in 1944.  Others clearly believed that the significance of Clinton being the first woman president, combined with her credentials for the job would be enough to win a majority of the hallowed middle ground. 

There was a wide spread belief that it was as morally right as it was politically inevitable  the first female president should follow the first black president.  No doubt there are powerful conservative forces which were opposed to that happening and which were a factor in the election but you have only to look at Thatcher to see that simply being a woman has long since ceased being the barrier it used to be.  The rightwing in the US had swallowed the reality of one of the stupidest people ever to hold political office standing as VP.  

The Trump machine played to sexism and misogyny of course just as they played to race but the problem was not simply the conservative backlash, not simply racism or sexism or other expressions of the generalised bigotry whose messages of hate still run through the middle of the American candy stick - the problem was also that too many Democrats had their own versions of smugly supremacist attitudes.

The person who said in a tweet I read,  that the American working class is made up of "stupid and uneducated bigots" exemplifies a widespread knee jerk reaction to the election. In its own way it is as reactionary and ill-informed as a post I read on Facebook from a Trump supporter. 

”…We saw what was happening under the Obama and Democrat party administration. We were being led into a socialist form of government. We were being ignored on the world stage. America was less safe and becoming more so by the minute. Clinton wanted to increase the number of immigrants tremendously and thereby increase our taxes to support them. Did you know that they are given more subsidies than an American citizen? Clinton also wanted abortions to become legal up to the moment of birth. We're not talking about medical emergencies. Everyone is afraid of Trump. I think this is unfounded. He cannot act alone you know. When he assembles his team of advisors we may see the greatest potential in a president, ever! We will see what happens but for now, give him a chance. My country was being led in the wrong direction and now we have a chance to get back on track. 

I've read some awful statements from Trump supporters but equally some pretty awful stuff from affluent, educated Americans about their fellow Americans who are neither affluent nor well educated. Folk who would not dream of making jokes about people of colour, women, disabled, gay or trans people - in fact who would throw the most almighty hissy fit at anyone who did - will make derogatory comments and jokes openly and freely about 'white trash', 'trailer trash' and 'rednecks'. 

I realise that being white confers its own privilege but I am working class enough in my origins to feel aggrieved when affluent, educated, socially mobile people speak of white privilege as if it was an absolute. Poor white people in the USA have only to open their mouths for their class origins to be immediately evident - not in their accents but in the state of their teeth. 

When Garrison Keillor -   the voice over for the Middle American Dream - claims that the children of a waitress in the USA can still become physicists, novelists or paediatricians - he is wilfully ignoring the grim reality of the poverty trap.  That trap is holding proportionately far more people of colour but numerically it's got its vice-like grip on many more white people.  It may allow a few out of its grip - the exceptionally gifted or the exceptionally lucky - but the vast majority can never tear themselves free. And if they do, very often they leave a part of themselves in it. 

I know that poor white people in the US have always been the shock troops for those who benefit most from racial division - but the best strategy is to recruit them to progressive politics - not drive them into the arms of the likes of Trump by alternately ignoring and mocking them. 

I would like to know how much of the $1billion Clinton raised to spend on her campaign went on ensuring that people were registered and able and willing to vote.  Perhaps she believed that too many of the 46% would vote for Trump if they were registered.

Hard though it is for many people to swallow - Trump did not win so much as Clinton lost.  She lost because her party alienated a lot of people over the nomination, because it believed the pollsters, because it did not do enough to address the lamentable level of voter registration, and because it has done nothing to redress the effects of the continuing demise of the organisations which could have helped to mobilise the working class vote - the trade unions.  

Only 7% of US workers in the private sector are in unions; 11% overall.  Obama did nothing in 8 years to address the issue - in fact he, like Bill Clinton before him, was committed to the very economics and ideology that have resulted in the loss of so many US jobs and with them, the unions. 

The destruction of working class collectivism was necessary for the neo-lliberal project to succeed.  Why would the controllers and the servants of corporate capitalism be prepared to yield on the many demands arising from identity politics when they have been so implacable - and at times, vicious - in their opposition to trade unions?  Why have certain sections of the population been rewarded with significantly increased standards of living and opportunities when a majority of the working class face under-employment or unemployment? 

It's just too easy to label the heartlands of the USA as Dumbasfuckistan - with the urbanised fringes on the east and west coasts as the real America. You know that America - the one that's cool, cosmopolitan, sexually liberated, post-modern - and inhabited by a disturbing number of people who seem not to realise the awful price being paid by others for their privileged existence. 

Rainbow coalitions cannot and will not survive alone if the storm clouds of fascism roll in.  If there was ever a time to unite all the progressive forces in the world it is now -  but how to unite when neo-liberalism has been so successful at individualising, isolating and compartmentalising?  I  can tell you how it won't happen - and that's by the privileged, educated and affluent alternately ignoring, patronising and mocking the poor.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

"Anyone who calls himself The Donald has to be a dick..."

...and now that dick is President elect of the most powerful nation on the planet. 

The polls were wrong; the pundits were wrong; the media was wrong; the DNC elite was wrong; and the Clintons and the Obamas were wrong and have been left with political egg all over their faces.  A vulgar, sexist narcissist is to be President of the USA. His boast that he could manipulate Republican voters was as right on the button as the episode of the Simpsons in 2000 which forecast a Trump presidency as the nadir of American politics and society. 

I had a horrible feeling he would win - a visceral feeling that all my intellectualising about the improbability of it could not quell. My gut instinct was telling me that the conservative backlash was building and if enough people voted for Trump, and enough chose not to vote at all rather than vote for Clinton, he could win. 

The Democratic Party machine ignored the Sanders phenomenon and put up a candidate who was vulnerable on many levels. I don't know if Sanders would have been permitted to win the presidency had he won the nomination but assuming no-one assassinated him or his character, I suspect a lot of the 46% of Americans who did not vote would have been motivated to vote for him. As it was,  54% of voters divided almost evenly between two deeply unpopular candidates i.e. Trump has been elected by about 26% of the total electorate.  Without the arcane and archaic electoral college system, Clinton would have won the Presidency on a slightly larger proportion of the popular vote. 

Some people would have voted for Trump as a 'fuck you' to what they perceive as an out of touch and corrupt political machine; some because they resent the tall, elegant, well educated and urbane Obamas; some because Trump's chubby, anti-intellectual, bombastic, boastful, 'self-made man' is a character they can relate to; some because they are committed racial and/or religious bigots; some because they are misogynistic and could not countenance a woman as President; and a lot because they have swallowed the lies about why they are poor and unemployed and shut out of what they see as their birthright. These people have bought the even bigger lie that Trump will bring private sector jobs back to the US.  They do not realise that if he does bring jobs back it will be only if American workers are prepared to accept lower wages and worse conditions than the places the jobs were relocated to - and because the American state will accept even worse environmental controls on industry. 

The conservative backlash has been building for a long time and the reason it will be so destructive is because the forces which oppose it are in such disarray - and nowhere more so than in the USA. It was easy for the neo-libs to ship US jobs off to places where they could make bigger profits because at the outset of the neo-liberal era only 20% of US workers were in a union - that's now down to 11% overall and 7% in the private sector.  Obama - architect of the TPPA - is fully committed to corporate globalisation and his administration, like that of post-war Democrats before him, has done nothing to reverse the decline of trade unionism. 

One of the most telling things about the destruction of first world trade unions over the past 30 years has been the refusal of so many academics, commentators and media pundits to confront why that is.  But, to paraphrase Upton Sinclair - it is difficult to get people to confront something when their salary depends on them not confronting it.

The US has had centuries to perfect its use of racism as a divide and rule and terror tactic. Trump's' vicious rhetoric should have left the majority of US citizens reeling in horror; instead it has emboldened its racist heartlands. This is not just the old guard who remember the times when white folks could murder black people and civil rights activists and get away with it, many young white people - who have grown up in a more open and diverse nation than their grandparents did - are enthusiastic followers of Trump.  The cancer of racism in the US has never been eradicated. If it metastasises, it has the potential to break down the connective tissue of the social body.

The influence of fundamentalist religion in the US is enormous: it has proved hard enough for a woman to be elected, it would be impossible for an avowed atheist. All presidents and their family are required to do the ritual obeisance to god - the Christian version. Trump, who is about the least spiritual person I can envisage, appealed to conservative religionists on issues like abortion and same sex marriage on the grounds of bigotry not theology. 

His victory shows the millennia-old phallocracy is still firmly in charge, such concessions as have been made to women can and will be rescinded if it suits the suits.  Same as the concessions to minority groups whose formal and informal rights have expanded over the past couple of decades.

The most striking aspect of the neo-liberal era is the expansion of  'rights to be' alongside the greatest concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a tiny elite the world has seen since the Gilded Age.  Alongside a flowering of cultural and sexual diversity and emphasis on individual rights and freedoms,  there has been a devaluing of the power and possibilities of the collective, and especially of the traditional collectives of the working class.  The rank and file can only engage with entrenched power through the ballot box or various forms of protest, the most potent of which is industrial action.  Their only chance for success in either of these is in combination i.e  through organisations which represent their political and social interests and trade unions.

It's not surprising that there's a lot of catastrophising going on - some of it with good reason. Given the increases in the sophistication of the mechanisms of repression - weaponry, surveillance etc - today's elite are more powerful and therefore more dangerous than the elites of previous eras. Rightwing extremists have been let off their leashes across the world. In the US police already kill black people with virtual impunity and the country has an ignoble and recent history of the vicious suppression of people of colour and of political dissenters. 

A lot of people who are disappointed that Clinton did not win are terrified there will be war because Trump is such an erratic character.  They seem oblivious as to why Putin was so anxious for a Trump victory.  You have only to look at the relative military and economic strengths and deployments of the 26 nations of NATO against that of Russia to see who is best candidate for the label of aggressor in that sphere.  Against all logic - given so many Americans are viscerally anti-communist and still link Russia to communism -  Trump positioned himself alongside Russia and against China and all other countries he could label as stealers of US jobs and power.  And it paid off. 

Clinton supporters tend to sidestep the fact that there were many good reasons to be fearful of a Clinton administration. She would have continued Obama's TPP strategy of squaring up to China economically while threatening Russia militarily via NATO. The initial battleground would have been fought by proxies in Syria but Clinton has already proved she is a hawk and is prepared to take the US to an aggressive war. 

Trump is a rooster - he might crow and strut a lot and put up a good show against another rooster but whether he'd have Clinton the hawk's stomach for the slaughter of war is not yet known. 

There's a good reason why the powerful like to keep the masses ignorant and diverted, with what divides writ large and what unites them kept hidden or mocked. The mushroom ideology - keep them in the dark and feed them shit - has always worked well for the powerful. And the truly excellent joke for the elites is that - because of all the pretty flashing lights and baubles they've been fobbed off with - most people don't even know they are in the dark. 

If the people who can don't start to shine spotlights on what is happening and why, the darkness may become permanent.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Part Two: Losi Filipo and NZ Justice

I have to admit to having had a knee jerk reaction to this story - caused by the fact that the mainstream news media often beats up a substantial head of froth on stories, that the law and order brigade always bays for blood before stopping to think, and that young men of colour in NZ do not usually get a fair deal at the hands of the courts or in mainstream and social media.

I have a long memory when it comes to issues of injustice and I collect examples of police and judicial bias so, even accounting for the rugby factor, I viewed the Newshub story with a degree of scepticism.

For example, I  could not understand why, if Filipo had punched a woman hard enough in the face for her to need plastic surgery, he was not charged with aggravated assault rather than male assaults female.  I could believe the police might downgrade charges because of a sympathy for a rugby player but this was not the case as they had charged him with a serious assault on one of the men. 

I was also interested in why it took so long for the story to break and whether that had anything to do with the controversy over the lenient sentencing of Nicholas Delegat for a serious assault on a female police officer. 

Delegat's legal team fought hard for over a year to retain name suppression and for a discharge without conviction to safeguard his future career prospects. The judge lifted name suppression and convicted him but handed down a very lenient sentence of community service.  If Delegat had not had money and influence behind him, he may well have been sent to prison. If he is remorseful, if his violence was fuelled by alcohol and he is taking steps to deal with that - then the decision not to send him to prison was a good one.

Losi Filipo would have avoided prison because of his youth and previous good character but it was his connection to professional rugby that led to the unusual discharge without conviction. New Zealand justice is not usually so benign when it comes to dealing with young men of colour who commit crimes of violence.

In Christchurch in 2007, a young Samoan man, Lipine Sila, drove a car away from a racially charged incident at a party and ran into a group of party goers crossing a road. He hit several of them, killing two 16 year old girls, Hannah Rossiter and Jane Young,  and badly injuring several others. He drove off and was arrested later at his home. 

The police did not accept his explanation that he had been frightened for his life and had panicked. They alleged there had been an 'element of intentionality' in his actions - i.e. that he had either driven into the crowd deliberately or he had not tried to avoid them.

He was charged with two counts of murder and eight counts of GBH.  So seriously did the police take the threats to Sila's life from enraged members of the public, he had to be remanded in custody for his own protection.  Threats were made to storm the court if the 'right' verdict - i.e. guilty of murder - was not returned.  The coverage of the prosecution case in The Press initially was so lurid, the Judge told the paper to tone it down.

Sila was said to 'swagger'; it was said he did not look like he was sorry because he smiled and waved to his family in the court; he was said to speak sullenly and monosyllabically.

There was no thought that the 'swagger' might have been an attempt at bravado in the face of so much hatred and antagonism; there was no understanding of his need to acknowledge the only friendly faces he could see in the court, and there was no account taken of the fact that he did not speak good English and found it hard to articulate his feelings.

He was subjected to a tidal wave of antagonism orchestrated by some highly vocal members of the public.  Ironically, both he and the girls who were killed were newcomers to Canterbury; he was from Samoa; they were from England and the USA respectively. What made his crime so rage-inducing for some people was that he was a poor, inarticulate brown-skinned man who had ended the promising lives of two young daughters of middle-class white people. 

It was just not possible to ignore the racial dimensions in that case any more than it was possible to ignore the tragedy of two young lives lost.  The way the original party was advertised which led to Sila's younger brother going to it and getting into a fight; the actions of the aggressive white 'security' men who attacked Sila; the racial undercurrents in this city which burst out that night and again in the subsequent threats to Sila's life, and which were manifested in the way the trial was covered in The Press.

Sila was sentenced to life with a minimum non-parole period of 17 years, less than the 20 years the prosecution had called for. There was an outcry about the sentence being too lenient and after the trial Harry Young, Jane's father, called him a 'thug' and 'scum'  whose punishment should have been 'a violent death'.

When I asked Sila's barrister why a change of venue had not been sought given the hostile attitudes towards his client in Canterbury, at first he couldn't remember whether they had applied for it, then said they had decided Sila would face as much antipathy wherever he was tried. 

It is interesting that, 20 years earlier, another racially charged case - that of Peter Holdem - was relocated to Dunedin because a fair trial could not be guaranteed in Christchurch.  Such was the antagonism towards Holdem, who is Mâori, a petition had been circulated prior to the trial calling for reinstatement of the death penalty so he could be executed. 

Different times and different crimes obviously but it's interesting that Sila's notoriety was more widespread than that of a paedophile and child killer.  For that we can thank social media.

I have absolutely no doubt that, had Lipine Sila been white and the son of people of affluence and influence, had he been fleeing a gang of aggressively angry brown men one of whom had hit him on the head with a bottle, and had his victims been brown kids, he'd have been charged with manslaughter.   If he had been charged with murder I don't doubt that a Christchurch jury would have found him guilty of a lesser charge.

I think this because of the many examples of obvious racial and class bias to be seen in the NZ criminal justice system.  It is so manifestly and consistently biassed against people of colour and poor people that my first reaction when I read the Losi Filipo story was to question it. 

Here's another tale of two young men who each killed someone.  The circumstances in both cases indicate that neither set out to kill but it may be fair to say that each behaved with reckless disregard for the probable outcomes of their actions. 

In 2002, 17-year-old Sharne Paul Van der Wielen, who is white, drove his turbo charged car at speeds up to 200 kph in suburban streets in Christchurch. Doing an estimated 180kph, he hit and killed a young Chinese student, XiaoXi Gao who was the only child of a judge.   He drove off, conspired with two friends to lie to the police and made racist statements about Asians when arrested. 

He was charged with, and pleaded guilty to manslaughter presumably because the police doubted they would get a conviction for murder given his age, ethnicity, family background, lack of previous convictions and the 'get out of jail free' card that the law and the public can deal when someone commits vehicular homicide. (1)

A year earlier, 15-year-old Alexander Peihopa, who is Mãori hit Michael Choy on the head with a baseball bat in the course of a robbery planned and committed by a gang of kids, the youngest of whom was 12.  Tragically, Choy was not found until several hours later and died of his injuries.  It was obvious the youngsters had not meant to kill Choy as they took him back to his car and left him there, but police contended that Peihopa had recklessly disregarded the probable consequences of his actions and, because of his background and the enormous amount of publicity around the case, the police knew they would probably get a murder conviction.

In his client's defence, Van der Wielen's lawyer said that 17-year-olds typically lack judgement and behave stupidly when behind the wheel of a car. This viewpoint was not shared by the judge who stated at sentencing that Van der Wielen had used his car as 'a lethal weapon' and the manner of his driving and his failure to stop could 'hardly have been more culpable'.  However, the judge still opted for the relatively lenient sentence of 5 years and suspension of license for 7.  

I don't know how much of his sentence Van der Wielen served as neither the media nor the law and order brigade are interested in him. Unlike Michael Choy, XiaoXi Gao's name has not been etched into the public consciousness.

The possibility that a 15-year-old, exposed to violent television and video games might not understand the probable consequences of hitting someone on the head with a baseball bat was rejected by the police, and Peihopa was charged with murder. The jury also rejected that plea of mitigation and, despite having already pleaded guilty to manslaughter and aggravated robbery, he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was paroled in 2012 having served almost 10 years. 

These are both fairly typical of the general pattern of NZ justice. There is a definite bias towards poor and / or people of colour being arrested and charged more often, being charged with more serious offences, being found guilty more often and receiving harsher sentences.

Losi Filipo was lucky to have people of influence behind him and to be sentenced by a judge who seemed to be of the opinion that the law should not unnecessarily blight young lives. 

I guess it all comes down to what you see the purpose of the law being -  retributive or restorative and rehabilitative. 

if the logic behind the push to appeal Filipo's DWC is that he ended a rugby career (and put a modelling and singing career in jeopardy) so his career ought to be similarly blighted, then that is retributive and it's a small step away from the notion of an eye for an eye. 

Monday, 3 October 2016

Some thoughts on New Zealand justice : Part 1

The following two part post was written over the course of a week or so. Family commitments interrupted me and I decided to leave it in the form of a diary. Part 1 follows the story as it unfolds; and Part 2 looks at some other examples of the workings of NZ justice and how the media report on and react to it.

September 26th 2016 

Nicholas Delegat is a 19-year-old from an extremely wealthy family who was charged originally with aggravated assault of a female police officer, assault of a security guard, wilful damage and resisting arrest. He eventually pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer in the execution of her duty, plus the other two charges. His legal team fought for months for name suppression and for a discharge without conviction.  

He was convicted and sentenced to community service and name suppression was lifted.  The case caused a great outcry because it seemed such an obvious exercise of wealth and privilege. 

The brouhaha about the lenient sentence has died down fairly quickly due mainly to the fact that it has been overtaken by an even more controversial sentencing decision.This time it's not a wine dynasty which has sought to influence the courts, it's the world of rugby - a wealthy and powerful surrogate family. 

The breaking of the Losi Filipo story is a serendipitous bit of timing for the Delegat family as it has had the effect of pushing Delegat Junior's story out of the headlines and off the social media radar. 

Losi Filipo is a 17-year-old who has a talent for playing the country's favourite game.  Presumably because he is seen as a future star, NZ rugby spread its blazers over him to protect him from what would be the usual consequences of his actions were he just any working class kid from Porirua. He pleaded guilty to four charges of assault and on August 16th the judge discharged him without conviction so as not to interfere with his promising sporting career.

In talking about this case I'm expected to make the standard obeisance to law and order - to condemn not just what Filipo did but also to condemn him and the rugby / booze culture that is presumed to have led to him acting as he did.

But the fact is that, as of today I do not know exactly what he did or why he did it.   All I know is what is in the public arena and at the moment that is dominated by a somewhat tabloidesque story on TV3's Newshub which focuses on Filipo's victims - especially on two young women who say that their lives and careers have been blighted by a brutal and unprovoked attack.

As well as punching the women in the jaw and the throat respectively, Filipo is said to have stomped several times on the head of one of the men who was lying unconscious on the ground.  

If a large, powerful man punches women in the head region, knocks a man unconscious and stomps on his head - those actions are serious enough to warrant the charges of injuring with reckless disregard and assault with intent to injure. The most serious of the charges carries a maximum penalty of 7 years

Filipo is very unusual in that, as a young man of colour, the system has treated him very leniently - it might be said it treated him with common sense and humanity.  The acceptance that his stated remorse was genuine, the fact of his youth (he was 16 at the time of the offence), the understanding that a conviction would ruin his career and that incarceration might well put him on the path to an entrenched criminality  - these are not ways that the criminal justice system typically treats young men of colour who are charged with crimes of violence.  

I see no reason not to discharge without conviction where there is a compelling case for it. I want to see the sensible prosecution and sentencing of young people of previous good character but the reality is that this does not usually happen to anyone other than those who have people of considerable power and influence on their side.  

The fact that Filipo, because he is good at rugby, was lucky enough to have such people on his side is not in itself a bad thing; the bad thing is that so many do not. 

September 27th

Filipo has terminated his contract voluntarily. A Stuff headline announced that he and Wellington Rugby have been 'judged in the court of public opinion'.  The views of the public I have read on social media range from racists bellowing for him to be deported, to justifiable concern about this being another example of the all too prevalent violence in this country.

September 28th

That arbiter of good taste and moral probity Paul Henry has weighed in on the debate and NZ Rugby has apologised to the victims and their families. I suppose it is better late than never but what are they apologising for?  For the fact that Filipo is a rugby player? For having used their influence to effect a discharge without conviction? For presiding over a culture in which these sort of incidents are all too common place? Or all of the above?

September 29th

In response to the hue and cry in mainstream and social media, the Solicitor General has recommended that the judge's decision be reviewed.  The victims and their families are said to be 'blown away' by this development.

Anonymous law experts are claiming the decision has nothing whatsoever to do with the outcry in social media.  Yeah right.

John Kirwan has apologised on behalf of all rugby. 

September 30th 

A man who tried to organise a protest against Filipo's contract with the Wellington Lions but  was upstaged by Filipo's decision to terminate it himself, got his moment in the media spotlight by revealing that he had been threatened on Facebook.

Also on Facebook, Eliota Fulmaono-Sapolu posted edited highlights of the judge's ruling and claimed that  the media coverage has been slanted and exaggerated to sensationalise the case at the expense of Filipo and his family. He has a point. 

October 1st

Some of the obvious questions - was this an unprovoked attack and how severe it was - have been answered with the release of official documents. According to the judgement, the gravity of the offending is 'unquestionable and inescapable'. It was a case of 'fairly serious' street violence.  Filipo's attack on one of the men involved punching and stomping which rendered the man unconscious. The charge for this was injuring with reckless disregard. The two charges of male assaults female were  'more in the nature of pushing and shoving'. The victims indicated that the offending had a serious effect on them. 

There are questions that remain unanswered.  Why wasn't Fliipo tried in the Youth Court? If the male assaults female charges were in the nature of 'pushing and shoving', why did Newshub report them as a punch to the jaw and throat severe enough to require plastic surgery on one and threaten the singing career of the other?  Was the judge wrong about the nature of the offence? Were the victims talking up their injuries and how they were caused for their own reasons? Or did Newshub whip it up for their own reasons? Why did it take so long for the case to be publicised? Who approached who - i.e. did the victims approach TV3 with it or the other way round? 

I think the judge was right to say that imprisonment was not warranted. Having made that decision he then needed to consider the effects on Filipo of a conviction. In deciding to discharge without conviction he was influenced by several factors including Filipo's youth, his remorse, preparedness to pay reparations and enter restorative justice (refused by his victims)  and his previous good character. 

So - as critical as I am of the world of rugby and of the whole toxic locker room culture - I see Filipo as one who got away.  Or, as things now stand, as one who got away only to be recaptured and publicly flogged - thanks in no small measure to a social media primed and fired by Newshub.  

Whatever the stuff that went on behind the scenes, if Filipo was genuinely remorseful; if this incident had made him a better, more mature and more controlled person, then surely that is all to the good. Let's see more humane and sensible sentencing.  I want to see the CJS behaved with kindness and leniency when it deals with ALL young first time offenders. I'd rather it considered what terrible harm all forms of prison WILL do to most young people and how convictions at critical stages can devastate lives.   If that means sometimes some people get away too lightly, then that's far better than people typically being treated too harshly.