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 clich├ęd 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.