Friday, December 2, 2016

Mexico has lessons for New Zealand

I recently spent a month travelling around Mexico. It is not a country we hear a great deal about here in New Zealand but recently it has been in the news because of Donald Trump's campaign promise to build a border wall and make the Mexicans pay for it (although, interestingly, the US presidential election seemed to be of far less importance in the Mexican media than the outcome of the baseball World Series, which was being contested north of the border about the same time).

Mexico is a beautiful country with a hugely rich history and far more diverse geography and demography than most people would imagine. The Mexican people are warm and friendly, once you overcome their initial reserve, and they appear to enjoy life far more than the overly serious and officious Americans north of the border. However, Mexico is a basket case politically, economically and socially, which is why so many Mexicans want to join their numerous cousins in the USA.

Mexicans, like Maori, still tend to blame their people's ills on colonialism but they perhaps have a greater justification in doing so than those descended from the first New Zealanders. The Spanish conquistadors had few of the qualms of the British colonisers in New Zealand, seizing all the land, enslaving the entire indigenous population and setting up a feudal society that various revolutions since have never entirely overcome. The consequences of this is that Mexico today is a country that is still to some extent at war with itself. 

The conflict in the country is seen in several areas. Firstly, there is the well-known drug violence, which is mainly confined to the northern regions that border the United States. The drug violence is all the worse because of the extensive corruption in the local police forces that not only turn a blind eye to much of the violence but actually participate in some of the worst of it (such as the massacre of 43 students in Guerrero in 2014). Then there is the political violence, like the recent kidnapping and torture of a priest in Veracruz, which seems to be a constant if low-level threat particularly in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. And finally there is the less overtly violent, but nevertheless intimidatory, protest actions that regularly disrupt life in all the major cities in Mexico - such as barricading all the exits from a city and demanding money from drivers to let them past (which I personally experienced on several occasions).

Tribalism plays a significant part in Mexico's political and social conflict. Ethnic groups such as the Nahuatl, Yucatec and Zapotec all have their particular grievances, usually about land and the preservation of language and culture. Like Maori, they choose to focus on their differences rather than on commonalities of shared national heritage, individual rights and the benefits of living in a modern, pluralistic society. Many of their historical complaints may be justified but collective grievances and identity group politics are only likely to hold people back and ultimately economic and social advancement always comes down to individual aspirations and responsibility.

Mexico seemed to be on a track to economic prosperity and real democracy in the latter decades of the 20th Century after hundreds of years of autocracy and one-party rule, but progress has stalled in the last twenty years and the lack of investment in infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals is obvious to anyone visiting the country. Undoubtedly the country's long dalliance with socialism is a significant cause of this decay, with even the state-owned oil monopoly, Pemex, unable to maintain investment in new exploration and extraction methods.

There are some lessons in Mexico for New Zealand, which has been encouraging the grievances of Maori for the last forty years in a seemingly endless series of Treaty of Waitangi claims and settlements. The strength of modern Western democracies is in their unity and common humanity, not in tribal differences. Universal rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of one's own interests and equality before law are the keys to freedom and prosperity. Tribalism and the inevitable grievances that arise from identity politics are obstacles not the solution.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Castro's Apologists Reveal Their Anti-democratic Tendencies

A while ago I was doing some work for a government agency and I was surprised to see one of the staff had a picture of Che Guevara as the screen background on his PC. I somewhat facetiously asked him whether he alternated the image with others of murderous secret police chiefs such as Heinrich Himmler, Lavrentiy Beria and Erich Mielke. He seemed unaware that Che Guevara was the head of Fidel Castro's secret police and ran the Cuban dictator's concentration camps and that he personally killed hundreds of Castro's political opponents.

I recalled this incident while reading some of the tributes to Castro over the weekend, particularly the fawning eulogies from left-wing politicians like Justin Trudeau and Jeremy Corbyn, and it got me thinking about why so many on the left seem to be wilfully blind to the crimes against humanity of Communist dictators like Castro, Stalin, Mao and Kim Il-Sung. I say wilfully because, unlike the public servant above, I cannot believe these Western politicians are unaware of the crimes of those they admire.

Why are democratically-elected Western leaders so keen to embrace and legitimise dictatorial thugs? I think the answer is obvious and revealing, like a political Freudian slip. Most Western leaders believe in big government as the solution to all the world's problems and there is no bigger form of government than brutal dictatorship. In praising Castro, they are revealing their secret pining for the free hand he had to do whatever he wanted. As Mark Steyn put it, 'if you believe in big problems that demand big government solutions, democracy just gets in the way.'

The distrust of democracy amongst Western leaders has been all too evident this year in their responses to the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election. Their churlish dismissal of the voters as ignorant, racist and xenophobic has revealed their distaste of the reality of democracy. They like the pretence of having a democratic mandate but only when voters stick to the script they have written.

The very worst thing about the reaction of these Western apologists to Castro's death is their arrogance in thinking they can speak for the Cuban people, such as Trudeau's observation that the dictator 'served his people for almost half a century.' It takes a particularly weasel-like hypocrisy to label Castro's extra-judicial killing of thousands of his countrymen and his imprisonment of tens of thousands of his political opponents as 'serving his people'.

The only aspect of Castro's death that is regrettable is that he died in his sleep and thereby denied his oppressed people the opportunity of seeing him hang for his crimes.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Trump will hasten mainstream media's demise

I don't think anyone would seriously disagree that the coverage of the US presidential election campaign was, to say the least, unbalanced. Many of the election night commentators looked dismayed at Trump's victory and some, like MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, broke down at the result. The campaign itself was reported in the most one-sided manner with even the editor of the Clinton-supporting New York Times showing remarkable self-awareness after the election by penning a letter to his readers that was as close to a mea culpa as any newspaper editor ever concedes.

Trump realised early on in his campaign that the mainstream media were his enemy and he capitalised on that enmity, using them to pour fuel on the fire of his more outrageous comments when he wanted to and talking above them directly to the electorate we they weren't serving his purposes. I believe the American public were equally dismissive of the media, understanding only too well their biases and making allowances for that when reading reports of Trump's excesses. The media was trapped in an echo-chamber of their own making, feeding off their biases and believing their own hype, unable to discern what was really going on in the electorate.

It is already apparent that a Trump presidency will have a different relationship with the media. Trump does not accept that the media should have privileged access to him, his family and his staff, as demonstrated by his refusal to allow the press to accompany him on his first visit to the White House and to a private dinner. The media has responded to their exclusion by writing an open letter to Trump stating that 'we expect the traditions of White House press coverage to be upheld whether in Washington or elsewhere.' The arrogant tone of the letter shows that these fools don't get it - their world has tilted on its axis and will never be the same again. The very idea of an establishment media, the so-called 'fourth estate', is dead and will never be resurrected. You would think they would have got the message with the appointment of Stephen Bannon, the head of the popular 'alt-right' website Breitbart News, as a senior counsellor to the president-elect. Breitbart founder Andrew Breitbart said when establishing his site that it was 'committed to the destruction of the old media guard'.

The mainstream media's disease is terminal. The New York Times, one of the world's biggest newspapers in terms of circulation, is barely profitable, and here in New Zealand our two largest dailies need to merge in order to survive. Television networks like our TVNZ are in financial freefall. They deserve their fate, having long since given up (if they ever had) any semblance of journalistic independence and integrity. Trump will just hasten their demise.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Leave us alone, Gauleiter Brownlee

So Gerry Brownlee is not happy that the new mayor of Wellington, Justin Lester, did not declare a 'red zone' in the Wellington CBD after this week's earthquakes. In case anyone has any misconceptions about what Brownlee's red zone would mean, this article describes what life is still like in Christchurch's red zone five years after the 2011 earthquake. Brownlee's dictatorial management of the aftemath of the Christchurch earthquake has more effectively destroyed that city than any damage done by the earthquake.

Wellington property owners have been acting quickly and responsibly to assess the damage to their buildings in the days since the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that hit the top of the South Island. In my own offices on Lambton Quay, the owner asked that we stay out of the building until he had had engineers assess the damage. This work was completed on Tuesday afternoon and (as there was happily no damage) we were then given the all-clear to reoccupy the building. This has been the process throughout the city with no direction or help from central government and where necessary buildings have been kept closed for further inspection and remedial work. Justin Lester may not have satisfied Brownlee's authoritarian bent but four days after the earthquake there have been no reports of any injuries from earthquake damage in central Wellington so the risk appears to have been well managed and the mayor seems to have made exactly the right call in not closing down the entire central city.

The best thing that a government can do to facilitate the recovery from a natural disaster, as was proved in Joplin, Missouri*, is to get the hell out of the way and let individuals and businesses get on with the job of recovery. A few of Wellington's buildings are seriously damaged but the vast majority have superficial or no damage at all. We don't need red zones, and we certainly don't need the Brownlee's jackbooted approach to dealing with residents and property owners in Christchurch, to get on with the recovery work. Please, just leave us alone, Gauleiter Brownlee.

* H/T to Not PC for the link to the WSJ article on Joplin (which is subscription only - if you can't get past the paywall read about what it says in this blog post).

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Why Trump Won

Winston Churchill said, "Democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time", and I tend to agree - as imperfect as it is, democracy sure beats dictatorship. It has been revealing to observe the protests against Donald Trump's election as the next president of the United States. Like the protests after the Brexit vote, it is difficult to discern what the complainants actually want to achieve; however, it is obvious they do not really want electors to have a genuine choice and they think the voting system is only there to validate their own narrow views.

During the election campaign we saw the media and left-wing commentators try to delegitimise the Trump campaign. Trump himself didn't help of course, straying from the real issues into personal prejudices as with his comments about Mexicans, but the dismissal of anyone who supported the Trump campaign as racist, sexist or fascist demonstrated an intolerance that, in my view, was worse than anything Trump said. The trend is continuing post-election, with mainstream media outlets such as Reuters demonising the appointment of Breitbart editor Stephen Bannon as a "right-wing firebrand" who has turned his news site into a "loose online group of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-Semites." I read Breitbart occasionally and at worst it is a strident voice of conservative America and at best it is a forum that robustly challenges the prevailing left-wing consensus of the mainstream media.

Trump's win was due to the frustrations of Americans with the leadership of their country. Mostly that frustration is about economic matters, particularly the high levels of underemployment amongst non-college educated Americans and the huge increase in the cost of health insurance under Obama's so-called Affordable Care Act. However, a degree of the frustration was about the erosion of the pluralism that is an essential part of democracy and the fact that it has become unacceptable in much of the mainstream media and social media to espouse any views other than the prevailing left-wing orthodoxy. I believe many Americans voted for Trump simply because they wanted to reassert their right to hold a dissenting view.

I disagree with most of what Trump stands for and I don't think he is going to be a great president, but the thing about political leaders is that you often don't know what they really will be like until they are in the role. One of New Zealand's most effective prime ministers in recent years was Helen Clark, who, like Trump, was dismissed as unelectable before she got into power. Trump is the American president-elect whether his opponents like it or not and if they have any respect for the American republic and its democratic system, then they have to accept the result and give him a chance.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

America's Dilemma

We have watched the United States presidential race unfold for more than a year now (which is far too long for any country to spend electing its leaders) and, as I have said before on this blog, I was not surprised that Donald Trump became the Republican Party nominee or that he is doing creditably in the polls in spite of his best attempts to offend significant parts of the electorate. That doesn't mean I want to see him become the president. Everything he stands for (protectionism, crony capitalism, further restricting immigration, etc.) is anathema to me.

The problem is that the choice is Hillary Clinton, an inveterate liar who is has already demonstrated during her term as Secretary of State that she is likely to lead the most corrupt White House administration since that of Warren Harding. If you can overlook her illegal futures trading, her involvement in the Whitewater scandal, conspiracy theories that link her to murder, her cover up of her husband's sexual harassments and possibly even rape, her complicity in the deaths of US Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens and his staff, her illegal use of a private email server to send and receive classified emails, and all the other tawdry scandals she has been connected with over the years, she's probably the best qualified candidate for the job!

It is an unfortunate effect of the moribund two-party US electoral system that the American people have ended up with such a dilemma. Voters shouldn't have to choose the least bad of two awful candidates for the most important political office in the land (and the world). But the dilemma is not new - last time voters had a choice between an incumbent who had one of the lowest approval ratings of any president and a magic-underpants-wearing former Wall Street fund manager. Obama may have been unpopular but he wasn't as unpopular as a banker in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Going back before Obama, the two major parties gave voters the uninspiring choice of George W Bush versus Al Gore and then John Kerry, and before that the Republicans gave us Bush 1 and Bob Dole against the more charismatic but morally-challenged Bill Clinton.

I think sound political leadership doesn't have much of a positive impact on a country - after all, the best we can hope for from our leaders is that they leave us alone to get on with our lives. But incompetent and corrupt leaders can really ruin a country - witness the effects on Venezuela of Chavez and Maduro, for example. While all is not well in America after eight years of Obama, you can at least say he hasn't made things significantly worse that his predecessor (with the possible exception of the health insurance system). I am not confident you will be able to say the same after Clinton or Trump.

I will be in North America over the next month and it will be interesting to observe the contest closer to the action.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Mulligatawny Soup, Fiction Writing, and Cultural Appropriation

Recently I was explaining to my children the origins of Mulligatawny Soup and it got me thinking about the latest cause célèbre of the political left-wing, 'cultural appropriation'. The delicious chicken curry soup originated in India and its name is an Anglicization of the Tamil words for 'spicy water'. It was popular with the British who served in India during the Raj and was one of many such dishes they appropriated when they returned home. You only need to visit British cities, particularly in Northern England or Scotland, to see the huge influence of Indian culture - and especially cuisine - on British life. The same applies to Indonesian culture in The Netherlands, North African culture in France and so on.

My musings on Mulligatawny coincided with reports of a speech by American writer, Lionel Shriver, who is best known for her book, 'We Need to Talk About Kevin'. Shriver was asked to address the Brisbane Writers Festival on the topic of 'fiction and identity politics'. The audience undoubtedly thought she would stick to the typical left-wing script about how important it is for authors to make careful deference to identity politics in their fiction, but they were to be disappointed. She signalled the tenor of her speech early on by stating that 'ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all.'

Shriver was, of course, referring to political correctness, but more specifically she was discussing the tendency of the left-wing to take offence any time anyone (or, at least anyone of European descent) adopts any symbol of another culture. She talked about the U.S. college that censured its students for wearing sombreros to a tequila party and the student union in the U.K. that banned its Mexican restaurant from giving out little sombreros (it seems Mexicans are particularly sensitive to appropriation of their headwear). Then she went on to discuss how writers and other artists are finding themselves subject to accusations of cultural appropriation for the mere act of creating a work that imagines the experience of someone of another culture. Shriver points out that it is the very act of appropriating other people's experiences that defines what is fiction (and if it were otherwise, it would be called autobiography).

Shriver said that 'the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with'. She is right - much contemporary fiction has become anodyne drivel - and I think she is bang on with the cause. Many contemporary writers seem much more concerned with convincing us of their bien pensant credentials than with telling a good story.

Some of my favourite writers are those of the early 20th Century, such as Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh, who wrote mostly about their experiences of cultures other than their own. Their appeal is due to the fact that not only were they perspicacious observers of human nature but they conveyed their foreign characters with unapologetic and unadorned authenticity. Waugh's portrayal of an African dictator in Black Mischief is surely one of the greatest (and most comedic) characterisations in modern literature and it is sad that no popular writer today would write such a character for fear of invoking a secular version of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

Shriver's speech, which was reproduced in full in the Guardian (you can read it here), drew a response from a woman in the audience named Yassmin Abdel-Magied who (surprise, surprise) took offence at what Shriver said and equated her views with those of Australian nationalist politician Pauline Hanson. The Guardian gave Abdel-Magied equal space to air her objections and it is worth reading her article (here), if only to appreciate the perverted logic of those who, in the name of redressing imagined historical wrongs, seek to deny fiction writers the very freedom to create.

Taking the objection to cultural appropriation to its logical conclusion, no one would be allowed to learn a language that wasn't of their own ethnic background, which would be a problem for the large numbers of European New Zealanders who, presumably for reasons of cultural virtue, have taken up learning Maori. My ancestry would make my study of Irish Gaelic okay, but I'd probably be in trouble for my Spanish and French.

This is where the left-wing are going. It is they who are doing the appropriating and, not content with appropriating our incomes, our property, our institutions and our language, they now want to appropriate our minds. Like Winston Smith's tormentor in 1984, they are not going to be satisfied with us paying lip service to their cultural hegemony, they insist we must actually believe it. But, of course, that has been their aim all along.

I only hope that more creators of our popular culture are as brave as Lionel Shriver and take a stand against the real threat of appropriation of our free thoughts.