Tom Goulter - student, Christchurch

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

One More Truism Leading To A Modest Proposal

Truism The Third: Some Americans Are Just Plain Lazy

Fifty one point fucking two percent. Just over half the voting-age population in America exercised their democratically sacrosanct right to Rock The Vote in TV's Decision 2000. That's an improvement over the previous election, where less than half (49.8%) of eligible voters honored the principle their forebears had defended from Fritz and Mao and Uncle Joe. Disillusioned voters who percieve their votes as having gone uncounted - and their voice railroaded by our afore-mentioned friends, uncharacteristically loud and obnoxious Right-wingers - may, it's reasonable to expect (and not altogether impossible to understand), be projected to show up in lesser numbers than they did in 2000. (Of course, these projections don't attempt to take into account Pro Wrestling's bid to politically motivate a new generation of voters).

In the same way as Grandmaster Brash's lowest-common-denominator soapbox-thumping had the welcome byproduct of bringing New Zealanders into the race-relations debate who hitherto had felt it best to clam up and preserve the perilously thin facade of a status quo, the last four years have gone some way toward galvanising Americans into remembering what political animals they can be. Folk will vote out of the urge that prevails in the Left (and plenty of centrist) camps: Anyone, So Long As It's Not Bush. And long-standing Republicans, usually highly skilled in the art of supporting policies and politicians based on their Elephant status rather than any actual merit, percieved or otherwise, are reconsidering long-held allegiances in the wake of war, job losses and miscellaneous fuckings-with.

However, this may not be enough. Which is why I at last submit my Modest Proposal.

A Modest Proposal

Hello, my American friends reading via the wonder of the World Wide Web! (Thanks for that, by the way!*)
Do you intend to vote this year? Do you have strong feelings on who will be the next Ruler Of The Free World? Do you think your vote will make a difference?
If not, great! I'm not here to convince you otherwise. I'm being entirely earnest when I say that the channels and means of educating you as to your electoral system and the merits thereof have most likely done everything in their power to win you over, and if they (with the help, let's not forget, of Bam Bam Bigelow and the Hulkster) haven't done so, they've failed you, and not the other way round. I ain't here to tell you what to do.
However. If you're not going to use your vote, can I have it?
I only want one. (Maybe think of it this way: did you see The West Wing when Donna accidentally voted Republican, and then she had to find a Republican who she trusted to believe that she'd accidentally voted wrongly, and who would then keep their word to, in exchange for Donna's misplaced vote, switch their vote in return? Well, in this equation, I'm Donna, only instead of pulling the wrong lever, I accidentally wasn't an American citizen and henceforth couldn't vote; and you, you lucky busy go-getter, are that hunky Christian Slater willing to go along with my lame-brain get-rich-quick scheme!)
And if you have friends who don't intend to vote, can me and my friends have their votes too? I only want one vote per person. And I don't mean that I want you all to go vote Kerry. If I have friends who want to put in a vote for Bush, and you have friends who don't intend to vote either way, then my clinically insane politically psychopathic friends will be given the chance to vote through you and your friends, who, for one reason or another - all of them, I hasten to add, doubtless good reasons - have decided to skip voting this year.
On the offchance that your decision not to vote is motivated by a belief that it's not worth it, that you will get nothing out of it, I suggest this: Is your vote worth less to you than a bar of tasty chocolate?
Because we have damn good chocolate here in New Zealand. And if you'll go along with my - on the surface, cockamamie and misguided - scheme, I pledge that each voter who votes on the behalf of a "buddy" outside of the United States will recieve a rich, tasty bar of finest Cadbury chocolate, containing no less than a glass and a half of full-cream dairy-milk.
Please don't mistake this for me making asides as to you Americans' infatuation with junk food. I could give a shit whether or not Americans eat more or less junk food than anyone else. This is a democracy; you can eat what you like, right?
I'm just saying: everybody likes chocolate. And if not everybody likes voting, well...
Everybody likes chocolate.

In A Genuine Spirit Of Friendship Unclouded By Sarcasm Or Tiresome Irony,

- Tom In New Zealand.

* You'll note, in the spirit of bypartisanship, I'm thanking all of you for the Internet, and not even going near the specific grievances of certain ex-Vice-POTUSes who may or may not have been instrumental in the funding of the WWW as a public resource and may or may not subsequently have been misquoted on the subject thereof. You're welcome.

Patrick Crewdson - student, Auckland

Coming soon

In the liner notes to his excellent first solo album, Deadringer, RJ Krohn writes 'your' when he means 'you're' and capitalises the first letter of every word for no apparent reason. Even more damagingly as far as credibility goes, he writes 'dog' when he clearly means 'dogg'. But when the only faults you can find in an album are mistakes in the liner notes, You Know Your Dealing With Quality.

Oregon-born Krohn plies his trade under the nom de mix RJD2. When I interviewed him at the end of November for Radio One he told me of his plans for a tour down under in April and said he'd try to pop over to NZ too. True to his word he's in Auckland this Saturday night. If he puts on anything like the performance his Definitive Jux labelmates Mr Lif, Aesop Rock and DJ Fakts-1 did at the BDO this year, it'll be a pretty special gig.

Krohn performs live with four decks. He's a producer too, which means he's this sort of guy who listens to Outkast and wonders, "What compressors are they using?" and "How did they get the low end to thump like that?" And he's known for his remixes, in particular one of Cannibal Ox's 'The F Word' and another of 'Fugitive Motel' by Elbow. (You know, Elbow.)

Deadringer inspired some critics to dub him Shadow-lite, and that's not entirely unfair. He knows his limitations though, and he's not about to pull a RZA and ruin one of his beats by rapping over it. Emphatically not. "Please, shoot me in the fucking head if I ever start rapping," he told me. Rather than diversifying into MCing or scoring soundtracks, his aspirations are to nicer swivel chairs and control decks with more knobs. He'd love the chance to produce for some of the big names in hip hop and despite being signed to El-P's label he doesn't subscribe to any indie credo that would stop him moving up. Really, he doesn't see any difference between mainstream and indie hip hop other than money. Ludacris is his example: just like Copywrite, y'see? Only black, moneyed and commercial.

Krohn also has a few interesting things to say about music piracy. He could do without the lost income, of course, but he takes a fatalistic approach. And unlike the Sony music execs, he cops to doing it too. His justification? Well, it's something along the lines of an exemption for DJs, an mp3s-for-12-inches trade: "I'll download Jay-Z's new record - I don't give a shit. You know how much money I've given Jay-Z in the past?"

I'm expecting great things from the gig this Saturday. And even greater things from his new solo album, which will be out later in the year. Get it before he resumes his childhood plan of becoming a maths teacher. (Seriously, he plans to take up the compass and protractor when his hip hop career fizzles out.)

Finally, re my last post, one Fighting Talk reader visited Destiny Church HQ in Rotorua last year:

The Tamakis are like Godfathers there on account of the brothers' tourism empire. The church was big, on the main street, and almost entirely a Maori affair. We were stoned and got freaked out because we stuck out and everyone was very friendly to us. The pastor greeted us personally and it was all too much, so we fled.

Lyndon Hood - unemployed, Lower Hutt

A while ago it was pointed out to me that if you append the adjective "Pakeha" in front of every reference to a New Zealander of European descent, you can make the news item of your choice sound pathetically obsessed with race. Witness the recent slew of of Pakeha scandals, such as the Pakeha WINZ employee who defrauded the taxpayer of more than a million dollars, Maori TV sounds quite good (since I have no TV I can claim I would be watching it all the time)or the Pakeha member of parliament who publicly and unrepentantly broke the law and still has the full support of all his Pakeha mates. Them Pakehas must be a dodgy lot. Did you know that a hugely disproportionate amount of New Zealand's health spend goes toward Pakeha? But you just try taking it away from them! Where do these crooks get off demanding this special treatment?

I have no TV. I get my news from state radio and the Saturday Dominion Post. But even I can't shake the impression that there's been a concerted run of news stories in which our Maori friends (in this context I prefer the term "Maori" to "non-Pakeha") are somehow associated with corruption and scandal. Since Don Brash tapped New Zealand's impressive capacity not to know relevant facts about the law, social realities, history, and the Treaty (in that order). I'd got the impression that some kind of dob-in-a-an-Iwi campaign was gaining its own momentum. I had assumed that someone felt there were enough such stories to get us right through to the election (I assumed this as an extension of my faith that there are enough Maori-free scandals to get us through to the election after that).

Of course, now all of a sudden Maori TV sounds quite good (since I have no TV I can claim I would be watching it all the time) and there's a settlement on the offing for the land deal the started the New Zealand Wars. We have started a new week without a fresh scandal. In a way, this is simply the other side of the coin: in the current environment, news about anything Maori reflects on the entire race (Linda Clark, for example, seems unable to dissociate Maori Television from Tuku Morgan's boxer shorts). This is not privilege; it's a prima facie case of institutionalised racism. And in the absence of any actual debate on Treaty issues, it could be that, and not the merits of a return to the economic policies of the 80s, that decides the next election.

I'm trying to get a graphic design job in Wellington. I don't really know anyone to network with, so I've resorted to making attention-getting CVs. The cover of my portfolio has my name stamped into it with metalworking letter-punches. I'm contemplating the use of actual bells and whistles to make people hire me. But my long term goal is to produce a CV that makes racially charged speeches to the Orewa Rotary Club.

Matt Nippert - apprentice hack, Auckland

Damned dams and bloodsports

Call it acid flashback or merely photographic memory, but the canning of Project Aqua brought back memories of New Year. There was a beach, a lot of time, and Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand. The year being remembered was 1960, and the damned dam in question was Lake Manapouri. As King writes, the campaign to stop it had wide-ranging effects:

The greatest benefit arising from the Save Manapouri campaign is that it started a debate on environmental issues, involving national and local body politicians, scientists, professional planners and member of the public. And that debate was fed by literature and television reports of issues arising in other countries throughout the developed world.
Of course, the New Zealand Herald had quite a different spin on its present-day equivalent, predicting power cuts and a spike in the price of power. Fights to the death are much more entertaining if you’re into bloodsports or social change(All doom and gloom – I put it down to not enough poon.) Fair enough to take this editorial stance, but I would have expected their press gallery crew to lead rather than their resident economist. Meridian had sunk $95m into the project, and there was a significant people-power campaign running against it. I wouldn’t back impoverished Southlanders against $95m any day of the week – what happened? King writes on Manapouri:

The revelations of the likely consequences of raising the lake sent shock waves throughout the Te Anau district, throughout Otago and Southland, and eventually through the country as a whole. What scientists and lay people had difficulty coming to terms with was the effect of millions of years of evolution which had shaped the lake’s character and ecology could be wiped out so comprehensively for such a small gain in electric power. It seemed disproportionate.
The arguments against Aqua are pretty similar – power generation would only cover 5 years of projected increase in electricity demand – and the Waitaki river was the largest braided river in the country. But the shockwaves in this case had only spread to the Cook Strait.

South Island voters would have been well aware of the project, and the Otago Daily Times – one of the least well-resourced dailies in the country – had been running a sterling journalistic crusade against the dam. The Christchurch Press took up the cause in late 2003, and, given time, it would have eventually spread north to the Dominion Post (but who knows about the Herald?).

It’s most likely Aqua was knobbled at the knees by a Labour government looking to extinguish a potentially debilitating revolt amongst the left - it’s traditional support base (and probably it’s only support after Orewa defections). A canny political move to be sure, but not without consequences across the spectrum.

Let’s not forget those harbingers of environmental issues, the Green Party. Inside sources tell me of both jubilation and dismay within the Party at the news. Jubilation at a successful and quick campaign (Jeanette Fitzsimons had said 2004 was going to be her year of ‘anti-Aqua’), and dismay the project would not persist into the 2005 election campaign. As an election issue it’s now dead and buried, and the Greens will need to find something else to boost flagging support (can GE be resurrected, after an Royal Commission and the lifting of the moratorium?).

So, damage control, and not the start of new environmental consciouness. Probably a shame: fights to the death are much more entertaining if you’re into bloodsports or social change. Consider Kings analysis of the spinoffs of the Save Manapouri campaign:

…overhaul of water management in the Water and Soil Conservation Act, the attempted elimination of air pollution in the Clean Air Act, and the protection of marine life in the Marine Reserves Act, which resulted in the establishment of reserves in half a dozen locations on the New Zealand coast and around the Kermadec and Poor Knights islands.
And let’s not forget the biggie: the anti-nuclear movement.

Of course, today the Herald angle has changed from power crisis to the damned Resource Management Act. The Press follows a similar time, although doesn't lead with Business New Zealand opinion on red tape - and instead focused on Meridian complaining. About the RMA. Helen Clark says the RMA was only one of the reasons Meridian reconsidered, but that hasn't stopped the legislative child of Manapouri taking the heat.

A pity flashback-through-history-book is the only way I can relive the 70s - they seem like much more grounded, and much less hysterical, times...

DISCLAIMER: The author has worked, professionally, with the Green Party as a media (spin) officer. But this was for money, not love. He’s a mercenary at heart, and his price is high: $12/hour, with guaranteed and regular cigarette breaks.

UPDATE: Michael King and his wife died in a car crash yesterday. The Penguin History was his opus, and the great man will be remembered. The nation mourns, but his family moreso. Condolences. ;(

Patrick Crewdson - student, Auckland

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

I don't believe in an interventionist God. But I know, darling, that you do.

You can easily identify the men of Destiny New Zealand in a crowd. They look staunch. Like staunch pastors. Men with short-back-and-sides haircuts exist only at the hippie fringe of the party (an offshoot of Brian Tamaki's Destiny Church) - it seems the majority have shaved heads. They wear suits, or tidy casual clothes beneath bomber jackets. They scowl.

This weekend they gathered for a conference at Auckland's Rydges Hotel. The large banner that hung over the lobby elevators read something like, "Dad - if you're not raising your children, someone else is." Someone like drugs, I guess. Or Playstation. Or their mother. Coincidentally enough, I was at the hotel to meet a friend whose parents have recently split up.

By another coincidence, at the same time at Waipuna Hotel the Maxim Institute was also holding a conference - 'Political correctness: the end of an error?' The Maxim Institute is a lobby group, not a political party. A highly active lobby group (in fact, if you're interested, someone from the institute will be speaking to the Manukau City Council Helen Clark is an agnostic and Dr Brash told North & South that he does not believe in the existence of a supernatural being with whom he can talk, which also rules out Gandalfthis afternoon in support of their draft Brothel Control Bylaw). If you pay close attention to the letters pages in your favourite publication you'll probably spot missives sent using their online letter-writing device (the name Steve Taylor is a dead giveaway). Maxim shares with Destiny a fondness for - as the conservative Christian euphemism goes - 'family values'. As Destiny says on its website, "New Zealand is a Christian nation ... currently being lead by a government that has forsaken our Godly heritage."

Some of the scheduled speakers at the Maxim Institute's conference were controversial; in a letter to this weekend's Sunday Star Times two Victoria University academics outed Frank Ellis (10.45am: The journey from Communism's 'Enemy of the People' to PC's 'Hate Criminal') and Peter Wood (1.55pm: Weta Nationalism: how diversity threatens New Zealand's identity) as "part of the right-wing circus travelling the world preaching their extreme dogmas". They said Ellis participated in the 2000 American Renaissance Conference alongside Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and anti-immigrant National Front members (he's in this photo, bottom row, second from right). Nice. The dinner speaker was Leighton Smith (6.30pm: The media, the rule of law and political correctness).

Thanks to the recent Christchurch Cathedral incident, we know that neither the PM nor the National leader are religious. Helen Clark is an agnostic and Dr Brash told North & South that he does not believe in the existence of a supernatural being with whom he can talk, which also rules out Gandalf. Overtly religious parties haven't done spectacularly well in the MMP era. Before the 1996 election the Christian Coalition looked promising (or threatening, one could say) but narrowly failed to fulfill their potential, taking 4.3% of the party vote. The coalition disbanded and Christian Heritage only managed half that total three years later. By 2002 they were skipping school with other 1% losers like Outdoor Recreation and the Alliance. But 2002 was the year of United Future, United being Peter Dunne and Future New Zealand being the former Christian Democrats. United Future were briefly scandalous when it was discovered Kelly Chal wasn't a citizen and she was forced to stand down after 17 days in Parliament (to the surprise of her pastor, Brian Tamaki of Destiny Church). Since then they've held the line on conservative and played down the Christian.

Currently National are at 49% in the polls, Labour are sitting on 39%, and the smaller parties are clustered around 1 or 2%. It'd be a reasonable bet that as we approach next year's election the smaller parties, buoyed by increased funding and participation in televised leaders' debates, will leech votes off the larger ones. But what will happen with the Christian vote? The Christian Coalition and United Future have proved that a conservative Christian voter base does exist, even if it's not always inclined to move as one. United Future will shine on through 2005 thanks to Peter Dunne, their crazy diamond (never mind the 5% threshold, in Ohariu-Belmont diamonds are forever), but they may face competition for the party vote from Destiny, who are aiming for 10%. A friend's wise mother once suggested to me that putting your kids through Catholic schooling is the best way to extinguish any holiness in them. I had 11 years of it - now I score 'under 25 - need help' in the morality test Christians promoting The Passion of the Christ hand out at Village on Queen St. I'm not likely to be swayed by Maxim's arguments. Neither am I Destiny's constituency. But they have one.

Tom Goulter - student, Christchurch

A Couple Of Truisms

Truism The First: History Is Written By The Winners

Well, of course this is true. How else do you explain John Wilkes Booth's monumentally successful two terms as President, during which (as any scholar of American history will tell you) he won the World Series nine times? Exactly. Or, to give a more recent example, the fact that (as any scholar of American history will tell you) George W. Bush is currently the President of the United States?

Groan, yeah, here we go, Fighting Talk Is A Soppy Mouthpiece Of The Liberal Media. Relax. I don't think anyone particularly wants to go into the finer points of ballot-boxes and chads and voter fraud and so on and so forth. We've all read books. However, it's worth mentioning that, three years on, significant amounts of people, not all of whom are morons or big fat idiots, don't just believe Bush won the election in 2000 - they take it as a given. Move on, they say, it happened already, let's talk about something else.

Sample: Appearing on Letterman not long after the end of his tenure as White House Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer characterised a member of the press as irritating and out-of-touch: "Helen is very liberal, she disagrees with everything I say, she still thinks Al Gore won Florida.” Far from opening any cans of worms in an audience who, theoretically, should have contained at least 49% of people who agreed with this Helen character, the quip hit its mark and was greeted with the requisite laughs.

Many reading this site, of course, will be what you'd call The Converted, and far be it from me to preach thereto. But before we move on, it's worth repeating one more time: If ever there was a case of history being written by the winners, it's the worldwide community's acceptance of the notion that George W. Bush is the President.

Truism The Second: Democracy Is A Good Thing

Separating Democracy from Capitalism, putting aside problematic issues of invoking the ideals of Democracy in order to invade countries and stage coups and unseat democratically elected leaders when it suits your purposes, and allowing what seems at times to be the benefit of the doubt to The Great Unwashed re: their ability to self-govern, Democracy kicks ass.

Even, specifically, Democracy in America. If you're going to found a society on an ideal, aim high: establish that every person has an equal right to their say as to how the world is run, and trust them to use that right, so that all sectors of the populace are well-represented and everyone's voice is heard and taken into account when decisions are reached.

The fact, for instance, that Thomas Jefferson stood for ideals such as the equality of all men while engaging in jungle love with his slave mistress, does not undermine the founding ideological beauty of a society: it enhances it. Because hell, if a society as flawed and directionless and at times just plain barbaric as circa-revolutionary America could have the guts to set forth on an adventure as incongruous with the realities of the times as the Constitution was, that's aiming high. You could call it cynical, you could call it hypocritical, or you could argue that this was the beginning of a tradition that, when it's honored correctly, is one of the things Americans can be most proud of: laying down high-minded ideals, saying dammit, we're going to work toward this and get halfway there if it kills us, and displaying an honest commitment toward reaching toward those goals you've set out for all the world to see.

The fact that this tradition is often hijacked or manipulated, and that people with their own agendas are often the same people who talk loudest and most bullishly about Ideals and Freedoms and whatnot, doesn't undermine the integral virtue of the American vision; characters with demons are always the most fascinating. Coop is a good character; Coop trapped in the Black Lodge while his doppelganger runs amok is a fantastic character.

Max Johns - Door-to-door salesman, Dunedin

Stuck in the middle with you

So National are suddenly back. One speech suggesting that perhaps giving to the needy is a good idea and they've regained the centre. And this isn't some Tana Umaga reference that only you don't understand.

Firstly, The Centre is not real. It's even less real than The Left or The Right. Secondly, The Centre is political Nirvana. In The Centre, everyone agrees with you. In The Centre, everyone else is extremist. They're probably amoral as well. You can tell, because they're not in The Centre. Thirdly, The Centre contains the majority of voters. Or, at least, the largest bunch of people in favour of a single party. [We are majority-fearing people. In 2002 a majority threatened to simplify our Parliament by all voting Labour. When they found out each other's plans a sizeable number bailed out in such a hurry they accidentally granted eight seats to United Future. Even Peter Dunne had to check that his list went down that far. UF appealed greatly to its electors through its newly attractive quality of not being Labour. "Tactical voting" satisfied our majority-fear. "Tactical voting", incidentally, is another name for "doing that counter-intuitive thing that your overly serious, politically-minded friend tried to explain over dinner, because he made it sound like such a good idea".]

Labour won the Centre in 1999 and 2002. The Centre didn't move towards Labour; Labour moved towards it. You voters weren't fooled by any campaigning mumbo-jumbo, you just realised that Labour has decided to think what you think, and so you voted for them. Clever Labour; clever voters. Never mind that Labour had to move uncharacteristically (except for last time it was in Government) to The Right to get there…

But in today's polls National is suddenly leading, so they have the Centre. The laws of physics don't allow two political parties to occupy the same space at the same time, so National can’t have moved to Labour's Centre. What's happened? Political commentators sharpen up Occam's razor and declare that The Centre has moved. Just like that. Out of one neighbourhood and into another, slightly to The Right of the first. This time there was no clever Labour, just a lucky National. Very lucky, in fact: The Centre had apparently relocated to Orewa. National just hung around and waited, through a storm of mixed metaphors, for the mountain to come to Mohammed.

One party seeks The Centre and sits there for five years. Suddenly the other trips over it and can't get up to let it move again. How did Labour let this happen? Complacency set in, as it might after five years of getting your own way. Labour forgot that The Centre actually consists of people who, occasionally, think for themselves. Labour has paid the price for pushing things too far. An MP sitting illegally was dealt with through a bit of retrospective law-making. The foreshore and seabed debacle, which would in all likelihood have all gone away quietly if the original Marlborough case was simply left to run its course through the Maori Land Court (hindered by the High Court's prediction of failure), saw the Government jump in and stop the courts from doing their job in the unmolested way that they should. And it didn't even have a solution ready, just the half-baked concept of "public domain", dithering over various forms of title and other ad hoc musings seemingly designed to frustrate. Meanwhile, the Privy Council was being quietly abandoned and replaced with the Supreme Court. Just a small tweak of the already fragile constitution - nothing an over-confident Government can't get away with. And just in case that didn't affect the common garden New Zealander enough, let's tell them not to smoke in the pub and make them microchip their dogs. The Centre, which in 1999 found itself accommodating a Government too thankful to be there to try anything stupid, was in 2004 suddenly home to an unwelcome guest acting like she owned the place. No wonder it buggered off.

But where to go? In the middle of all the upheaval of Labour v5.2 was a quiet, satisfyingly unobtrusive man saying something quite simple and appealing. To do that in comparison to Labour was no real problem, but until Orewa the trouble had been making people listen. In fact, it was a message that the last National leader had also tried to put across to the public, but had failed to succeed with. Bill English suffered from terrible political timing. His leadership of National coincided with Labour and The Centre's cosiest coexistence. He was thus an outsider, and struggled to be listened to. But now that The Centre is shopping around for something new, Brash has gotten lucky once because his party isn't Labour and once because he's not Bill English. That's two more strokes of fortune than his predecessor. The challenge for him now is to keep that luck long enough for it to look natural to The Centre.

Matt Nippert - apprentice hack, Auckland

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Welcome to the human zoo

The lime green bars, probably selected by a colour-psychologist as being 'calming' when the place was built, have socks for drying and loosely clasped hands hanging off them.

A mirror is edged out between the thick steel cylinders - an inmate periscope. We can see a haggard face, eyes sizing up the commotion down the corridor. He can see us too.

Prisoner: "You're treating us like animals in this place!"

Chitchat between other inmates ceases. We have a captive audience.

Warden: "No we're not."
Prisoner: "Yes you are."

The exchange continues, allegations of inhumane treatment countered in a reasonable tone by his guard. Then the conversation gets down to specifics.

Prisoner: "I got called a piece of shit in front of my lawyer today. We can buy Milo and noodles from the canteen, but can't get any hot water!"
Warden: "There's a reason for that." (This prison had riots in 1998 that saw prisoners improvise a hot-water hose to scald screws.)

"Welcome to the human zoo!" he declaims dramatically as we are led away. The warden mutters, "I'm just sorry for his victims." The prisoner in question serving a long stretch. For serial rape. He's probably not a nice man - but neither is his accommodation.

Prisons tend to polarize people. They're either essential bolt-holes for society to place its most dangerous members, or they're dark, dehumanizing places that only eventually only contribute to the crime they try to prevent.

Really, both sides are correct, although most commentators have no idea about what they're arguing for and against. The Shawshank Redemption or Bad Girls provide the only popular glimpses of what life behind bars might be like: tension, riots and soap-in-the-showers.

Greg Newbold knows a little more than most. Sentenced for drug trafficking offences (hey, it was the 70s, the heyday of LSD), he did hard time for his misdeeds.

But the War on Drugs wasn't all about collateral damage. Newbold finished his MA on inmate culture and society while behind bars - quite likely within one of the very cells I peered into last week. He has since risen to be one of New Zealand's foremost criminologists and prison commentators, blending personal experience with academic study and analysis.

One thing is clear: prisons are not nice places. But some prisons are nicer than others. (By nicer I mean more humane, not more lavish. The prison I visited had the feel of a decaying dental clinic rather than soft backpackers.)

Mt Eden, for instance, had its last stone laid in 1888. (How many hospitals would be left to continue running based on 18th century architecture?) The history of the institution speaks volumes: It was New Zealand's last 'hanging gaol', seeing the country's last execution in 1957.

Newbold writes of the riots in 1965 where a red-headed disciple of Nietzsche named Daniel MacMillan inspired other prisoners into an audacious escape attempt. Using a smuggled pistol, the firebrand and his Samoan accomplice took a couple of guards prisoner and tried forcing their way out the front gates.

The alarm was quickly raised, and the escape attempt turned to custard. Sensing defeat, the escapees unlocked all the cells, escalating the situation to a fully-fledged riot. Prisoners started fires, and the police, army, firemen and correctional officers deemed it too dangerous to enter and break up the riot and put out the fires. After two days, Mt Eden was a blackened shell.

The prison was practically destroyed, and prison reformers (and prisoners themselves) held hopes that this might mean the archaic structure would be demolished. Not so, after a succession of 'temporary' renovations Mt Eden was rebuilt and today is still one of the centerpieces in the New Zealand prison system.

Paul Swain announced in Parliament last week that the country's prison population will rise by 20% when the year 2010 rolls around. We trail the United States and Russia in imprisonment rates by large margins, but are catching up with such international benchmarks for civilized justice as Romania and Hungary. We're almost double the EU average.

So why is the Government building three new prisons, amid public protest from prospective neighbors and iwi? Those who oppose new prisons on principle have a lot to answer for. And so do the Norm Withers' and Sensible Sentencers of this country.

It's a hard truth, but unless faced up to, when release date comes our ex-prisoners are increasingly going to become future crime statistics and inmates.

(PS: MacMillan was released in 1972 from a mental hospital, and moved to Australia. After committing a murder in the commission of an armed robbery he was shot dead by the New South Wales police in a 1976 shootout. Anyone from Hollywood shopping for a decent prison flick premise?)

Michael Appleton - student, Vinezac, France

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Bin Laden, mein Fuhrer

Hyperbole comes in many forms, especially in a Euro-American press gripped with fear of "Islamic" terrorism. In the aftermath of the ousting of Spain's Aznar government, all sense of perspective has been lost by commentators at both ends of the political spectrum. The Sunday Times' Washington correspondent, Andrew Sullivan, was typical of the pro-Bush response, spitting bile at Spaniards under the headline 'Europe's appeasers' and a famous photo of the much-parodied British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. At the anti-Bush end, the cover story of this week's French current events mag Marianne is headlined, "How the Spaniards saved Europe and democracy", leading into a standfirst which reads:
What a beautiful lesson the Spanish people have given to the neo-conservatives and the principal supporters of George Bush! Insulted, menaced, murdered, the Spaniards, in driving out Aznar, have affirmed their democracy and, without a doubt, saved the European Union.

You know that debate is getting pretty infantile when the Hitler analogy is invoked. In Britain, he represents the country's most recent existential threat. But while everyone knows a great deal about him, very few still writing in the media actually experienced the effects of his policies first-hand. But the allusion to the Furher is never far away: you feel it in all this appeasement talk, in Tony Blair's grand Bush has given bin Laden exactly what he wants. Should we start calling him an appeaser too? and grave foreign policy speeches about his generation's greatest challenge, and in the writings of such "single-issue guys" as Mark Steyn and Christopher Hitchens. One hopes that we can have more faith in the robustness of Western political institutions and societies than to think that a network of "Islamic" terrorists who kill a few thousand civilians a year is anywhere near as threatening to our societal livelihood as was Hitler's total war.

This allusion to Hitler must be rather insulting to anyone who lived through World War II (not to mention the memories of the millions of Jews who perished). Let's start comparing the chances of my getting killed by al Qaeda the next time I use the tube in London with the odds my grandmother faced of being killed by a German bomb in the early 40s, when she lived in the greater London area. There's really no contest. And, as The Independent's excellent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown points out, Euro-American hysteria is also rather demeaning to the millions of people in non-Western societies whose livelihoods are daily threatened much more acutely than ours.

Much of the criticism of the Spanish electors was underpinned by the assertion that the Socialists' victory was in fact a victory for al Qaeda, because al Qaeda wants Spanish troops out of Iraq, as do the Spanish Socialists. The Spaniards were thus giving the terrorists what they wanted, the worst possible offence in a post-9/11 world. By this logic, Western governments should refrain from doing anything which might please al Qaeda. However, as much as it is difficult to get inside the heads of "Islamic" terrorists, I would submit that nothing has given bin Laden and co greater pleasure than the foreign policy devised by the Bush Administration. It has deeply divided Western governments and public opinion, and inflamed discontent among Western and non-Western Muslims towards Anglo-American foreign policy generally, and the lamentable history of Western involvement in the Middle East specifically. The war on Iraq was a great PR victory for al Qaeda, providing a rallying cry for all those who resent American foreign policy, especially with regards the Middle East. So, Bush has given bin Laden exactly what he wants. Should we start calling him an appeaser too?

The confusion here is between short-term and long-term strategy. It seems that bin Laden's ultimate, long-term goals are the ejection of Western forces (and influence) from Muslim lands, and the politico-legal institution of a revivalist, culturally transcendental form of Islam throughout the Muslim world. But to try to get to these long-term goals, he needs to provoke, in the short- to medium-term, a violent civilizational clash that will bring a majority of Muslims the world over to his cause. So, while in the long-term he wants the Americans to get out of the Middle East, in the short- to medium-term he needs the Americans to stay put and to remain egregiously unfair in their handling of Israel/Palestine. He also needs Western societies to take retrogressive legal steps which embitter Western Muslim populations. All in all, he must be rather pleased with what he's getting.

Indeed, if the United States and Europe were really serious about not giving bin Laden what he wants, they'd stop giving him the status of a Hitler-sized genuine threat to Euro-American survival.