Lyndon Hood - Doom Merchant, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

There was a part of me that expected the kakapo flu to become a plague that would destroy civilisation. It just seemed to make narrative sense, what with the flooding and earthquakes and the snow closing roads and the moral decine of society and all. And then this morning I ran out of coffee.

But it appears there's been a sense of nigh-ness about the end of the world since ancient Rome (as amusingly summarised here). Even 2000-odd years ago, when St John decared that the events described in his Revelation would occur "soon". I realise that "soon" might not mean the same thing to me as it would to the eternal creator, but still.

Similarly, Christ is quoted in His biography as saying "...there shall be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." One explaination for the ensuing lack of judgment-dayness is that, rather than meaning to imply that the apocalypse was imminent, the Savior was actually dooming more than one of his listeners to walk the earth until His final return. Christian mythology does after all tell us that He did this to at least a couple of other people.

If all this is what God considers a joke, then that would explain a lot about creation.

So in these end times, when I am in need of solace, I take comfort in web browsing. That's how I found out about the Bayside Prophecies, given by Jesus and the Virgin Mary to Veronica Lueken of Bayside, New York between 1970 and 1994.

I joined the site at a prophecy warning of the threat to the US from international communism. If that seems a bit retro, there's also this from the Virgin:

... there will be a crash in the monetary doings of your government ... until the world sees one big, massive depression. I can illustrate to you, My children, what I mean by this monetary depression.

Should you go and wish to buy a small instrument, even a guitar, that We hear plucking away at the dervishly, and devilry, of what is called the musical Mass, strung by guitars, and other creations of satan. My child, I go on to tell you, you will say that the guitar is not a costly item, but in order to buy this guitar you will carry an actual satchel, an overnight bag - size, My child - let Us put it that way clearly - of notes, your currency. It will take a whole suitcase of paper - paper money that no longer has a value. You will soon be reduced to bartering for your food.

Elsewhere the Holy Virgin exorts us to lay in canned goods. Also, there's and plenty of stuff on terrorism:
Jesus - "Look, My child, what is coming in..."

Veronica - And there on the tracks - it's made of wheels - there's a carting, some type of a carting - train-like board. And on this - I know, - I know it's a bomb, a very large bomb, and it has a point, like a V-shape upside down, pointed type of nozzle, or whatever you'd call it. I don't know the mechanics of bombs or anything, but I know it's a bomb.

And the Jesus touched His lips. He said: "Warhead! A warhead!"

Jesus - "It's an underground tunnel that's not being used for transporting the passengers at this time. It's been abandoned. But it has made, said Jesus, an ideal parking place for a major destructive force that man has created—a missile."
In fact, I was startled to stumble across a "locution" dated September 11, 1990:
Our Lady revealed to Veronica that there would be a terrorist attack "on the state building." Veronica knew immediately this was alluding to the Empire State building in New York City.
A related page trumpets: "FULFILLED: Eleven years later to the day..." and goes on to supply various other our Lady's forecasts for the coming destruction of the United States through asymmetric warfare. I bet US law enforcement agencies are grateful for all the email warnings that people send as per the instructions at the bottom of the page.

At this point I did what I think any of Ms Leuken's deeply Catholic hispanic-American target audience would have done and looked in the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine to see if that locution was on the site before September 2001. As it happened, in August 2001 it wasn't, and the chronological list it links from didn't mention the event either. These issues were rectified by November.

This, of course, begs a question.

How many other important revelations have they forgotten to put on the web until too late? There could be dozens of them!

I mean, surely, if one was going to fake up a divine revelation after the fact, one would at least make it accurate. I am forced to conclude that either the Virgin made an understandable mistake (after all, if God is so distant that you look like my friend even though we are at war, one tall building must seem pretty much like another) or this is another example of the Lord making His own entertainment. After all, the Madonna didn't say it would be the Empire State Building, did she? She just let Veronica assume that.

Along with a variety of holy revelations and an online shop for gauds and trinkets (which also sells print copies of the prophecies, for those of us who don't believe we're getting the whole story, and "Heaven's Home Protection Packet" for armouring you house against the conflagration) you can see miraculous photographs take at vigils held according to the divine instructions relayed through Veronica.

Hopefully when the Virgin appears to explain the meaning of these photos She'll clarify why She miraculously made them look like people waving candles in a long-exposure shot.

Patrick Crewdson - struggling freelancer, Auckland

I wrote this as a freelance piece, but I was scooped by this Listener story and my article got killed. If you'd like to publish it, feel free to get in touch.

Generation 1.5

If you want to fit in, don’t throw meat bones over your shoulder.

It’s a rainy night and up at AUT's Four Seasons restaurant, overlooking Mayoral Drive, David Wang's hospitality class is hosting a group from the Chinese Students Association interested in becoming less conspicuously Chinese.

Enticed by a photoshopped flyer of a knife and fork in traditional Chinese wedding dress, the students have come to learn the fundamentals of Western style dining - things like recognising the salad fork and appreciating Norah Jones. In short, they've come to learn how to fit in.

Wang's class and the visitors circle each others like teenagers at a fourth form dance, each a little shaky on their feet. It's like the blind feeding the blind; the chefs, waiters and barmaids in Wang’s 20-person class are all from China too.

How do I use a napkin?, one girl asks. Someone else snaps pictures with a digital camera. The tall, blonde woman leading the seminar - the only Pakeha in the room, front of house lecturer Debbie Newson-Brown - imparts a race relations lesson in the guise of dining etiquette: manners, she says, are a way of showing people that you respect them.

The motif of the night is cultural differences - some as subtle as the distance between plate and mouth or chair and table (Chinese people like them closer and further away, respectively, than Europeans do), some as fundamental as not burping to show appreciation.

Quietly, one adventurous girl leads by example - napkin on lap, knife and fork in hand. Main course: onion and feta quiche. Dessert: bread and butter pudding.

David (born Kun) Wang came to New Zealand from Shi Jia Zhuang, capital city of Hei Bei province in China, three years ago - just one of a plane-load of students winging their way here to learn the language. Like many, he chose New Zealand for the simple reason that the school fees were cheaper than in other English-speaking countries. For his first year in the country he lived at a homestay in Meadowbank. Now he’s in the central city, closer to the karaoke bars and internet cafes and to school.

There must be something in the syllabus because, like all Asian students, Wang refers to the locals strictly in the vernacular: it’s always 'kiwis', never 'New Zealanders'. But for one sector of the international student and immigrant population - a sector Wang could join if he stays long enough - the important choice isn’t a linguistic one between sounding too formal or overly familiar, it's a matter of identity, where 'kiwi' runs up not against 'New Zealander' but against 'Korean' or 'Chinese'.


Of the 72 new lawyers admitted to the bar at the High Court in Auckland in May, 40 per cent were born overseas. Two of those freshly minted solicitors - You Sun Lee and Jiyeon Min, both aged 24 - came to New Zealand from Korea in the mid-1990s, when they say permanent residency was easier to get than it is now.

Despite a decade in the country, the girls don't think of themselves as New Zealanders. Lee feels caught between two standards of citizenship, neither a "real Korean" born and raised, nor a second generation immigrant.

"Koreans call us 1.5 generation," she says. "We’re not really Korean, we’re not really kiwi - we’re in between. I feel like a visitor when I go back."

Min, who goes by the English name Jane, agrees: "The way you think and see things is already different."

"When I meet a Korean person who’s just come to New Zealand I can’t find a common subject to talk about," she says. "They get really offended when I speak English."

"It’s like we’re showing off," Lee adds thoughtfully. "But it’s just that our Korean is bad."

In America and Australia the term Generation 1.5 is used for foreign-born, locally-educated students, those who take characteristics from two cultures but belong wholly to neither.

The students of Generation 1.5 occupy a kind of cultural no man’s land. Min says that separates her from even her oldest kiwi friend, who she met on her first day of high school in Hamilton.

"I always feel she can't understand me fully because she can't understand my culture. I don’t mean just Korean culture, I mean migrant culture."

For Lee, life in New Zealand has meant becoming less conservative than most Koreans.

"I don't have a perfect Korean or a complete kiwi mentality," she says. "I'm too open for Koreans but I still find it hard to accept how open kiwis can be."

"I don’t do things the way Asians do. And I don't do things the way kiwis do."

For a while when she was younger Lee dated a local boy. But she struggled, feeling she had to emulate his friends' girlfriends.

"I found it hard to join conversations when they were around because the way they talked about things was so different. It was okay when it was just me and him, but not when others were around. I used to get embarrassed when he showed affection in public. All his friends were doing it and I tried to look okay with it too but then I just felt it wasn’t me."

Making the constant effort to fit in was a drain, Lee says.

"Can you imagine going to a royal party and trying to have a decent conversation with them? Or joining a group of surfers and trying a joint with them? … One day it just came to me that I was feeling really stressed trying to be a kiwi. It's really hard to assimilate to kiwi culture if you're born in another country and have grown up there."

Keep reading

Patrick Crewdson - flag burner, Auckland

Saturday, July 24, 2004

War pigs

When I play the Grand Theft Auto games, I enjoy tuning between radio stations as I cock my Uzi and roll down the window for a drive-by shooting. Macabre, sure, but it's only a game. It's not as though I'm cueing up Rammstein as I prepare to gun down students at the real-life neighbourhood high school. In Fahrenheit 9/11, which I saw just a few hours ago, American soldiers on the sandy streets of Iraq load an OzzFest heavy metal tour CD into their tank's sound system. Seemingly unaware it might be inappropriate to take such glee in their jobs, they set the music to pipe into their helmets as they roam.

Cut to a bereaved Iraqi father carrying his dead son in his arms, the young boy's pants wet with urine.

Cut back to a soldier staring straight to camera, chanting a Bloodhound Gang refrain: “We don’t need no water, let the motherfucker burn. Burn motherfucker, burn.”

With Fahrenheit - the leader of what Salon called the Great Left-Wing Documentary Onslaught of 2004 - the author of Stupid White Men and Dude, Where's My Country? demonstrates again that his strength is in film-making, not writing. Aside from when he commandeers an ice cream truck to circle Washington DC's Capitol broadcasting the text of the Patriot Act, and when he implores members of Congress to volunteer their children for military service, Fahrenheit offers less of Moore the prankster than we’re used to. As a documentary, it is neither as slick nor as frenetic as Bowling for Columbine; temperamentally it’s closer to the slow-burning rage of Roger & Me. Moore's still not subtle, but he's more solemn than ever before.

Fahrenheit's sights are set on George W. Bush. Throughout, the POTUS is in full bumbling mode, lingering at a primary school photo op while planes fly into the Twin Towers, ineptly fielding questions from reporters, and giving the impression of a man well out of his depth. None of the Bush administration heavyweights escape unscathed; Rumsfeld, Powell, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Ashcroft and Rice are all depicted - in line with the suspicions of many lefties - as corrupt, foolish or both.

Predictably, the highly-charged debate over the veracity of Bowling for Columbine has been reproduced for Fahrenheit. As it raked in the cash at the US box office, critics labelled it inaccurate, misleading, and even, in the words of celebrated contrarian Christopher Hitchens, “a spectacle of abject political cowardice”. One prominent website lists '59 deceits' (pdf) - lies it claims are tantamount to fraud. Moore has responded in a ‘War room’ on his own website, citing evidence and listing sources.

It is fair to say the film is often closer to propaganda than a cogent argument. Evidence is provided for some claims - often in the form of extreme close-ups on the raw Courier font of incriminating official documents - but more is achieved by insinuation. The subject matter ranges widely: there are links between the House of Saud and the House of Bush and between the Bush administration and the oil and weapons industries; Bush stole the 2000 presidential election; the Patriot Act allows thought-policing of fascist proportions; the case for war in Iraq was mendacious and misleading; young American service men and women in Iraq are being wounded or killed for no good reason.

As Russell said in his reflections on the film, “Even once you sift out the dubious elements, you're still left with the feeling that it makes a case to answer for the Bush administration and its chums.” At times Fahrenheit feels scattershot, but the unifying theme is that Bush is dangerously incompetent and a pawn of special interests.

For those - like me - who believe the election was a scam, who believe September 11 was exploited, who opposed the war in Iraq, and who wouldn't trust Bush as far as they could kick him, Fahrenheit 9/11 is another chance to rebel and yell (and to say 'I told you so'). True, Michael Moore has been known to play fast and loose with the truth. True, he wields a satirical axe rather than a rapier wit. And true, Fahrenheit plumps for emotion over journalism. But with Iraqis and Americans (with Linkin Park on their headphones) dying in combat each day and Afghanistan ignored, it's time blame got honestly apportioned.

Update: More on the relationship between Bush and the Saudis. 'Bush's bungled Saudi deal-making', from Salon:
A series of early favors the Bush administration did for the Saudis helped set the tone for what was to come. The Clinton administration had pushed specific initiatives against al-Qaida and the Taliban, some of which were successful, including sending an American delegation to the kingdom to discuss terrorist financing. As described in the 9/11 commission's staff report, "In Saudi Arabia the team concentrated on tracing bin Laden's assets and access to his family's money, exchanges that led to further, fruitful work." In contrast, the report continues, "the Bush administration did not develop any diplomatic initiatives on al Qaeda with the Saudi government before the 9/11 attack," a serious mistake considering the belief of counterterrorism experts that the real possibility of a huge strike against the United States required pressing the Saudis hard.
The Bush administration's patient exculpation of the Saudi role in 9/11, and above all its closure of the giant Saudi air base, should have strengthened America's hand with the kingdom on vital matters. But Bush did not use this source of leverage well: He failed to get in return a real Saudi commitment to ending jihadist incitement and implementing domestic reforms. The fresh waves of ill will against America generated by Bush's go-it-alone invasion dissipated whatever goodwill had been gained. In the end, Bush's diplomatic dance with the Saudis, combined with his bungled occupation of Iraq, made America less safe from terror attacks, not more.

Lyndon Hood - workstation philosopher, Lower Hutt

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

It was probably astute of Helen Clark to say the New Zealand Government has "solid grounds" for believing it had caught itself some misbehaving Israeli intelligence types. Rather than, for example, "clear and reliable intelligence". This from the security service that brought you Ahmed Zaoui.

Having got that out of my system I have to admit that I'm convinced.

What I'm actually thinking about is the issue that bridged the gap between the court case and John Howard's peculiar offer of mediation between New Zealand and Israel: the vandalism of historic Jewish graves in a Wellington cemetery and the reporting of the conclusion that it was caused by Government rhetoric.

In consequence of my above-mentioned conviction, I do not find the Government's response "disproportionate". Nor did I hear anything that would qualify as anti-Israel in any broad sense. So can we draw any useful conclusions from this incident?

The real answer is of course that people need less anti-semitism of the actual, direct kind. Which is a big enough problem for anybody. But, either way, it would help if people learned the difference between Israel and Judaism.

There is confusion.

In a way this is just a more complicated version of the usual confusion between a state, its government, and its people. On the one hand, Schumck A might accuse the guy in the Nike hoodie who watches The SImpsons religiously but happens to think Dubya has made some bad foreign policy decisions of being "anti-American"*. On the other, Schmuck B might verbally abuse an exchange student from the US about, say, Abu Ghraib or the bombing of Cambodia.

It's more complicated because with Israel there's a whole religion in the mix. Israel was created to be the one and only Jewish state (unless you're on of those who believe it's there to facilitate the Apocalypse) and, apparently, feels some responsibility for Jewish people internationally. Jews generally end up cast as apologists for Israeli actions. At least one cartoonist has gotten into trouble because there's no obvious symbol for Israel that isn't a symbol for Judaism.

But there are plenty of Israelis who aren't Jewish (and a good few of those who are didn't vote for Ariel Sharon). And there are truckloads of Jews who aren't Israelis.

This confusion** works, on the one hand, for Israel's government of the day and its supporters by leaving detractors open to vague charges of anti-semitism. On the other hand it works against Jews all over the world, by putting them in the firing line in controversies over Israel's actions.

In the case at hand the connection between the diplomatic wrangling with Israel and the vandalism of the tombstones has, reasonably, been drawn. But the publicity given to some emphatic opinions on the subject (it seems to me that the media was angling for a sensation) has probably been counterproductive. It looked like a message to the Government that it shouldn't say anything bad about Israel, no matter what, otherwise look what happens. I don't get the feeling, in the circumstances, that this has won many friends for Israel or increased the general estimation of the Jewish Council.

Having said that the problem is inherent in the nature of Israel, how can it be minimised? Public figures should be clear what entity they're talking about. Generally they are. Governments should do what they actually can about anti-semitism (which, again, is the real problem) at every opportunity. And Jewish bodies should from time to time show themselves able to disassociate themselves from Israel. And Israel should stop acting like it's every Jew in the world.

National radio spoke to a Jewish student in France, about Ariel Sharon's call for French Jews to come to Israel (Avoid anti-semitism! Come to the Middle East!). Effectively a travel advisory for people who aren't really your citizens. Anyway, this guy's own angle was that, sure there are problems but we're working on it. Our problems are not Israel's.

I've no idea how many people out there feel that way. But it's not a sentiment this Lower Hutt gentile had heard expressed before. It seemed helpful to me.

*Or the guy from Al-Jazeera who wants to take his kids to America one day. Hands up who saw Control Room! Thought so. Good, eh?

**I've been saying "confusion". There is, of course, a stream of thought that willfully conflates all of these (state, leaders, people, political and religious) to suggest that all or most of the individuals making up the wildly various religious and ethnic tapestry of Judaism are involved in some kind of conspiracy. If "confusion" is the old ladies who stopped knitting Afghan sweaters after September 11, the conspiracy theory is thinking that the earth is flat and that it is also out to get you. And this is someone who thinks that Bush stole Florida talking.

Max Johns - armchair administrator, Dunedin

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Keeping things in the (All) Black
[Because it's not a sports story without a bad pun or two]

The Tri-Nations kicks off (ha!) tomorrow. Don't expect trophies to change hands. In fact, bet on last year's placings (Australia second, the Springboks third) being repeated. You'll be glad you did. Less certain, though, is whether global TV audiences will mirror previous performances. SANZAR hasn't attracted the viewers to Super 12 and Tri-Nations that it was expected to. There's a lack of new supporters in South Africa, SANZAR’s biggest nation, and in Australia, which is sports-mad and should be fertile ground. Meanwhile rugby isn't the growing, international game it should be. The bold Fox/NewsCorp-sponsored plans of the mid-ninties were expected to create a boom in countries where rugby is a curiosity, but they haven't achieved that. Fox's interest is waning, too, as evidenced by its role in the last-minute scramble that kept the ridiculously talented Andrew Johns in the NRL, another big money Fox tournament, when the Warratahs had him all but signed to play Super 12 rugby (the NRL's version of events omits the media job offer that Johns accepted, but the Sydney Morning Herald slipped it in). The current SANZAR/Fox agreement is up at the end of next year and SANZAR isn't going to be as lucky next time around, whether or not Fox re-signs. In short, the pot of gold's going to either be downsized, or repossessed and put back under the rainbow.
Talk about expanding things won't help. Super 16! Quad-Nations! Et cetera! The argument is that more teams from more places will make the rugby more exciting, and so more people will watch TV. As a fan, I like the idea of adding the PI team to the Tri-Nations and the Islands' national teams to the Super 12. I like that a lot, but I can't see any expansion happening. Try convincing a media accountant to see the benefits of such untried adjustments.

The NZRU has a problem, and not just at the top levels of rugby. Crowds are generally down, the NPC is predictable (except for last year's remarkably close, All Black-free version), the "big five" Super 12 provincial unions are getting too big for their boots, and the other 22 are fading fast. Thankfully, the sport is in good hands. From 2006, change awaits. Our five Super 12 teams will still produce the All Blacks, but the NPC won't be so familiar: the Third Division will go and the Second Division will be renamed First Division. To avoid confusion, today's First Division also gets a new name: Premier Division. There will be up to twelve Premier teams. These unions will remain professional. The next fifteen (the remainder, if all the Premier spots are filled) will be in the newly-amateur "First" Division. It’s a necessary change with the way rugby money’s going to stack up in the future. The All Blacks, meanwhile, can expect an increased money-spinning international schedule that will cut them out of the NPC. So far, so logical, even if we're re-amateurising most of our provincial unions. There are no easy ways to cope with budget constraints.

That's the money-saving ball rolling. The next step is to increase interest in the NPC by ensuring that all twelve pro unions have a decent chance in the competition. The proposed mechanism is a salary cap - an arbtrary dollar figure that no union may exceed in total player payments. The theory is simple - if you limit buying power, no-one can afford all the top players. This is new to NZ sport. The Warriors, as part of Australia's NRL, are the only local example we've got.

This sounds simple but it's very, very messy. For a start, the NZRU has to battle serious overseas player-poaching. Internationally speaking, low salaries are already handled by NZ rugby players with good grace. A salary cap won't help anyone resisting juicy contract offers from elsewhere. Secondly, New Zealand rugby isn't as straight-forward as Australian league. Club league earns the money and the clubs pay the players. The NRL controls the clubs. Clubs that could become powerful big-spenders are prevented by the cap. Compare rugby, where the international game (i.e. about 25 players) creates the cash and where the NZRU contracts players directly - not just All Blacks, but every Super 12 and NPC player. Provinces then pay players for the Super 12 and NPC. The set-up isn't a simple one. With professional rugby being played and payed on four different levels (Tri-Nations, other tests, Super 12, NPC) things are much more complex than the NRL. The principle of a salary cap is already causing friction before we've seen any specifics like a dollar figure: the big five don't like it, the smaller unions do.

With the NZRU in control of the money rugby earns and the contracts players sign, this isn't the best solution to the problem of some NPC teams being very superior to others. The obvious cause is Super 12 players staying put for the NPC. Many Blues playing for Auckland, many Cheifs for Waikato, and so on. It's  the easier thing to do, and it keeps team-mates together. Money comes into it, but when you're already earning Super 12 dollars, NPC cash isn't the big deal it could be. The NZRU wants to spread the talent out over the twelve premier teams, and there's an easier way. We have 150 Super 12 players (five squads of thirty players). These guys are New Zealand's best. If 24 All Blacks are out of NPC contention, we're down to 126 Super 12ers playing NPC. With twelve premier teams to choose from, all that is required is a rule disallowing NPC unions from selecting any more than eleven Super 12 players. It's a simpler solution than a salary cap, and will achieve the NZRU's aims. 
Faced with a financial downturn when SANZAR renegotiates its future, the NZRU has a difficult few years ahead. Initial steps to cut costs and increase audiences with a new NPC have been encouraging. With provincial unions already fighting over details, the salary cap should be dropped and replaced with a simpler selection restriction on Super 12 players. If the NZRU can get this done and prove itself to be the skillful administrative body NZ rugby should have, SANZAR's future may yet be handled more successfully than most of us are anticipating.

Patrick Crewdson - sympathiser, Auckland

Friday, July 16, 2004

The Trial of Saddam H

As you will have read in the funny pages, Saddam Hussein is kind of on trial in Iraq.

At what was basically his depositions hearing he was charged with crimes including invading Kuwait, gassing Kurds, and going to war with Iran. Diversion is not available, m'lud.

Of course, it's a lovely gesture for the US to send him home to be tried (although he's actually being held in Qatar). A gesture is all it is though. We'll give him a fair trial and then we'll hang him. The New York Times said Saddam's trial is "likely to be one of the most riveting, complex and potentially controversial legal proceedings ever carried out on the world stage". It's likely to be a complete sham is what it is.

The Washington Post thinks the trial is going to cause a bit of bother:
... This is no "slam-dunk" case. Following the practice of other dictators, Saddam Hussein probably left no paper trail connecting him to his regime's blatant crimes. During his arraignment he immediately denounced the court: "Everyone knows this is theater by Bush the criminal." If that is any indication of what is to come, this could be a difficult trial for judges and prosecutors with little experience of international law, or even of proper trials, to control.
I think that's either naive or wilfully stupid. Lack of hard evidence and inexperience with international law notwithstanding, the real question is: can you imagine Saddam Hussein being acquitted?
Alternative scenario: Saddam walks

Open to all the world's media, the trial of Saddam Hussein is high drama. Under cross-examination it transpires that Saddam has been the victim of a hilarious case of mistaken identity. Of course, the story's pretty wacky, so to start with no one believes him. But as he explains we realise he's just a good kid who got in over his head. It turns out that one of Saddam's doubles has actually been committing all the atrocities (as well as racking up a substantial debt at Tikrit's best video library), while the real Saddam has been frantically chasing after him, trying to right all his wrongs.
"I didn't gas the Kurds at Halabja," Saddam insists. "It was that other guy."
Commentators and pundits point out that it's just like the time Calvin used his cardboard box machine to make copies of himself so the new versions could do homework while he hung out with Hobbes and read comics. Except Calvin never invaded Kuwait.
Essentially, the challenge for the US Administration and the Iraqi Special Tribunal is to find a politically satisfying way to convict Saddam, not to find the evidence or the expertise to try him fairly. Now, I'm certainly not saying he's innocent. I think there's widespread agreement that he's guilty of the crimes he's accused of (even if he had tacit or overt Western support for some of the atrocities). And a certain measure of sheriff-style justice is to be expected in the trials of former national leaders. It's not as though Milosevic could possibly see a not guilty verdict either (providing his trial isn't called off due to ill health, that is). Back to the Washington Post (who I agree with this time):
Trials of former war criminals and ex-dictators must balance the demands of politics against the demands of justice, the need for promptness against the need for deeper reflection.
Saddam's trial is a special case though (weak legal pun not intended), because of how it looks set to be run, sans media scrutiny. What's the point of having a trial when it can't be a fair one because the outcome is predetermined and it can't even be a good show, because of heavy media censorship?

Even if we don't get to see it, we can take a good guess at how this trial is going to end. The death penalty was suspended in Iraq after the Coalition of the Willing invaded, but there's talk of reinstating it. So depending on which way the political winds blow, Saddam is either facing execution or multiple life sentences in Baghdad Central Remand with no possibility of parole. To pretend otherwise, or to say that his trial actually matters as a legal exercise, is dangerously disingenuous.
Update - A suggestion from Matt:
Saddam will be imprisoned in Camp Redemption, where he will be redeemed after first being broken. Unless Bush demolishes the place first (which he tried to do before military lawyers politely informed him it was a crime scene) - probably with Saddam inside.

Patrick Crewdson - former Customer Service Team Member, Auckland

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Flipping the dirty bird

If Morgan Spurlock ever has children, it's a safe bet they won't be joining the McDonalds Kids Club. Adults struggle to kick the fast food habit, the director of Super Size Me says, partly because of instinctive fond memories of McDonalds playgrounds and happy meals.

You're eating a tasty burger with your mom, and you're warm and it creates a good feeling that you associate with Maccas. That's why when I have children, I'm going to punch them in the head every time we drive past a fast food place.
It's as good an excuse for child abuse as I've ever heard. And, if you'll forgive the digression, it's very Jack Handy:

One thing kids like is to be tricked. For instance, I was going to take my little nephew to Disneyland, but instead I drove him to an old burned-out warehouse. "Oh, no," I said. "Disneyland burned down." He cried and cried, but I think that deep down, he thought it was a pretty good joke.
Back on topic: I haven't eaten McDonalds since 1996. For me, forsaking Fish Fillets and shoestring fries was a moral stand, sparked by McDonalds' felling of rain forests and mistreatment of animals and, y'know, all that other McLibel stuff. Plus, I thought it was hella punk. My friends weren't impressed by my staunch anti-establishment principles; I had an after-school job at KFC at the time, so I expect it just looked like anti-competitive behaviour. And to be honest, when I eventually quit KFC - late in 1997, just before I sat Bursary (with 6th form cert I was already the second mostly highly qualified employee) - it wasn't a decision based on ethics.

New Zealand's first McDonalds (you'll have to excuse me for avoiding chummy nicknames like 'The Golden Arches') opened in Porirua in 1976. There are now 148 nationwide, the newest opening in Hamilton last year. KFC takes the silver medal, with 95 outlets. Burger King? 63 (I have fond memories of ruthlessly exploiting the free refills system when the Wellington store opened in 1996 - maybe somebody should punch me in the head). I haven't tasted Burger King since 2000, and I'm pretty sure I've only eaten KFC twice in the last five years. I still believe it's fair to criticise most fast food purveyors on their corporate practices, but these days my reasons for spurning Big Macs, Whoppers, and the dirty bird are mostly health-related. (I saw Super Size Me with Tash at the film festival. We were sharing a postmix Diet Coke from the cinema candy bar and every time Spurlock upsized his drinks or calculated the amount of sugar he was consuming we felt compelled to justify ourselves to everyone else in the theatre: "It's Diet! Honestly - sugar free!")

An AC Nielsen survey in 2001 showed that 43% of people had eaten McDonalds over the last month, 33% had bought KFC, and 21% had consumed Burger King. The local specialty beat them all though, with 61% opting for the two scoops and battered shark in the preceding 30 days. The provisional results of the 2002/3 Ministry of Health NZ Health Survey said almost 56% of New Zealanders were overweight or obese. In the US it's 60%. Spurlock says Australia comes in just behind America as the world's second chubbiest country (maybe someone can work that into a chant for the Bledisloe Cup this weekend).

It seems ludicrous to say New Zealanders are almost as porky as Americans. We're not, even if we're on the same diet plan, and a montage of fat asses is all the proof we need of that. (I should also point out that there's dispute over the validity of the popular BMI scale of weight measurement.) That's not the point of Spurlock's film though.

Super Size Me is not a brilliant documentary. The camera work alone should incur at least 15 cinematic demerit points. But it is an idea whose time has come. The deleterious health effects on Spurlock's weight, internal organs, and sex drive surpassed even the worst expectations of his doctors. His (admittedly unscientific) phone poll of nutritionists revealed that a majority said you should never eat fast food. Super Size Me won't kill the fast food chains, even if it did prompt McDonalds to drop its super size option from the menu. What it does is to provide evidence for the very very obvious fact that fast food is bad for you. Does Super Size Me demonstrate a casual link between eating fast food and 'the obesity epidemic'? Not as such. Does it mean we should all forsake fast food? Hey, I've made the mistake of lecturing people on that before - I'm not gonna be that killjoy again. Does it mean that if you get fries with that once a week you're going to die? No. But it does indicate that we need to do something to arrest the slow cultural change that means New Zealanders eat out more and make worse dining choices than ever before. And in a ad-saturated, supply-and-demand economy, that means voting with your dollar.

Tom Goulter - absentee blogger - Christchurch

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

or If I Haven't Posted In Ages, I'll Confound You With Miscellany

I get this guilty knowledge in the pit of my gut that my interest in world affairs, while part of a deep strain of Loving My Neighbor and the like, are also far from divorced from my love for a good narrative. (When examining my own thinking, I flashback often to The Onion's articles on "TV's Africa", sadly now available only in print form).
As in, I care deeply about not amending the Constitution to permanently invalidate homosexual unions and I think Lynne Cheney's opposition to the way her husband's boss thinks is long overdue (and I'm not too happy with the Johns' thinking on this matter either, though if they won't protect gay folks, they will at least support the constitution, which I guess is a start); and I really do feel for poor Mary Cheney, working all day for her dad then going home to try and resolve her well-paid position on Dick's staff with her personal identity as an unashamed lesbian.
But then, I also really want to see Tony B back on the straight-and-narrow after working so hard to become a registered masseuse without the Mob's help, only to snap and clock his boss with a 2x4, which led to his going back to T for work.
As in, I really like John Edwards, from what I know of him. His playful public rapport with Kerry is exactly the positive, infectious energy sorely needed for a Dem campaign that had been worrying me with its stagnation and seeming magnetism for potshots. Niggling little hints that the Kerry/Edwards dynamic shows signs of bitterness or spotlight struggles can be mostly dismissed as teething problems. And, hell, just look at the guy. Have you seen a candidate photograph like that since Jack? If you have, I don't wanna know about it! (Although this may well be a valid concern).
But then, I also can't decide what would be worse: Camille winning, or Yoanna not winning. (I know it's already finished; I just have to pretend I'm watching it in realtime). I mean, Camille's just such a talentless, headstrong bitch! And by the way, not only does Shandi have freakishly huge ears that should disqualify her automatically ("most natural sexiness", my ass), but she's a relationship-tyrant and a hypocritical dick and I want her out of there now.
I think you see what I'm getting at here. Yes. Yes, let's let it all out. Sometimes, late at night, when even the always-fascinating History Channel has some piece-of-shit special on Australian history that isn't in the original lineup but that we, as Australia without Koalas, are subjected to, oftentimes, I'll switch to BBC or CNN - and while I'm pressing the buttons, I can feel the thought zipping through my consciousness: "I hope something like 9/11's happened again, that'll be good tv".
And of course I consciously banish the thought, because of course I don't really feel that way. I'm not really entertained by shocking death and destruction on a grand scale. (Well, so I am entertained by destruction on a grand scale, but I do much prefer when it's in a controlled environment without the actual loss of life. How lucky I am that Jerry Bruckheimer's in the world, eh?) Indeed, when something actually happens, like another beheading or suicide bombing, I'm not entertained, I'm depressed and shocked and wish it hadn't happened. (Which isn't to say 20/20's wonderfully OTT sensationalist coverage of the David Arthur saga wasn't superbly, grippingly sordid, or that anything involving the phrase "coffins for the morbidly obese" doesn't make me giggle like a schoolgirl).
It's a fine line between caring about an issue and enjoying the narrative it provides, and one I suspect I won't get to clarify for myself anytime soon.
But right now I have to watch some CNN, or maybe Rikki.

Michael Appleton - on holiday, Cambridge

Monday, July 12, 2004


I'm told that marital trust is a little like virginity: once gone, you can never get it back. Though some couples try and muddle through and make the best of a bad situation, as soon as infidelity is exposed things can never be the same, and doubts forever fester in the mind of the cheated. As I sat down to watch Fahrenheit 9/11 at the weekend, I felt a little like Michael Moore's cheated wife (yes, not the most pleasant mental picture).

I had very much enjoyed Bowling For Columbine (BFC), my first Moore filmic or televisual experience. Above all, I was very amused by it, an amusement tempered by the thought than an American watching would not have the same luxury. But then last year, as editor of Victoria University's Salient, I was delivered by my resident right-wing columnist Michael Keenan a piece about inaccuracies and deceptions in BFC. As I did a bit of web reading on the issue, I started to feel intellectually cheated, violated even. Moore had made me feel well informed (and probably a little smug), and I had fallen for the traps he set my incurious mind.

And so F9/11 was always going to be met with more hostile, inquisitive eyes. Much has been written about the film’s faults and virtues. However, as someone from a nation with a stake in challenging the notion that because a place is small it is not worthy of respect, what struck me was perhaps a rather tangential concern. Moore cares as little about the world as he claims Bush does: world politics seem to him to be just the most convenient stick with which to smack the President.

At one moment, he wishes to lampoon the “coalition of the willing” that Bush built to fight Iraq. He does so by flashing up names of countries he expects no-one to know much about, cueing images to play to the crudest stereotypes of their people: the Dutch are pot-smokers; Romanians descend from vampires; Palau is a savage society with quaint people who are jolly but know nothing about the modern world (probably like all Pacific Islanders). He then, presumably, awaits the laughter, which duly arrived from my fellow cinemagoers.

Now, leaving aside the fact that Moore omits the countries in the coalition that most Westerners would likely know the most about – including Australia, Spain, Italy, and Britain – I felt some unseemly undercurrents to this display which are revealing about Moore’s view of world affairs.

First, he’s implying that the moral weight of a country’s opinion on an issue of international import depends on how big it is (or, perhaps, on how many Americans recognise its name); had Bush gathered up more “big names”, then the war on Iraq would have been more moral. New Zealanders should be under no illusions that, had Helen Clark made a different call on this issue, we too would have been lampooned in this way because, really, who cares what we think and knows what we are about other than that we rear loads of sheep? But this is precisely the view, which sees America as King and the rest of the world as populated by quirky but unserious exotics, that most of Bush’s opponents are rallying against.

Second, it’s deeply xenophobic, playing to what I can only guess are the prejudices Moore believes exist in “his people” – i.e. “normal Americans”. One could say it’s humour, an attempt to leaven a serious film, and that all humour requires making fun of others. But if one point of this film is to argue against American cultural and political exceptionalism and feelings of smug supremacy, and for the worth of respecting other countries’/peoples’ views on issues like the war on Iraq, then making fun of people just because they live in countries and do things that Americans might find quirky seems massively counterproductive and perverse.

Third, in sinking to the lowest rhetorical tricks, Moore misses an important opportunity to explore a serious criticism of the coalition of the willing: namely, that many countries to join did so because they were offered financial incentives by the Bush Administration to do so. That Moore ignores this suggests (as do so many other parts of the film) that he’s not interested in critiquing Bush foreign policy in a serious manner – just with using the same wide-ranging smear tactics that he accuses his opponents of.

Moore’s treatment of relationships between American capital and Saudi Arabia is similarly xenophobic. I suspect that viewers of the film who knew little of geography or politics would assume that the term “Saudis” refers not to the 20 million citizens of a country in the Gulf but rather a shady Middle Eastern crime family: an Arab mafia, if you will. The images and words he uses are sneering, and insinuate that everything and anyone associated with Saudi Arabia is in cahoots with Osama bin Laden. The way he makes fun of Bush senior meeting and greeting Saudi businessmen and politicians in an Islamically respectful manner brought to mind the way Bush junior mocked an American journalist who asked Jacques Chirac a question in French and the way some commentators ridicule European politicians who, when in Muslim countries, add “peace be upon him” to mentions of Allah and Mohammed as a show of respect.

Moore seemed to be saying, “Ha! Look at those towelheads with their strange cultural ways! They must be devious!” Sadly, this was on a par with much of Moore’s material. As much as he likes to criticise Americans for being insular and not knowing enough about the world, he plays to, and emulates, this (inaccurate) stereotype of the crude, rude, uninformed American. If anything, his attitude to The Other in this film seems to suggest he shares the foreign policy isolationism, built on feelings of exceptionalism and supremacy, that some traditional conservatives adhere to in the United States. In any case, on this evidence, he couldn’t care less about other cultures and peoples, and is undoubtedly even more ignorant of Islam than the President he despises.

Postscript one: For a more sophisticated, genuinely humorous, and adept film involved in social and political criticism of American elites, you should catch Spike Lee's She Hate Me, which had its British premiere in Cambridge last night.

Postscript two: The Sunday Times' Simon Wilde greeted the Black Caps' victory over the West Indies at the weekend with charming imperial paternalism. He wrote, "Few would have thought when McMillan mirrored New Zealand society by being trapped in the fifties that we had seen the last domineering batting of the day."

Lyndon Hood - patriot like a missal, Lower Hutt

It seems there's some agitation, not for the first time, to change New Zealand's flag. The issue has been raised by a few prominent personalities. I get the feeling they're aware that there are hundreds of more important things we could be talking about.

For example, we have a national anthem that I myself can't sing without giggling. If there isn't some topical irony in the verses there's always the sentiment expressed in the refrain: "God defend New Zealand". Indeed. The lyrics are from a poem by Thomas Bracken (surprisingly, not his worst) and they combine with John J. Woods' music to produce an overall impression of plodding awfulness that I wouldn't wish on any country.

Changing the anthem's been discussed before too. I remember one of the TV arts programmes of the past commissioned some NZ musos to do better. Turns out it's quite tricky. Gareth Farr produced something more song than anthem, and quite a complicated song at that. This clearly failed the programme's "can be sung by a rugby crowd" test. Chris Knox, another contestant and noted anarchist type, went to the heart of what he considered the purpose of a national anthem. It went: "New Zea-land is a veryveryveryveryveryveryvery nice country". Possibly Colin Powell is a fan.

One way to get a new flag is by revolution, when a design of or relating to the revolutionaries is adopted by fiat. I won't hold my breath. The Tino Rangatiratanga standard is pretty cool, but it's not even going to be a separate-but-equal flag any time soon.

So if we're going to deliberately design a national flag the first thing we need to do is understand its semiotic value (I know you guys love it when I talk modern philosophy). To my mind, its purpose is to be a symbol for the country, rather than saying something about the country. You may happen to do the former, in a superficial, non-controversial sort of way, but it's the latter that's important. The Union Jack might say, "We're England and Scotland and Wales," but that's only so it can say, "Britain!"

Incidentally, consider that navy ships, as a sign of distress, fly their flag upside-down. I don't imagine anyone outside the British navy would know the difference. Note: flag should have a right way up (sorry, Japan).

So we have a flag the says "We're a British colony somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere", which isn't superficial and non-controversial. We are now, in fact, free to follow the time-honored tradition of allowing liberated countries to choose their own new flag. As to what kind of symbol would make a good replacement, a the moment I only have one comment:

No bloody ferns.

Firstly, I am not an All Black. Secondly, as a local flag-maker pointed out in the Hutt Times, foreigners think it looks like a white feather. Thirdly, and I'm indebted to my father for this one, every country in the entire world has ferns. I'm not entirely against the (fern-related) koru, but I should point out the spiral is pretty much universal as a native-art thing as well. Also, if we're going to incorporate maoriness into our national symbol we should probably recognise it a bit more in real life, hmmm?

My mother, when the flag issue comes up, shows visitors her Hundertwasser flag. Friedrichsreich Hundertwasser gave Vienna some remarkable urban buildings and a new way of looking at window-frames. He gave New Zealand the famous Kawakawa public toilets, and designed a new flag. It's got a koru and appears to be popular among hippies.

My other main requirement from a national flag is - call me conservative - it should look like a national flag. One thing that means is that the design should be static rather than dynamic. The Hutt News was actually running a competition for a new flag. Some of their choices (as well as being fern-heavy) had a dynamic, active quality that made them seem more like conference logos or the ensigns of government trading bodies. We want a good, solid flag. We don't want to seem like some fly-by-night quango country like the Marshall Islands.

Their other thing is good blocks of strong colour. This means people can recognise it when it's fluttering in the breeze in the distance (another problem with our current model, considering Australia). On the other hand, this may just be a throwback to the day when flags were made by patchwork and embroidery. Today we have the technology to produce a flag that represents the way the world really sees us. Like, a full-size image of Frodo Baggins as played by Elijah Wood.

I take some comfort in the way Canada seems to have manufactured a new symbol for use on their flag. Because our only other standard option is the kiwi. Quite apart from the way we currently seem to be sick of the kiwi as a national symbol, what is it really? A bird that can't fly, sleeps all day, and is most remarkable for laying enormous eggs for its body weight and having nostrils at the end of its beak. Indeed.

Matt Nippert - certified hack, Auckland

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Get me outta Christie's (and Christo's) mad headspace

A few people have asked for my comment the latest National policy - regarding parole (scrapping it), and prisons (lots more of them). There has been some very on-to-it blogging on this issue, most notably from norightturn and Hard News. I wrote a bit on the issue a couple of months ago, before it became fashionable. I concluded then, as I do now, that National and Labour have been engaged in a rhetorical battle to appear "hard" (therefore painting the opposition "soft") on crime.

Meanwhile, on the sidelines, Act and New Zealand First will toy around with even more extreme rhetoric. While Brash quite sensibly distanced himself from the death penalty issue, smaller parties won't feel quite the need to appeal to "liberal" voters (I use the term "liberal" very loosely here). My prediction is Peters will pull this card out within the next six months - if only to gets some headlines and paint himself as hardman to the "liberal" Don. (Depressingly, we'll probably hear more about "three strikes and you're out". Why anyone would choose to base any policy on something as inane as the game of baseball is beyond me.)

It will be quite remarkable (and hideously expensive) if, considering zero prisons were opened during the 1990s, that ten may open between 2000-2010. Labour's already got five on the go, and if, as Brash predicts, his policies increase the population by a further half the country will need a whole lot more. New Zealand will take a clear 2nd place on the OECD imprisonment league tables (up from a present 7th) if parole were abolished. Labour's only going to get us a bronze.

There's a common maxim amongst legal academics that hard cases make bad law. A lot of the froth around the Law and Order debate has been whipped up by media coverage of henious crimes. Frank Hayden's column in the Sunday Star-Times today is a case in point. In it he argues the entire parole system is failing because of a few high profile cases: Taffy Hotene, William Bell and Harry Houkamu. He characterises these a "long-term indictment of the parole system". Making policy in this manner, translating headlines to legislation, would means we should ban dogs because of a few isolated attacks on children. Hang on a minute...

There's a term (coined by scholarly dude Charles Lindblom) describing public policy as the "science of muddling through". Lindblom argues that state action is necessarily modified by a range of political and bureaucratic actors (courts, wonks, political parties) to the effect that policy changes are incremental rather than revolutionary. If you can't please all the people all the time, you try your best to satisfy as many as possible and not alienate opponents too much. (A similar argument was used to support the introduction of MMP - dramatic policy changes ala 1984-1991 should be impossible with minority or coalition governments.)

This, at its best, ensures that policy changes have results that are predictable and can be reversed if found to be faulty. (At it's worst, it slows down or dilutes policy so it is relatively ineffective - dang Supreme Courts interfering in the War on Terror.) Applied to this debate, it might be worth waiting to see if Labours tougher sentencing regime works before harshening it exponentially as Brash suggests. It's going to be a very, very expensive experiment indeed - and if it doesn't work will have costs all down the line, ranging from economic to social and (perhaps) increased crime rates.

Talk of a return to hard labour (Brash), and military service (Garth George) are flawed in thinking that prison is a happy, cushy place. (As one eager criminal-lasher said at Ellerslie last Sunday, prison is "a five star hotel.") This isn't the case. While indeed inmates are provided with bed and a breakfast, you shouldn't think getting a short sentence will allow you to cosy up in some beachfront villa and avoid being charged $150 for the privilege. Prison ain't fun, mainly because as a prisoner you're confined to a cell for most of the day (18+ hours a day in some of the higher-security facilities).

Abolishing parole, I learned talking to prison wardens, would make the atmosphere in prisons potentially explosive from already repressive. Where does good behavior get you if your release date is set in stone? Wardens across the country fear a return to the bad-old days of riots and assaults. Removing parole, I predict, might just make prisons the hostile places law and order campaigners want them to be - by itself, and without floggings and chain-gangs. Unfortunately, they'll also be unpleasant for those having to work in them.

(As for the military service argument, would it really be wise to put our most violent, least socially adjusted members of society onto foreign battlegrounds with guns and carte blanche orders to kill insurgents? Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me...)

But to the rugby; something infinitely more cheerful. I think the Pacific Islanders should have as many Super 12 teams as they can field. Last nights game rivaled, in my mind, the fabled 1997 Hurricans-Blues clash. Lots of tries, lots of running - true spectacle that makes the result irrelevant.

It almost seemed as if the All Blacks were trying to match the Islanders step-for-step. If Justin Marshall hasn't been subbed off with 20 minutes to go, the game might have made a record for fewest stoppages of play - I've never seen so many penalties, scrums and lineouts taken quickly. Cracking stuff. Hats off to Russell for providing a sterling plate of chops and mash, and a seat in front of the fire to view the try-fest. Most appreciated.

To make the concept work, the Islanders don't even need to win. Just play with flair, and the crowds will come. They've got the talent to become the Harlem Globetrotters of world rugby. (Just as long as their playing pool isn't fatally drained by vampiric Tri-Nations teams.)

The Black Caps have effectively reversed their test and one-day rankings in the past year. Falling to 6th from 3rd in the world for tests, they suddenly find themselves ranked behind only Australia in the one-day arena. Perhaps fielding a team of bits-and-pieces players has its silver lining...

Media Gossip: Has anyone yet asked Mike Hosking for his Jonathan Marshall impersonation yet? I'm sure he'd be game. Sound like perfect ingredients for Eating Media Lunch....

The Listener turned 65 on Monday last week, amid an explosion of marketing dollars, tunes by Dave Dobbyn and Chris Knox, and quotes from Worthworth. A great night for a New Zealand media institution. Even if, as Knox put it so well "it's only a fuckin' TV guide!", and I ended up feeding cigarettes to dodgy TV producers at 1am.

Grinding my axe, I'm pleased to say it's been the second 65th magazine party I've been to in less than a year. My old stomping ground, Salient, earned it's pension last year. Critic, down in Dunedin, is positively gereatric. I think we marked Salient's 65th it with a couple of jugs from downstairs - and may have played William Shatner's rendition of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". Different strokes for different budgets.

In other news: Thanks to the people that responded to last poll. It's good to see we have an audience, and although it ain't huge (Patrick calls it "small but perfectly formed") it is read by people I respect. This blog will continue, perhaps sporadically, with the next being a look at the student media. Since Salient's upgraded their website, you can find my previous columns below:
Welcome to the Jungle - an exploration of what differentiates student media from their professional counterparts.
Art for Who's Sake? - art criticsm for amateurs.
Big Brothers - how news stories break (or in some cases are ignored) by student media.

Patrick Crewdson - kept man, Auckland

Monday, July 05, 2004

Cash rules everything around me

It looks like pretty soon I'm gonna be flush. I'm expecting $2.2 million, you see, from a barrister who recently made my acquaintance. And that's American money. Yep, two million greenbacks, sir. Or, should you be calling me sir?

As I'm sure you've heard, it's not about what you know, but who. And while I'm devastated to learn of the death of a family member four years ago, it's nice that my surname's finally gonna start working for me financially. Check it out:
My name is Barrister Sam Adama Esq,i am a solicitor at law.I am
the personal attorney to the Late Mr.Albert H.Crewdson (Chief Executive
Officer)of BIOOIL OIL SERVICING LTD,who till his untimely death was a
contractor with Texaco Nigeria in port Harcourt,Nigeria.Whom here in
after shall be referred to as my client.
On the 21st of April 2000, my client, his wife and their two
children were involved in a car accident along sagbama express
road. All occupants of the vehicle unfortunately lost their lives.
Since then I have made several enquiries to your embassy to locate
any of my clients extended relatives,this has also proved
unsuccessful. After these several unsuccessful attempts, I decided
to track his last name over the Internet, to locate any member of
his family hence I contacted you.I have contacted you to assist in
repatriating the money and properties left behind by my client
before they get confiscated or declared unserviceable by the bank
where this huge deposit were lodged.
Particularly,LAKEWOOD INTERNATIONAL BANK ,where the deceased had a
deposit valued at about US$5.5 Million has issued me a notice to
provide the next-of-kin
or have the account confiscated within the 6 weeks.Since I have been
unsuccessful in locating the relatives for over 2 years now, I seek
your consent to present you as the next of kin to my deceased client
since you share the same last name with him so that the proceeds of
this account valued at US$5.5 Million can be paid to you and then
you and I can share the money in the ratio 60% to me and 40% to you.
I have all necessary legal documents that can be used to backup any
claim we may make.All I require is your honest cooperation to enable
us see this deal through. I guarantee that this will be executed
under a legitimate arrangement that will protect you from any breach
of the law. Please get in touch with me immediately as I do not have
much time in my disposal.
Thank you in advance for your anticipated co-operation.

Best Regards,
Barrister Sam Adama Esq
Tracked my surname over the internet? Fantastic! It's not every day that an opportunity like this lands in my inbox. My surname's pretty rare and to be completely honest I didn't even know I had folk in Africa. As you can imagine, I'm pretty excited. Except ... well, I don't mean to look a gift horse in the grill, but if Sam Adama Esq googled me, why did he send the letter to Lyndon? Sure, sure, he probably assumed Lyndon would pass it on to me. Reality bore him out there, although I think Mr Hood may be jealous of my impending wealth (his email read: "Think this is meant for you. Careful though, it might not be genuine..."). I'm saying though, why not contact me directly? I don't mean to brag, but searching by surname I'm the third Crewdson on the internet. I'm just lucky my name's not Smith, otherwise I might still be waiting for that email.

I wonder if Sam Adama wrote to Gregory Crewdson? He's an artist, and American, no doubt the flaky type (although quite brilliant I'm sure, never met him myself), so Sam shouldn't take it personally if he didn't respond. And there's Will, but his site appears to be down, so Sam probably couldn't reach him (I should remember to give him grief about that next time we're both at the pan-continental Crewdson family festival). Maybe Ernest helped locate me. He wrote The Crewdson-Rockwell Family History in 1990, so I'm sure he's got a well-maintained rolodex. Or maybe Sam's a fan of the work Captain John Crewdson did on Dr Strangelove and From Russia With Love? Or the other John, the Pullitzer winner?

It doesn't really matter. I'll forgive the circuitous route the email travelled to make it to me. I'm sure Sam Adama Esq is a busy guy, what with all his high-powered legal work, the endless, gruelling corporate conferences, and having to practice his penmanship. If I understand correctly, he's also personal attorney to the late Mr.Albert M Benson (Chief Executive Officer)of Biooil Oil Servicing Ltd. Mr Benson must have been fast friends with my Uncle Al, what with them sharing the same first name and the same job. That's probably how Sam Adama got the Benson account. Hook ups.

I should remember to ask Sam, next time we talk, whether he knew General Sanni Abacha and his prolific wife. If I know Sam - and I think I do - he's probably got that MC Frontalot nerdcore track Urgent Business Relationship on heavy rotate on his iPod:
She's the LADY MARYAM ABACHA, deposed.
These days can't even get her caps-lock key unfroze
but yo, something 'bout a widow in distress
(with 20 million dollars hidden in a metal chest)
Catchy. Oh, and after Sam and I have bonded over our favourite Nigerian pop culture references it shouldn't be too awkward for me to bring up the dire road safety stats in his homeland. Maybe he can answer my questions about why April 21st is so cursed. I've heard of at least 27 fatal road accidents on that day since 1998. And I thought country people were supposed to die on country roads, not oil executives.

Now I'm getting all worked up. Enough of this time-wasting, I'm gonna email Sam right now. Time to get my loot. Catch you suckers later.

Max Johns - former diversion beneficiary, Christchurch

What shall we do with the drugged up sadists?

It's an interesting time to be observing political manouverings now that Don Brash has made his second of five promised speeches presenting a bold new National Party. And bold he is being - opposition parties are afforded the optional luxury of being able to heckle and insult the Government's attempts to solve problems without having to suggest any sort of alternative approach. If you buy into the theory that opposition parties don't win elections so much as governing ones lose them, then this is a fine way to pass the time in the minority - time which can only be waited out until everyone gets sick of seeing the same old Prime Minister on the news every night. There's no point taking any solid positions on issues that you haven't got the power to change, I guess, if it's the actions of those with the power that decide when you'll get your turn.

When the opposition abandons the usual directionless jeering in favour of presenting an alternative solution, they run the risk of losing the support of those with a general "bloody gummint should be doing something about this" mindset by presenting the wrong "something". Of course, they also give themselves the chance of strongly attracting people who have a similar mindset to themselves. The skill of politics is knowing, or guessing, what a lot of people think and then acting like you came up with it. The last time Brash presented a solid stance on something (and put Orewa back on the political map) it paid off in spades. The question is whether he’ll be able to do that four more times this year.

Sunday's Speech Number Two was presented to the Sensible Sentencing Trust, which proves that if nothing else, Brash is expert at finding converted to preach to. The basic gist of it - less parole, more prison, more cops, criminals' DNA kept along the same lines as fingerprints, more supervision, a lower age for criminal responsibility, less tolerance of repeat offending - suggests a costly, wide-reaching alteration to the approach we take towards crime in this country. It marks a reasonable departure from the last National Government’s treatment of law-breakers, as well, so selling this policy to voters contains an element of admitting screw-ups in the past. (By the way: prepare to get sick of hearing from Labour that 2002 RSA murderer William Bell, who was on parole at the time, was actually released under National’s parole laws.)

On a tactical level, governing parties have a reasonable range of options when opposition policy is released. Until Brash Speech #1, Labour were fortunate enough to be able to simply ignore it and let it die. No point drawing attraction to something that no-one's planning to care about. After Brash Speech #1, it become clear that Labour didn't really expect to have to do anything else. This time they'll be much more ready – they know it's coming and they know it will make the news. It wouldn't take too many brain cells to work out what sort of policy a party heading further to the right with each passing month might announce to the Sensible Sentencing Trust, so they’ll have had the fax loaded with press releases responding to Brash before he'd even greeted his audience. The question is what sort of responses they'll make.

What can Labour do? Maybe they could deny that the problem is as bad as Brash claims, accuse him of scaremongering, present stats that show crime is under control, then claim that nothing needs to change. Tempting, but difficult in this case. Few people want their government to essentially set the current level of crime as somehow "acceptable". Instead, perhaps they could take the "unnecessary extravagance" line and accuse him of wanting to throw money at a solution that won't fix the problem, arguing like this editorial that Brash's proposed harsh treatment of criminals won't change anything. There are two tasty points to attack him on there - wasting public money and ignoring the true source of the problem (which, of course, you are free to declare as being poverty, or bad parenting, low self-esteem, or anything else you wish, so long as it's not 'the freely and knowingly chosen actions of criminals'). Or they could just point to successes of the current system, getting mileage out of things that have gone right as much as Brash is getting it out of things that have gone wrong. Ignoring the nuts and bolts of the new National Party policy and blowing one's own horn as loud as possible might still work.

These are not the only options, and there are quite possibly better ones out there. But surely the one thing you shouldn't do with opposition policy is agree with it. That’s what Minister of Corrections Paul Swain accidentally (I hope) did when he released this statement. Rather than attack the new National policy, he focuses on the previous National Government's record on crime and champions the improvements under Labour since then:

“National always talks tough but does nothing…National talked tough on crime but did nothing for nine years in office.

"It took a Labour-led government to introduce longer sentences, tougher bail and parole laws, victims' rights legislation, record police numbers, record police budget, and tough new DNA laws. As a result, the prison population is rising and the crime rate is falling.

"Existing laws are far better at protecting the public than National's old sentencing and parole laws. It's ironic that the offenders that Dr Brash highlighted in his speech today - William Bell and Taffy Hotene - re-offended after being released under National's inadequate laws.”

Mr Swain said National was promising to spend billions of dollars building a whole lot of new prisons.

"National needs to front up and tell people where they plan to build them

"[T]his Government has already added more than 450 police…”

Swain's right when he says that current laws are an improvement on the old laws under National. But he’s wasting time discussing this. All the Labour-led changes he champions – longer sentences, tougher bail and parole, more police, use of DNA – formed part of Brash’s newly announced approach. And use of each of them would be enhanced under Brash's policy. It's as if Swain wants to confuse his audience: with one breath he’s boasting that Labour has more people in prison than National ever did, and with the next he's against National increasing prison space. As soon as Brash announced that he wanted to get tough on crime, Swain's sent out a press release letting everybody know that getting tough on crime works. Furthermore, the exact methods that National wants to increase use of are the ones that Swain is so in favour of.

Sadly for Labour, this isn’t one MP messing up the party line. It shows how seriously Labour are taking things when Helen Clark herself fronts up to NewstalkZB (as reported in the second half of this Herald article). And she all but read Swain's press release on air, right down to the William Bell snipe:
[Since Labour took over from National] crime rates were down, the resolution of crimes was up, the Government had introduced tougher sentences and reduced parole, there was more preventive detention, less bail, more compulsory DNA testing and 450 more police…she said.

Labour had got rid of automatic parole at two-thirds of a prisoner's sentence.

"Now those were the old rules under National which let William Bell out… Under Labour's rules William Bell will serve the whole 30 years of his (sentence)."

The prison population was expected to rise from last year's 6100 to about 7400 by 2010 "so there is a tougher regime in place".
Labour has not been adept at fighting its corner since National woke up and went about re-inventing itself. Orewa caught them entirely off guard, and they don't yet seem to be used to having to argue their own case. They seem to be using the same arguments that got them voted in back in 1999, but these are flimsy now that they are faced with a different beast. This latest approach of responding to opposition policy with evidence its in favour is strange to say the least. There are still three more major speeches due from Don Brash this year. With an opposition not simply waiting for them to lose the next election, this governing party needs to work out what to do about it, or get ready to swap jobs.

Update: The day after I posted this, Labour's tune changed a bit. They are now attacking Brash on cost, but neither party seems to have a particularly convincing grip on the likely financial costs National's propositions would create. Brash claims we should expect a 50% rise in inmates, while Clark doubles this. Whether or not Brash will be particularly vocal on his wish to save money with the use of privately run prisons will be interesting - it's a part of his plan that could yet become a political hot potato. (The notes to Brash's speech, available on National's website, quite rightly state that New Zealand's "only privately managed prison, the Auckland Central Remand Prison, beats the state operated prisons on almost every measure, including cost, education and health programmes". A strange thing, then, that Labour has placed ACRP back in state hands.) Of particular note also is that neither of the major parties is showing an interest in rehabilitation, once the buzzword for anyone wanting to get traction on the issues of crime and justice. With both of them aching to prove how staunch they are, how many prisoners they can put behind bars and how little parole they approve of, it seems that Brash has created another seachange.

Lyndon Hood - small-d democrat, Lower Hutt

Thursday, July 01, 2004

My Brother Became Governor of Florida and All He Got Me Was This Lousy Country

Since at least one reader appeared to be surprised by my bald assertions about corruption in the 2000 Presidential Ballot in Florida, I'll take the opening and explain myself. This has all been thrashed out elsewhere (not, of course, in US mainstream media), so I'll consider being brief.

The short answer to the question of where I got this is: Greg Palast (you can see his website or read the book for the gory details). Now, if you happened to think that Paul Krugman was a hack then, hoo boy. Palast has the strident, outraged tone, the bombardment of details building what's often a circumstantial case, that I used to think marked out the crusading left (apparently they call themselves progressives in the US). Then I discovered the crusading right writes like that as well.

Palast is also an actual investigative journalist - someone who goes and winkles out information rather than just asking the people in charge and then taking their word for it. Apparently he's also a leaked-memo magnet. His initial stuff on Florida ran on the BBC and in the Guardian. Much of it has been supported by the result of a court case brought by the NAACP and an investigation by the US Commission on Civil Rights.

And so to the rolls: Florida, under Governor Jeb "My Brother is a Presidential Candidate" Bush, privatised its electoral roll management. The successful company produced a list that it now admits was seriously flawed. For this it was paid a premium rate. First off, it excluded a goodly number of ex-felons from out of state who, according to the constitution, had the right to vote. Then there were people with the same names as ex-felons. And then there were a lot of other people. Mostly black. Running into the tens of thousands. People who, if they voted, would mostly vote Democrat. Gore, on the official count, lost Florida by 537 votes (the media-consortium recount is worth a look if you missed it the first time).

The whole incorrectly-completed-ballots thing (the thing that actually led to the President being elected by a supreme court vote) has a dodgy angle too. The higher spoiled-ballot percentages in poor, black counties, as opposed to rich, white ones, was noted at the time. The implicit conclusion was that voting was too hard for some people. One actual cause was that the Republican-county ballot spoilers were generally told to go back and have another go, while the black folks had their hanging chads accepted into the process to be voided later.

I recall a foreign leader saying that, what with the family connection and the controversy, if his country conducted an election like that the US would invade them. But, at least as far as the vote-casting goes, Florida was eventually forced to clean up its act by the NAACP court case and other scrutiny it received. However, that's been rendered irrelevant by the Helping America Vote Act.

Because the President's alarming "solution" to unprecedented electoral screwiness is to up the ante even further by encouraging electronic voting. There is nothing legitimate about this rise of the voting machines. The work on this is compiled at www.blackboxvoting.org and is regularly updated on scoop. The machines, and their Act, destroy any possibility of recounts, they are made by partisan companies (including, yes, a Democrat one), they are eminently hackable for easy, copious vote-rigging and it's not clear they work very well even when they're not tampered with. And so on. If that's free and open elections then I'm Ralph Nader.

Oh, and there's no real evidence the Florida roll's been fixed.

The leaders of the United States have clearly learned the lessons of Florida 2000. I'm sure they'll try to do much better next time. That's what worries me.