Lyndon Hood - differently waged, Lower Hutt

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

So I though I'd have a look on the web, and sure enough: any number of people were discussing the actions of the Coalition of the Mislead and Coerced in Iraq with reference to the opinions of Niccolò di Bernado Machiavelli. Opinions, unsurprisingly, varied and many people were clearly working from cliché rather than from the source, but it does all raise a few questions. Not least: why do we care what some 534-year-old Italian thinks anyway?

Machiavelli enjoys a reputation as an advocate of unscrupulous cunning which has been enshrined by the award of his own adjective, machiavellian. He's also a good paternity candidate for modern political philosophy. The latter description does him more justice, but it probably doesn't take much thought to realise that the two are not entirely unrelated.

Because Machiavelli, unlike certain predecessors who he does not name, took as his subject of discussion the way things are and what works, rather than the way things should be and what is morally right. If you listen closely you can still hear the echo of those fourteenth-century eyebrows rising.

Most people quote from The Prince, which contains most of the famous bits and is about being a monarch. I smugly prefer The Discourses, which covers republics, monarchies and tyrannies. Actually I only have an abridged version of both in one volume, but The Discourses is easier to navigate through because of the more informative chapter headings (for example, from book three: "Chapter XVII. A man should not be offended and then assigned to an important governmental post","Chapter XXVI. How a state is ruined because of women","Chapter XXXVI. The reasons why the French have been, and still are, considered braver than men at the outset of a battle and less than women afterwards").

Selective reading of the facts and the author can of course get you any conclusion you want. The Nazis had an enduring success demonstrating this with Nietzsche. More recently, one site that enlisted Machiavelli's support for the invasion of Iraq had previously concluded the Immanuel Kant would have considered Howard Dean "imprudent".

As to why we care, I'm not sure. It is of course nice to have someone famous for being clever agree with you. But Machiavelli's advice wasn't perfect even for the tortuously conspiracy- and war-ridden climate of the Italian city-states. And I don't think he has much to add to a discussion of the Iraq occupation that hasn't already been said. A quick skim of Machiavelli reveals that there were some things people knew even in the 1500s (I quote from the first book of The Discourses):

Chapter XVI. A people accustomed to living under a Prince maintains its freedom with difficulty if, by chance, it becomes free


Chapter XVII. A corrupt people which acquires its freedom can maintain its freedom only with the greatest of difficulty


Chapter XVIII. How a free government can be maintained in corrupt cities if it exists there already; or, how to establish it there if it does not already exist

... But because these institutions when they are suddenly discovered no longer to be good have to be changed either completely, or little by little as each (defect) is known, I say that both of these two courses are almost impossible...

As to changing these institutions all at once when everyone recognizes they are not good, I say that the defect which is easily recognized is difficult to correct, for to do this it is not enough to use ordinary means, as ordinary means are bad, but it is necessary to come to the extraordinary, such as violence and arms, and before anything else to become Prince of that City, and to be able to dispose of it as he pleases. And as the re-organization of the political life of a City presupposes a good man, and the becoming of a Prince of a Republic by violence presupposes a bad man; for because of this it will be found that it rarely happens that a (good) men wants to become Prince through bad means, even though his objectives be good; or that a bad one, having become Prince, wants to work for good and that it should enter his mind to use for good that authority which he had acquired by evil means. From all the things written above, arises the difficulty or impossibility of maintaining a Republic in a City that has become corrupted, or to establish it there anew.

I also include this admonishment from book two:

Chapter XXXI. How dangerous it is to believe exiles

The most famous Machiavelli quote is more of a traditional mistranslation: "the ends justify the means". What he was getting at (in chapter XVII of The Prince) was that sometimes a leader, though generally good in the traditional sense, must do bad things to maintain the state; and that, as long as the leader appears to be virtuous in all things, any actions will be judged by the populus on whether or not they succeed.

I know a president who's fast beginning to look far worse than machiavellian.

Update:I've just recieved an email from a "supporter of the misled and coerced" pointing out a very different Machiavelli reference.

I also remembered I'd missed out a bit from The Discourses (From book one again. Can you tell I haven't read the whole thing?):


... because those who try to do away with it almost always increase its strength and accelerate the harm which they feared might come from it.

Tom Goulter - Disaffected Youth, Christchurch

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Substantially less than the 3000 words mandated by proverbial wisdom

In what has to be the most daring piece of journalistic burrowing since Woodward and Bernstein, TV3 on Saturday delivered a hard-hitting, objective piece on American and British reactions to the 48 Hours item featuring new pictures of Princess Diana taken moments after the car crash. 48 Hours, of course, being the current-events arm of CBS News, who - that's right, it's time for a punchline! - produced the report 3 News aired.

Consequently, viewers were treated to justification after justification of CBS' actions, with neat little sidelines in ragging on the British tabloid press (which, really, is just shooting fish in the proverbial barrel) and pointing out the inquisitive nature of Britons who, apparently, will be gagging to read all about the whole affair once the fuss has abated.

Which, to concede CBS a valid point (if nothing else so they'll keep sending me Letterman), they most likely will.

While the debate raises many obvious questions about journalistic integrity and standards, not many conclusions of note were reached due to Americans being suddenly and somewhat violently distracted by an unauthorised-picture scandal of their own. While, by all accounts, the circumstances surrounding the controversial photograph were entirely above-board, and the photo taken in a spirit of respect and honesty, the same questions are being asked as in the Diana case. Are the families being respected? Is this journalism or sensationalism? Is the emphasis here on the human tragedy of the event in question, or the political ramifications?

The link above being to lefty-pinko-commie rag The New York Times, readers may have started formulating predictions as to where this post will go with these questions. And, yes, it is difficult to imagine the Bush administration not politicising the whole affair (of course, politics is an integral part of the whole debate; but there's asking, "Are we being disrespectful to the families of soldiers killed in combat?" and meaning it, and then there's The White House's version of the above).

The difference in the two cases, of course, is that while the Al-Fayeds may continue to attempt to prove a conspiracy in the Diana case, graphic images of the immediate event really serve no purpose so much as to satisfy morbid curiosity regarding international icons. It can't be easy taking the ethical high road knowing full well that as long as the images are out there, someone will publish them sooner or later, but as they used to say round my old high school, "the easy path is the easy path to hell". (Yes, it was a Catholic school, what tipped you off?).

The coffin photos, meanwhile, may well be painful for many (and they have my sympathies, for what that's worth), but as media coverage attests, many more families and loved ones of troops killed in Iraq want the images made public - for the same reasons anyone else in favor of publishing them would argue. Because we can't look back in five years' time and remember the war only as seen by the Embeds: wherever it is that the US (and the world) has got itself, only honest reporting, discussion and reflection on the situation will yield a positive outcome.

Max Johns - South Island flour market researcher, No fixed abode

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Describe in your own words

I hate admitting it, but we owe Winston one. Now that “public domain” has been dropped from our shiny new foreshore and seabed legislation, he can take a bow. For those who’ve had their heads buried in the (somewhat contentious) sand over recent months, “public domain” was due to replace the Crown ownership that Labour wanted to ensure at our nation’s edges. It was designed to grant all New Zealanders access to beaches, but the difference between this and Crown ownership is minimal. The benefit of “public domain” was that this less colonial-sounding phrase would hopefully placate opposition to the policy. But it was either (a) a pseudonym for Crown ownership, or (b) entirely meaningless. And legislation, believe it or not, is never meaningless. This was a political dodge developed to put Turiana and co. off the scent – Look! It’s something so fantastic it’s got a new name! Remember when they replaced Mt. Cook with Aoraki, but it was the same mountain all along?

So the Government got its Crown ownership wish, with the added benefit of having Winston to blame. What we need now is for another semantic bun-fight to be settled, but this isn’t one NZ First is likely to jump at. What’s the difference between marriage and civil union? It seems that 2004 is the year we all suddenly realise that gay people form lasting bonds between one another. Welcome, finally, to a new dawn. Now what?

Marriage, of course, originated as a religious ceremony way back before anyone, even the Pope, can remember. These days, after the ceremony, the two parties swap signatures and suddenly what’s his is hers, the hierarchy of next-of-kins gets a quick shuffle, and so on and so forth. But all anyone really cares about by then is the cake. In fact, if you live together for too long, you miss out on cake and go directly to shared property. And you thought it was only drunk pop stars with fading celebrity that married by accident. If God’s not your cup of tea, of course, you can skip the bells and priest and just sign up for the rights and responsibilities. Thanks for dropping by the office, once the ink’s dry you may kiss the owner of half your stuff. What’s optional is marrying in the eyes of the Lord - it’s the eyes of the state that you have to be seen by.

Marriage, as far as the state goes, is little more than the signing of a contract and re-jigging of a few rights and responsibilities. The word may have other connotations, but they have nothing to do with law, and result from its religious origins. Now, it’s entirely fine when churches decide who is and is not allowed to be a part of their club. I never liked it when Mum told me to play with people that I didn’t like, either. But what isn’t fine is Government denying people rights that others can access at will – or have thrust upon them after a few years’ cohabitation – unless you’ve got a good reason. There’s no traction in the “real marriages beget children” argument, nor in some sort of flighty “sanctity of marriage” complaint. And “eww, you kiss other boys” doesn’t quite cut it either. So it’s pretty tough to sensibly deny gay people these rights. Recognising that, someone came up with the idea of civil unions, a sort of marriage-lite whereby the legal side of things gets cleared up and you’re allowed to act all married and stuff, just so long as you don’t go around telling anyone that you’re married. Hey presto #1: Gays still can’t marry – the sadly large stupid bigot proportion of the population is happy. Hey presto #2: We’ve all got the same rights, no-one can complain about discrimination, so the gay population should also be happy, right? Newsflash: this is as stupid as trying to replace Crown ownership with public domain. Allowing people to act as if they’re married and giving them the rights of a married couple makes them the equivalent of a married couple, no matter what words you use. Marriages and civil unions are, effectively, one and same. Just like the foreshore and seabed mess, the only benefit in using the new phrase is political.

So right now gay couples can gather crowds of friends, make promises to each other, swap jewellery, do whatever they want except sign up for marriage. Civil unions are a proposed fix, designed to not offend anyone overly religious, old, or stupid. This is a democracy after all, and religious, old and stupid votes are plentiful and predictable. But civil unions would be a guarantee of all the stuff marriage would guarantee, minus a contentious word. Just like “public domain” takes the “Crown” out of “Crown ownership”, this takes the “marriage” out of “gay marriage”. Pretending there’s a material difference is pointless. It’s time for someone to seize the legislation and get the simple words into it, regardless of PC bollocks. But with the old, stupid vote to be lost, this probably isn’t one for Winston.

Matt Nippert - PhD (spin), Wellington

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Random chunks from the bottom of the barrel

Been reading. One of the perks of being in the media is browning noses with publishers, and I've been fortunate enough to land a hard-to-find copy by a book by one old (92 years old and counting) geezer; Studs Terkel. If his name alone ain't cool enough for you, this intro and interview in The Onion AV Club might persuade you to look him up sometime:

Chicago fixture Louis "Studs" Terkel has worked as an activist, a civil servant, a labor organizer, an ad writer, a television actor, and a radio DJ, among many other occupations. But since the 1960s, he's been particularly well-known as a world-class interviewer, a writer and radio personality who draws celebrities and, far more often, average citizens into sharing their oral histories and revealing the complex commonalities and differences that define human existence.
A superb oral historian, his books from Working (which I made first year management students read to understand what work is really like), to Hard Times (stories from those who survived, suffered and even prospered in the Great Depression) and the Pulitzer-winning The Good War (the Second World War told by actual participants), describe wide social trends and movements through the experiences of those who lived through them.

But, as always, the joy is in the detail, the little stories that help flesh out wider themes seem to be worth a book to themselves. It's probably a reason why his interviewee monologues are often used by actors as audition pieces. Will the Circle be Unbroken, the title I'm presently devouring, tackles the subject of death and dying (suggested to Terkel by Gore Vidal). He talks to hospice workers, AIDs and cancer sufferers, ministers and cops. This, a gem from Tom Gates, a retired New York firefighter, formerly a policeman:

I hate guns. I wasn't a good cop because I used to walk around with no bullets in the chamber. I used to have them in my pocket and kid around saying if somebody starts in, I'll just throw the bullets real hard. [Laughs]

A few times I pulled my gun on guys. One time I went on the roof of this project and there's this big black guy, about six-seven, on top of the stairs. He had his back to me. I said, "Hey, fella, turn around." He said, "Yeah, wait a minute, man." I said, "Turn around and put your hands against the wall." He said, "Yeah, yeah, wait a minute."

It dawned on me he had a gun caught in his belt and was tryin' to take it out. I said, "Holy shit..." So I took my gun out and said, "You fucker, I'm gonna shoot." He threw his hands up against the wall.

He had his dick out and was tryin' to zip up his fly, and there was a girl standing in the corner, which I couldn't see. So here was a guy gettin' a hand job and maybe a lot of guys would have killed him.

I said, "Holy shit, I coulda killed ya." He started shaking, and the gun in my hand was shaking like a bastard. I said - I musta been cryin' - I said, "Just get the hell outta here..."

That's when I decided to quit the force and become a fireman.
Speaking of fire, I was reminded when talking to Greg Proops for the Listener (interview is off-line, sorry), that it often accompanies smoke. Before this segue, truly scraped from the bottom of the barrel, puts you off I'll throw in some lines from the headliner of the Comedy Festival that didn't make it into print. This, on California's anti-smoking laws:

You can't smoke in a bar in Los Angeles, which is fairly ironic, considering how difficult it is to breathe outside the bar in Los Angeles. You don't want the door of a bar to fling open and let all that bad air go outside. It's a gradual noxification of our civil rights. I understand that it's bad in certain places - like a cancer ward. In a bar it seems to me you've got a lot on your plate. You're getting drunk on poison, and trying to have sex with someone you don't know. It's probably not the chiefest of your health concerns.
And this, on the 9-11 commission :

This has been a PR disaster for the Bush Administration. I find it humorous their whole presidency is based on how great their response has been to an event they may have been able to prevent. It's like saying, "Remember when I drove the care into the lake? I was the first person to say we should pull the car out of the lake, right afterwards!" It's not winning me over.
And for my next post: behind the scenes of investigative journalism, how you too can negotiate your way through and to interesting statistics. Such as: did you know 44% of all prisoners are Maori, while they constitute only 15% of the population? It makes you think.

UPDATE: The Onion has a decent interview with Rickey Gervais of The Office. And the Herald site finally put up my prison story.

Tom Goulter - Gadabout, Christchurch

Monday, April 19, 2004

Jam with this

I know a guy who collects old video games. Every time I see him, he proclaims loudly the latest archaic 1980's goody he's picked up, or if he hasn't found any, he reiterates how his collection of NES games now stretches around his mantelpiece. And he has some good fuckin' games, man. He's got Digger T-Rock. He's got fuckin' Excitebike. Thanks to my diligent digging styles, he's even got his very own Super Nintendo, which, in addition to (infamously) being the basis for something Sony made a minor impact with a whiles back, is unquestionably the Best Games Machine Ever.

But I digress. This fella, he loves him some old-school gaming, and good on 'im. He also, he's proud of proclaiming, culturejams as a hobby.

My boy's seen Culturejam. He's a radio student, where he's getting well schooled in the politics of the media.

So when people bemoan the current stagnant state of New Zealand media, I say to them, I sit them down and I say, "Listen. It's not all Paul Holmes and it's not all Mikey Havoc. There's a new generation out there, a bunch of hungry kids who're growing up fast, and won't be happy with Mike King Tonight and cheap crap produced by Touchdown for much longer. These kids, they're too media-aware to make the same mistakes as we're seeing made now. This new generation," -- sometimes I'll put my fist to my heart and stare achingly at a spot just above the horizon as I say this bit -- "they're gonna make a difference".

And I'm talking about my buddy when I say this. This guy who says he culturejams for fun, and what he means by this is he likes to sit in his room and change the logos so they say "Bugger King" and "The Whorehouse", while his main jazz is in paying good money to further someone else's brand far past its theoretical sell-by date. (Of course, if you're going to fork over your mindshare to anyone, Nintendo is a fine choice).

And ay, as some white guy said one time in some play about identity dysfunction among privileged white folks (with a nice sideline in Whitey's mad skillz in narrative-hijacking), there's the rub.

Because the whole image-colonisation, guerilla warfare, battle for the mind, memetic warfare thing, what good does it do either side if you keep it in your head?

Hell, forget my buddy. He's small potatoes. He's shooting at targets in his back yard and he'll probably never see real action, but at least he doesn't pay >$20 for a copy of Adbusters, right? At least he (as far as I'm aware) has not paid for the DVD, the poster, the t-shirt reminding everyone that he is not his fucking khakis. (Though it is a very nice digipak you get it in).

You can't, in this town, read your Chomsky or your Klein or even your Moore or Franken on the bus without being approached by people trying to get you to join their hare-brain revolutionary scams, which is usually just a segue into mundane talk about the weather, talk about the Government. Everyone has those fucking Hallenshirts with witty variations on popular corporate logos: "Enjoy Crack"; "Motherfucker - Every Time A Good Time"; "Fuck Motors". (Let's not start with the Che thing).

You blinked, and a nice idea - take back our voices and our eyes and ears and minds - became another ice-breaker at parties. (About the best thing you can say of "culturejamming" as the average citizen experiences it is that every "jammed" shirt on the street is one less You're Been A Very Bad Girl - Go To My Room or You're On My List Of Things To Do Tonight - hell, I guess jamming is blocking out at least one avenue of unwanted noise). And meanwhile, serious organs of media criticism had started getting really barbed (oh, the humanity!) in their characterisation of their opponents.

Yes, yes, it's just another truism - The Man Steals A Brother's Ideas And Runs With Them. It was inevitable, of course, and you don't have to be incredibly clever to spot it - hell, I can point it out, and I have trouble with how one guy can formulate the theory of relativity and do those dope movies with the baby prams running down the steps and shit.

But let's close with a final, much-lamented juxtaposition: The poet laureate of the 1960's protest scene, shilling unmentionables. Wouldn't it be the best Dylan lyric ever, if reality hadn't beaten him to it? I mean seriously. At this rate, it's looking like the revolution will be advertised.

Lyndon Hood - consumer, Lower Hutt

I have been ill and the quality of my thought processes is degraded. The pressure from my sinuses and the swollen glands in the back of my neck appears to be preventing me joining up ideas in any satisfactory manner.

So when I say that I feel some thematic connection between my personal attitude to the Lower Hutt produce market and sweatshops, you might have to bear with me.

I will, I admit, take any opportunity to disparage Lower Hutt in general conversation. Thursday night, for example, is late night shopping (as in, "and not Friday"), and the way it closes on Sunday. It suffers in comparison with Wellington, which is both inevitable (it's just down the harbor) and unfair (they're really just different parts of the same beast).

It's actually quite nice.

And one thing it does have is the Riverside Market, which sets up at the Weekend (in a good chunk of the area which on workdays provides all the parking that Lower Hutt could possibly want) and supplies fruit and veg to the masses. Apples and pears are 99c a kilo at the moment, though there was somebody selling huge bags for two dollars out the back of a ute. It's busy from early in the morning, there's a range of snack food and bric-a-brac available, but the thing that sticks in my mind, apart from "vast amounts of vegetable at wholesale prices", is the cosmopolitan mix of people.

I mean cosmopolitan in the sense of "from all parts of the world", but without the overtones of urban-ness or european-ness, and or course not in the sense of vodka with lime, tripe sec and cranberry juice.

The observation that gave rise to this descriptor was, "Wow. What a lot of brown people."

I should note that I recently moved up from Dunedin. There is a food market in Dunedin. It's called the Farmers' Market, held next to the Edwardian railway station and most notable for supplying locally-produced specialty food — boutique stuff at not unreasonable prices. It's mostly patronised by Dunedin's core population of white folks.

Not so in the Hutt. The crowd, the merchants, the vegetables and the snack food all show a real ethnic mix. Brussel sprouts, puha, taro, daikon, lemongrass and chillis in bulk. Maori breads, Island-style fried stuff and some people with a huge wok steaming pork buns. People drifting past chatting in languages I don't even recognize.

If this is any indication then the Hutt is just close enough to Wellington to attract people and just far enough out that immigrant communities can afford to develop there. The is borne out by the variety of ethic events I've seen since I arrived. In one weekend there was the annual Italian community celebration in Petone and in Lower Hutt the annual but eerily named "Racial Unity Day".

Now, I've never really understood what the beef is with immigration. I hold to the idea that interacting voices and ethnicities are what keeps a culture lively, and the more of those the merrier. My lingering liberal niggle is the sense that I'm only enthusiastic about it all because it means I get to go to all these interesting ethnic restaurants.

And at the market it took me a few visits to stop feeling like an interloper. My wife and I do feel financially restricted, but that's mostly caused by moving to the more expensive (apart from the fruit and veg prices) climes of Wellington. Basically, standing in the market I feel white and rich. But I technically local, it's not as if I'm getting any surly looks and my money really is as good as anyone else's. I'm supporting something I approve of and having an experience I enjoy at the same time as saving money. It is, in fact, a triumph of capitalism.

Although I have to admit that I don't have the faintest idea where all of this produce comes from. It's obvious some of it is imported, but it's unlikely that the ya pears were assembled in unventilated factories with no fire exits by people working for 18 US cents an hour.

It's a huge strain to suggest that the Dunedin market is a bit like buying local and the Hutt market is like having goods made overseas. It's probably just that I've been reading No Logo while under the effects of an infection (someone suggested I had all the skills for branding so I got a bunch of relevant books out of the library).

There's really another, far better-research post in this thought, so I'll just give you the punchline. New Zealand is gearing up to negotiate a free trade agreement with China. The Prime Minister has been said that labour and environmental standards will be raised in negotiations, Trade Negotiations Minister is optimistic that environmental issues will be included in any deal. I'm not against free trade per se, but unless China enforces labour standards in its export processing zones we will be competing with sweatshops. And until it recognizes a number of human rights, as of free speech and assembly, its labour market cannot be described as "free". It seems to be agreed that China wants the deal as an entree to the world trade community. I don't imagine they want it that bad.

Matt Nippert - PhD (spin), Wellington

Friday, April 16, 2004

Man of letters

Who is Stephen D Taylor, and why do you have a nagging suspicion you know him? It's because he's a fixture in the letters to the editor pages - in newspapers across the country.

After Russell Brown exposed a particularly nasty letter (resulting in an apology to Tim Barnett from the Herald), I thought a bit of investigation was required. Who is this man? How successful is the Maxim Institute 'Wizard' in propagating views?

He told Otago student newspaper Critic last year that he's "a fundamentalist Christian who has declared a holy war on political correctness." And a cursory search through newstext (that only covers 14 of the 76 publications the Wizard reaches) shows that Maxim's magic works.

Mr Taylor (he seems to have changed his signature from Steve to Stephen D towards the end of 2003) has had 40 of his letters published 68 times in the last 18 months. Don't worry, most of those appearances are in relatively small-circulation outlets. Mr Taylor, of Auckland, has been published in the Timaru Herald 27 times, and 17 in the Waikato Times. Some of these letters have been published in more than one publication - what this means for newspaper editorial policy will be considered later.

Choice examples of Taylorism are displayed below:

With the National Party now polling 45% and rising, "middle New Zealand" is extending a collective middle finger to the politically correct status quo.
- Sunday Star-Times and Waikato Times, Feb 2003.

The over-the-top outcry of the insipid politically correct elite over Paul Holmes' comments relating to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan is yet another example of zealous left-wing ideological inconsistency...
If we really want to show concern for anyone, then we need to be reminded that charity begins at home. Our wellbeing must not be in the hands of a cowardly multi-national self-interest group such as the United Nations, which is advancing many of the conventions which we seem to be unwittingly adopting through politically-sanctioned "back-door osmosis".
- Timaru Herald, October 2003.

When bureaucrats, academics, politicians, and self-serving lobbyists enthusiastically quote "statistics", "research", and "evidence" to back up their latest ideological hobby horse I am often dismayed they don't seem to have the same enthusiasm in making this information available to the public.
- Timaru Herald, May 2003.

Geographical and circumstantial evidential factors for both creationism and Christianity are well documented and easily accessible to the enquiring and open minded researcher.
- Southland Times, May 2003.

And my personal favourites, incidentally the first and last letters I could find published by Mr Taylor:

True compassion values the life of another; it does not seek to take it. Murder is murder, regardless of any convenient ideology that may attempt to convince us otherwise.
- Waikato Times and Timaru Herald, April 2004. (On the conviction of Lesley Martin for attempted murder.)

The farcical situation of a private prosecution against a police officer carrying out his sworn duty, facilitated by the "Judas" that is the New Zealand judiciary system, defies both common sense and belief.
- Waikato Times, December 2002. (Concerning the death of Steven Wallace by police gunshot.)

Anecdotally at least, the letters to the editor pages are the most read part of any newspaper. It is supposed to reflect 'word from the street', reaction to issues of the day, and provide all of us a barometer as to what the 'public' is thinking. It's focus-group polling for those of us who can't afford pollsters. What does it mean when these pages, while not monopolised, are increasingly dominated by sophisticated moralising propagandists?

At the least it'll skew peoples opinions about what the rest of us are thinking, at worst it'll lead to politicians shifting policy in response to perceived public attitudes. (Interestingly enough, that other forum for public venting, talkback radio, isn't susceptible to this sort of spamming.)

And the final issue that deserves to be raised: what about newspaper policy on printing spammed letters? The Press (who only printed 1 Taylor missive) requires all letter-writers to "say whether the letter has been or will be submitted elsewhere." The Otago Daily Times (who don't feature in newstext) say "we don't publish letters submitted elsewhere." And the Herald (who to their credit published Mr Taylor for the first time this week) has no published policy, the same as the Dominion Post (who ran 7).

Editors on the letters pages take note: you're being taken for a ride. Taylor has gotten over 13,000 words of moralising rhetoric into newspapers around the country (not counting smaller community newspapers who, if anything, are more likely to print spammed mail), probably at the expense of people expressing genuine, local concerns. Taylor may have a point, but it's an underhand way of spreading it.

I might even feel moved to write a letter myself.

Aside: I've written a piece a piece in the Weekend Review section of tomorrow's Herald. About prisons, and why we're going from seventh to third in the OECD in imprisonment rates by 2010. We'll overtake Mexico and Slovenia, and internationally be sandwiched between Libya and Israel. Don't miss it.

Michael Appleton - student, Cambridge

Tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism

In early February, as I frantically prepared for looming exams, I went to a debate at the Cambridge Union with a couple of classmates. We were all taking a Middle Eastern politics course, and so justified our night out on the grounds that it would aid, not hinder, our studying. The debate - on the motion, "This House regards Ariel Sharon as the greatest single obstacle to peace in the Middle East" - was a lively affair, though being filled with student hippies, the majority of the crowd was all in favour of branding Sharon in all kinds of terrible ways.

Sharon had just announced his intention to unilaterally pull out of the Gaza Strip, and speakers on the negative side cited this as evidence that the Israeli Prime Minister is indeed, as George Bush eloquently puts it, "a man of peace". Some two months later, and as things go to shit in Iraq and the US President tries heroically to change the subject, there were those two great peacemakers of our time, Misters Bush and Sharon, on the front of this morning's papers, grinning their heads off.

Yesterday, Bush gave his blessing to Sharon's plan: we'll give up Gaza, reject Palestinian refugees' right of return, and keep our biggest settlements in the West Bank. That sounds fair, right? We give up something (Gaza), the Palestinians give up something (their refugees' right of return), and we keep a major presence in the West Bank. What could be fairer? This is about give and take, rights and obligations, difficult compromises, choosing peace over terrorism, etc. "These are historic and courageous actions," Bush said. "If all parties choose to embrace this moment, they can open the door to progress and put an end to one of the world's longest running conflicts."

Interesting that Bush is talking about opening doors. One of the speakers in the February debate used the analogy of a house to describe the generosity of Sharon's plans. Let me expand on it a bit here. You own and live in a house, which has five rooms. You've been letting some people stay with you for a while, because they've got nowhere else to go, and have been mistreated by all sorts of other people in the neighbourhood. But then your guests, seeing their family members getting murdered in other parts of neighbourhood, get scared that their whole family is going to get wiped out, and decide that they want to take over your house. This causes a lot of friction and they eventually control four of the five rooms in the house: you get to stay in the bedroom, but they'll be there with you the whole time, will go through your things and make sure you only leave the bedroom when they let you. Then, after many years, they say: "Hey, we've decided you can have unfettered use of the toilet. We're going to leave you alone in there, because it's really unhygienic, and we don't want to get ourselves messy. But the bedroom itself, we'll be staying put, because we've grown attached to it. But that sounds like a pretty good deal, eh? You get the ensuite all to yourself!"

It's an inexact analogy, to be sure, but given the dispute is essentially about land, one should always keep maps in the back of one's mind when thinking about Palestine/Israel. The "green line" that often gets spoken of as the natural dividing line between the two parties was set in 1949, as armed hostilities between Arab states and Israel ceased with the signing of an armistice. The green line meant that 78% of what was Palestine was given to Israel with the remaining 22% for the Palestinians: four rooms for the Israelis, one for the Palestinians. The green line was always problematic because the 22% the Palestinians got was divided into two, unconnected parts - the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - making the construction of a state at best very difficult.

Over the past half-century, two streams of thought have flowed through Israeli politics: there are those who argue that Israel should be content with its 78%, and those who think it should try to get an ever larger slice of the pie. The Zionist dream of a "Greater Israel", which would take up 100% of pre-WWII Palestine, has lived on. Some Israeli governments (and certainly Sharon) have officially pursued the let's-get-even-more policy. The government has encouraged and funded the building of Jewish settlements in the Palestinians' 22% of the land, and built roads throughout the West Bank so that Jewish settlers can travel between Israel and the West Bank with ease.

This is called "creating facts on the ground" – if enough Jews live there, then the international community will decide the land belongs to Israel. Bush got very close to using this precise language when he hailed the Gaza pullout yesterday. "In light of the new realities on the ground, including already existing Israeli population centres, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." This statement overturned decades of US foreign policy, which had always explicitly called Jewish settlements beyond the green line illegal under international law (as they are) and unjustifiable.

So, the Palestinians' 22% will probably drop into the teens if a two-state solution is ever found. But none of this is just about basic fairness. One thing that runs through the Middle East is that the population is expanding and the amount of arable land is contracting. There are not enough jobs and resources (save oil) to go around. And creating a viable Palestinian state means allowing it enough land and natural resources to prosper. Israel's security ultimately relies on Palestinians’ being able to live peaceful, relatively prosperous lives, and squeezing them into a smaller and smaller slice of land just ain't going to cut it.

UPDATE: Richard Adams, an editor of Salient back in the late 80s, has this interesting insider-outsider's account of Brash's speech in this morning's Guardian. Adams now works for the Guardian's comment section, as a leader writer.

Matt Nippert - apprentice hack, Auckland

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

The dangerous dogs of war, in the wild, wild West

After the kerfuffle in parliament last year about a couple of mutts savaging children, it's surprising that another type of dangerous dog that's killed hundreds hasn't inspired a similar degree of moral panic. I'm talking mercenaries, and this weekend it was reported a kiwi company was trying to get New Zealand soldiers and policemen into the act.

The mutilation of the four in Fallujah was initially described as wanton murder of civilians. It's now clear they weren'd aid workers, with later qualifications of them as "private security contractors". This article from Time delves into the history of the four and finds if they weren't fighting for cash, they'd probably still have been fighting in Iraq - for the US military. And the image of "security contractors" as fat, underpaid, overworked, badge-wearing morons like those you see outside the Fats is a little misleading.

You can make good money, fighting for your payroll. Blackwater, their employers, charges between $1500 and $2000 USD per day per soldier. The "contractors" themselves probably only see about half of that - but considering public-service pay-packets on offer at national militaries and police forces, it isn't hard to see why so many would want to make the jump to the private sector.

(And it's also quite clear, according to this report, that the death of the four wasn't wanton bloodthirsty rioting either. A Blackwater executive said "we got led into this ambush. We were set up." Slight, sporadic, uncoordinated "uptick" of violence?)

In the first days of the uprising, the Washington Post reported an attack on the US government headquarters in Najaf was repulsed not by the US military, but instead by private commandos from Blackwater. Forget batons, these guys have their own helicopters, armoured vehicles and automatic grenade launchers.

During the defense of the authority headquarters, thousands of rounds were fired and hundreds of 40mm grenades shot. Sources who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of Blackwater's work in Iraq reported an unspecified number of casualties among Iraqis.
And with all the madness going on, and unwilling coalition members talking of pulling out, this trend is likely to accelerate. This, from a follow-up story in the Post.

The demand for a private security force in Iraq has increased since the war ended, said officials with the CPA, the U.S.-led authority that is running the occupation of Iraq. There are about 20,000 private security contractors in Iraq now, including Americans, Iraqis and other foreigners. That number is expected to grow to 30,000 in the near future when the U.S. troop presence is drawn down after the June 30 handover to Iraqi authorities.
The English have deployed 8,000 troops to Iraq. Private soldiers now easily make the second-biggest contribution to the ongoing war. Questions are raised: who are they accountable to? What are their rules of engagement? If even Saddam can't be tried in Iraq, what hope is there to prosecute foreigners who get too trigger happy? If they aren't covered by the Geneva Convention, what are they covered by? A Pentagon spokesperson says "they are not on the U.S. payroll. And so they are not our responsibility." It's looking like a wild, wild West.

Eminent historian Eric Hobsbawn calls private security contractors "the new camp followers". While the Labour government legalised the oldest profession last year, it's now moving to ban arguably the second oldest. The Mercenaries Bill going through the house might have some interesting consequences for anyone going along for a joyride with Red Key (600 applications and counting). As norightturn astutely notes simple security work for a legitimate government might cut it, but for some reason I don't see pitched battles with military weaponry causing dozens of deaths being given the thumbs up.

And finally, some light(er) entertainment. Following John Tamihere's interesting comments last week on the seabed and foreshore debate: "Underneath them are tens of thousands of little Maori people who want a fair result. They're not chequebook horis; they're not born-again horis." I've now started seeing some posters stuck up around town simply saying: Uncle Tomihere.

I love literary graffiti.

UPDATE: [From Cursor] As the Coalition Provisional Authority announces plans to tighten controls on the estimated 20,000 armed contractors on the ground in Iraq, Intel Dump's Phil Carter writes in Slate that "Short of convening a new Geneva Convention... there is no way to fix the ambiguous status of these hired guns."
AND: The death of mercenaries also doesn't create the same kind of anguished hand-wringing that comes with flag-covered coffins. This, from norightturn and courtesy of Robert Fisk; Deaths of scores of mercenaries not reported.

Michael Appleton - cricket lover, Cambridge

Cricket, gore, etc.

It took 127 years and 27 days, and almost 1700 matches, but test cricket has finally yielded an individual score of four hundred. The funny thing is that the crowd didn't seem all that excited. Really. Having spent the previous few hours waiting nervously for Brian Charles Lara to reach the world record Matthew Hayden took off him half a year ago, the Antiguans had already had their frenzied climactic moment.

There was less cheering for Lara's 400 (off 582 balls, or 4.12 an over) than for the century his partner, Ridley Jacobs, brought up an hour or so earlier. Lara has surely cemented his place as the best batsman of the modern era The crowd was suffering “record fatigue”, the commentator said. Oh well. Lara, now the only player to surpass 350 in tests twice, has surely cemented his place as the best batsman of the modern era: better than Tendulkar (who gets to bat on much more batsmen-friendly pitches at home than does Lara), better than Hayden (whose 380 was against a much weaker attack) or Gilchrist, and better than Jayasuriya.

The philistine of the year award goes to the English cricket supporter, quoted by Sky Sports' commentary team, who decided not to turn up to watch Lara seek the world record because the match was now "boring" and in a "stalemate" position. Indeed, the English section of the crowd were certainly getting restless as Lara took his side into the afternoon session of the third day, something sides batting first very rarely do. But the West Indian innings wasn't as long as the Barmy Army might have felt. It lasted 202 overs. Had it not rained on the first day, Lara would have reached his 400 some eight overs before lunch on the third day, and had a chance to have short burst at the Englishmen before session's end.

In any case, despite the pitch being a featherbed, one shouldn't discount the possibility of Lara's record being crowned by a West Indian victory. 552 to avoid the follow-on is a daunting task on any surface, against any attack.

Meanwhile, The Observer's David Aaronovitch wonders how the folks at Al-Jazeera can live with themselves. The recent kidnapping of three Japanese civilians in Iraq, and the consequent ransom demand, was brought to the world in terrifying detail by Al-Jazeera. Of the group behind the kidnapping, Aaronovitch writes:
[it] probably only came into existence at the moment that it decided to send a video off to Al-Jazeera, demanding the withdrawal of Japanese troops from Iraq. In fact their action told us very little about how most people in Iraq live, but much more about how some media outlets will now prostitute themselves for the sake of the story ... Did they, I wonder, even consider the consequences for others of broadcasting a geopolitical ransom demand in this way? And if the Japanese prisoners are burned alive ... will Al-Jazeera broadcast that as well?
I think the answer to his last question is probably "yes". Al-Jazeera has proven itself to be much more willing to show blood and guts than any Western broadcasters. From memory, they showed the clip of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl being decapitated.

So, what arguments are there for not showing/printing troubling images? (I start from the basic assumption underpinning any liberal society that anything should be shown unless there are compelling reasons not to.) I can think of three:

1) The images will further the cause of people we don't want to help. By showing the Japanese kidnapped, you are facilitating the actions of insurgents who – if for no other reason than that their methods are suspect – shouldn't be helped. Al-Jazeera is acting as the kidnappers' propagandists, and thus urging on more such abductions.
2) The Geneva Conventions sometimes forbid it. The faces of individuals captured in war should not be shown, because they are protected under international law, which aims to guard the sanctity of individuals in trying situations during war. For the same reason, you shouldn't print pictures of identifiable individuals killed in war.
3) Their families will find it upsetting.

It seems Aaronovitch is drawn towards 1). The problem with this argument – and it is not a new one, Margaret Thatcher was wont to berate the BBC for giving the IRA publicity, "the oxygen of terrorism" – is that it requires a media outlet to decide which causes are worth helping and which are not. Al-Jazeera might disagree with abduction and ransom as a method, but it might feel sympathy for the nationalist, anti-occupation cause for which it is (possibly) being used. Some in the anti-war media might have found some of George Bush's speeches in the run-up to the Iraq war – when he continually, dishonestly, and successfully sowed the Saddam-Osama link in most Americans' minds – distasteful. These speeches were cynical, manipulative propaganda in the service of a cause such media outlets found abhorrent. Should they therefore have refused to cover the speeches, to deny Bush publicity, the "oxygen of warmongering liars"? I suspect a much better rule of thumb is that broadcasters shouldn’t pick between causes. Rather, they should act as both the propagandists (by airing their views) and critics (by questioning those views) of all sides.

2) and 3) are more problematic. I understand why the Geneva protections are in place, though they didn’t stop Aaronovitch’s paper printing illegal pictures of Saddam after the dictator was captured. (How do those folks at The Observer live with themselves?) It must be insufferably upsetting for families to see their loved ones all gored up in the Sunday papers or on television. But there's a more important issue here: that of realism. War sucks. People die in gruesome manners. And if wars are to be waged, then those who wage them (and the people who give the war-wagers democratic mandates) ought to be able to stomach the consequences, including all the unseemly bits.

British broadcasters during Gulf War II avoided using most of the graphic footage their cameramen and photographers sent in. As John Ryley of Sky News put it, "We showed shock and awe, which was a glorified fireworks display, but we didn't show people dying." Academics at Cardiff University did a thorough analysis of British media coverage of the war, and one of their major concerns was that war coverage was being sanitised. "We need to know not only how it looks from underneath the missile launcher, but what happens when the missile lands," they wrote. Failing to show blood and guts had "profound ideological consequences", they concluded.

If Blair and Bush are going to bully their publics into going to war, the latter should at least be able to face up to the fallout.

Michael Appleton - student, Cambridge

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Demeaning statistic shock!

I haven't decided which of the following statistics is more concerning:
a) 60 percent of Britons cannot name a single living French person.
b) 33 percent of Britons believe Benito Mussolini never existed.

The former statistic, The Guardian opines, "will no doubt confirm the French view, held by 56%, that we are insular". Quite right. Sixty percent? Think of it like this: six in ten Britons failing to name a single living Frenchman or woman is a little like six in ten New Zealanders failing to name a single Australian. Arsenal wouldn't even be in the Premiership, let alone leading it, if it were forced to play without its Frenchmen. I'm pretty sure that more than 40 percent of New Zealanders could name a living Australian rugby player, let alone a living Australian fullstop. Maybe rugby makes things easier for us, but soccer (er, sorry, football) also offers Britons an easy way out. For God's sake, most of the good players in England's Premiership are Frenchmen. Arsenal wouldn't even be in the Premiership, let alone leading it, if it were forced to play without its Frenchmen.

To be fair, the French did have the option – when asked to name a living Briton – of saying simply, "La Reine". Accepting this as an acceptable answer, and as evidence of cross-Channel awareness, is like allowing an Englishman to answer, "the geezer I bought a baguette from". Hectoring aside, The Guardian's survey (conducted with its lefty French cousin Libération was part of a splurge of coverage afforded the centenary of L'Entente Cordiale. Signed in, well, 1904, it was essentially a deal the two colonial powers reached to keep out of each other's way as they enjoyed the fruits of raping and pillaging the globe. We can both enjoy this game, okay?

The Queen is even in Paris, lapping up Jacques' hospitality. Meanwhile, Blair – who is said to be about as uncomfortable spending time with Chirac as with Libya's president – is thinking, Rather Her Majesty than me. There are some perks to not being President Blair, after all. This isn't exactly an apt time to be celebrating Anglo-Franco relations. As a German tourist in the French capital said: "A year ago the French and the British were insulting each other. Now I come to Paris and what do I find? The whole city is stopped to let the Queen of England drive up the Champs Elysées. It's crazy."

Well, the tourist should relax. The French still love the Germans best. Asked which people from a list of six they felt closest to, the French went for (in order) Germans, Belgians, Spaniards, and Italians. The English came last equal, along with the Swiss and "None". The Independent reported this result sniffily, reminding its readers how unfair this preference seemed, given the historical record: "the French feel closest to the Germans, who invaded France three times in 70 years up to 1940". Old Europe sticks together, I guess.

Meanwhile, key Kerry ally Ed Kennedy is rolling out the entirely unoriginal Vietnam analogy in an effort to scupper Bush. The Democratic congressman Jim McDermott interviewed on Today – the BBC’s equivalent of Morning Report, and the show that first aired Andrew Gilligan’s 'sexed-up' allegations – this morning offered, "The President is in the fight for his life." One assumes we shouldn’t take McDermott’s pronouncements too literally. (Kerry in assassination plot shock!) Then again, Kerry is trying frantically to match Bush’s Wild West schtick. If I hear him say “I have three words for the President: Bring! It! On!” again, I’m going to consider joining the Campaign to Re-elect.

Anyway, having just watched Errol Morris’ excellent documentary, The Fog of War - about Kennedy and Johnson’s secretary of defense Robert Strange McNamara - I found the Iraq/Vietnam comparison rather odd. I get it: the US is getting sucked into a ‘civil war’ the ferocity of which it didn’t anticipate, violence seems to be escalating and uncontrollable, more American troops may soon be needed, etc. But the differences far outweigh the similarities. In Vietnam, the Americans jumped into an existent civil war and turned it into a war against a foreign occupier. As McNamara found out when he re-visited Vietnam in the 1990s to meet his former adversaries, for the Vietnamese it wasn’t a Cold War struggle, but the latest in a series of independence wars against foreign occupation. “If only you’d read a history book, Mr McNamara,” they told him. In Iraq, the Americans have undertaken a war that the majority of Iraqis now believe was justified, but have singularly failed to put something in the void that Saddam’s removal created. Matthew Parris, who recently spent time in Iraq, told Today exasperatedly that he had been taken aback by the total lack of civil service and the nuts and bolts of government that help bring about social order.

No, Iraq’s history probably offers a better analogy. It was called Mesopotamia back then, but as Robert Fisk notes: “The British took three years to turn both the Sunnis and the Shias into their enemies in 1920. The Americans are achieving it in just under a year.” Actually, any introductory course in Middle Eastern history should have given Bush and co pause for thought. The past few centuries have involved little more than Western meddling with traditional power structures, none of which has done the region much good. Unfortunately, Bush's chief source of foreign affairs advice - Condi Rice - is no expert on the Muslim world. She was more interested during her academic career with Russia and great power relations. If only you'd read a history book, Mr Bush.

So, pessimism all round. My two lefty staples, The Independent and The Guardian, managed to respond to recent violence in Iraq with the same front page headline this morning: “On the brink of anarchy”. Quite.

Lyndon Hood - kept man, Lower Hutt

Monday, April 05, 2004

I've just finished reading a strangely fascinating book, which was given to me by a friend who is even more of a war geek than is currently fashionable. The Mammoth Book of Soldiers at War (it's not really that big) is a series of firsthand accounts of a number of actions between 1800 and 1815: the "Age of Napoleon". The time has come to talk of cavalry and muskets (and in the case of one Russian horse division, bows and arrows), of red coats, and of battles where the gunsmoke so thick you can't see where you're shooting.

Mention is also made of endless forced retreats where 90% of your army die of exhaustion and starvation, of crippling and deadly outbreaks of dysentery, and of uncontrollable looting on the capture of fortified cities.

In the face of the gigantic waste of human life described, one is tempted to derive some grand moral, some lesson for all time. This urge runs up against the fact that most of the glaringly appalling issues are no longer a problem of a decent modern army. Since the 19th Century, warfare has, if nothing else, become noticeably more efficient. Soldiers are paid and fed. They don't have to spend all that tedious and debilitating time walking to where the shooting is. Modern technology has removed almost all of the inconvenience that stands in the way of a soldier getting on with just killing the enemy (or whoever happens to be in the way).

War, then, remains hell, but is clearly a good margin nicer than it used to be. In the face of all that barbaric mess described I find myself almost feeling that, if those wars were fought today, hardly anyone would die at all.

At any rate, if we want to learn the lesson that War is a Bad Thing, and that if you must go to war then you should Have Realistic Plans Before Starting, we don't need to look back 200 years for more relevant teaching materials.

I digress.

By way of example, I feel I should mention the Battle of New Orleans (1815). At the end of the War of 1812 (Did you know that the Americans went to war with the British in 1812? I didn't. And for all you Americans out there, don't be so smug unless you can give me details on three major events that didn't involve the US. I know what they teach in History over there) some 6000 British infantry, many veterans from campaigns against Napoleon, charged the defenses of 3500 Americans: regulars, militiamen, and a mix of locals of all races that has failed to inspire ethnic unity on the south ever since. The defenders had also had assistance from the legendary Baratrian pirates. Arr.

The British force demonstrated their indomitable pluck on that foggy morning by keeping on charging until they achieved 2000 casualties, including almost all of the officers. British casualties, that is. The defenders lost 71 men. Apparently, only eight of those were dead.

In the Bumper Book of Bloodiness, our guide in this affair is Corporal Samuel Stubbs, who, at 63 years of age, dropped his plough to join the Kentucky Militia. In the course of various battles he is distinguished by his down-home prose style and his frustrated urges to scalp everyone he kills. And here's the thing: he actually does liken the British charge at New Orleans to a turkey shoot. He could, he claims with typical modesty, "have dropped them as easy as a flock of benumb'd wild turkeys in a frosty morning".

I can't help thinking of it as like one of those primitive first-person-shooters where figures slide back and forth across the screen while you take pot shots. The only explanation I've seen was that ladders the British needed to scale the American defenses were never brought forward. This kind of thing is technically referred to as a colossal fuck-up.

As it happens, the peace treaty had already been signed, if not ratified, at Ghent some days before. America remembers this as a famous victory that prevented the British demanding further concessions for peace. All I can think is, don't have wars. And if you do, bring ladders.

Oh, and the win at New Orleans helped make the American General, Andrew Jackson, popular enough to win the Presidency.

I think there's something in that for all of us.

Two completely unrelated notes: My public griping about unemployment has so far garnered two responses (keep it coming guys!) and I just heard the guy from Dawn Raid referred to on National Radio as a music industry chief executive.

Tom Goulter - Student, Christchurch

A city of stars

Disclaimer: There is nothing you* can say that I haven't thought before. And, more pertinently, vice versa.

* Wow. Some of these are really fucking bad.

Of course you remember the death of Kurt Cobain. It's like saying "I was old enough to know we'd walked on the moon. I was old enough to know JFK had been killed."

JFK killed by person or persons unknown - the Complex and the Beast and the Commies and the Mob and everything you were paranoid was outside just beyond your vision, all went through Jack's mind and blew his head open. Back and to the left, back and to the left.

If you're thinking what I think you're thinking, stop.

Now we're us, and it's not everything out there that's conspiring to kill our kings, it's everything inside. Your neuroses? Your Conditions, your Disorders? They're just a front, just a patsy. A convenient way to explain it all, tie it up clean.

The premillenials, the cool kids never had the time, you can make a case for it defining the generation. Too young to claim Gulf War One as any kind of personal Vietnam, and too old for it to be anything from the Eighties. ("I'm gonna live forever / light up the sky like a flame / I feel it coming together / Baby remember my name". Quite).

The Powers That Be, they worry your neuroses, your patsy, Lee Oswald in your head, they worry they'll talk. They send Jack Ruby in, strongarm him into administering therapy and drugs that suck you up and leave you thinking your emotions, your eyes bleary and dry, your mouth and gut feeling not quite right, your heart never getting round to actually letting you feel anything beyond this dull sensation that's not quite sinking, never floating. They force you into this state, cause if anyone were ever able to crack the whole case open, God only knows what they'd find.

Which is why, a week after the whole thing was in the papers, kids with their fuckin' G 'n' R shirts who'd never be caught dead with a record by a bisexual junkie, they all owned the collected b-sides and rarities.

Bury the files. Burn the fucking things. Put a bullet in the mailbox of anyone that suggests you might be going about things the wrong way. Suppress all evidence of a conspiracy between forces within and without. Anyone who suggests foul play, every year that goes by it gets easier to call them a crackpot.

Layne Staley. Bobby Kennedy. Mark Sandman. John Lennon. You get this wave effect. It happens everywhere - and it's a pattern, and there's got to be something to it, but there can't be, because any similarity you suggest, any suggestion that there's any common thread, you're getting close to opening up this impossible hidden cache of connections and secrets and truths that They can never let you learn.

James Earl Ray, Mark David Chapman, Sirhan Sirhan, they live on the outskirts of your brain. They've all got your frontal lobe in their crosshairs.

And it was that whole big thing, what the hell kind of music can the kids be listening to, what kind of lives can they be living, what kind of dark depressing shit can they be doing locked up in their rooms that their grand high unwilling leader would rather blow his own head off than be their figurehead?

Keep taking the pills. Keep on with the Journalling and the Visualising and the weekly hourly visits. Those are the only things stopping them spilling the beans. Or pulling the trigger.

The official evaluation of Generation X thing. Suddenly anyone in a flannel shirt was a slacker, anything with guitars in it was nihilistic, anti-everything suicide note music. Slipstein, Linkin Bizkit, angry frustrated impotent middle-class bullshit music, yadda yadda, nothing new there. But the Warren Commission misses the pertinent facts, it glosses over them in the manufacture of the most palatable truth.

Easy Truths: Heroin-Related Misadventure. Crazed Lone Gunman. Flawed Unwilling Messiah. The Price Of Power. The Price Of Fame. Courtney Did It. The Commies Did It.

Or, it's in the files and we won't see them until they've been put through the wringer and Garrison's good and dead: It's all in your head. The people that got you where you were, those demons you tried to hunt and kill, they didn't appreciate your doublecross. You thought you could control them, but their business is control.

That was my dad on the phone - he said not to buy one more vote than I needed.

Just because you're paranoid, don't mean they're not after you.

Ten years on, a glut of introspective brooding, the-kids-aren't-alright navel-gazing, and several discs' worth of well-meaning tribute songs with The Worst Lyrics In The Whole Fucking World, touching in their earnest refusal to acknowledge just how trite the whole thing's become. (Have I reached the point where I can use the phrase "#4 With A Bullet" without damaging my credibility? By virtue of having run dry of credibility somewhere around "Mark Sandman, John Lennon", I'd say so). File next to dusty, dog-eared conspiracy-theory literature and the copies of Illuminatus! and Catcher in The Rye that lend your bookshelf Colour.

This cacophany of interpretation-fatigue. Turn it up until it reaches critical mass, burning point. Sing along, shoot your gun, et cetera.

It's all in your head. And ten years on, it's buried deeper than ever.

Michael Appleton - student, Cambridge

Friday, April 02, 2004

In other news...

1. Self-help.
The political fallout from Janet Jackson's "breastcapade", juxtaposed with the praise heaped on Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, was probably reminder enough that a certain section of Americans (and 'conservative' Westerners generally) are much less comfortable with sexuality than violence. But this interesting review of Thomas W. Laqueur's Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation — by Harvard academic Stephen Greenblatt — argues that "solitary sex" is particularly taboo. Describing his plan to have his students discuss Lacquer's work in class, Greenblatt writes:
Panic set in not among the students — a large number of whom must have come of age watching There's Something About Mary — but among the core of instructors who lead the seminars and conduct the tutorials. Though sophisticated and highly trained, when they were faced with the prospect of discussing the history of masturbation with the students, many of them blanched. Coprophagia wouldn't have fazed them at all, sodomy wouldn't have slowed them down, incest would have actively interested them — but masturbation: please, anything but that.
A few weeks back, The Guardian published a short story about masturbation by Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club. The paper made much of the story's graphic nature, emphasising the fact that some Palahniuk fans in the States had passed out upon hearing "Guts". While it seemed all rather tame to me, you have been warned: "This extract is not for the squeamish, or for children. Some may find it offensive." Fight Club fans might also find this online chat with Palahniuk of interest.

2. Doing their duty.
BBC's 10pm television news bulletin led on Wednesday with reaction to an extensive police operation that had culiminated the previous day with the arrest of eight young British-born men of Pakistani descent. A letter by Iqbal Sacranie, the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, to mosques and other Islamic institutions was discussed. The bulletin emphasised the fact that Sacranie had urged Muslim leaders to help police root out any "extremist elements". It was all a pretty picture of official Muslim endorsement of the authorities' counter-terrorism operations. However, when I actually read the letter last night, I was somewhat surprised with its contents. BBC News At Ten O'Clock had failed to mention Sacranie's concerns with "sensationalised reporting" of Tuesday's operations, which had done "immense damage to British Muslims". Furthermore, Sacranie wrote:
You will no doubt recall that in November 2002 the police made high-profile arrests of six Muslims accused of plotting to release cyanide gas into London's Underground system. Yet nearly 18 months later, none of the men have been charged with any crime, let alone being convicted of terrorist activity. There are other examples of incidents that have received prominent media attention only for the individuals to be subsequently released without any charges brought against them. The impact of such ordeals on the persons concerned and their families is unbearable. Therefore we urge against hasty pronouncements of guilt.
3. Training terorists.
If you happen to be using a train in France any time soon, don't take any large pieces of luggage with you. I stood for an hour in a train from Lyon to Valence last week because the luggage compartments at the end of each wagon had been taped off. A sign informed us that we had to keep our luggage with us at all times "for your security". This measure — aimed at stopping people from jumping on a train, dropping a bag bomb in the luggage compartment, and jumping back off — will presumably have little effect in preventing al Qaeda operations, which tend to be suicide missions.

4. Voting patterns.
A tidbit for those political science geeks out there: the French don't vote like us, or like the Americans. Rather than ticking boxes on a piece of paper, or pulling levers, or pushing buttons on a computer screen, they choose the flyer of the party they prefer, fold it up, stick it in an envelope, and drop it in the ballot box. This revelation came to me as I watched my French "parents" vote in regional elections in the southeastern village of Vinezac last Sunday. Like the rest of the country, Vinezac plucked for the leftist opposition to the Jacques Chirac-appointed and Jean-Pierre Raffarin-led Gaullist French government. A possible hypothesis to be drawn: while those leaders who went against public opinion and supported the war on Iraq (think Howard, Aznar, and Blair) have been hurt politically, those who went along with public opinion and opposed the war (think Schroeder, Chirac, and Clark) have not been showered with popular praise for doing so.

5. What if...
The BBC has almost run through a five-episode series of "docudramas" which extrapolate from current trends to create visions of life in 2020. Mixing interviews of learned academics and journalists with dramatic scenarios, What If... has been a worthy contribution to evening television. On Wednesday night, marginalised men were rising up against a society run by women; in prior episodes, much of Britain was plunged into darkness after Chechnian terrorists bombed a Russian oil pipeline, and a black Prime Minister tried to push through controversial legislation to ease a lack of social cohesiveness in a country increasing riven by income inequalities and fear of crime. Next week, Britain will face a public health catastrophe because people just won't stop eating too much. So, much to look forward to here.

Matt Nippert - apprentice hack, Auckland

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Long live the King

The following is a transcript of the last broadcast interview Michael King gave before his untimely passing. It aired March 25, 2004 on 95bFM. Interviewer is Simon Pound, transcriber Matt Nippert.

SP: It must have been a hard time of late with Janet Frame's death, but perhaps there’s some consolation your biography helped cement her place in the New Zealand imagination.

MK: Well I'd like to think it had that effect. At least it means Janet got the degree of recognition and appreciation that she deserved before she died. Because if Janet had died 30 or 40 years ago she’d always be known as that crazy old woman who was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and wrote some funny books. It's really only been in the last 10 years that her reputation has consolidated and been fully recognized in New Zealand.

SP: And it must have been quite a wonderful occasion to receive the Prime Minister's Award for services to the arts in her company.

MK: In her company, and in the company of Hone Tuwhare, it was marvelous. They were the other two winners, and they were two writers who are a generation ahead of me, and who I absolutely revere and respect. It was wonderful, yes.

SP: You've said that the reason you write books for a general audience, rather than academics, is that you feel people need to hear the stories and you need to get the widest access possible.

MK: Yes, I still think that’s a scholarly function, because my books, I hope, are written in a scholarly way. The point I've always made is that I’m writing for a general audience, rather than just for an audience of academics or fellow historians.

SP: The best thing history can provide I guess is a sense of context for New Zealand readers.

MK: I hope so, and indeed in current affairs or history, like the seabed and foreshore debate, only make sense in the context of history, so you need that background.

SP: That's one other things that you’ve been known for over the years, taking a sociological viewpoint and examining what it means to be Pakeha in New Zealand. What do you think, now, today, what it means to be a New Zealander in general, and a Pakeha specifically?

MK: A huge change has taken place in my lifetime. When I was a child in the 1940s and early 1950s, my parents and grandparents spoke of Britain as home, and New Zealand had this strong sense of identity and coherence as being part of the commonwealth and a the identity of its people as being British. That of course has changed. I doubt if you'd find anybody now who would see the New Zealand identity in that way. So what's happened is that since that time we've become conscious of the fact we've got two major cultural streams. The Maori or indigenous one, and the other one that I chose to call Pakeha, and I've got no problem with that particular name. I'm astonished that some people do.

SP: By that you mean all other immigrants, not just a purely white term?

MK: No, no, no. Pakeha can have two meanings in its Maori usage. It can refer to people who came in origin from Europe, but it's also used in the sense of Maori and non-Maori. So that anything in New Zealand that is not specifically Maori would, in the Maori language, be identified as Pakeha. So I would use that word now for mainstream New Zealand culture. And I would regard it, as I've said in other forums and at other times, I don't regard it anymore as an imported culture or tauiwi, foreign, culture. I regard Pakeha culture now as a second indigenous culture. Although it has its origins in Europe, it’s vastly changed in the 150 years or so that Pakeha have been in New Zealand. It's changed in interaction with Maori culture and in interaction with the land. Most New Zealand Pakeha people now when they go back to their countries of origin, they may feel some sense of affinity there – but they don’t think that it's home.

SP: In saying that, identity is still emerging, it's still coming together. It’s a very positive tone, your book, it seems to be saying 'look there are troubles, but we’re all in this together and we’re not doing that bad a job.' Do you think the divisiveness stirred up by the Orewa speech, we do need to appreciate the fact we're all together in this?

MK: Yes, of course we do. I also think you can't measure the seriousness of the problem by the intensity of the rhetoric. It's less than a decade ago when there was a huge argument going on over the National Government's fiscal envelope proposal, when they were saying they would restrict Waitangi Treaty settlements to a total of a billion dollars. That caused an uproar at hui up and down the country, it caused Sir Charles Bennett to say that he would advise Maori not to fight for New Zealand again. And yes, it was one of those issues that was talked through and eventually laid to rest as I'm sure this one will be. I see the great continuities in New Zealand history as being decency and common sense and up until now when we’ve confronted these things we’ve been able to talk them through, and I'm sure we will with this issue as well.