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.

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.

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.

Max Johns - former diversion beneficiary, Christchurch

Monday, July 05, 2004

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.