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Institutional Knowledge Today in the Umpteenth Year of “The Knowledge Economy”: Do you want fries with that?

In civics, ideology, politics, sociology on April 12, 2015 at 11:49 pm

This item is produced (from a draft six weeks old) from the point of view of New Zealand with local circumstances in mind. Somehow, I’m sure, people in a couple of hundred other countries will be able to relate to it… The wonders of technological and economic progress.

KnowledgeWhere?6854662772_55f43de9c0_oYesterday I and an elderly friend enquired about how to get a Total Mobility Card, available to over-65s and the infirm allowing them to access taxi transport for half price. We started at his g.p. — Neither he or his receptionist knew of this arcane service that is supposed to be universal across the nation and severely affects the wellbeing of old people, but she took the trouble to phone a cab company and was told the cards were issued by the Auckland Council, and sent us there to pick up an application form. On calling at the council offices — John, aged 85, stayed in the car by necessity — while I, venturing inside, was told whom we should contact was called Auckland Transport… no luck there, so back to square one. That’s really what the difference is in these situations — whether you stumble on someone, eventually, who is willing and able to help. It used to be that, whether he gave a damn or not, a public servant would be helpful through the sheer amount of knowledge he held in his brain after years of experience in the same job or making his way (slowly) up the ladder based on long experience. This is what we call the “infrastructure” that made a society socially beneficial for its members. It was Margaret Thatcher — that despot who deformed her own country by reinforcing the class system with a vengeance — — and now celebrated as someone worth remembering via Meryl Streep — who proudly proclaimed that “There is no such thing as society.”

I couldn’t help reflecting on a time up to thirty years ago (now, as I count them) when I worked in a government department and there was more than a smattering, a large core, of staff who knew every rule and every skerrick of policy that could help a client; only they weren’t clients then, they were fellow members of the public with not even a counter separating us from them, and entitled to every resource at hand coming to them as of right as a citizen or permanent resident. The local post office — long gone everywhere around the country to the point of dismantling villages and hamlets now barely a memory — would have someone who knew where to get anything, how to help anyone or put you in direct touch with someone who could. This was called “institutional knowledge” and was held in a place of regard and some considerable importance at the time. It was the thing that would keep essential infrastructure in a society going after the nuclear holocaust had blown over and the cockroaches and Law of the Jungle were about to take over.

Now, in an era when every public asset has been privatized or corporatized, boards of governors play musical chairs from one corporation to the next — their feet never getting wet, never mind muddied by mixing with us ordinary folks — managers are “head hunted” for their ruthlessness with staff in treating them like dispensible cogs more of nuisance value than any importance. And the institutional knowledge held by societies across the globe seems to amount to automated self-service (Whatever happened to exalted “customer service”?), a one-size-fits-all approach to products, and a nice smile interchangeable across MacDonald’s, Burger King, the local pharmacy to the doctor’s surgery to our universities — and amounts to “Do you want fries with that?” In other words, not How can we help you in a meaningful way, but how can we upsize your order to collect more money for our shareholders?: and this coming from servants who are employed at the sufferance of owners and managers who can strip their weekly hours and routinely reduce them to try to eke out an existence for them and their family on less-than-living wages.

New Zealand has been headed this way since the mid 1970s under a big-business-minded conservative National Party government through its nine-year term, and was accelerated by stealth on the election of the trumpeted Third Labour Government — actually a lot like a Fifth Column of neoliberals. While the Nats invented institutionalized, permanent unemployment in this country that had previously had none — into the tens of thousands within a year and then upwards of a hundred thousand still in its first term (equivalent to seven million in the United States) — this new Labour Parliament was anything but labor, made up of lawyers, accountants and other businessmen eager to impress their cronies of the so-called Business Round Table, a coterie of laissez-faire capitalists and big investors dead set on a silent coup. First to go was the power of the unions, membership made noncompulsory and close to impotent.

And now the prospective next government, led by a hopeful Labour Party, refuses to even threaten that public assets still being sold into the hands of politicians’ cronies — privatised for the privileged and subsidised to the tune of $hundreds of millions by us taxpayers — will be taken back into public hands as soon as they are elected. I can see a time when, around the world, our only alternative future will resemble more Bastille Day 1789 than the futuristic Utopia every thinking person once hoped for. What a pity for the world, but just a fact of life, that the greedy and most powerful among us always seem to be the last to learn from history.

New Zealand General Election: A Victory for… What?

In civics, ideology, philosophy, politics, psychology/psychiatry, sociology on September 23, 2014 at 1:07 am

There are some measurable reversals in the state of this nation. So, instead it is simpler to talk about —

A LIST OF DEFEATS:

* Democracy defeated: The winning party received 48.1% of the votes cast and has 100% of the power in what purports to be a proportional representation system. Under NZ’s one-house parliamentary system there are no checks and balances on the ruling party’s ideology, freed to pass legislation at will.

* Open and fair government defeated: The ruling party has over the past three elections bedded in two sleeping partners — single candidates in electorate seats — giving them strategic “accommodations”, which works to cement its place in untrammelled power though together the allies receive less than 1% of the vote nationally. One ally is regularly rewarded with a seat in Cabinet, his “mandate” from a total of 4,500 party votes nationwide (approximately one out of every 600 votes cast by electors).

MAXIMISING THE CHARM OFFENSIVE: maybe a Sarah Palin lookalike candidate for NZ's next election (by Spauldron)

MAXIMISING THE CHARM OFFENSIVE: maybe a Sarah Palin lookalike candidate for NZ’s next election (by Spauldron)

* Parliamentary government defeated: The election every three years has more and more become NZ’s presidential race, with media coverage of actual policies shrunk to almost zero this time. The question of who is the more photogenic candidate is at a premium. This might be fine if NZ had a president, which it now has in all but name — exercising power by casual consensus of his cronies. The issue of the challenger’s “double chin” is right up there in public debate with Joan Rivers’ enlightened comments on Obama’s ears. Though slightly the worst off in tv debates to his challenger, the encumbent undoubtedly won in the charm/smarm stakes.

Homes and work? Two issues that might have been discussed but weren't.

Homes and work? Two issues that might have been discussed but weren’t.

* People Power defeated: The Silent Majority rules in New Zealand. It is a truism that many Kiwis only under duress will admit to voting for the National Party — as in “I have a confession to make”, obviously realising they have something to feel ashamed about. It is a question how many individuals do vote for National openly and for motives other than perceived (though usually mistaken) naked self-interest. The vote of the Left Wing — usually held to be the conscience of a country — collapsed, the Labour Party receiving 24.7% of the vote, half that of their Right Wing rivals. Its mistake was apparently to put forward a cogent, well argued, academically rigorous platform of policies to address a number of increasingly urgent problems and inequities that are overripening, just begging for a backlash by the aggrieved. The “Trickle Down” theory — itself a cynical lie — continues unabated after thirty years in place so far. The Internet-Mana Party coalition, supposedly the vanguard of a legitimate left wing, was left to languish on 1.3%, irredeemably tainted by teaming up with an opportunistic internet criminal who bought it off to the tune of $3.5 million in campaign funding (only equalled by the personally wealthy Conservative Party leader), effectively ejecting a strong voice for young, poverty-stricken Maoridom out of Parliament. Ultimately symptomatic of an old British colony, it is extremely bad form to set yourself up as a judge in any field at all no matter how well informed (“experts” are absolutely taboo). So, high-profile activists such as tv actresses Lucy Lawless and Robyn Malcolm protesting against dodgy environmental practices are likely to have contributed to a reaction against what was expected to be a record Green Party vote this election, resulting in an actual decline to 10%. (This is in marked contrast to the public fawning directed at fat-cat movie producer Peter Jackson, instrumental in capping pay and conditions for local performers and accruing massive tax concessions for himself — banking another couple hundred million for him and his screenwriter-wife after every new movie.)

* Idealism defeated: This is a debatable one, since the word idealism has been a dirty one in the ruling Kiwi mythology for generations now. The Kiwi worldview comes from a combination of white Anglo Saxon pioneering stock and hunter-warrior Maori ideology. Both founding cultures are pragmatic to the ultimate, with grand gestures to selflessness today seemingly reserved for sports heroes on the rugby field and netball court. The thought that if you don’t aim for an ideal in government then you’re not likely to come anywhere near it doesn’t even occur. Politicians are known to be untrustworthy, so it is best to pick the one that is most successful at pure politics; i.e. manoeuvring, manipulatiing, spinning, twisting, evading… the whole skill set for running a country. A few years ago a 50,000-strong Maori march on Wellington (equivalent to a million in New York City) was greeted with the rejoinder from the prime minister that the other four and a half million people in the country must be on his side: a cynical rationalisation trotted out regularly now, accepted by a bulk of the population — to the point of discouraging any initiative to protest at all.

* Resistance to unbridled capitalism defeated: Public opinion surveys have for many years rejected more sales of public assets, to the degree of a 90%-plus “No”. While the wider public knows very well it is being sold down the river to those cronies of a right-wing government who can afford to invest in shares, they will not vote accordingly — resulting in inevitable crowing from the government that opponents of wholesale private enterprise would have if they really cared, and encouraging them further in their hubris to sell more. The prime minister, probably the most popular man, woman or beast in the country, has become a role model across classes and age groups — especially for the effortless way he accumulated his fortune estimated at between $50 and $80 million (it’s just vulgar to count the zeroes once you get past a certain point): by using his position as a stock broker to trade internationally in currencies and share manipulations. He’s looking forward to hosting Obama and other world leaders in a nice round of golf here in NZ, and his supporters are thrilling to the status this will bring the country — confirming his people as slobbering, salivating lickspittle pawns in the globalism game waiting for crumbs from the table.

* Environmentalism and Public Transport defeated: While billions of dollars continue to be spent annually on expanding the motorway networks of Auckland and Wellington — two very minor cities by world standards — a relatively cheaper plan for public transport languishes at barely embryonic stage, underfunded and years behind schedule. (No sooner are these “improvements” completed than the roads are filled up and gridlocked again.) The majority of NZ rivers being polluted beyond public use by agricultural runoff, farmers have been left to regulate themselves in the time-honoured fashion of laissez faire private enterprise — an approach two or so centuries out of date.

* Objections to government corruption defeated: Undisguised and unrepentant favoritism for her own husband’s export business in China resulted in just a stand-down period for a senior Cabinet Minister until after the election. Transparent obfuscation on her behalf by her government colleagues was a cause celebre in the media for a while, but have been effectively silenced for the duration. Token scalps of government members of Parliament using public funds for personal purposes have been just that — underwhelming.

* Sane judgment defeated: Reelected with a record majority is a stand-alone government that has taken six years (two terms) to balance the budget, taking the books, just, into the black — and so temporarily as an election trick of the light; that in the face of this, a week before the election, proposed tax cuts after; rejected a capital gains tax on the wealthy, which virtually every other country has; has an ongoing 20% child poverty rate with permanently hungry children in a primary-produce exporting country (the government having pointedly refused to enter a coalition against child poverty); has produced no plan to diversify exports in an era of rapidly dropping produce prices overseas; that presides over an unemployment rate as high as the United States. The proposed budget of spending put forward for the Labour Party, independently costed and steadfast under queries from the incumbent government and media commentators, was a nonissue and seemingly disregarded by the public at large — who went with no costings and baseless assurances from the government. Indeed, the prime minister received a tangible sympathy vote, one supporter saying that he’d had a “tough run” with the Pike River coal mine disaster (four years later the government still has punished none of the negligent management, let alone investigated the miners’ remains) and the Christchurch earthquake(s) — four years later still with tens of thousands of insurance disputes over destroyed homes unresolved.

Intestinal Fortitude failed: It’s difficult to imagine a situation where Kiwis get worked up about anything at all these days, apart from international rugby, netball, the America’s Cup and other bread-and-circuses distractions with a quick payoff in adrenaline and pheromones. The younger generation — and I’m talking about teens here, who used to be full of youthful support for their peers — are far more likely to fantasise about and cheer on the legend of Kiwi “heroes” of Gallipoli a century ago than spare a thought for their fellow kids who go to school hungry every day. Once upon a time, Kiwis set out on great crusades supporting each other through the Great Depression, through World War II when world civilisation itself was threatened; in the Seventies when the anti-nuclear cause burned hot and NZ took the lead. I would relate the public outlook today as much closer to the era of the 1951 Waterfront Lockout, when poor people — at least demonstrating solidarity in unions — were vilified to the point of not finding the guts to stand up for themselves, and anyone who supported or even sympathised with them (through newspapers or providing food) was penalised. Or the late Eighties and Nineties, when politicians in this country across the board — Labour and National — strove to create a chasm between rich and poor, and have succeeded to this day.

PEOPLE POWER?

In economics, ideology, morality, philosophy, politics on September 19, 2014 at 11:38 pm

I suppose my first recollection of the phrase “People Power” was around 1986 when ingoing President Corazon Aquino quoted it in raising a groundswell of support promising to free the people of The Philippines from the dynasty of the Marcos family. It seemed like a good idea, and probably still is when carried out by idealists with a real sense of selflessness and self-empowerment and in the cause of the greater good — as it was also in most cases of “The Arab Spring” of a couple of years ago, beginning in Tunisia, taking in Lybia, failing in Syria and Yemen, and culminating in Egypt — where it appeared to have succeeded according to the people’s wishes; that is, before the army took over.

Aye, and there’s the rub, said the inspired Robbie Burns. Closer to this part of the world, in Fiji, Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka took over its Parliament “at the point of a gun” in 1987. And things have never been the same since. Even the most superficial onlookers — tourists — were put off for a few years after repeated coups, setting the Islands’ economy back a millennium. The first general election here in eight years, begun a couple of days ago at the pleasure of the incumbent Generalissimo, Commodore Bainimarama, is poised at a 57 percent “pro” vote for him halfway through the count; the nearest challenging party on a little over half that. Of course, since he instituted physical coercion of political opponents by his army and police force at first opportunity, and under ongoing enforced censorship of the press, it is difficult to tell whether this result is a resounding endorsement of the Bainimarama regime or just symptomatic of a people who have had the spirit kicked out of them.

Ah! What combination do we deserve and/or will we get this time?

Ah! What combination do we deserve and/or will we get this time?

Some eighteen hours ago news came through that the referendum on Scottish independence, open to all current residents of Scotland aged 16 and above, had come down on the side of staying within the United Kingdom, the vote 55% to 45%. Leader of the Scottish nationalists, veteran politician Alex Salmond, has resigned but not before gaining almost the bulk of what he was seeking in the beginning: what should be important concessions from London made on the eve of the election to swing the vote in favor of the 307-year-old partnership, which until recent years had seen Scotland become increasingly the junior partner. Whether these promises will be kept, and/or on whose timetable now there’s no urgent need, remains to be seen. Apart from national pride — apparently never quite as strong as that of Ireland, which won a hard-fought freedom from London a century ago — from this distance it’s difficult to say whether Scotland has more than the legitimate economic gripe that also pertains to the English North, the Midlands and the West Country: in fact anywhere that the 50 million majority of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland is effectively outvoted by the 12 million of Swinging Greater London, which retains more loyalty to its status as a world stock market capital and centre of big business — like, hypothetically, the foreign policy of Mexico or Canada being ruled from Wall Street, New York City.

A little over an hour ago the polling booths opened all over New Zealand for its three-yearly general election. There is so little faith in politicians here that three years is deemed to be the ideal term of government: one year getting settled in (including allowing two months or so for negotiations with minor parties in accordance with the MMP proportional system), one year to undo the “worst” of what the previous government did and rush through its own legislative program with dead-of-night rubber-stamp votes in the unicameral Parliament, and one year effectively campaigning for the next election with tax bribes or other major tweaks that seem expedient. The hope for most people is that they will at least have a show of ousting them in relatively short order before they can do irretrievable damage: probably a forlorn hope given the way the country has gone in all-out capitalism without a working safety net over the past thirty years. The ruling conservative National Party is odds on to win a third consecutive term on the trot, leading with 45-47% in opinion polls and apparently only needing one minor party to side with it to rule again.

Seriously, should inability to recognise your own best economic interests in a simple face-to-face quiz be a disqualifier to voting, like intellectual incapacity or insanity in court? I personally know poor, poor people who are intent on voting conservative, as if the status quo hasn’t screwed them enough. Admittedly, they are in the mental health system and vote counter-intuitively — to put it politely — but that doesn’t account for the other close-to-two-million votes the right wing is set to receive. As one wise person said, “Democracy is a form of government where the people vote for want they want and the politicians give it to them good and hard.”

The Labour Party, in proposing instant action on the 285,000 NZ kids existing under the poverty line (a 20 percent rate nationally), an immediate hike in the minimum wage of two dollars per hour, concrete moves to lower the increasingly out-of-reach average price of new houses by some $100,000 to just under $400,000, introducing a moderate capital gains tax affecting rich people (no more than virtually every other country has) and a small lift in the highest income tax rate to 36% on any earnings over $150,000 p.a. — obviously also on the wealthiest earners — has apparently shrivelled the scrotes of a great many people you wouldn’t expect: maybe in moronic positive-thinking mode that “Anything Oprah can do I can do too.” Traditionally the left-wing alternative, the Labour Party has amassed an unimpressive 24-26% support according to the latest surveys, and will need at least two (and probably more) minor parties to side with it to even approach the required half of the electorate.

Labour’s only guaranteed allies are the Green Party (on 11-14% support), proposing up to a 40% tax maximum, and the Internet-Mana Party (steady on 2%), a queer mix of a poverty-driven Maori initiative funded by international copyright crim Kim Dotcom, wanted by the FBI and Interpol. The third most popular party, NZ First, invented some twenty years ago and still led by Scottish-Maori compassionate conservative Winston Peters (named after you-know-who), has 6-8%, and is, on principle, a wild card, always refusing to say who he will support until one-man-band Winston sees his main chance after the election. The new Conservative Party — speaking for the Tea Party fundamentalist christian element in ths country — out of the blue is now on a surveyed 4.9% (just that smidgeon below the 5% threshold that will qualify it for 6-7 members of Parliament), could conceivably be in a decision-making role after the election, maybe wrecking the country once and for all. Look for binding referendums on everything from smacking of kids — currently against the law but allowed by the police — to creative evolution. Compulsory smacking by parents — under pain of having kids otherwise removed by smacking social agencies — hasn’t been ruled in or out of policy.

In the end, all might depend on the weather — left wing supporters here being notoriously fragile on such things as rainy trips in the car to polling booths all of a few hundred yards away, with nothing between you and the threat of raindrops but a layer of cast iron. They can look mighty scary beating on the windshield — and then there’s the possibility of wind itself that I haven’t mentioned. To mitigate this comfort factor for this election a three-week lead-in period has been introduced, taking special votes at one’s convenience. Some 770,000 early votes were cast, so almost another two million voters (of 3,096,000 registered) will have to turn up today to make a high turnout of over 80% altogether — a tall order. With the weather forecast crummy today for most parts of the country for most of the time, things don’t look good — the truism being that only an abnormally big turnout swings against the status quo.

A friend of mine who is acting as a Labour Party volunteer today has been instructed to knock on random front doors and simply remind people to vote, however — the hope apparently being that most of those ruled by inertia will tend towards social equality, in rudimentary impulse if not in action. I guess there’s always hope. But when I was a canvasser for the left-wing Alliance twenty years ago, we had written lists of actual supporters and their addresses so we could arrange to have them transported to polling booths and vote in a good cause. Strange how times change. I have noticed elsewhere too this tendency from officialdom to encouarge random voting as if it’s a good thing to simply plunk one’s vote in a box and the extent of what can be expected from most people.

I’m afraid the overwhelming probability of my well-informed vote being cancelled out by someone in the booth next to me who has given it just a passing thought or no thought at all leaves me cold — if this is what the World Wars have come down to in winning and exercising the highest principles in a perfunctory democratic process.

Roll on 7pm, now just eight hours away. Stand by for a post script sometime in the next day or two.

Once a Feminist…

In ideology, morality, politics on March 20, 2014 at 10:13 pm

When young and even middle-aged women today pick me up on major gaffes, examples of hopeless social ineptitude like calling a woman a girl, or holding a door open for one — that define me as a first class male chauvinist pig in the time-honored nomenclature — I just think to myself “Where were you in 1971, bitch?” — the form it often comes out as afterwards, verbalising it under my breath, as I relive the moment. (Don’t bother saying it — I’ve already taken an anger management course for it and I’m a lot better than I was. Thanks for askin’.) That year, at 15, was when I first got seriously curious about what made women tick. Of course, growing up in a household headed by a solo mother and two older sisters, I had only become used to the “Go to your room, now!” or “Stop it or I’ll break your face!” style of feminism whenever I was deemed to have stepped out of line (and no court of appeal to discuss facts) rather than the plaintive “We just want equality/okay, more than equality” approach as women present themselves today, ladylike, in public; but this calm, assertive approach is as ruthless as ever, and can seem so rational.

Of course, only women then wrote serious polemics about what has become the abiding cross-gender study of “women’s issues” — and solely from their point of view because not only was there very little research about men to draw on but very little curiosity from women about what makes men tick. (I’m still waiting for this small level of official interest in terms of men getting seriously involved in themselves. But since it hasn’t happened by now I can only assume the strong cultural imperative from both genders that men not “wimp out” or object to their lives in any way prohibits this from ever happening: a thinly disguised version of the white feather of yesteryear sent to “cowards” who refused to sacrifice themselves or to kill on the altar of war.)

The three biggies in feminist literature were Frenchwoman Simone de Beauvoir, New York sophisticate Betty Friedan and mod icon Germaine Greer from next door in Australia. Suffice to say, they set me on the wrong track for many years on my expectations of women and forming relationships based on any kind of reality. These women authors were arguing from their own ideals as stridently independent women, maybe representing about three percent of women in those days, tops. None of the big three were in the least photogenic or appealing in a girly way. This would wait until Gloria Steinem started appearing on magazine covers as eye candy, later joined by girlish Naomi Klein and others in somewhat glammed-up attire and displaying other sexual cues — which of course defeated the purpose and the principle in a pretty big way but made the whole phenomenon of watered-down feminism more popular.

As a willing feminist at the time, I took their words as gospel and did not for one minute expect emancipated modern women to be: unalterably passive when it came to pursuing relationships with men (just flirting outrageously), to be silent or ambiguous when it came to any course of reciprocation, or actually claim changing their minds as a “woman’s perogative”. For many, many years I ignored the evidence of my own senses, thinking “Oh, she must be an exception.” My mother, seeing the trouble I was in, finally said, “I think you’re the kind of guy who will have good relationships [in later life].”

Brando and Vivien Leigh playing a butterfly broken on the wheel

Brando and Vivien Leigh imagery in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), representing female feminists’ heroic view of themselves: the butterfly oppressed by the beast

A few years later, in my twenties, I came across The Female Woman by Ariana Stassinopoulis (Huffington), who seemed to me to be letting quite a few cats out of the bag. The sisterhood — whose hold was weakening on me by this time — and who were tired of squabbling with each other about political priorities in the war against men’s privileges — was understandably concerned about this development. The original message was unalterably diverted through magazine editor Steinem and others in influential media positions compromising and playing on market forces. This trend has continued into “modern feminism” and women role models today who parade in 8-inch heels (rightly characterised as “Fuck me” shoes by Germaine Greer all those decades ago), have their faces and bodies rearranged to suit themselves (somehow said to be men’s fault) and twerk their asses off in public with strangers are said to be making important cultural statements on the importance and value of women’s free expression today.

Maybe they are.

anna_nicole_weight300 The modern echo of Marilyn Monroe, or a grotesque caricature symbolic of the times?[/caption]

The NSA and Angele Merkel

In morality, politics, satire on November 9, 2013 at 11:32 pm

Fresh from the files of Julian Assange come certain earth-shattering revelations of the precise content of highly secret conversations Chancellor Merkel has been engaging in over her cellphone. Unlike the selfless releasing of government secrets in bulk by Assange several years ago, the conduct of the NSA (National Security Agency) is unforgivable: spying specifically and directly on a head of state who is known to be above reproach. With Germany threatening unspecified retaliation against the United States for listening in to the private conversations of the recently re-elected beloved leader, I have been able to access just a small slice of the damning evidence against the NSA: that which is most provocative to German sensitivities. (New Zealanders will remember the bomb attack of the government of France on the Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior in port in the 1980s, resulting in the death of a Greenpeace officer. This might account for the French government not being quite as vociferous in its complaints against spying by allies.) Anyway, here are just the most revealing snippets of the fruits of this nefarious activity:

Angele: … and 400gm of sauerkraut from the delikatessen.

Mr Merkel (The First Lady): Is that the one on the uberstrasse oder die unterstrasse?

Angele: Oh, use your initiative, pfiffikus. Hier I am the proud leader of individual liberty and the privilege of wealthy Aryan countries in Northern Europe and my man isn’t man enough to decide was his tummy wants, never mind go one round with a Greek wrestler! If the French, Spanish and Portuguese ever get wind of this… [line clicks off] Blutig dummkopf!

……………….

Hairdresser: Es Frau Merkel? Ah… I was thinking maybe more of the little-girl cut to make you more appealing internationally, maybe even innocent looking.

Angele: Nein, nein! Es far too sissy! My people will be taking me for die supermodel instead of die ubermadchen. Just make sure you have all the latest gossip ready when I come in for my appointment.

Hairdresser: Ja, ja… I hear and obey.

………….

Spin Doctor: The anti-American liberal media around the world are on your side. Their story is that because you were raised in East Germany among the Stasi secret police you are permanently traumatised by any reminder of it, even one so oblique as phone-tapping by the NSA.

Angele: Yes, of course we civilians never cooperated or collaborated with the Stasi. We were oppressed. But they had the good taste never to spy on us in the toilet, not like Amerikaners. Still, we were able to pick up some pretty good dirty tricks…

Spin Doctor: No, none of that — just the violation of privacy. And some more, bitte, of “Allies don’t spy on each other. It’s a sacred, ever-lasting bond closer than any human relationship.” It will bring tears to the eyes of the Brit and French Conservatives. It would help if you say the words “Dunkirk” and “liberation of Paris”, but without mentioning The War if you can — especially the part about us being on opposite sides.

LITTLE DO WE KNOW…

In civics, economics, ideology, politics on August 6, 2013 at 9:27 am

I’m going to assume we are all adults here in this forum (as I grandly call it, though this post might only reach two readers over the next week) and there is a free flow of ideas to and fro — to whoever is at the other end of this conversation. You are now entering The Twilight Zone… Please just humor me while I allow my paranoia to run free a little while. It’s called brainstorming, or panic stations. Certain socio-political events and utterances impacting on New Zealand across the Pacific from North America and East Asia over recent years and days have prompted the following thoughts.

WHAT IF…

* Beyond hearing and surveillance of all satellites and electronic bugs, heads of much bigger countries have been discussing, even weighing up, how many medium to tiny nations and which ones “we have on our side, so how many do you count in your sphere of influence?” to carry any vote in the United Nations?

* Discarding civilized pleasantries about the UN and choosing up sides in the playground for the egg-and-spoon race, there used to be something in the era of the Cold War called “Realpolitik”, which meant “Let’s cut all the bullshit about nations’ sovereign rights and get down to the nitty-gritty about how big your balls are and how many intercontinental ballistic missiles you’ve got.”

* This is exactly the kind of thing North Korea has got itself into in recent years when they kidnap foreign civilians, attack and kill enemies by the hundreds with impunity as if to provoke something rather precipitous, that might have no end… To stretch a point for the sake of speculative argument, might they be doing this at the behest of, or to curry favor with, their one and only ally, a much larger military and economic power not very far away? In its game of brinksmanship this country has several times crossed over that line, what formerly would have been considered the brink beyond no return.

* A couple of years ago when the Australia and New Zealand governments threatened to get more assertive with the Japanese whaling fleet plying its sickening trade in the Great Southern Ocean, the Japanese government countered that it could send a few minor elements of its naval “defence force” down to these parts and all thoughts of grand gestures on behalf of wildlife disappeared from minds overnight in this part of the world, and Greenpeace and other independent thinkers suddenly became the enemy to be clamped down on by South Pacific governments.

* Come to that, what could New Zealand (even partnered with Australia and Singapore) really do to defend itself against big powers unless it was closely and unquestioningly aligned with the biggest power of all?

Joe the Fonterra Man driving his milk tanker: Little does he know he's a pawn in a much larger game

Joe the Fonterra Man driving his milk tanker: Little does he know he’s a pawn in a much larger game

* The head spokesperson of China has been in the media speaking rather bluntly to John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand, saying that this country’s image after the “Fonterra Incident” is not so much a “clean, green” one as “a festering sore”. In the old days them would’ve bin fahtin’ wards, especially coming from what is essentially a military dictatorship that treats three quarters of its population as a peasant labor resource and is seemingly dedicated to ridding the world of its last few remaining nonhuman threatened species. But in these times when NZ is merely a vassal state of the USA we can be used (and threatened) as a pawn. I just hope they find bigger fish to fry.

* And that, in turn, would explain why such secret subliminal messages, if not explicit and implicit ones, coming to the ears of New Zealand’s impotent leaders from huge foreign powers, have got John Key and the rest of the NZ government in such a tizz, gung ho for the GCIS Bill and any other surveillance legislation it can lay its hands on in a hurry. “Paranoia strikes deep,” as that Buffalo Springfield song from the psychedelic era said.

A few years ago I devised the outline of a novel about such powerplays across the Pacific and the vulnerability of such a remote country as New Zealand, even created a few characters and sample passages. But it ended up reading like a comedy, like the movie The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1965). Please tell me this is just a fanciful scenario, much closer to a novel or a comedy than for real.

Don’t be shy about leaving your thoughts in the Comments…

Long Live Prince George!

In morality, politics on July 27, 2013 at 7:51 am

After all, he’s entitled to live as long as anyone else, with the same chances in life — no more and no less.

I’ve just glimpsed the latest feature article in Wikipedia, that happens to be on Basava, a poet born into the privileged Brahmin caste in India in the 12th Century. He advocated the end of the caste system and wrote that all people should have equality of opportunity. What a novel idea! So out of left field that more than 800 years later seemingly the entire English-speaking world is enthralled, enraptured by the 37,893rd coming of a potential future English monarch — especially we ecstatic citizens of a happy band of so-called nations who still cling to the Queen of England as our Head of State.

I hope the best for him, but I wonder if he will have the guts of a Basava, looking down from on high to declare he, in essence and reality, is no better than anyone else — and renounce his semi-divine position. Somehow, I doubt it.

Prince George or not? -- Not even his mother can tell at this stage.

Prince George or not? — Not even his mother can tell at this stage.

JOHN FORD DOUBLE MOVIE REVIEW: The Searchers & Liberty Valance

In film, ideology, morality, politics, review on July 17, 2013 at 11:35 am

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is definitely the B feature in this double. Its release year of 1962 is very late for a black and white movie. But maybe Ford was trying to make a point, like he didn’t want it to be a color, all-star blockbuster in the way of How the West Was Won the same year: a bloated, tiresome excuse for a way to spend three hours. As a kid my friends and I bragged how many times (up to double figures) we’d been to see this MGM-Cinerama spectacular: more a reflection on our childishness and how inexpensive it was to go to the movies in those days. The wide-screen vistas were great to look at, but that was all. Henry Hathaway helmed most of it — having seen his most interesting period in Forties film noir before switching to routine westerns — John Ford taking over for the Civil War sequences and George Marshall the extended train hold-up scenes. All of the stars had been used to better effect elsewhere: Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Henry Fonda, Carroll Baker, Richard Widmark… Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird), Fonda (Advise and Consent) and George Peppard (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) had come straight from classics and now this marked a lowpoint in their careers. It earned $50 million worldwide for the producers: more than a $billion today in terms of butts on seats.

I believe Ford was not making a western in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance but was the politically astute Irishman making a comment on American politics as he did in The Last Hurrah four years before: poking fun at the Irishness of it, the erecting of heroes on pedestals maintained by populist sentiment. Also, the manner of election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy just a year and a half before couldn’t have escaped his attention — whisked along to victory by his pappy’s connections and accentuating his war record. World War II leader Ike Eisenhower was just vacating the White House and sterling wartime feats was one of the few public image advantages Kennedy held over opponent Nixon at the 1960 general election. And ever since, phony self-proclaimed heroes like George W Bush and John McCain have tried to makes themselves into a JFK or John Kerry, if not a full-blown general like Ike.

Fifty-four-year-old James Stewart ludicrously playing young, naive lawyer Ransom Stoddard sweeps into the western town of Shinbone toting $14.80 in cash and a passel of law books. He is beaten up, his money is stolen and his law books destroyed by hold-up man Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his gang. I always thought the Disney animated badguy Black Pete was based on a hybrid of Ernest Borgnine and Marvin as they played town bullies in the Fifties — see Bad Day at Black Rock — and here Marvin is joined by main henchmen Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin, acting a lot like Biggy Rat & Itchy brother from the DePatie-Freleng cartoons on tv in the early Sixties.

Enraged, persnickety dishwasher Stoddard is protected by Tom Donofin (John Wayne) against Liberty Valance. Marvin stands on tiptoe to look more imposing than the 6ft-4 of the two protagonists.

Enraged, persnickety dishwasher Stoddard is protected by Tom Donofin (John Wayne) against Liberty Valance. Marvin stands on tiptoe to look more imposing than the 6ft-4 of the two protagonists.

Stoddard is a horse’s ass of an Eastern dude who doesn’t know it, preaching about the law and parliamentary procedure and casually ridiculing his wife-to-be Halley (Vera Miles) because she can’t read and write. When Duke Wayne, the only guy with the guts and ability to stand up to Valance and his lickspittles, sees that his girl Halley is gone on the embryonic politician’s pompous ways and ineffectual hypocrisy he does the decent thing by covertly killing Valance and leaving Stoddard with the credit. In the forty years of history passing offscreen, the politician is elected to “three terms as state governor, two terms as senator, Ambassador to the Court of St James, and back to senator” and has the vice-presidency in Washington for the taking — all based on two myth-making “facts” of the kind politicians thrive on: he was the first lawyer west of the Rockies and killed Liberty Valance single-handed, and with his weaker gun hand.

At the end of the film, attending old Tom Donofin’s funeral, Senator and prospective vice-president Stoddard is easily persuaded by the town newspapermen that the truth and the people’s right to know isn’t paramount after all. He keeps his shame (told him by Donofin, on Stoddard’s first step up to office) a secret from the public — though the wife now knows, and maybe suspected all along — and he and the Mrs ride off contentedly on the train back to Washington for the last time. In an empty gesture to sentiment, Stoddard resolves to settle back in Shinbone after a life of false glory. Ford’s final condemnation of the American political system: And little lawyers shall lead them.

The Searchers (1956) must rank as the greatest western made in the Fifties, along with Shane (1953), and therefore probably the greatest ever. As a solid work of art from Ford it might be only challenged by The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and My Darling Clementine (1946). Each shot is painstakingly worked out using the natural setting and lie of the land to utmost effect to add to the rising and falling drama, and the acting overall is superb, especially from the two leads, John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter (later of The Last Hurrah and King of Kings).

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) interrogate "Look" for the whereabouts of "Scar", the Comanche war chief who holds Debbie (Natalie Wood) captive.

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) interrogate “Look” for the whereabouts of “Scar”, the Comanche war chief who holds Debbie (Natalie Wood) captive.

Ethan Edwards arrives three years after the end of the Civil War at his brother’s (Walter Coy) Texas homestead. His brother fought on the other side, the Union, and there are strong signs that Ethan was the wife’s (Dorothy Jordan) first choice for a hubby. Instantly, we’re in the action and a Comanche raid on cattle draws the Texas Rangers under Rev/Captain Ward Bond away from the homestead. The Comanches attack and Ethan’s brother’s family are slaughtered, all but the two girls — Ethan’s sole remaining kin. And the hunt is on. It lasts six years, with Ethan and Martin constantly on the trail through desert and deep snow drifts. Ambivalent as Ethan is about his young adopted nephew’s one-eighth Cherokee blood, he reserves pure hatred for the Comanche. Martin is motivated by the constant knowledge of having to save Debbie from Ethan — who maintains she’s been ruined by turning into a Comanche — as much as from the Comanches. The ambivalent interplay between these two is the core of the film.

Special mention should be made of the exceptionally endearing performance of Lana Wood (Natalie’s sister) as nine-year-old Debbie. Also Ford’s semi-regular Hank Worden in his turn as hilarious comedy relief “Old Mose” Harper. A Bronx cheer for poor John Qualen and his dialogue as Lars the Swede, twice playing Vera Miles’ father and forced to say “By golly!” and the inevitable “By Yiminy!” repeatedly through The Searchers and again in Liberty Valance, a very irritating Ford joke.

US HEGEMONY vs SATELLITE PEONY

In anthropology, politics on June 25, 2013 at 7:52 am

Granted that Americans have a right to worry whether their own government is spying on them. Hence the whole Snowden ‘whistle-blower’ controversy. Now consider the case of New Zealand, a US satellite that more and more, under a right wing government, seems intent on making peons of its own people. The ruling minority government, with an effective majority of one in the House of Representatives, is about to pass legislation that will allow its US ally (and presumably other ‘friendly’ powers) to spy on New Zealanders via their own spy station situated outside Christchurch. The government, dominated by the National Party, is of course eagerly whipping up a state of paranoia among chronically paranoiac and anxious citizens by warning of imminent acts of internal terrorism. By the end of the week it will be too late to think about which terror is worse: that of the state over its own people that is going to happen, or you might say, freelance internal terrorism that might never happen. New Zealand long ago discounted the remote possibility of aggressive influences coming from outside to this far end of the world. After all, why else would it have let its so-called armed forces be depleted over the past half-century to one SAS company and various peace-keeping units deployed overseas that could not contribute to defending the country?

The tendency of this country to infantilism in the face of Mother Britain for a century and a half and the United States in the past half century has, as some feared, bred a country of sheep only too willing to be led to a slaughter of the spirit by a sequence of cowardly judas goats in charge. Such easy efforts to appease bigger partners internationally come at the real cost of New Zealand taking committed action and assertive measures over its own realistic concerns, of which there are many. To name one, huge systemic gaps and numerous lapses in civil construction and inspection standards responsible for killing and maiming hundreds of people, and irreparably damaging the mental wellbeing of countless thousands of others in just the past two years. Responsible for extending the effects of specific tragedies out to years is the lack of accountability and ducking for cover of government departments, insurance companies and other private corporations and local authorities. The disasters in question are the explosion in the Pike River coalmine that killed 29; the Christchurch earthquake(s) killing hundreds; and the negligent grounding of a cargo ship in the Bay of Plenty that jettisoned oil and hundreds of polluting containers into the sea, left to drift and sink in the absence of any aggressive recovery plan.

The Christchurch earthquake, and after thousands of after shocks there are still tens of thousands homeless and without sufficient means to start again

The Christchurch earthquake, and after thousands of after shocks there are still tens of thousands homeless and without sufficient means to start again

The Pike River Coal Mine explosion in November 2010 killed 29 miners. At least it was assumed from the first that they were killed. As anxious relatives waited on hopes day after day though expecting the worst, willing volunteer rescuers were prevented from even entering the mine by the police. This is just one instance of the enculturated Kiwi habit of officials hanging back and waiting. Still after two and a half years only robotic surveillance has been allowed, the results suggesting all the victims were not killed outright. In the initial enquiry the company was found guilty of nine “health & safety” violations. But in July 2013 it was revealed that of $90 million in insurance coverage a total of $156,000 has filtered down to be distributed to victims’ families in ‘compensation’. You do the arithmetic. Two weeks later police announced there would be no prosecution of mine owners and management because there was no direct causal link established: New Zealand has no such charge as “corporate manslaughter”.

The basis of the fault lies with New Zealanders’ self-vaunted “No.8 wire spirit”, so-called for the gauge of fencing wire used for all purposes originally by farmers for everything from extracting ear wax to holding a car engine together. This myth involving inherent love of amateurism in all spheres is deeply ingrained in Kiwi culture — admiration of the ad hoc over careful preparation, which is seen derisively as prissy or over-intellectualized. In the Pike River (Westland province) and Christchurch cases numerous instances of unheeded warnings over many years, shoddy design, construction and inspection regimes, and overarching laissez faire management philosophies creating “disasters waiting to happen”, were looked upon with disbelief and downright disgust by Australian and US experts called on to testify to best practices well established overseas for generations if not centuries.

This has been the pattern of civil expectations in New Zealand life for the past thirty years, since the turnaround of the 1984 so-called Labour government to right-wing economics, and growing more emphatic in quantum leaps every time there is National Party government insisting on thousands more job cuts in what are increasingly recognized as essential services. I accuse this government of wantonly risking more lives in the cause of easing their own. This further indenturing of its own citizens to outside interests will strip away any vestige or pretence of independence this country might still cling on to.

NEWTOWN MASS MURDER INVESTIGATION: An Exercise in Futility

In civics, ideology, morality, philosophy, politics, psychology/psychiatry, sociology on December 17, 2012 at 6:04 am

second_amendment_by_roscoso-d5ofa7xThe chief of police stands there looking and speaking authoritatively — a cowboy hat in Connecticut? What is he trying to prove? He reassures us that the force will leave no stone unturned to get to the bottom of this, forensics, good solid police work, the perpetrator’s motive, and the rest… You expect him to call for a posse, head him off at the pass, and hang this varmint from the highest limb, or maybe deal out Colt .45 justice. Oh, that’s right, consarn it…

We already know who dunnit. It’s the varmint holding the gun, leading to him a trail of blood from 20 kids and six teachers. And we know as sure as shootin’, just as we know from all the other massacres (was Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas the model?) THERE IS NO VALID MOTIVE… Aside from, the guns were there, my mommy/daddy taught me how to use them, they’re designed for killing humans, so I did, when I was in a bad mood, because I could.

Yes, there were warning signs — the guy was “strange” from a young age, and lately his mommy, a gun nut (but a nice lady — aren’t they always?) who taught him how to fire guns, found him increasingly difficult to handle. Left to her own devices with a strange, picked-on kid, did she unconsciously hope that he could ‘defend’ himself with her own personal arsenal? These are anti-PERSONNEL weapons, not hunting equipment (psycho as that is in itself).

The president says he’s going to do all he can to prevent this ever happening again. I don’t suppose he meant these as futile words, but we all know one man can’t stand against an entire nation bent on abusing firepower and defying their own Constitution when they do so outside of an official “militia” context. But the perp had studied American history and philosophy, so found his justification for such a ‘solution’ quite easily.

So I guess we’ll all go on wanking with fine words until the next one happens. Then the same Christian right will come forward mouthing sorrowful platitudes and with the next breath insisting on their right to have the power to kill people on a whim.

POLITICAL REVIEW — John Boehner & Benedict Arnold: Traitors or Enlightened Self-Interest?

In civics, history, ideology, politics on August 21, 2011 at 12:34 am

A lot of people reading this will wonder how I dare to compare Boehner with Benedict Arnold — that arch-traitor of American history — never mind include them in the same sentence. Granted, it looks like Boehner tried a lot harder than General Arnold to damage his own country, and on a lot bigger scale — not to mention the rest of the world. Now old Benedict begins to look like smallfry. Billions around the world will suffer that bit more from the action Boehner led in the US House of Representatives to prevent tax rises for his money-hording constituents. Maybe Boehner thought, looking at the plight of dying children in Africa, Hey already, Dead is dead. Can’t get more deader’n that…

U.S. President Obama speaks during a bipartisan meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House

Benedict Arnold, once a battle hero of the new United Colonies, switched sides and betrayed his fellow colonists for personal glory — believing he wasn’t credited enough for his efforts: vain to the ultimate. Boehner’s actions can no way be associated with glory, willing to sacrifice against all democratic precedent the common welfare of his own countrymen and women, and untold ‘foreigners’ (maybe a bonus he didn’t count on) largely for the sake of the wealthiest 1/10,000th of the electorate and the so-called Tea Party movement. Many of this ilk like Bachmann, Palin and Perry maybe think the original Tea Party was at the Vanderbilts’, Rockefellers’ or J. P. Morgans’ one afternoon in their golden age of the Robber Barons. Their ‘God’ is definitely a punishing one who not only lets the poor fend for themselves but is all for siphoning off the little money they have to humble them and build their characters even further.

Little Johnny claimed afterwards to be pretty happy because he got 98% of what he wanted. But I imagine it’s a pretty dry, cheerless, childish, selfish kind of happiness that satisfies him: seeing so many of his countrymen and women suffering just to make him happy. I can’t imagine, for instance, him ever having the largeness of heart to tell a joke against himself, like the time-honoured classic I have adapted just for him, it seems so apt:

“Little Johnny Boehner went to the cupboard to fetch poor Rover a bone. When he bent over, Rover took over, and gave Johnny a bone of his own.”

It’s curious how Republicans these days are so obsessed with sex but seem to find such little joy in it — more like a means of punishment, or something to be hidden away… Is that why he calls himself “Baner” by the way? So people won’t insert him into that and other rhymes?

No less than Obama called Boehner a man of “good will” after all the carping from the other side. What’s going through the President’s mind has left the US’s best political pundits guessing, so I won’t attempt it. Just seems like Obama could have found a nicer playmate to pal up with when the future of the world is at stake.

I’ve recently discovered that Obama thinks he’s modeling himself on Abrham Lincoln, by listening to all sides equally, then letting the most powerful, ruthless faction win. Couldn’t be further from the truth… On a post on the Alternet website I saw Obama’s behavior described as “Appeasement” and I can’t do better than that. He reminds me of that champion of Appeasement in 1938, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, waving a piece of paper containing a blackmailed agreement signed by his enemy — as if in triumph. Let’s hope none of the enemies of America are as monstrous as the accommodating “Herr Hitler”.

POLITICAL REVIEW: U.S. CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS Part 1 — The American Way: Killed by Freedom

In civics, history, ideology, politics on May 26, 2010 at 8:44 am

second_amendment_by_roscoso-d5ofa7xBack in the early Seventies one of my favorite rock bands was Guess Who, a Canadian group who came out against US society metaphorically with American Woman (“keep away from me… Mama let me be…”). Another of their songs was Guns, Guns, Guns — against shooting caribou and other living things indiscriminantly.

Guns is one issue. But the rest of the world has trouble understanding a political system that first gets a President in with a landslide indicating a mandate for radical change, then the first time he even partly succeeds with watered-down change people call for his blood. More on this in Part 2 of this series on the U.S. Constitution.

It seems there are so many ‘checks and balances’ in the system that meaningful change is virtually impossible. Once something stupid is institutionalised across the country, not even the literal meaning of the Constitution can change it. Take the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. As contained in the Bill of Rights as distributed to and ratified by the states in December 1791, it reads:

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Nowhere does it say individuals can bear arms according to their own conscience. In fact, exactly the opposite. It seems for the past 200 years Jefferson’s words have been deliberately ignored.

Anyone who can comprehend the English language at a level of more than one phrase and connected clause in the same sentence, can see that the right to keep a gun is wholly dependent on three clear conditions: 1) Its use is to be by a militia (nowhere does it say individual) 2) Its use is for defense 3) Its use is to be by the People, requiring an organisation of said citizens and implying corporate permission and responsibility for each instance of use.

It is therefore clear that the U.S. has its own Constitution badly wrong, has been wrong all these years since individual gun ownership and use has become so popular, and has no intention (by consensus) of correcting this glaring misreading that could have been corrected by any Year 7 student. The Founding Fathers must be spinning in their graves at this travesty in interpretation which has been perpetrated and perpetuated by generations of Justices of the United States Supreme Court.

Thomas Jefferson

Benjamin Franklin

When I brought this discrepancy in interpretation of the Amendment up to an American-born expatriate professor in international law, who happens to be a longstanding acquaintance, and finally pinned him down to the inescapable meaning of the amendment in English, his resort was: “Well, try taking their right to guns away from Americans!” Not exactly a legal argument. But this seems to be what it boils down to. Successive generations of increasingly gun-happy Americans have twisted the meaning of the original words to mean anything they want.

This could be the biggest propaganda lie in popular literature since George Orwell’s “Some are more equal than others.”

The bottom line is: Most murders in the U.S. are not premeditated but are unplanned crimes of opportunity — committed on the spur of the moment or at least under the sway of strong emotion: simply because guns are a handy recourse to a ‘solution’. Reduce the handy availability of guns according to the Constitution, and reduce murders wholesale.

MEDICAL REVIEW — THE THERAPEUTIC EFFECT OF ARTISTIC ACTIVITY FOR PSYCHIATRIC SURVIVORS

In anthropology, art, literature, music, politics, psychology/psychiatry on March 21, 2008 at 2:41 am

By G. A. De Forest, presented 4th October 2007 at the ‘Planting the Seeds’ Conference, Wellington, New Zealand

Artistic endeavours are one of the few ways people enmeshed (and often emotionally entombed) in the mental health system feel free to express themselves on their own terms. That is, if the artistic effort is not closely monitored by an NGO [‘non-governmental organization’, in the form of a charirable trust, incorporated society or business that is deemed to be providing services for mental health ‘consumers’]. There are cases of NGOs appropriating the work of ‘their’ artists for promotional or other purposes without asking permission of the artist or even attributing the work to the artist. An attitude of such disrespect would not be tolerated towards artists in the commercial world outside the mental health system, where an artist’s intellectual property is definitely his or her own—created by the artist and owned by the artist, morally and legally.

Comedian Spike Milligan -- might have been lobotomised in the South Pacific for his irreverent bipolarism

Comedian Spike Milligan -- might have been lobotomised in the South Pacific for his irreverent bipolarism

The aloneness of the dedicated artist, especially an eccentric one, is emphasized in a society where the Pacific priorities of family and wider social hierarchy are highlighted and conformity and ‘team play’ are foremost. The lumping together of culture and heritage in the same government ministry has cemented tradition as a prime societal objective, when the genuine artist might have as his goal to change culture and damn heritage. Overtones everywhere of cultural-political correctness and the economic importance of the tourist trade make it plain that to be exhibited in Te Mana, our national showcase to the world, is to make it big in New Zealand’s contemporary art world.

Too frequently clients are fed a diet of conformity by providers in the guise of helping. A wounded psyche, already disinclined to complain for fear of some backlash from the system, is encouraged to ‘think positively’. Genuine and deeply held opinions may be brushed aside as symptoms of the person’s condition by staff—who may lack a great deal less insight about life, about the possibilities and potential of the mind, and about simple person-to-person ethics.

This problem has unfortunately not been eliminated by including more and more ‘highly functioning’ former clients among staff, who are often picked for well developed logical functioning and who perform administrative tasks competently and efficiently but might understand little of the artistic process. Moreover, for fear of being seen as ‘a little loopy’ themselves by health authorities, many tend to err on the side of conservatism. The phenomenon of the professionally distanced client advisor or peer supporter is a recognized problem. Just as there are cases of ‘supporting’ NGOs exploiting their artistic clients, so there is no shortage of former clients, now staff, who censor their own kind for fear of being thought of as a collaborationist in nonconformity. It can be seen, then, that artistically inclined clients are stuck in an environment where opinions and emotions unpopular in society at large might be better expressed through fictional works, visual imagery and music.

I have learnt from experience as a writer that an article telling the unvarnished truth—with first-hand facts and statistics to back it up—should probably not be circulated within the so-called ‘The Consumer Movement’ (which actually shows very little if any movement). The result can very easily be vilification, even victimisation. A ‘nonfiction’ writer wanting to be heard by other mental health clients should go into satire, where the names and specific situations are changed to protect the guilty; or preferably fantasy, where the creative spirit is allowed free rein and there is no real risk of a backlash rebounding on a sensitive individual with the anguish that can cause.

Salvador Dali, super-eccentric Spanish painter

Salvador Dali, super-eccentric Spanish painter

The therapeutic effects of a healthy fantasy life have long been recognised as far back as Freud and beyond. These fantasies, however frowned upon in polite conversation, are of course essential to the human condition. Most are safely tucked away in dreams, even daydreaming. It is the dedicated artist’s job to bring them up from the unconscious and expose them to daylight, where in art form they are allowed to be openly appreciated—though no matter how skilful and insightful, even inspirational, still the artist might be the butt of disparaging remarks from those who have no insight into their own human condition.

It is no wonder that music in whatever form is the most universal of all pastimes—either performing or listening. Its rhythms were first engendered in the womb from our mother’s heartbeat, and after birth our mother’s tone of voice—hopefully singsong baby talk—assures us that all is right with the world. A baby learns to sing—wordless tunes in pure music—long before it learns to talk. In times of stress through teenagerhood and full adulthood what better resource to turn to when the world around us seems to be spiralling into chaos? It is no wonder, either, that many of the most ground-breaking musicians and other artists have been victims of mental disturbances—and found that artistic activity was their one reliable outlet and friend in times of real crisis.

Too often thrown back on their own inner resources, the artistic client must maximize both the quantity and quality of his creative time. For visual artists and writers this will inevitably mean more solitary time—which could create problems of its own if taken to extremes. For performance artists it means more time socialising in their most rewarding activity, generating much-needed feelings of wellbeing. For all, the time spent engaged in their chosen field will usually bring a feeling of satisfaction, often at least moderate pleasure and sometimes elation, even ecstacy. Hence the well-known catchall term for the creative process: The Agony and the Ecstacy.

It is a paradox that onset of serious mental symptoms leaves a person less inclined to perform music, while driving oneself to vocalise or play his or her instrument could very well act to somewhat relieve a depressive mood. It is in this way that structured daily sessions provided in various arts and crafts by NGOs alleviates the need for a high level of motivation on the part of the participant. Once in the class the creative instinct takes over and the therapeutic value gained will be related to how much is put in.

The generally high and in some instances exceptional standard of art works seen regularly at exhibitions sponsored by Auckland NGOs can be matched by those who choose to remain totally independent of umbrella organisations or attend ‘brushing-up’ classes to hone their skills and share fellowship with other artists. The proportion of visually creative people (and other artists) making up mental health clients as a whole must surely exceed that of the general population. Many completed art school as young people only to suffer a serious breakdown interrupting their career. The slow and often painful return to art brings their life back on course to where it should have been, and the return of competence in their chosen field boosts confidence greatly.

The emergence of worthy singer-songwriters from the ranks of mental health clients, some gaining national attention and acclaim, has been perhaps the most impressive success in the arts. Among those less musically gifted, informal vocal and instrumental groups allow essential expression of primal emotions. It is obvious, from observing the dynamics of an informal musical group coordinated by myself, that simply expressing oneself musically is a freeing experience, enabling a quantum leap into a deeper mental and spiritual personal state than, say, polite conversation, even among friends. Someone who has been almost totally silent during a social gathering for two hours immediately previous, will burst forth with torrents of forceful communication. It is a painful paradox then, at least for performance artists, that they feel least like singing or playing when they are going through a bad patch. It is then that friends and supporters should guide them back into their art to reintroduce and sustain a habit of self-therapy.

For the visual artist, it can easily be imagined that the first stroke of paint on canvas brings forth creative possibilities. There is a fast rush of creation stimulated by the activity itself. On the second and third strokes more ideas suggest themselves and on the fourth and fifth maybe already a pattern is emerging. A direction steadily coelesces into a theme, or the work is finally abandoned. But either way the stimulation of higher mental processes has brought many hours of hopefully undistracted, undiluted spiritual pleasure for the artist. Any wider appreciation by friends, supporters, recognition by the mental health community, even general public, are bonuses which can boost general confidence but does not match the ultimate high: the very act of creation.

It has been said that the future of the world depends on its most creative, free-thinking individuals; certainly not those living by ‘the rules’ and striving for consensus. If this is true—and I believe it is, it is a shame that more research has not been done into the higher workings of the mind.

POLITICAL REVIEW: Keeping Score in the War

In morality, politics, television, war on March 12, 2008 at 8:17 pm

Here in New Zealand the local Auckland television channel, Triangle, carries the PBS tv nightly news from Washington DC, with Jim Lehrer, Judy Woodruff and a number of other expert, veteran journalists.

A 'famous' shot of the Iraq War, but hardly ever seen

A 'famous' shot of the Iraq War, but hardly ever seen

Aside from the usual topics internal to the US, they conscientiously cover the US-Iraq war. A very nice, personal touch, obviously aimed at humanizing what can become just a numbers game, is in collecting the names, ages, ranks and hometowns, with a photo, of all American dead and broadcasting them in lists of about ten at the end of a program after next of kin have been informed.

It’s obviously more than patriotism can stand — giving aid and comfort to the enemy? — to tell the whole truth, say, with a few representative photos of the non-American casualties. They do give the running total whenever a new survey gives a new figure, or rather, range of figures. There are so many foreign dead this is just a number, a very high number — so impersonally presented it is impossible to comprehend the tragedy of a country destroyed.

The trap that PBS has fallen into concerning American losses is to play the politicians’ games by comparing monthly totals like some stock market forecast, so that it appears to be a good thing that ‘only’ 29 servicemen have been killed in February 2008 compared to the 105 in February 2007.

Homeless and 'displaced' refugees: more uncounted statistics

Homeless and 'displaced' refugees: more uncounted statistics

For most other countries, zero servicemen needlessly killed is the only acceptable number. But, sure enough, surveys of the American public seem to show that an increasing number of people are coming round to the conclusion that, say, 25 to 50 a month might be a happy compromise. That must explain why even Democrat representatives overlook the fact that people continued to be killed in a war that was started over nothing and drags on with no stated aim in sight.

ROCK MUSIC — Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: SURFIN’ US/K

In celebrity, generational/fashion, history, music, politics, television on February 10, 2008 at 1:04 am

Excerpt #2 from BEACH BOYS vs BEATLEMANIA: Rediscovering Sixties Musicby G. A. De Forest, published by Booklocker.com and available for around $19.95 from Amazon, Borders, Books-a-Million, Barnes & Noble or any other of your favorite Internet stops

Sales peak thus far: #23 on Amazon.com’s hot 100 Music History & Criticism books, April 26th 2008


In 1965 the world was looking scary — and not only because the most inane warblings of the British Invasion looked like they were here to stay. Twenty years after the end of WWII it turned out that old tensions and seething enmities between cultures had only been swapped for new ones. The USSR, China, and satellites Eastern Europe, Cuba, North Korea and North Vietnam lined up against The West. In January, Britain’s Winston Churchill, savior of western democracy and hawk of the Cold War, died. Khruschev of the USSR had been deposed for not bringing the West to heel though his USA opposite number John F Kennedy was dead a year. In little more than twelve months the three potent figures of the post-War world were gone.

In February and March two events denied all the brief Kennedy Era stood for. Malcolm X, Black Muslim and leader in the civil rights movement, was murdered, spurring race riots in the Watts district of LA. And President Lyndon B Johnson (“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”) committed the first combat troops to Vietnam, an undeclared war plaguing the American psyche long past its ten-year duration.

The Beach Boys, summer of '64, three months before their first UK visit. From left, Carl Wilson, leader Brian Wilson, middle brother Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love, and Brian's Hawthorne High School grid iron teammate Al Jardine

The Beach Boys, summer of '64, three months before their first UK visit. From left, little brother Carl Wilson (lead guitar, vocals), big brother and leader Brian Wilson (bass guitar, keyboards, falsetto harmony and lead vocals), middle brother Dennis Wilson (drums, vocals), cousin Mike Love (lead vocals, occasional saxophone), and Brian's Hawthorne High School grid iron teammate Al Jardine (rhythm guitar, occasional lead vocals)

The Beach Boys, victims of their idealism, were about to be trapped in a time warp, objects to be vivisected by the fashion police. For a year pop commentators had questioned the reason for being of these stubborn squares who seemed naïvely unaware of all Beatledom had to offer. The Byrds, switching to folk rock and Dylan, still made the effort to look and sound like Beatles; everyone knew they were “America’s answer” to them. It was “in” and “far out” to conform to the new ‘Counterculture’.

Dennis had gone some way toward beatlesque, hair-wise, in summer ’64; a year later the others were looking fluffier too, if not longer, yet. Mike grew a neatly trimmed beard to distract from his thinning hair, lending a ‘Peter, Paul & Mary’ professorial look to the frontman of a group already up against it with ever younger record-buyers. In November 1966 for their Good Vibrations tour of the UK the eldest Beach Boy — months younger than Ringo Starr and John Lennon — would go the whole hog for the Oxford don look, posing for group publicity stills dressed eccentrically in British tweed, country gentleman’s cap and holding a pipe. Brian (to be replaced in spring 1965 by the lean and handsome, if bland, Bruce Johnston for touring) and Carl were unfashionably chubby — and still clean-shaven unlike the bulky turned-on musos of San Francisco psychedelia just emerging, who knew where it was at and let it all hang out: Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Bob Hite of Canned Heat…. It was all a clear snub to populism: the Beach Boys would go their own way, in their own time.

FEBRUARY 15TH 1965 BROUGHT A REALISATION THAT irreplaceable figures had died in the past two months: Sam Cooke, murdered; Alan Freed of a failing spirit; now Nat King Cole of lung cancer. For the Beach Boys the year opened with their first ever shows in Canada — good for a dozen big hits so far, their second expedition into the foreign territory of the British Commonwealth (following Australasia a year before). First came a date at Vancouver, the French city of Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Brian, hungry for new experiences, plays all but the last, replaced by Glen Campbell. They will take in the same round of cities again in September, with Bruce Johnston and supported by new stars Sonny & Cher.

BBstoday On vinyl, from the completed Beach Boys Today, a new 45 is lifted that fatal February day. On top of a wall of sound but in a flourish of driving, modernized rock, is their rebirth of ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ both spirited and lush — so maybe too American. Dennis’s sole solo hit, it’s the top debut in the Nashville top 40; streaks fifteen places into the St Louis ten to quench a nine-month drought there; L C Cooke, brother of Sam, rushes out an alternative version that hits the St Louis r&b chart. In the Midwest’s Chicagoland, Milwaukee, Twin Cities, Cincinnati, the Southwest’s Dallas, Phoenix, Tulsa and the Eastern Seaboard’s Washington DC, Baltimore, New England, Newark, Hartford, it is top five with West Coast markets Seattle, Portland, San Jose, San Diego — though here sales are split with its B-side (haunting ballad ‘Please let Me Wonder’); #6 in the South’s St Louis, Memphis, Norfolk, Richmond; lower top ten Montreal, San Francisco, Vancouver, Kansas City. Taking off the gloss are below par receptions just outside in Philadelphia, New York (best at WINS, #12-13, its level in the major national hit parades), Miami and Toronto; and languishing lower top 20 on the playlists at influential stations in Detroit, Houston, Pittsburgh and hometown LA (where it nonetheless peeks in at #6 at local stations in Van Nuys and San Bernardino). Elevated to no.5 in the ShowTime chart distributed to newspapers nationwide, additionally no.8 by United Press International, and no.9 by Gilbert’s youth survey for the Associated Press, mainstream in the leading trade papers (Billboard, Cash Box, Variety) it is no threat to Herman’s Hermits and Freddie & the Dreamers with their red carpet treatment from the media and squatting pampered in the Brit penthouse hosted by the Yanks. The current WABC-New York sales survey, covering the USA’s biggest market, lists Brit acts taking 11 of the top 16 tunes.

In the UK it wasn’t released (‘All Summer Long’ was — later celebrated by George Lucas at the end credits of his American Graffiti but a joke in terms of the hard tack Brits expected from groups at the time), maybe because EMI feared it could take long-term sales from its Cliff Richard & the Shadows’ 45. Following as it did their recent European tour, ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ should have reinstated them on the Continent, which had given the previous two singles the silent treatment. While it was bought in loyal Scandinavia and played in Italy, it was invisible in Germany, France, Holland and now Australia too, preoccupied with all things Fab.

‘Please Let Me Wonder’ went to #1 as the chosen ‘A’ in San Jose and San Bernardino; #3 in Chicago, Seattle and upstate New York; similarly top five in Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Sacramento; top ten Philadelphia, San Francisco, Houston, San Diego, Milwaukee, Columbus, Hartford, Fresno; Los Angeles, Detroit, Miami, San Antonio, Denver, Vancouver, Buffalo the twenty. It drove to no.9 separately in the Associated Press chart a week before its designated A-side but stalled halfway up the two big charts’ top hundreds, though rising to no.32 in Variety. It is a favorite on compilation albums and retrospective videos.

April 21st they played both sides on Shindig, ‘Help Me Rhonda’ just released and pocket jams of ‘Fun Fun Fun’ and ‘Long Tall Texan’, demolishing English guests Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders and Cilla Black, producer Jack Good still plugging his countrymen and women though as many would come unstuck as stick; no.1 Italian songstress Rita Pavone also ran. They met up too on set with the Shangri-Las and the Ikettes—from that first bill over three years before.

Both hits were — happily — out of sync with prevailing (lack of) taste, which saw what was already a year-long lapse accelerate into a headlong dive. The public was forcefed the silliest pop ditties yet, Top 40 stations now programmed via remote control by bosses in the biggest cities at network h.q.s, even star DJs straightjacketed from injecting local content or personal favorites. Songs masticated into the new chew for a few weeks, losing what bland flavor they had. Previously this trend was signalled by the Beatles’ superior ‘And I Love Her’ and somewhat lesser ‘If I Fell’, both lapped up by sentimental moviegoers. The Dave Clark Five jumped at the Beatles’ lead, and made them utterly sickening: ‘Because’, ‘Everybody Knows’ — two glutinous-syrupy ballads vying with Brian Poole & the Tremeloes’ ‘Someone, Someone’ for most nauseating weepie of the era.

The Beach Boys sustained their fun-loving, exuberant image, seen in a stocktake-of-things-that-matter Carl wrote for Tiger Beat:

Brian: a Cadillac Eldorado and Mustang

Dennis: a Ferrari and Cobra

Mike, the real collector: a Pontiac MG, Jaguar and Classic MG

Carl: an Aston Martin (James Bond style), Triumph 500 motorbike

Al, ever sensible: a lone T-Bird, as featured in ‘Fun Fun Fun’

The Beach Boys posing with their muscle cars a year before in early '64, the Beatles about to arrive (as can be seen by Brian's experimental hairstyle): From left, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Mike Love

The Beach Boys posing with their muscle cars a year before in early '64, the Beatles about to arrive (as can be seen by Brian's experimental hairstyle): From left, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Mike Love

By now the three Wilson brothers had bought their own homes on the outskirts of Hollywood. Mike and Al stayed close to home at Manhattan Beach. A roll call of Dennis’s pets told much of the elemental Beach Boy: two (wild, freedom-loving) horses, an otter (at home in water), a parakeet named after mother Audree, a power-dog German Shepherd and ever-present underdog for Dennis to look after — a lost puppy run over outside his house, with a broken leg needing healing. Always a mass of contradictions, supposedly least talented when the group started, he was turning himself into a multi-instrumentalist. The most Beach Boy — runner-up in a Hawaiian surfing tourney, an accomplished danger-skier on hair-raising Rocky Mountain slopes — he was also the most un-Beach Boy, developing a husky, cracked blues voice.

It was Dennis in full flight who pulled as much mob appeal as a Beatle. Fans would breach the carefully mounted barricades at concerts, and all of the boys had their clothes torn and were taught tactics to escape girls’ clutches — rolling out of the tackle grid-iron style. Dennis, though, sometimes surrounded despite the best game strategies, had several times been literally k.o.’ed by love. In Louisville, Kentucky, coincidentally the home of Muhammed Ali, he required three stitches to his head. When audience reaction was deemed out of hand local police forces used their ultimate power of censorship, cutting the feed to amplifiers or yanking down the stage curtain mid-performance, much to the group’s disgust. In l.p. liner notes Mike remarked on the Cincinnati fans as champion “cop-dodgers” and “Then there’s the helpless feeling of seeing a girl, who maybe spent her last dollar to see us, crying or something, ’cause the cops wouldn’t let her stay and get a Beach Boys autograph.” Unlike the Beatles, the group never had sealed, womblike limos to duck into to separate them from their public, and for less hysterical crowds would often stay behind for hours to sign autographs and chat.

UNLIKE THEIR HERMETICALLY PROTECTED RIVALS the Beach Boys no doubt felt themselves in the full swim of the Swinging Sixties. Carl named his favorite acts as the Beatles, Four Seasons, Supremes, Manfred Mann and the Animals—in preference over the Rolling Stones. The Stones, he said, showing considerable prescience, would be around as long as they made hits. Brian, in a 1996 interview, said that he and Carl “liked John [Lennon] a lot” — and that he wrote ‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’ as “a kind of tribute to John.” Said at one time to have been intended for the Beatles to record, it was one of Brian’s favorite songs, written on vacation in Hawaii without a piano or guitar: “And it’s the only song I wrote that way.” He had penned ‘Kiss Me Baby’ months before in a Copenhagen hotel room, also without much in the way of composing aids.

Certain other revelations Brian has made about his lifestyle at this time have shed light on his creative processes: Put simply, take marijuana and sit down at the piano. For The Beach Boys Today!he was experimenting: “The whole second side had been written and arranged while I was high. Compared to previous Beach Boys albums the music was slower, more plaintive, and emotional. The chord patterns were more complex, the production denser, richer in sound, and my thinking in regard to making records was different. Able to break down songs to precise little increments, I began to deal with each instrument individually, stacking sounds one at a time” (BrianWilson.com).

Three months later in April he took a quantum leap into the drug world with his first experience of LSD. He at first justified this by the fact that it led instantly to the composing of ‘California Girls’. Later, he noticed that it was the beginning of auditory hallucinations—voices talking to him, often threatening ones — and an everworsening fragility of mind. It was about this time too he wrote and recorded its flipside ‘Let Him Run Wild’ in hommage to Burt Bacharach’s renowned chord progressions — and that’s as far as any resemblance goes.

Whatever happened to “No foreign wars!”

In history, ideology, morality, politics, television, war on December 27, 2007 at 10:06 am

Living outside America, as I have since age five — that is, my entire informed life — I have been disadvantaged in one sense in looking at the ‘Homeland’ (a term a little too reminiscent of ‘Fatherland’). That is, not being able to see it intimately, from the inside. I was acculturated as an American but since about sixteen, when I first thought of looking at things with an independent mind, I haven’t experienced the unadulterated pride and satisfaction Americans have in simply being American. (I almost said self-satisfaction but I think that applies more to the British; I’m convinced Americans are, for the most part, unassuming and appreciate things that come their way as gifts rather than rights they deserve.) I’m sure it’s made up of appreciating the many little things. But in a larger sense also, the state of simply living in ‘The Land of the Free’ — or what used to pass for it.

But on the other hand, though seeing America second hand, I don’t run the risk of self-serving delusion. And, standing back from something as big and complex as America — the place and the concept — you can, I think, more often see ‘the big picture’, and little things you often can’t see for standing right on top of them.

Now, I have rich childhood memories of America (1955-60) and am the first to admire American popular culture: the little cowboy outfit I wore riding on my trike; the junior grid iron one I had in USC colors — yellow and blue; the derringer in a belt buckle that would pop out with belly pressure; the rifle with a built-in ricochet; the crystal set in the shape of a rocket ship I used to listen to hit parades from 1958 on. For the past few days over Xmas I have been enjoying back-to-back screenings of B-movies from the Thirties and Forties on DVD. And if old B-movies are still worth watching, how much better was the ‘A product’ with slightly bigger budgets? — before 1975 and the mega-budgets spent on ‘perfecting’ very routine ‘special’ effects through the Spielberg-Lucas-Cameron-Jackson era. But the foreign policy of the United States is another thing entirely, something to be anything but admired, as many Americans have come to feel over recent years.

Though this fatal disconnect between a huge proportion of the population and its ruling elite has only come about recently, it has been in the brewing for decades. The big difference is that now the level of discontent has reached its critical mass. Something big is about to happen — must happen — for the unbearable political stress to be released. Over perhaps the past fifty years, since about the time of the Korean War and the inexorable build-up of what Eisenhower warned against as the self-sustaining power of the military-industrial complex of the United States, foreigners have tried to stretch their minds around how this need for vast military power equates to the generous, unassuming Americans they have met and got to know as individuals.

It is easy to see how the thinking of politicians is corrupted by power — it happens in every country in the world — but how do peace-loving small-town people across America, with their Saturday morning bake-sales, scouts activities, camping vacations and Mom-and-Pop businesses buy into this thinking?

Everyone knows that from the Founding Fathers on, Americans avoided foreign wars on principle, almost at all costs — allowing for the cruel Civil War and occasional imperialistic forays into Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean. Before his nation finally joined in World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to plead with his countrymen not to ignore for too long the fact of the war and that one day they would have to relate up close and nasty with those aggressor countries who had made war on the rest of the world. Then as soon as the war was won there was a popular cry from Americans to “Bring the Boys Home!”

But now the United States is the aggressor and the populist cry is “Let’s support our boys over there!”, as if soldiers should be directing the foreign policy of the United States; and the president should be conducting international relations as a commander-in-chief — he who must be obeyed to the ends of the earth, no matter how bogus the premise for war, no matter how wanton the war or destructive to his own people. Every president from Washington to Eisenhower must be rolling in their graves at the thought of the incumbent. On the other hand one of the popular, ‘liberal’ and seemingly rational Republican presidential candidates, Senator John McCain, is all for “supporting our troops” no matter how many of the troops disagree with him or resent being put in the crossfire for no good reason — repeatedly, as terms of duty are extended and then multiplied, indefinitely. Yet McCain must represent something akin to a mainstream in this warped thinking. He has been welcomed onto tv’s ‘The Daily Show’ and backslapped by hard-hitting satirist John Stewart — at least, hard-hitting when he has something easy to ridicule.

One tiny fraction of the (foreign) price of war: an Iraqi mother clings to her dead child

One tiny fraction of the (foreign) price of war: an Iraqi mother clings to her dead child

Unless Americans come out wholesale to vigorously protest (it might be illegal to incite actual rebellion) they can kiss what is left of their democracy goodbye. But the task looks immense. Already the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates with the largest followings shaping up for the next election in November 2008 have publicly refused to rein themselves in by renouncing the powers the current president has grabbed for himself — happy with the fact that his freefall towards full-blown fascism has set the precedent.

BEING AMERICAN: Letterman — “That’s why the world hates us!”

In ideology, politics, television on December 24, 2007 at 2:16 am

A few weeks before the current television writers’ strike I was watching ‘The Late Show’. David Letterman was presenting his own version of the new tv series ‘America Has Talent’. The first guy he brought on displayed his own spectacular talent — kicking himself in the head thirty times within thirty seconds. He completed the task well within the time limit and with all the aplomb that could be expected of this form of entertainment. Letterman congratulated the man but then after he left said, “That is why the world hates us.” The second guy he brought on had a similarly unique talent that he must have spent hours and hours ‘perfecting’. As the drummer from the CBS band played a suspense-heightening roll on his snare, the young man fired a dart from a blowgun to trip a catapult propelling a marshmallow back in his direction, catching it in his mouth. Such an exacting manoeuvre took three tries before he got it right, first missing the catapult, then failing to catch the marshmallow, but finally completing it to the satisfaction of Letterman and the audience. Letterman remarked, “No, I’m sorry. That is why the world hates us.” The third man seemed to impress even Letterman — by drinking a glass of beer through his nose, sucking it up sip by delicious sip and then down his throat. Though some in the audience were audibly disgusted, Letterman praised this technique for its practical use: enabling you to smoke literally at the same time as enjoying a leisurely drink at the bar. But in another sense, according to Letterman, this feat trumped the others: “I have to apologize to the other two gentlemen: This is why the world hates us.”

From this superficially hilarious satire the obvious implication by Letterman is that Americans are for the most part absorbed in such trivialities: maybe the adult equivalent of playing with your peepee. And he could have added baseball, a national pastime raised to a spiritual observance but a competition largely irrelevant since cheating has been allowed to run rife for the past decade and a half; (American) football, a gladiatorial sport, the physical qualifications for which allow a tiny fraction of one percent of males to ascend to a similar pedestal in society, its attendant violence calling for layers of padding in a sometimes forlorn attempt to escape death; basketball, involving probably even more exacting physical disqualifiers for the general population, and believed to be a meaningful career for abnormally tall young men; and ice hockey, for which the childhood pastime of skating is ‘elevated’ by the additive of unprovoked aggression and other gang behavior to a religious experience observed for several months either side of the winter solstice. Americans are absorbed in these distractions every bit as much as Roman citizens were in gladiatorial circuses, orgies and freak shows through the decline of their empire.

This is not to say that New Zealanders and other nationalities don’t have their own crippling choice of tunnel vision in whiling away their days. They do. But, America being all-powerful and easily the dominant cultural influence around the world, living here in New Zealand as I have since 1960 I am frequently called on in casual conversation to defend the priorities of my original homeland, the United States. This used to be simple, I thought. I was only fourteen when the Sixties ended and America had always been the Good Guy as far as I knew, despite how some Vietnam War protesters had it. From the time I started university at seventeen and under the influence of my elder sisters I became a liberal (and, of course, a feminist), by my mid-twenties highly sceptical of how America functioned as a political unit in the world — diverging so far from the ideals of the Founding Fathers.

Under virtually continuous Republican administrations during my adult life — increasingly right-wing ones — it has been easy for scepticism to settle into deep disillusionment. The Clinton administration seemed in comparison an oasis of enlightenment in foreign relations, claiming to actually care about what the rest of the world wanted. Whether this was largely PR I’m not sure, but when the president visited New Zealand he was greeted like the second coming of Mahatma Gandhi: with almost the same moral authority, a comparable charisma quotient, and a lot handsomer to boot. Since then New Zealand has been downgraded from an ally to a ‘friend’ of the United States, mainly because not following Bush automatically into Iraq as Australia did under its conservative leader John Howard, recently voted out in a landslide.

Of course, a lot depends on whether you argue on a moral or on a historical basis:

“Yes, it was illegal, even immoral, for the United States to launch an unprovoked invasion against Iraq and remain as an occupying power — as it did against Hawaii, the Philippines, tried to do against North Vietnam. But, historically, look at the Roman Empire. Examined objectively, given America’s investment in naked power and as the one superpower in the world it has to be ruthless to maintain its power, or otherwise go backwards, relatively speaking”

… and this broad, philosophical argument trails off into intellectual abstractions and rationalisations. Standing back, it is seen this perspective is not objective at all but obtuse self-justification. I get the feeling a lot of Americans wouldn’t be content to think of their country as a historical parallel of the Roman Empire, despite the two societies’ many similarities in lifestyle, political priorities and reliance on military might to get their way.

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