Monday, April 22, 2019

Always look for the offensive side of life

People are easily offended these days. This is true whether their spot on the political spectrum is on the Left, Right, or somewhere in the Centre. All sides, the two ends in particular, are prone to being easily offended (usually by different things) and demanding that whatever it is that’s offending them is banned, suppressed, or censored. People really need to chill out.

I was reminded of all this today by a post on a Facebook Page for the community we live in. It was very much off topic for the page, which rarely has discussions of things that aren’t specific to our community, or maybe the wider region if it affects our community. The post I saw a post someone made this morning, something that had nothing to do with our community:
I was shocked to see the cartoon drawing a parallel between the cross of Christ and the personalities involved with Capital Gains Tax. Such mockery of the core of the Christian faith is only possible because we live in a democratic country and there is no danger of a backlash from Christians. I pose the question: would the cartoonist portray any aspect of Islam in an equally demeaning way? I think not. Christ himself said while hanging on the cross, “Forgive them, Father for they know not what they do.” Be thankful that the basis of Christ’s teaching is forgiveness not reprisal.
My first reaction was an unkind, “WTF?!” The only comment at that point was along similar lines:
Well said… It's a shame people are all too ready to embrace Islam but laugh and mock people who are Christians. Let's accept and respect everyone's religious beliefs as I do as a Christian.
It seemed to me that the discussion was sitting on an edge between more or less rational comments and rank islamophobia, so I chimed in. Here’s my comment in full (slightly edited for clarity):
I haven’t seen what you’re referring to, so I have no idea whether I’d think it was making a good point or a bad one, or whether it was offensive or just naff (most political memes on all topics fall into the latter category).

But your point isn’t really about that particular image, it’s about your personal offence at people being what you personally consider to be disrespectful to your version of Christianity. You absolutely have every right to have that opinion and to express it, and good on you for doing so! But that doesn’t mean your views are immune from either criticism or exempt from people expressing opposing views. That is their right, too.

As you know, there are many flavours of Christianity, and not all of them share your feeling of being disrespected. The fact people use Christian imagery to make political points is mainly because it has “cultural currency”—people know what it refers to and what point they’re trying to make. In a sense, it’s a compliment to how pervasive Christianity is that people *can* use Christian imagery and references to make a point.

The reason that people don’t generally use anything from Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or any of earth’s hundreds of other religions is precisely because hardly anyone would “get” it. So, it’s not that that they’re picking on Christianity, nor are they giving more respect to any of those hundreds of other religions, it’s merely because they want to make a point people will understand.

Also, very often people making these points using Christian references are themselves Christian—though probably of a different flavour than you are. That adds another layer to this.

Finally, there *ARE* uses of religious references that are deeply offensive, and I have seen some directed at Christianity. However, the vast majority of truly offensive religious-based memes on social media attack Islam, not Christianity. I’m sure we can all agree that it’s wrong to actually attack *any* religion, or atheism, agnosticism, nontheism, or even just those who have no religion. There’s a difference between criticising ideas and beliefs we don’t share and attacking them. The first is fair game, the latter isn’t.

But your argument wasn’t about attacks, it was about use of references to Christianity that you don’t like. What I’m saying is, first, not everyone, nor even every Christian, will share your view on that. Second, the use of such references is seldom an attack on Christianity, but, rather, an acknowledgement that Christianity is pervasive, and referring to other religions wouldn’t work because of that pervasiveness. And, also that the real social media attacks are mainly against other religions, not Christianity.

Despite all that, you’re right, people ought to be more respectful of others and their different beliefs (religion, politics, opinions on Cadbury chocolates, whatever). But people will keep doing things we don’t like and that we may even find offensive. That’s life. I think that when they do that, all we can do in response is to acknowledge we all have differing views, but still try to provide a better example. You never know who’s listening, and they might just learn to do better!
A few more comments followed, some veering close to being unkind and unhelpful, plus a couple in support. The person responded, “I was not being PC – simply expressing my feelings as a committed Christian,” which I have no doubt was a sincerely held belief, but conservatives never realise they’re “being PC” when they are because they truly believe only those on the Left can be “PC”.

By this point, I wanted to see what the person had been on about, so I looked up the cartoon, acting on a hunch that I knew where it came from. I then posted another comment this evening (again, edited for clarity and adding links):
Interesting discussion! I decided to look up the cartoon in question to see what this was all about. It turns out it was by the NZ Herald's Rod Emmerson and published April 20 (I posted the link to it in a reply to my comment in case anyone wanted to see it, but so that those offended by it could avoid seeing it).

I can see why certain Christians might be offended because they mistakenly believe that it's mocking Christianity, but it's not. Instead, it's actually mocking the NZ First [Party] caucus [in Parliament] because they killed the Capital Gains Tax, and the visuals are based not on the Christian story at all, but on the 1979 film "Monty Python's Life of Brian" (which, of course, certain Christians tried to ban because they said it "mocked" their version of Christianity). Specifically, it's based on the crucifixion scene in that film, where Eric Idle leads everyone in a rendition of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" [video above] as they all hang on their crosses.

Although I wasn't the least bit offended by the cartoon, I think it failed because it wasn't funny and/or didn't make an obvious point. Emmerson can be really, really good—and other times, well, less successful. In my opinion, this particular cartoon was weak and ineffectual, yes, but not offensive.

It's great that in a free society everyone is free to make their own decisions about what they believe, and also what they think is offensive. They can make those decisions ONLY for themselves, obviously, and if they want people to agree with them they need to make a better argument. This discussion has made clear that we all have our own opinions and beliefs, and we're all equally entitled to hold and express them.

Still, despite the strong feelings this subject can stir up, on the whole it's been a LOT more respectful than I see on most Facebook Pages, so there's that!
The discussion really was mostly civil, but I also don’t for one minute think that the conservative Christians were persuaded at all. As is so often the case, my comments were really directed at people reading the comments but not leaving a comment themselves.

In general, I don’t comment on social media posts unless I want to speak to the silent watchers of comments. My motivations are that I want to give comfort and support to those who agree with me but feel they can’t express their opinions. I also want to give people without firm opinions another way of looking at an issue, something other than what the conservatives are arguing. And, of course, it’s not a terrible idea to remind conservative people that not everyone agrees with their opinions or worldview.

All of which is, of course, why I’m blogging about all this, too.

Some years ago I changed my social media commenting tactics. Rather than coming out with all barrels blazing, I instead try to phrase everything in respectful—but firm—tones so that the conservative must reply to the ideas, not the person. It’s surprising how many are incapable of doing that. Unable to avoid making it personal, they instead say nothing at all in reply. That’s fine with me—not only because such situations provide very little chance of finding common ground, but also because their silence actually strengthens my arguments by leaving them unchallenged.

In this particular case, I suspected that it was impossible to find common ground based on their initial comment, something that was confirmed hours later when they added, “To express an opinion is one thing, mockery is another,” indicating that they were insisting on defining both the limits of acceptable opinions and also what could be acceptable discussion.

Social media arguments are stupid, and discussions usually can’t really be called that because sooner or later people of differing views start arguing. All things considered, this was one of the rare exceptions to that.

People really do need to chill out, though. And they really should always look on the bright side of life. But that's a different topic.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Internet Wading for April 2019

President William Henry Harrison (ca 1841)
So, after an unplanned break, and some not-very-interesting technical problems, Internet Wading is back, and it’s a mixed bag, as usual. First up, some pop music.

A piece in The Guardian, “Giorgio Moroder – his 20 greatest songs, ranked” has pretty obvious subject. I don’t actually know a lot of the songs the article talks about, and I think that calling the soundtrack to Metropolis “overblown” is somewhat unfair, but “Arthur’s Law”, and all that.

Another article talking about music that was more peripheral for me was “Deciphering the Mystery of Joy Division” in The Atlantic. I had only one Joy Division song, on a compilation of songs from MTV’s “120 Minutes”, which was one of my favourite TV shows back in the 1980s. The song was “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, which was released in June 1980. Wikipedia describes it very matter of factly: “Its lyrics were inspired by lead singer Ian Curtis's marriage problems and frame of mind before his suicide in May 1980.”

I was much more familiar with, and a fan of, Joy Division’s successor band, New Order. I bought several of their albums—and later re-bought them through iTunes.

Speaking of pop culture, and consumerism, I was intrigued by “Welcome to my high-fashion, trash shopping mall”, a story about “a stylish shopping mall in Sweden, where everything is second-hand.” That concept is intriguing—and a way to close the final loop in reusing stuff rather than burying it in a landfill. Here in New Zealand, we have much lower-key shops around the country located at a few tips (“dumps” in Americanese), and technically called “waste transfer stations”. One such example is “Tipping Point”, the shop at Waitakere (West Auckland). It was only re-named that last year, and is a pun. It’s also a good example of what can be done.

Language and food? Why not? “Foreign Foods You Might Be Pronouncing Wrong”. And, just by the way, mostly I’m not. Well, not the ones I know, anyway, but maybe a couple others that have different local pronunciation here.

Speaking of language, “Did German almost become America’s official language in 1795?” I couldn’t possibly spoil the story, but we all know what language “won”.

Speaking of US history, “’His Accidency’: The first president to die in office and the Constitutional confusion that followed” tells the story of President William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, who died a month after his inauguration, and the man who succeed him,Vice President John Tyler. I grew up hearing my mother talking about their 1840 presidential campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too”, so I was pre-disposed to learn the story. These days I bet most Americans don’t know it.

And finally, a little science: “Snapshot of extinction: Fossils show day of killer asteroid”, though we all know that, er, um, certain people will dismiss this story out of hand. Doesn’t mean it’s not true, of course. And, sharing stuff that certain people will dismiss out of hand is just part of the service I provide. You're welcome.

That's enough wading for now. Water's getting cold.

The photo of President William Henry Harrison is by Albert Sands Southworth (American, 1811–1894) and Josiah Johnson Hawes (American, 1808–1901). Edited by: Fallschirmjäger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Just blog it

Many people wonder, or even ask, “Why bother blogging?” To some, blogs are relics, to others irrelevant indulgences, or maybe they think they’re just unreliable. But blogs are so much more than any of those things, and writing one is good for a lot of reasons.

This topic came up because I was chatting with my dear friend from my Chicago days, Linda, and realised that while I’ve talked about blogging, and how I do this blog, I’ve never put it it all together in one post for anyone who wants to start blogging, but doesn’t know how or where to start.

To break down the topic, I’ll use the Who, What, Where, Why, When, and How questions that are actually very useful when forming blog.

Why blog?

This is the first question a prospective blogger needs to answer, because it sets the direction for the answers to all the other questions. So, why do you want to blog? Is it to share your special expertise? Because you want to practice and improve your writing skills? Because you have a topic you feel strongly about and want to have your say? Because you want to make money from blogging?

To put it simply, I blog because I want to. I also enjoy the process, and even taking photos or making graphics to illustrate what I’m talking about (which, sadly, I don’t always have the time to do). There are things I want to say, and sometimes there are things I need to say. And, blogging an average of one post per day over a year has improved my writing through the constant practice. But all of that is secondary to the simple fact that I blog because I want to, and I enjoy doing that. When either changes, I’ll stop.

Who are you writing for?

Are you writing for yourself, your friends and family, or for people you don’t know? All are valid choices, but deciding who you’re talking to will help you focus your posts.

I address my posts to curious people, people who want to know about the things that capture my attention, or who are curious about the things I talk about. In general, and there are exceptions, I do my blog posts and my podcasts the same way: I imagine I’m talking with someone who’s an old friend, but maybe someone else is listening who may not know everything I’m talking about. I prefer a more casual, personal style, which, fortunately, suits a blog like this. A more formal and focused blog may require a more fomal approach.

What is your blog about?

Blogs don’t need to stick to one topic—this one doesn’t! This blog is a “personal journal blog”, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s about whatever I feel like writing about at the time. It could be something about me or my personal life, about politics, pop culture, science, history, whatever. I’m a “Magpie Blogger”, as is my friend Roger Green (https://www.rogerogreen.com/). In fact, all my favourite blogs are the same.

But, that’s just me: A single topic blog can be pretty awesome, too—if you’re interested in the topic, of course. When I started this blog I intended to write a lot about being an expat, and about living in New Zealand. As time passed, it evolved into what it is now (and, in fact, posts about New Zealand and being an expat are not necessarily the most-read posts). So, even if you think you want to blog about one single topic, you, and the blog, can always evolve.

Where will you keep your blog?

There are two dominant free sites for blogging: The one this blog is on is the Google-owned Blogspot (also known as Blogger), but there’s also a free version of WordPress. It doesn’t really matter which one you choose, and they both have their strengths and weaknesses. However, if you want to use a free site, I’d still recommend that you buy a custom domain and use that for your blog. The reason for that is that if you really like blogging and want to move it to a paid site, you can easily do so without losing readers: They can bookmark your domain rather than the Blogspot or WordPress address.

It’s worth noting that both sites allow you to restrict access to your blog, so if you want to entrust a few close friends or family members to help you fine tune your blog before you go public, or if it’s deeply personal, that’s always an option.

If you do want to pay to host your blog, WordPress is a great option, and it’s used by many well-known companies—and both my podcasts. But why not try the free versions first and see f you even like blogging?

How do you blog?

Every blogger has methods and techniques, and these are some of mine. I always write my posts on my computer using a word processing program (the specific program doesn’t matter). That allows me to edit and spellcheck, and to save a copy to my computer. Then I copy the text and paste it into Blogger’s “New Post” window. I paste into HTML to avoid extra charatcters and codes from the Word Processing files. If you want to see all the code that, say, Word puts into a text file, paste it into the “Compose” tab and then switch to HTML.

There are a lot of resources to help you figure out how to format your text, use photos, add links, etc., all of which is beyond the scope of this post. But I can say it’s very easy to pick it up, and you don’t need to learn HTML coding or any other thing—you can concentrate on your writing.

Whatever specific technique you choose, there is one thing I need to stress: Back-up your blog! Because my blog is on Blogger, I’m unlikely to lose it completely—but that’s not impossible. As I said, I keep copies of all my posts on my computer. From time to time I download my database to my computer so I have a complete backup.

How to choose what to write about can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be. No matter your subject area, there will things you see that will make you think, “I’d like to do a blog post about that”. Do it! Sometimes it can be as unexpected as the chat with a friend that inspired this post, but it really can be almost anything.

Roger Green plans out specific posts for specific times of the year. I’m nowhere near that organised, particularly because I usually write a post just before I publish it—which is what happened with this post. Even so, I have some annual posts I do, like for my birthday, as well as for the many and varied anniversaries I have over a few months, wheich led me to jokingly call them part of my “Season of Anniversaries”.

There’s a real advantage to planning posts in advance: You can write them when you have time. If you also write some “evergreen” posts, that is, ones that aren’t time specific in any way, then you can publish them at times you’re too busy to write new posts. I’m much better at doing this than I used to be, and it’s incredibly useful. Takes away the stress of needing to do a post when you just don’t have the time.

There’s one last thing about the process of blogging that’s reputed to be very important: Predictability. If you want to blog every day, once a week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, once a month, whatever, then stick to that schedule without fail. Everyone I’ve ever seen offer advice on how to be a successful blogger repeats this like a mantra. I don’t follow it, at all. When I have the time, I write a new blog post every day, when I don’t, I’ll skip one or more days, then catch up later with two or three posts in one day. But, as I said earlier, I blog because I want to, so I don’t mind breaking the rules.

And finally of all, I’ve never made any money whatsoever from blogging, nor have I ever been given free samples or anything else of value. That’s not why I blog. If you want to make money from blogging—and there are a lot of resources to help work out what to do—you’ll need to pay far more attention to the who, what, where, why, when and how of blogging than I do.

Good luck—and happy blogging!

See also: Roger Green frequently answers questions about blogging on Quora.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Dumping unkindness

We humans are good at a great many things, including a great many that aren’t objectively “good”. For example, people seem to need to dump on other people about everything from the TV shows they like (or don’t like) to the choices they make in food, politics, and even charity. We’ve seen that in abundance lately in response to the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It hasn’t been our finest moment, even when critics have a point.

To oversimplify the criticism, the Left has been saying that the money pledged to rebuild the cathedral would have been better spent on any of the numerous problems facing the planet, from climate change, to abject poverty, to disease, to species extinction, to, well, anything, really. That view, while sincere, is also hopelessly naïve, both to reality and to what is even possible.

What most Americans apparently don’t know is that Notre Dame is owned by the French state, not the Catholic Church. That matters because the riches of the Catholic Church won’t be, and can’t be expected to be, used to rebuild the cathedral. So, that particular criticism is a non-starter.

The bigger and more relevant point is about French billionaires tripping all over themselves to donate to the rebuild. The suggestion that these billionaires could donate instead to make the world a better place is silly: When has the 1% ever cared about the needs of those at the bottom of society? When have they ever done anything to fix the problems of social and economic inequality? This matters because, sure, they could donate to fix social problems, but the record shows they never will.

That means that the bigger issue is, where they hell were they when they were needed before? “The billionaires’ donations will turn Notre Dame into a monument to hypocrisy”, according to Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian. He points out the numerous failures and self-interest of the richest of the rich, adding: “Keepers of the building had begged for more money, but neither the belt-tightening French government nor the wealthy grumbling about higher taxes gave enough.” And that is, of course, only the beginning of their sins (not generally reported is that French megarich donors can get a 60% rebate on their donations, which means French taxpayers could end up paying most of the “donation”.

So, criticism of French billionaires is fair, absolutely, as are demands that they seek no tax advantages for donating to the rebuild. After all, if they’re serious about the need to rebuild, and about the cultural significance of the cathedral, then donating to make the rebuild happen should be all the benefit they require.

However, much of the social media noise seems to be targeted at small donors—ordinary people—choosing to donate to the rebuild effort. Attacking them is pathetic. If people want to donate to the rebuild, that’s no one’s business but their own: Our opinion doesn’t matter in the least. Sure, I’m not donating to the rebuild, and yes, I don’t think ordinary people should, either, but, if they want to donate, they should go for it: It is their choice.

The thing I keep coming back to is how much the criticism is a failure of imagination, as if everything in life is nothing but a zero-sum game. We can rebuild Notre Dame AND solve the world’s problems. It’s not a lack of money that’s the problem, it’s a lack of imagination, and of resolve.

In my opinion, it’s obvious that the rich should be paying their fair share in taxes (for a change), which is also the only way to get them to spend any money on fixing the world’s problems. Ordinary people, who have far fewer choices about what charity they can spend their money on, should be free to spend their money on what they feel is important without any tut-tutting by those who are oh, so much more moral than the rest if us.

The world’s problems sometimes seem unsolvable. We actually may be able to agree about how many of them are more important than rebuilding Notre Dame, despite its historic and cultural significance to Western civilisation. But that does not mean that rebuilding the cathedral isn’t important, nor does it justify dumping on ordinary people who choose to make that rebuild one of their personal priorities. To each their own!

Instead of always dumping on others and tearing them down, maybe we should instead advocate for what we think is important. If our views and arguments are persuasive, others will agree with us. That’s the way it works in the real world. If we don’t like how others choose to allocate their donations, we need to shut up. We may be right, our criticism may have a good point, but we’ll never convince people of that by being a jerk about it.

We need to relax. Make our case, sure, but let people be. No matter how passionate we may feel, the fate of the world will not hinge on whether everyone else does as we think they should—and, by the may, people may not. Again, the best word is a simple one: Relax.


"Native American activists: The fire at Notre Dame is devastating. So is the destruction of our sacred lands."
"Black churches in Louisiana see $1.3 million surge in donations after fire at Notre Dame Cathedral"Vox
"Grieving for Notre Dame"The Nation

Advancing the better ideas

If the 2016 US presidential election taught us only one thing, it ought to be that almost nothing is as it seems in American politics. There are hidden agendas, secret motives, and fake players literally everywhere, and on all sides of the ideological spectrum—and non-ideological interference from hostile foreign governments, too. We need to be smart, and suspicious, whenever we see literally anything in the news, and this week provided a perfect example.

This past week, “protesters” showed up at campaign event for Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Iowa. The protesters were dresses as “Satan”, “Jesus”, and one who was supposed to be Mayor Pete, apparently “whipping” the actor playing “Jesus” as the one playing “Satan” looked on and laughed. Street political theatre, and—on the surface—there are some things that make it seem legitimate.

Iowa has always had a politically active extremist “Christian” element, and anti-LGBT+ bigotry has been one of their mainstays. This has been true for probably a couple decades at least. Also, the night before, two “protesters” shouted at Mayor Pete, also in Iowa, about “Sodom and Gomorrah”, which biblical legend says were destroyed due to their inhospitality to strangers, but which “Christian” extremists persist in declaring were actually supposedly destroyed because of homosexuality (despite the fact that those biblical stories make absolutely clear that it was the sin of inhospitality).

Given all that, it’s understandable why some people might think the “protests” were both real and an expression of “Christian” extremism. But there’s plenty of reason to doubt that’s the case, and that’s why normal people must be careful to not overreact. As I said yesterday in a post on the AmeriNZ Facebook Page:
[The political street theatre shows a] brilliant, though evil, strategy: The “protestors” are anti-gay bigots, sure, but what they REALLY want is for normal people to over-react and come across as condemning Christianity so that the religious extremists can then use that as “proof” that those “evil libruls” and “homosekshuls” are “anti-Christian”. There will be more of these provocations, and they’ll become quite offensive to normal people, all in the hope it goads normal people into the overreaction the extremists are trying to get.
This isn’t new behaviour for the far right in the USA: They often take deliberate action to incite overreaction from mainstream Americans, or the Left specifically, so that they can use those overreactions as “proof” that they’re “victims”. I’ve talked about this very effective strategy many times on this blog.

I warned in that Facebook post:
Don’t fall into their trap! They’re victims of bad ideas, and that’s the only thing we know for sure. In real life, they might be good to their mothers and kind to animals, so treating them as if they’re evil isn’t rational or a good strategy. Stick only to calmly criticising their bad ideas, not them (maybe a critique of their acting technique is fair game, though?).
When dealing with religious extremists of any stripe, it’s tempting to retaliate against them personally, which only feeds their need to pretend to be “victims” of those mean Leftists. The people are not the actual problem—it’s their bad ideas, and this is where others come in:
Normal, rational people don’t behave like the extremists. Most conservative Christians wouldn’t behave so awfully, nor would mainstream Christians. Moderate and Progressive Christians have a special duty to counter the extremists’ bad theology, lack of any understanding about what the Gospels actually say, and their false narrative about homosexuality in particular, because this is really a family fight among Christians, one in which beating up gay people (so far, only rhetorically…) is a political tool, a provocation to get an overreaction so the extremists can advance their politically-motivated culture wars.

This isn’t turning the other cheek, it’s taking them on appropriately—countering their bad ideas, which takes away their power. Overreacting and lashing out at them is exactly what they want.
And that, in a nutshell, is what will be needed: It’s not about retaliating, it’s not even really about attacking their bad ideas, it’s about presenting better ideas. Instead of calling them and their ideas “stupid” (or worse), we need to point out why they’re wrong, sure, but more importantly, what the better ideas are. We won’t ever defeat those bad ideas by attacking the carriers of those ideas, not when our goal is really the same as the extremists: To win over bystanders watching the show and saying nothing. We need to present the truth and to show through example that better ideas should defeat bad ideas.

The implication of this is that when people DO scream against the “Christian” extremists, and they will, we’ll need to be prepared to call them out, too, because the goal here is to defeat the ideas. However, that’s not entirely the case. Those screaming insults at the “Christian” extremists have a use, though they’ll probably hate that fact: They make a more moderate response seem so much more reasonable and relatable by comparison.

I saw this play out many times when I was a LGBT+ activist in the 1980s and 1990s. The street radicals, people like Act-Up and Queer Nation, etc., were protesting in the streets, being confrontational and, yes, sometimes offensive. But because they were doing that, we “respectable” activists got access to elected officials to present our case—making the exact same demands we always had, and the same demands, in fact, as the street radicals, but we did it politely and in business attire, and we got results. This wasn’t because we were so utterly brilliant (although I was, obviously…), but because we seemed so “calm” and “reasonable” by comparison. In other words, the reason we were listened to and the reason we were as successful as we were came as a result of the pressure from the “unreasonable” activists on our own side.

None of that works, however, if there aren’t calm and moderate voices on the side of reason. And, it’s because this fight is really over different versions of Christian theology leaking into the political sphere that we need Moderate and Progressive Christians to lift their game to counter the “Christian” extremists.

The majority of us are probably best to stay out of the fight. While we may or may not be equipped to personally engage on theology, many of us will be dismissed out of hand because we’re not religious (or religious enough), because we’re Centrists or to the Left of Centre, or because we’re LGBT+. There’s one more reason to not engage, and it’s how I ended that Facebook post: “Besides, forgive your enemies—nothing pisses them off more!”

Politics, electoral politics in particular, is in part a great big public dance, and who ultimately wins is whoever calls the music. We must present the sweet music of reason, and counter the dissonance of the extremists with better music.

Let’s get warmed up. It’s going to be a long dance.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

It’s in the bag

I’m not waiting around for change, I’m changing what I can. Anyone can do that—they just need to decide to do so. Reducing the amount of waste packaging we accept reduces the amount we need to deal with, one way or another, and there are a number of ways to do that.

I’ve been blogging about many of the changes and challenges we face in New Zealand as some single-use plastics are banned, while others remain, and collection programmes change. There are developments on all those fronts.

In January I blogged about how a soft package recycling programme had been suspended, with it’s proposed resumption this month. On April 12, they posted a notice to their Facebook Page, and nowhere else, as far as I can tell:
The Soft Plastic Recycling Scheme and NZ’s leading retailers, supermarkets and brands will restart collections at a number of stores in Auckland after Easter. We will provide more information about timing and locations as these are confirmed.
Sounds great, apart from one thing: It’s severely limited. They will collect less plastic and at fewer places, beginning only in Auckland, and eventually expanding to the Waikato and Wellington. That sure sounds as if there will be few recycling opportunities for ordinary people.

Which brings us back to reduction.

There are few opportunities for ordinary people to reduce plastic use in supermarkets: They pre-package ALL meat and most produce, so avoiding that excess packaging means going to a butcher and a greengrocer, neither of which will be possible for the majority of consumers. There are alternatives.

Quite some time ago, I bought a set of mesh bags used for buying loose produce. In November of last year, I talked about how the price for loose onions was higher than pre-packaged onions. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case, and I always buy loose onions now.

I also now buy loose apples, rather than the pre-packaged ones. I liked the bags because they were so cheap—it seemed like a really good deal. However, I’ve realised that most of the “savings” were lost due to waste: The apples sat around past eating time, meaning most ended up in the compost bin.

Enter those reusable mesh bags (photo above, with onions inside): I now buy a few apples at a time, and I eat all of them. The unit price is good (I buy what’s on special), and there’s no waste—and no plastic packaging to deal with.

The same mesh bags can be used for any produce, of course, though so far I haven’t done so. But now that I’ve seen what a good idea they are, for so many reasons, I’ll be using them exclusively—even at greengrocers. No more silly plastic bags will enter this house—not for that, anyway.

We still have soft plastics in bread wrappers, chip bags, that sort of thing. Most of those I can’t avoid, and I can’t imagine that any food company will eliminate them. Same with meat: We may buy dramatically less meat, but what we do buy (and all of the meat substitutes) comes in plastic packaging. We clearly can’t avoid it altogether.

All any of us can do is the best we can do—I firmly believe that NO ONE can achieve perfection, no matter what they may think. We’ve managed to reduce our soft plastic consumption, but we’re nearing the limits of what we can do. That’s okay for us: All any of us can do is the best we can do.

Baby steps, sure, but taking the step at all is what matters.

Jacinda did well in NZ, too

Surprising absolutely no one, New Zealand Prime Minister is polling extremely well in the most recent opinion poll, taken after the terrorist attack in Christchurch. The main party in the coalition government, the NZ Labour Party, also increased its support. And that wasn’t the end of the good news.

The latest 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton Poll has found that Jacinda Ardern’s preferred prime minister rating is at a new career high of 51%. Opposition Leader Simon Bridges fell 1% to 5%, and his chief rival for leader of the National Party, Judith Collins, also fell 1% to 5%. Winston Peters, who is leader of the New Zealand First Party and Deputy Prime Minister, is steady on 3%.

Of course, New Zealand doesn’t elect its prime ministers, it elects a parliament which, in turn, determines who will be prime minister. There, too, it’s good news for Jacinda Ardern. Her Labour Party widens its lead, up 3 points to 48%, while the National Party is down 2% to 40%. Labour’s coalition partner, the NZ Green Party, is steady on 6%, while the other partner, New Zealand First, is at 4%, up one point.

Translated into seats in Parliament, which is what really matters, Labour would have 60 seats, the Greens would have 8, giving them a very comfortable governing majority of 68 seats in a 120-seat parliament. The National Party would have 51 seats, and its only possible coalition partner, the neoliberal Act “Party”, would have the one seat that National has gifted them for years, for a total of a mere 52 seats.

There are some caveats to all this. First, and most obviously, this isn’t an election year, so the numbers will change next year. Also, the poll reflects the opinions of those who had one: 15% said they didn’t know who they’d vote for. Over the next year and a half, there are a lot of things that could reduce Labour’s chances—OR increase them. No one can possibly know which.

One thing that will absolute NOT hurt the current government is the recent changes to New Zealand’s gun laws: 61% in the same poll thought the changes were about right, but 19% thought it didn’t go far enough. A mere 14% thought it went too far. That crushingly overwhelming support for the recent change, combined with its virtual unanimous support in Parliament, means it’s beyond any possibility of affecting the next election. Mission accomplished.

So, things are going very well in New Zealand: A popular Prime Minister who showed the world the way to respond to tragedies like the Christchurch attack, increasing support for her political party, and crushingly overwhelming support for recent gun law changes means New Zealand has made it through the recent challenges very well.

Things can change, fortunes can reverse, but right now, things are good. Right now, that’s enough.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

‘Meming’ on a Sunday

The picture is of a fake album cover I made, which is the result of a meme a friend posted to Facebook. Called “Create Your Debut Album”, it has several steps:
1) Go to Wikipedia and click “Random" (or on the desktop web version, click “Random article" on the left sidebar). The first random wikipedia article you get is the name of your band.

2) Go to "Random quotations" @ http://www.quotationspage.com/random.php. The last 4 or 5 words of the very last quote of the page is the title of your first album.

3) Go to https://www.flickr.com/commons. Third picture, no matter what it is, will be your album cover.

4) Use Photoshop or whatever to put it all together, then post your Album cover with this text in the caption.

Tag friends if you want. All are welcome to play.
Links were in the original
Naturally, I never tag anyone in these things; I figure anyone who wants to do them will do them, and the rest will ignore it. My friend also doesn’t tag people, so I chose to do it, but really for one reason: Step one.

When I did Step one, what I actually got was an article entitled, “Infectious disease (athletes)”, and I realised that “Infectious Disease Athletes” was a pretty awesome band name.

I could very well have stopped there, were it not for Step Two: The last four words of the last quote were “keep your mouth shut”, which I thought went particularly well with the name of the “band”. It's the end of a quote from Robert Newton Peck, "Never miss a chance to keep your mouth shut." Then at this point, I almost stopped again.

The problem here was Step 3: The meme originally directed people to Flicr’s “Explore/Interestingness/7 days”, but the problem with that is that most, or even all, of the images used were marked “All rights reserved”, which means that any derivitive work, even for this meme, is a violation of copyright. I do not like that.

Flickr has a section called “The Commons”, which has photos with no known copyright restrictions, making them arguably better. Also, every time the page is accessed, there are different photos displayed. However, not all of them are suitable for this, especially some of modern photos which have identifiable living people. That might be not the best thing to use for this purpose. And, while it can’t be guaranteed that the photos are in the public domain, they’re probably okay to re-use for derivative works like this, because they have no known copyright restrictions. So, on balance, it’s a better choice (and I’ve changed the instructions above to use The Commons instead).

As it turns out, I was lucky: The third photo was “thought to have been taken 1935 between Kent and High Streets, Sydney” in Australia, according to the photo description. That was luck, though.

And that’s it: I saw a meme with very detailed instructions, the first two steps produced results I thought were funny, the third threw up a roadblock which I got around, and then I made the “album” cover. Meh. I’m not a great designer—and yet, I want to know what the album sounds like, so I guess the “album” cover works?

Anyway, it was just a bit of Sunday evening fun.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Political Notebook for 13 April 2019

The circus is now open! Actually, it never, ever closes.

To everything there is a treason…

The current occupant of the White House loves throwing around loaded phrases to attack his political opponents (or anyone he doesn’t like at the particular moment he hate-Tweets about them). This week, he favourite word was treason. Dana Millbank’s piece in the The Washington Post, “For Trump, the name of the season is treason”, explains the story of the current occupant’s misuse of the word. It’s an ugly tale, not the least because of how puerile and utterly ignorant it is: The guy has absolutely NO idea what the Constitution says about treason (or anything else, of course), or why it’s so tightly and specifically defined and restricted—or, does he? Is this part of his plan to end democracy?

Maybe so. As ThinkProgress put it: “Trump’s accusations of ‘treason’ are a hallmark of fascism”, because it absolutely is. Author Zack Ford lays out the case for what treason really is—including how the Left uses the word incorrectly, too—and then sums up why the current occupant’s use of the word is fascistic:
The contradiction speaks to the way Trump tries to frame his positions as the only positions that actually serve the interests of the country. As slogans like “Make America Great Again” and “America First!” indicate, he’s attempting to co-op patriotism, such that any opposition to Trump is by extension anti-American. Thus, asking for cooperation means exactly the same thing as asking for obedience, and being rebuffed is the same as betrayal.
Writing for The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf details why “A President Falsely Charging ‘Treason’ Is What the Founders Feared”, because:
The Framers were guarding against the possibility that Americans would one day elect a man so morally weak and corrupt that he would falsely accuse political enemies of treason. In 2016, Americans narrowly elected a man who is that degraded.
So, is this part of a strategy to bend the US Constitution to his will? There are worrying trends—aside from the current occupant’s Twitter Tantrums and off-the-cuff idiocy.

A couple days ago, the current occupant’s sycophantic lackey Attorney General told Congress he thought the FBI had “spied” on the Republican candidates campaign—echoing the current occupant’s own conspiracy theory that his frothing fans, including Fox “News”, parrot every chance they get, despite it being totally untrue, of course. A couple days later, the current occupant doubled-down on his conspiracy theory, using Barr’s own testimony as support for his loony assertions.

What all of this could lead to is explained by Dana Millbank in his Post column:
Because Trump knows the seriousness of the charge, he therefore must be interpreting treason the way King Henry VIII did, in the lèse-majesté sense: Treason is anything that offends the dignity of the sovereign. Disagreement with Trump is an offense against the state, just as Henry executed unfaithful wives for treason.

This means the following people have committed capital crimes: All journalists and late-night hosts. Anyone who leaks. All Democratic members of Congress and people who worked in Democratic administrations. Anyone who ran against Trump. Anyone who criticizes Trump on social media. Anyone who voted against Trump.

This means 65,853,514 Hillary Clinton voters will have to be imprisoned or executed. The U.S. criminal-justice system can’t handle much more than the 2.3 million people it already holds. This unfortunately argues for mass execution — unless exile is a possibility? Imagine the size of that caravan heading south toward Mexico. [link in the original]
Is this what will happen? Of course not. Well, that’s what we’re supposed to say, right? But given the contempt this regime has for the US Constitution and the rule of law, can we be sure of anything anymore? The fact is, warning about where this loose and dangerous rhetoric can lead is the only thing that can prevent it from actually doing so.

We see bad people

The current occupant has a long history of hiring people who show staunch loyalty to him. They may not be very smart, they may be corrupt, they may be incompetent, or any combination of those things, but as long as they publicly display their loyalty, they’re in. We saw that when a spokeswoman for his “re-election” campaign declared that Congress had no right to see the current occupant’s tax returns: “Ironically, the only person whose tax returns they’ve asked for — the only president — is Trump. So it’s a sham reasoning.” She’s either lying to people who don’t know any better, or else she’s pitiably ignorant: Every modern US President except for the current occupant has released their tax returns. Every. Single. One. Mind you, she said that on Fox Republican Propaganda Channel, so it’s unlikely viewers or the performers would know she was lying or, at best, “deeply misinformed”.

Speaking of one of the current occupant’s contemptible appointees, it appears that, according to ABC News, “Herman Cain expected to withdraw from Fed Reserve Board of Governors consideration”. So, that’s a bit of good news among so much unrelenting bad news.

Mayor Pete’s wild ride

Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend Indiana, has been getting a lot of attention in recent weeks, so much so that “Pete Buttigieg has gone from totally unknown to polling third in Iowa and New Hampshire”. Still, he’s pretty far behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, and he’s not actually that far ahead of Elizabeth Warrant or Kamala Harris. But, it’s noteworthy when he still has little name recognition among Democrats.

The media has been talking about a “feud” because Mayor Pete said, “"Speaking only for myself, I can tell you that if me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade. That’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand: That if you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.” In fact, Mayor Pete has been criticising Pence for a long time.

The fury of the rightwing response was predictable. Mrs. Mike Pence declared that people “shouldn’t be attacked for what your religious beliefs are,” though he never “attacked” her husband’s religious beliefs—he himself is religious.

Her husband responded a few days later, whining that “I hope that Pete will offer more to the American people than attacks on my Christian faith,” because That Must Not Be Beyond Criticism, so he sayeth. Mike added, “he'd do well to reflect on the importance of respecting the freedom of religion of every American," ignoring that Mayor Pete IS religious—except he didn’t. He dismissively said, "all of us have our own religious convictions. Pete has his convictions, I have mine."

That last quote is the very heart of this: Mike has a brutally anti-LGBT+ record and while he can cry his fake tears about his religious beliefs being “attacked”, and he can lie that he doesn’t condone discrimination, his record proves that’s a flat out, deliberate lie. When he was Governor of Indiana, he backed and signed into law what was at the time the most vicious and brutally anti-LGBT+ law in any US state—so disgusting that the state faced a massive national boycott movement leading the legislature to soften the bill a little bit. When he was in Congress, he backed diverting federal tax money to be spent on “curing” gay people with “reparative therapy” psychological torture. He is a truly awful person, and it’s his record, not his religion, that makes him one. The mainstream media is letting Mr. Pence and his wife get away with lying that this about “religious freedom” when, in fact it’s that Mike is a bigot.

Mayor Pete pointed out the way that Mike could end this: ““If he wanted to clear this up, he could come out today and say he’s changed his mind, that it shouldn’t be legal to discriminate against anybody in this country for who they are.” That will never, ever, happen, of course.

Still, it’s not just the Rightwing that’s going after Mayor Pete: The Left—what one acquaintance recently called those who are “Leftier than thou”—are attacking him, too, often on highly dubious grounds. Such as: “Is Pete Buttigieg Just Another White Male Candidate, or Does His Gayness Count as Diversity?”, on Slate last month—or, it was called that until wiser heads prevailed and the headline was toned down to, “In a Diverse Candidate Field, How Is Pete Buttigieg’s Sexuality Factoring Into His Appeal?” The piece rightly decries “oppression Olympics”, in which people from historically marginalised minorities are judged by how oppressed they have been. But then the author—who describes herself as “a queer woman”—fully embraces the “oppression Olympics” to declare that Mayor Pete “ can be more accurately lumped in with his white male peers than with anyone else.”

Queerty summed up the appropriately negative reaction: “Writer questions if Pete Buttigieg is ‘gay enough’ to be the first gay president. Cue the outrage.”. My favourite was that of Five Thirty-eight’s Nate Silver, who said in a Tweet:
Just want to get this out of the way so I only have to say it once:

It's a big deal that an openly gay man is a serious contender for a major party's presidential nomination, and if you're liberal who wants to equivocate about that too much, you can pretty much fuck right off.
Exactly, Nate, exactly. I have absolutely no idea who I’ll vote for when the Illinois Democratic Primary rolls around next year—it’s way too far away!—but cheap shots and bullshit attacks on Democratic candidates by other Democrats is utterly unacceptable. We will have policy disagreements, we will have different priorities, we will disagree on who can best deliver on those things, and all of that is part of a robust selection process. But arguing that a candidate is unacceptable because he’s “not the right kind of gay” or isn’t as oppressed as he should have been is as repulsive as declaring a candidate “isn’t female enough” or “isn’t black enough” or—you get the idea. My advice to Democrats of all stripes: Stick to policies or shut up. And that’s the last time I intend to dignify this sort of thing with a mention.

There are FAR more important things to talk about.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

New Zealand Parliament bans assault weapons

Tonight the Arms (Prohibited Firearms, Magazines, and Parts) Amendment Bill passed its Third Reading, which means it’s been passed by the NZ Parliament. All Members of Parliament voted for the bill (except for a lone MP who is from a one-person “party”). It now goes to the Governor General for Royal Assent, so it will be law by Friday.

And that’s it: 26 days after the attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand has outlawed the weapons the terrorist used (the same type of guns that mass shooters in the USA prefer). The details on the government’s buyback scheme will be announced next month. First, it was important to get the statutory authority to do that.

We had the usual whingeing from some gun owners, and, of course, the dealers who make money selling them. We also had some gun nuts (because that’s absolutely how they sounded…) chiming in, using the tired, banal, empty, shallow, and pathetically stupid talking points supplied by the USA’s NRA, but it was all for nothing. New Zealanders wanted the guns banned—in fact, most had no idea they were ever legal for anyone. That problem’s now fixed.

Other countries will do—or not do—what they want, but this is New Zealand. This is what the people of New Zealand wanted to happen, and now it has. We don’t care in the least what people in other countries think about this, especially what opponents think. They don’t live here. Maybe passing this law will ensure they never will live here, which, on balance, sounds like a pretty good deal for us.

The video up top is from the Facebook Page of the New Zealand Labour Party, and features New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern making the opening speech in tonight's Third Reading debate.

Loss at a great distance

It’s the worst thing about living so far away from where I grew up. It’s something I’ve talked about several times before, as much to warn would-be expats as to speak my truth. When someone we know in our old homeland faces a serious personal challenge, like bad health for example, or worse, if they die, we can be left with orphaned feelings, not knowing exactly what to do or say, even though there’s little of either that’s possible. We’re cut off and isolated in a way that can be very confusing. Today that happened to me again.

This morning I checked Facebook, as I usually do, and saw that one of my high school classmates had posted that a classmate of ours had died. This is what I posted in response on my personal Facebook:
Feeling a bit sad today: Another of my high school classmates has died too young. Becky was diagnosed with breast cancer ten years ago, I'm told, and battled it ever since. While I knew her in high school, we weren't "friends"—it was high school, after all, and life was different at that age. But back in 2012 we reconnected here on Facebook, and I got to know her—for the first time, really. She was awesome—like all the other high school classmates I've reconnected with here on FB. In fact, I've said many times that if I'd had *any* idea how awesome they were, I'd have gone out of my way to be friends with them back in high school. Becky was a prime example of that. I'm so glad I got the chance to get to know Becky all over again.

Right now I'm thinking especially about her close friends and family, who are really hurting right now. I hope that their memories of Becky, and the support of friends and family, will help ease their sadness. Becky is at peace and without pain. I wish we could have had her longer, but I'm glad she's no longer suffering. Her journey has ended. I hope that everyone who loved her finds peace and is surrounded by love at this sad time. Farewell Becky, and thank you for being you.
This isn’t the first time that a friend from my past life in Illinois has died, but the first time I remember talking about that on this blog was about my friend Hector, who died in 2012. There have been several others since then, most of whom I haven’t talked about here because it had become too much.

The reason this is so hard to experience from the other side of the world is, if I’m honest, partly because travelling back for a memorial or funeral isn’t an option: It’s cost-prohibitive and takes a lot of time just getting there and back. Most of us aren’t in a position to do that at any given moment. So, we can’t pay our final respects, and we can’t offer support to others—we can’t do any of the usual things one does when someone close to us dies. But there’s one other thing that makes it difficult: Usually no one in our new homeland knew the person whose death we’re mourning. So, while they certainly understand the feelings, they don’t precisely share them.

Which is where Facebook plays a positive role. Sure, it’s terrible to get such news from a Facebook post so early in the morning (which is when I always get them), but it’s also the only place to share memories and swap stories with others who knew the person we’ve lost. Shared grief is an important part of being human, I think, and part of the coping and healing process. Social media like Facebook is one way to have that—maybe the only way for an expat, because we can do that from the other side of the world.

In this particular case, I’m fortunate that I had time to get to know my friend again (we became Facebook friends in 2012), so I don’t feel like I missed out, as I did when Hector died. And yet, there could, and should, have been so much more time. Isn’t that usually the case? As I said in a comment to my Facebook post:

It's a reminder, I think, to cherish every moment we get with the people we care about, because we can never know when the time will run out

Time and distance are not anyone’s friends. It’s best to concentrate on the people who are. Actually, that’s good advice for us all, not just expats.