Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Incremental change

Yesterday, President Obama signed an Executive Order (video above) forbidding federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees. The rightwing meltdown was as predictable as it was boring, and also just plain stupid. It’s still a big deal, though.

Existing executive orders already prevented the US Federal Government from discriminating against gay employees, but President Obama extended that to include gender identity. Also, those same protections are now extended to contractors to the US Federal Government. This affects some 28 million workers, which is huge.

Writing on the Washington Post, Jonathan Capehart gives the history of anti-discrimination executive orders, and adds:
“Obama’s executive order will apply to the 24,000 companies designated as federal contractors whose 28 million workers make up a fifth of the country’s workforce. One reason we haven’t heard any squawking from the business community is because most federal contractors are already protecting their LGBT employees. Among the data points in a “confidential memo” written by the Williams Institute and the Center for American Progress in 2012 for then-Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was this key statistic: 92 percent of employees of federal contractors in the Fortune 1000 are already protected by a company-wide sexual orientation nondiscrimination policy and 58 percent are already protected by a gender identity nondiscrimination policy.” [link in original]
What’s significant in all this is that much of the executive order has been in force for over a decade and a half, and also that the vast majority of federal contractors already have these anti-discrimination provisions, so there’s no burden whatsoever.

So: What’s the radical right on about? The short answer is “nothing”, of course, but the longer answer is that a tiny, tiny minority of federal contractors might be forbidden to discriminate against LGBT employees. Um, too bad.

Two things. First, it seems beyond bizarre to me that the radical right would seriously try and argue that their supposedly “sincerely held religious beliefs” boils down to the right to discriminate against LGBT employees. I don’t think their Jesus died for that, though they clearly disagree.

The second thing is this: LGBT Americans pay taxes just like everyone else does. Why should one cent of LGBT tax money go to aide and abet their own oppression? Why should LGBT taxpayers have to pay to be discriminated against? Just because some religious radical claims his supposedly “sincerely held religious beliefs” entitles him to take federal tax money, yet discriminate against taxpayers, that doesn’t make it true or reasonable.

This executive order is an important step on the road to full equality. Some day we’ll look back at these days and wonder how we ever could have considered pandering to bigots. President Obama stood up for what is right, and he should be applauded for that (never mind how long it took to get there…).

One thing in particular struck me about the president’s remarks. He said:
“Many of us are only here because others fought to secure rights and opportunities for us. We’ve got a responsibility to do the same for future generations. We’ve got an obligation to make sure that the country we love remains a place that no matter who you are, or what you look like, or where you come from, or how you started out, or what your last name is, or who you love, no matter what, you can make it in this country.”
It’s been a torturous road to equality in the USA, and the country has a long way to go, but things like this executive order help push things along just a little bit further. Even though this change is only incremental, it’s significant—even with so much left to do.

Let’s celebrate what’s good. Tomorrow we can fight for what remains to be done.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Helping the regions

The images with this post are campaign graphics created by the New Zealand Labour Party to promote Labour's policies for regional New Zealand. I think they’re quite good, and help to summarise Labour’s positive policies.

The graphic up top is the one I shared on Facebook. I especially like that one because it highlights the importance of ensuring that there’s a future for young New Zealanders so that they don’t have to move overseas to find jobs to provide for their families. It’s also important for the regions to help create opportunities there so that there’s more work choices for all New Zealanders.

The image below is a perfectly sensible policy: Why shouldn’t government support New Zealand businesses? It helps all New Zealanders when they do.

And finally, the image at the bottom of this post is about Labour’s plans to invest in rural New Zealand. This is all about making things better for people living in the regions so that people can get good jobs so they and their families can have decent homes in strong, vibrant communities. It’s a positive programme for ordinary Kiwis.

The National Party’s plan for the regions? They want to have people complain about red tape on social media (seriously!) and that somehow might one day become some sort of action. Or something. That’s really their plan for helping the regions!

Like most people, I’d much rather back a party that has a positive plan for moving the country forward, a party that recognises that people matter most, and what helps them helps the entire country. That’s why I back Labour.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Weekend Diversion: Matt Fishel

Until yesterday, I’d never heard of Matt Fishel. I’m glad I did, because he’s the sort of independently-minded artist I admire, the kind who stay true to their artistic vision.

Matt is a gay artist who refused to make compromises to be “commercial”. According to Huffington Post, where I first hear about Matt, he was told he “had to stop writing songs about men” because “apparently being gay wasn't ‘radio-friendly.’"

Matt’s response, the video at the bottom of this post, is "Radio-Friendly Pop Song", a thoroughly catchy pop song like any that one might hear on, you know, the radio. I really like its positive “don’t take no bullshit” message.

The video at the top of this post is his newest single, a remake of CeCe Peniston’s “Finally”. I like all the positive imagery in the video as well as his version of the song. I placed it first because it's his newest single. Of course.

I like pop music. I like openly gay pop artists. I especially like openly gay pop artists who don’t compromise by changing pronouns. And yet I also tend to think how much difference such things would have made to me when I was a teenager. I hope having such artists with integrity it makes a difference to teens now.

But it’s pop music, after all, and it’s meant to be fun. Sometimes, that really is enough, but the fact that there are so many openly gay artists performing their songs honestly is really, really good to see. Finally.

An odd thing

Yesterday, there was a pro-Palestinian protest march in Auckland, which isn’t unusual—there have been several over recent years. But this time I received an official warning, something I thought was over the top.

This year’s protest march went to the US Consulate (in previous years they marched from the Consulate), and was attended by 500-1500 people—depending on who you believe; I wasn’t there, so I have no idea.

The US consulate warned me not to attend the march—seriously. Actually, they warned me twice, in two emails five hours apart. “Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence,” they told me. “You should avoid areas of demonstrations and exercise caution if in the vicinity of any large gatherings, protests, or demonstration.”

I’ll be direct: My first reaction was, “are you frigging serious?!” This is New Zealand: Not only don’t protests in this country typically turn violent, but I’ve never—ever—felt threatened or intimidated on the streets as an American-born New Zealander. Actually, the truth is that the only times I’ve felt anti-American aggression from New Zealanders has been on social media (Twitter and Facebook), never in real life.

So, I thought the emailed warning to US citizens in New Zealand was over-the-top. I also thought the email itself was vaguely intimidating, perhaps of US citizens who might want to joint the march, when it said: “New Zealand Police are aware of the protest and are monitoring it.”

I suppose I should be grateful that the US Government is trying to keep US citizens safe by warning them of potential trouble. I should be grateful, maybe, but it’s hard for me when I find them to be, shall we say, rather culturally tone-deaf. I don’t think I’ve ever said anything like that about the US diplomatic mission in New Zealand. Maybe there really is a first time for everything.

New Zealand is a peaceful country, and one in which group violence is very rare—so much so, that I felt the US Consulate was warning me about another country entirely. If I’d been in the CBD yesterday, the only reason I would’ve avoided the area is because the streets were blocked, not because of concerns about my personal safety. As it happens, I had things scheduled here on the other side of the bridge, and so, wasn’t there. But the Consulate and its tone-deaf warning didn’t keep me away, not even almost. I know New Zealanders better than they do, it seems, and considering they’re supposed to be experts, that’s an odd thing.

Friday, July 18, 2014

My first political Public Meeting

Last night, I went to the first political Public Meeting I’ve ever been to. There’s no particular reason why I never attended one before, but I went to this one because it was for Richard Hills, the Labour candidate in our electorate.

When I moved to New Zealand, I saw that politicians—elected and campaigning—held something called a “public meeting”, and it confused me. Where I was from, officials conducted “public meetings” to inform people about some immediate issue or crisis, like a drought or something of public concern. In New Zealand, they were opportunities for people to hear about the issues of the day and to ask questions of candidates and officeholders.

The main reason I never attended such an event was that they’re usually held on weeknight evenings, and I don’t like doing things like that in the evenings (or on weekends), which are family time for me. This time, I was helping a bit with the event, and, anyway, I wanted to add numbers for Richard’s event.

Except in unusual circumstances, such events have relatively low turnout—maybe a couple dozen or so—because they’re held in specific local areas and are attended mainly by the people in those areas. Even so, we had a better than average turnout, though that’s only part of it: The flyers distributed in the area helped to get Richard’s name and the Labour Party presence out in the surrounding area, which is Labour-aligned but also historically has had low voter turnout. So, the flyers helped to create awareness and enthusiasm for Richard and Labour that the actual public meeting built on.

Several other Labour electorate candidates attended, including current Labour List MP, and Te Tai Torkerau candidate, Kelvin Davis, Hermann Retzlaff, Labour candidate for the newly-created Upper Harbour electorate, Greg Milner-White, Labour candidate for East Coast Bays electorate. Shanan Halbert, a Labour List candidate, was also there. They all said a few words, too.

The photo at top is from the Richard Hills for Northcote Facebook page (I forget who actually took it). Yes, I’m in the photo, but my face is obscured by someone’s hand. The photo was taken some time after the meeting ended, and cups of tea and coffee had been had, along with some wonderful baking. I took the photo below awhile before the meeting began.

All in all, it was a good night. There was a lot of enthusiasm among the people attending, and a strong commitment to turn out the vote for Labour and #ForABetterNZ. It warmed an otherwise cold night!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

It STILL matters

We’ve heard this before: A famous person comes out, and people say they “don’t care”. They say “it shouldn’t matter”. They’re helping to prove why it matters, and why they should care.

Over the weekend, Australian swimming great Ian Thorpe came out as gay. Part of the immediate reaction was typical: Expressions of disinterest, sometimes well-meaning declarations that it shouldn’t matter, and, sadly, sometimes open hostility and even hatred. This is what happens whenever a famous person comes out.

However, this time there was a strong reaction in support.

Writing Sunday on Australian web-based news site, The New Daily, sports editor Patrick Smithers talked about Thorpe’s coming out as a lesson in why homophobia in sports is wrong—in particular, an on-air anti-gay slur used by a sports commentator. He said: “[the commentator’s] homophobic language gives further licence to the casual, exclusionist prejudice that isolates so many vulnerable young Australians.”

Exactly so. Dana Johannsen, a New Zealand Herald sport writer, also gets it. She said today: “Homophobia is still rife in the sporting world, and Thorpe's decision to come out is not as inconsequential as some of us tend to believe.” She also knows the folks to whom a high-profile person coming out matters most:
“There's another group of people who would have cared a great deal about Thorpe's announcement. For youths who may be questioning or struggling to come to terms with their sexuality, seeing Thorpe, fair dinkum Aussie sporting hero, tell the world he likes men can only be positive. You may or may not care to know, but having a sporting role model matters greatly to them.”
This is the point I keep making and, as it happens, yesterday Stuff’s “Rugby Heaven” provided a real-world example. New Zealand rugby player Jay Claydon, then 18, was asked to leave his Christchurch rugby club because he’s gay.

The next year, Claydon moved to Australia, where he “found homophobic slurs were an accepted part of sporting culture. At the clubs he played for in Perth and Sydney, he felt compelled to keep his sexuality secret for fear of being ostracised.”

In Thorpe’s interview, he said he felt ashamed that he didn’t have the courage to come out earlier, “as though this somehow reflects on him, not those judging him,” as Patrick Smithers put it so well. Homophobia kept Jay Claydon in the closet as it had Thorpe. It shouldn’t be this way!

Back in February, after some high-profile people came out, I published a sort of open letter to straight people on why coming out matters so much. What I said back then is still true:
“Every time a celebrity comes out publicly, they’re sending a message to some scared, lonely LGBT teen that there’s hope for a better life, that they, too, can be happy and find love. It also sends a message to that teen’s parents and friends and neighbours that gay people are GOOD people, damn it, and you must never—ever—hate people for being who they are—gay, straight, bi, pansexual, trans*, whatever. When someone does, they’re not hating “them”, they’re hating ALL OF US—every type of human.”
So, this is why Ian Thorpe coming out matters so much. The reason he denied his sexuality in the past is precisely what he’s now helping to fix: Homophobia kept Thorpe from being honest—he internalised anti-gay attitudes that left him fearing rejection by family, friends, fans and the general public, and he lied to himself and everyone else. Many LGBT people do the same thing before they find the courage and safety to live in freedom. This takes a terrible toll on people, and it’s so very unnecessary.

I personally know a lot of people who are helping to speed the day when coming out won’t be necessary because it truly won’t matter. But we’re a long, long way from that time. To help make it happen sooner, we all need to be ready for the inevitable “I don’t care” or “it shouldn’t matter” comments when a famous person comes out, and we should say something positive in reply: Actually, it matters a LOT to scared, closeted LGBT young people and their families.

Because, it STILL matters.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Alarming big picture

Yesterday, Gallup released a new poll that found that in the wake of the Hobby Lobby ruling, approval of the US Supreme Court had plummeted among Democrats and soared among Republicans. There’s actually nothing new about that, but the big picture is alarming.

Overall, the percentage of Americans who approve of the way the Supreme Court is handling its job is pretty even—47% approve and 46% disapprove. This hasn’t really changed since last September, when the ratings were 46% approved and 45% disapproved.

However, when we look at partisan responses, there’s a much different picture: Republican approval has soared from 30% last September to 51% now. Among Democrats, approval plummeted from 58% to 44% (Independents didn’t change much at all). That’s kind of the headline story here, but it’s a little misleading.

In fact, this sort of thing happens all the time. After the Supreme Court installed George W. Bush as president in 2000, Republicans’ approval of the Court soared from 60% to 80% and Democrats’ plummeted from 70% to 42%. This same thing happens whenever the Court rules on an ideologically divisive issue: Those who agree express more approval—sometimes a LOT more approval—and those who disagree express less approval—again, often a LOT.

The bigger concern is the long-term trend. Gallup released a poll the end of June that showed that confidence in all three branches of the US Government as institutions has been in pretty steady decline for more than two decades (this is different from approval ratings, though surely people’s feelings about the incumbents must play a role in how confident they feel about the institution).

There have been some blips in the confidence levels for the presidency—after 9/11 and after Obama was first elected—but overall, the trend for all three branches is headed downward. Of course confidence in the US Congress has been in the toilet for years and is in danger of dropping below the margin of error.

While confidence in the Supreme Court and even the presidency remain more than four times higher than that of Congress, neither one enjoys the confidence of even a third of Americans. That’s an untenable situation.

Democracy cannot survive when the vast majority of the people have no confidence in their system of government, and sooner or later, something has to give. Since Americans overwhelmingly vote to re-elect the same people over and over, the break may come in some other way.

Radicals claim that revolution is the logical end, but that’s nonsense. Apart from the fact that it would be almost impossible to have a revolution in the modern USA, it’s not something that the majority—or even a large plurality—are ever likely to consider a good option.

Instead, there are three plausible options. First, voters could come to their senses and stop voting in losers. That won’t fix the Supreme Court right away, but this step would eventually fix that, too.

Second, dissolution: The USA could break up into smaller nations. There’s no appetite for this among anything more than a tiny minority, so this is hardly likely, either.

Gallup itself hints at a third possibility: “At this point, Americans place much greater faith in the military and the police than in any of the three branches of government.” Could a military coup and police state replace democracy? Also unlikely. If there was anything that could spark an armed revolt, that would be it.

However, this is very much a moving picture. Just because a thing is unthinkable now, doesn’t mean it always will be—but that includes the possibility of Americans actually “voting the bastards out”, which right now I think is the most plausible outcome.

Gallup says that these abysmal approval ratings “threatens and complicates the US system of government.” No single ideologically divisive Supreme Court ruling will change that for better or worse, or cause the eventual readjustment. Instead, the overall trend of rates of public approval for the Supreme Court are related to the major problems facing the US system of governance overall, and that’s what’s so alarming about the big picture.

The image of the US Supreme Court building at the top of this post a Creative Commons licensed photo by Wikiwopbop, published by Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Frown turned upside down

Okay, so yesterday was pretty awful: Constant rain, most of it heavy. It was a miserable winter day that made me grumpy, especially because it rained the whole way from Auckland to Hamilton, and well into that night.

Today, however, was a much better day.

Yesterday afternoon, we helped finish the move for my mother-in-law—in that rain—and then helped her get some things organised in the new place. That evening, we all assembled for dinner at my sister-in-law’s house in another part of Hamilton, which was nice. We were even in bed a little after ten—surprisingly early, really.

This morning was bright and sunny, and while it looked like raining a couple times, it never did (except a few times on the drive home…). Today’s mission was to take Nigel’s Mum shopping for a few things for her new place. After a finding many bargains, and as we were starting to head back to her new place, Nigel’s Mum said to Nigel and me, “So: When are you two moving to Hamilton?”

The short answer is, “who knows?”, but the longer answer isn’t much different: We have no idea when, or if, we’ll move there. Nigel’s always liked Hamilton, but I’ve never been keen on it, mainly because it can get bloody cold in the winter, and it’s often foggy on winter mornings—and the city just didn't seem to have much to offer, not as compared to Auckland, anyway.

However, we have several relatives living there now (along with around 148,200 or so other people), and Hamilton is slowly becoming more, um, cosmopolitan. It’s still very National Party there, in part because the area around the city is mostly farm country, but Labour has held electorate seats there and will eventually do so again. Party voting behaviour isn’t a perfect measure of a place, of course, and half of the city’s population is under 30, and, since younger people tend to be more progressive, this bodes well for the city’s future. Besides, where we live right now has been held by National for most the years I’ve been in New Zealand.

No, what I think is a better indicator of the place is all the construction: New houses are being built all over the city (and heating/air conditioning is now commonly included), and a lot of new shopping is going in, too. The shopping at The Base, including the mall Te Awa, which I wrote about last year, is getting better all the time—you can get nearly everything you need at that one place—or, if not there, nearby.

The New World supermarket at Te Rapa is the best grocery store I’ve been to in New Zealand—it may be the best I’ve been to, anywhere. Actually, New World Rototuna is pretty good, too.

State Highway One, the main road that runs the length of New Zealand, is the way to get from Auckland to Hamilton. Over the past ten years or so, a lot of work has been done to improve the highway, and much of it is now motorway. It’s not only reduced the amount of time it takes to drive between Auckland and Hamilton, it’s made it a much nicer—and safer—journey.

The point is, there’s a lot to like about Hamilton, even just for a visit. But move there? The jury’s still out on that. I guess it’ll take a few more visits.

Hopefully, it won’t be raining for our next visit.

Update 15 July: Above, I said that one reason I dislike Hamilton is that "it's often foggy on winter mornings." Well, Monday morning dawned foggy in Aucklandvery foggy. Today, Tuesday, the morning is clearer, but also cold, with temperatures around 6 degrees or so at our house (around 43F). The difference is, both are somewhat less common in Auckland than in Hamilton.