Thursday, April 30, 2009

First 100 Days

President Obama has now been in office for 100 days. No surprise, but I think it’s been a good 100 days. After all, I was a strong backer of Obama and the Democrats last November, and an equally strong opponent of Palin/McCain and the Republicans.

Since the election, I’ve been—what’s the right word?—ecstatic to see much of the damage of the Bush/Cheney regime undone or, at least, the repairs have begun. The eight years of the Bush/Cheney regime were a long national nightmare that took too long to end. So, in my view, there clearly couldn’t possibly be any way that I’d see these first 100 days as anything less than an unqualified success.

Well, maybe not so unqualified—there’s one issue on which I completely disagree with the President: I believe that those who authored legal cover for torture, ordered torture or conducted it should be prosecuted. The first may be prosecuted by the administration, the second probably won’t be, and the last has been ruled out by the president; I think he’s completely wrong about that.

Some supporters of the president have been echoing him in saying that we should “move on”. That’s nonsense: Something that’s illegal is illegal, and people who break the law—especially on torture—must be held accountable for their actions. We all know how much evil has been defended with “I was just following orders”. By prosecuting, we would send a clear, unequivocal and irrevocable declaration that torture is illegal, something that no new Bush/Cheney regime could ignore.

Even so, there’s no need for a witchunt: The government would have to prove that a torturer knew or should have known that their action was illegal and, therefore, that any order to torture someone was also illegal. Clearly anybody who ordered torture would be guilty of a crime. That, of course, would include officials all the way up to Bush/Cheney. Tough: If they broke the law and broke their oaths under the constitution, they should face prosecution. They won’t, obviously, but they should.

This issue is the one thing that keeps me from giving the president an A+ for the first 100 days. Because of it, I give him an A-, still an outstanding mark, but with room for improvement. I’m confident that the next 100 days will be as good or even better.

And every one of those 100 days I’ve been glad that Barack Obama is president.

Dishonest or dumb?

A couple weeks ago I posted an earlier video from Rob Tisinai, in which he explodes christianst lies against marriage equality. In this video he takes on a far right religious group called “Traditional Values Coalition”. The group makes fighting the civil and human rights of gay and lesbian Americans its mission, using lies, distortion and defamation as weapons.

In this video, Tisinai, who has a YouTube channel that I’ve subscribed to, looks at the TVC propaganda against H.R. 1913, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, and exposes their claims as—at best—incorrect. He shows how TVC is either being dishonest by manipulating statistical data, or just dumb—not understanding it. After watching the video, I think they’re simply being dishonest—on purpose.

This guy has been doing a great job of exposing the lies and distortions of the christianist right, and without the angry frustration that comes through when people like me try to do it. If we had a few dozen more like him, we might be able to expose the far right in the light of truth, helping normal people be rid of the winguts and their lies once and for all. But Rob is making a fantastic start all on his own.

Virginia Foxx must resign

I don’t often comment on members of Congress who aren’t in leadership. Quite frankly, most members of Congress are useless—ranging from merely useless to you wonder how they can walk upright useless.

Virginia Foxx is beyond useless, bringing utter disgrace upon the whole of the US Congress.

The North Carolina Republican (of course) was speaking against the H.R. 1913, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, and blatantly and openly lied about the murder of Matthew Shepard, calling it “a hoax”. You may recall that the facts, established in court, were that the murderers selected Matthew because they knew he was gay, lured him away, beat him nearly to death, then left him tied to a fence to die. Then they faked a robbery to try and throw police off the trail.

But this cow Foxx decided that lying about a murdered gay man was just the right thing for a US Representative to do in order to try and stop a bill she doesn’t like. Since she’s a Republican from the South, I assume she’s a fundamentalist Christian (NB: turns out, she's Roman Catholic), so I would’ve thought that she’d know her Bible orders her to never bear false witness (it’s number nine on that list that politicians of her ilk try and forcibly display in public places like courthouses). Since she and her fellow Republicans spend so much time wallowing around in the Old Testament, I would’ve thought she’d be aware that lying was a big no-no.

Worst of all, Foxx isn’t alone, and many of her fellow Republicans are in full froth mode. An Iowa Republican said the bill will “protect” pedophilia (another lie), and a Texas Republican literally waved a Bible and quoted from it. Apparently he doesn’t realise that Congress is not a church, and the US has no established religion, no mater how much he and his caucus want there to be one.

So far, Foxx is among the worst. If she wants to blatantly lie to raise money or on the campaign trial, that’s between her and her god. But when she openly and deliberately lies on the floor of the US Congress, it’s an utter disgrace, one that should not be allowed to fester. She must resign. When Foxx goes, she can take those other wingnuts with her? No one would miss them—that’s kind of the definition of "useless" for politicians after all.

Update: The actions of the religious bigots were in vain: The US House passed HR1913 by a vote of 249-175. 17 Democrats voted against it, and 18 Republicans voted in favor.

Update 2 – 1 May 2009: Foxx’s staff whined to Fox 8, her local Fox TV station, that “they've received hate mail, angry calls and even death threats” since her speech on the floor of the US House of Representatives. At a guess, I’d say that most US Representatives get such responses at one point or another, and wingnuts always exaggerate such things to try and portray themselves as victims. She now says “the word 'hoax' was a poor choice of words”. You think, you stupid moron? She says she “relied on two news reports for her comments”. Yeah? Two wingnut websites, I bet, because her remarks are consistent with the way they falsify gay-related news.

Even North Carolina’s loopy US Senator Richard Burr (a Republican, of course, and the man she succeeded in the US House) condemned Foxx’s dumbass remarks to the same Fox channel: "I am disappointed in the comments of Congresswoman Foxx in regards to the murder of Matthew Shepard. I find these comments to be inaccurate and insensitive. I hope that as debate continues on this legislation we can focus on the facts and not the emotions associated with it." Fox 8 then goes on to say “This is not the first time Foxx has used what many consider a poor choice of words. Earlier this month, she used the words "tar baby" to describe the federal bank bailout as a problem weighing heavy on democrats.” Her homophobic remarks have also been documented. For a former English professor, she sure has trouble with words.

In contrast to morons like Foxx, many Democrats spoke forefully in support of the bill. Rep Rush Holt (D-NJ-12) delivered what was probably the best line of the debate. He said it was “patently false” that HR1913 would criminalise thought, declaring “this is no more about criminalising thought than the anti-lynching laws were about criminalising knot-tying.” That was so simply and clearly put that perhaps even Virginia Foxx may have been able to understand it. Then again, based on her record, I’d guess not.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

‘Specter’ of realignment

When I was in university, my professors talked about periodic realignment of America’s political parties—that the “coalition of interest groups” would occasionally change and reshape the parties, leading politicians to change parties, too. In 1980, some pundits predicted that the election of Reagan would spark such realignment. It didn’t happen. They said the same thing about the election of Bush/Cheney. It also didn’t happen.

Actually, I think it did—it’s just the media didn’t or wouldn’t notice or acknowledge it. Today we saw the first real, concrete evidence of that much-promised realignment.

Today US Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania switched from Republican to Democrat, placing the majority—on paper, at least—one vote shy of the 60 votes needed to end a Republican filibuster (an archaic parliamentary procedure the minority party uses to block legislation they don’t have the votes to defeat). Cynics say this was simply a move for political self-preservation, and it is, but there’s also far more to it.

Specter said, "I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party." Specter was among the last of the “moderate Republican” officeholders: He’s pro-choice on abortion, he cast an important vote against Reagan’s attempt to put the hard right ideologue Robert Bork on the Supreme Court and against the removal of President Clinton from office.

The far right that now controls the Republican Party has long despised Specter. In 2004 they demanded he promise not to block Bush’s conservative judicial appointments. Two years later, Republicans lost control of the Senate, and Specter blamed the hard right leadership of the party: "They don't make any bones about their willingness to lose the general election if they can purify the party." And the purity of the hard-right, christianist agenda is clearly what matters most to the Republican Party.

The minority party’s Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, declared that Specter’s switch was a “threat to the country”. Why? Because the majority party in Congress might be able to move its agenda forward without the minority—you know, like the Republicans did up until 2006.

All the attention has been on the Democrats having 60 votes once Senator-elect Al Franken of Minnesota is finally seated. But Specter himself has said he’s not a guaranteed vote for the Democrats on all issues. Unlike Republicans, Democrats often vote contrary to their party’s position (the “Blue Dog” Democrats being the best example). Specter promises to vote against the Employee Free Choice Act, which may cause him some trouble being re-elected as a Democrat.

Pennsylvania is increasingly voting Democratic in national elections, and Specter himself noted that 200,000 Republicans in that state switched to the Democratic Party. Specter barely won his Republican Party primary in 2004 against a conservative Republican opponent. Specter saw the obvious truth: A moderate can’t win Pennsylvania’s Republican primary.

For a long time, I said that real Republicans needed to take their party back from the christofascists who are running it. I was wrong: It’s too late. I now believe that there is no way for anyone who’s even slightly to the right of centre to find a home in the Republican Party—it’s already too far gone.

So: Which of the few remaining Republican moderates will jump ship next?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Auckland rising

Auckland is now tied fourth-equal as the best city in the world, according to the annual Worldwide Quality of Living Survey conducted by Mercer. It’s intended to help corporations to work out how well their employees will fare as expats.

Last year, Auckland was fifth. Sydney, the highest rating Australian city, remains only tenth best, as it was last year. Wellington again is ranked 12th.

Last year, my old hometown of Chicago was tied for 44th along with Washington, DC, Osaka and Lisbon. That tie remains the same this year. The highest-ranking US city was Honolulu at 29, followed immediately by San Francisco. The top five rated North American cities are all Canadian.

I still can’t say whether I put any faith in these results, but I take them at face value. And I continue to be pleased that Auckland rates better than any Australian city, and that New Zealand has two cities in the top twelve, while our cousins across the ditch have only one.

The top ten cities are:
1. Vienna (Austria)
2. Zurich (Switzerland)
3. Geneva (Switzerland)
4. Auckland (New Zealand) and Vancouver (Canada)
6. Dusseldorf (Germany)
7. Munich (Germany
8. Frankfurt (Germany)
9. Bern (Switzerland)
10. Sydney (Australia)

Monday, April 27, 2009

The only interview I read

Let me be clear and direct: I couldn’t possibly care less about Carrie Prejean, the Miss California who became famous when, first, she said marriage should only be allowed between one man and one woman, then even more so when christianist wingnuts adopted her as their cause célèbre. Meh.

I don’t care about “beauty queens”, their pageants or anything that happens in them. Most of these young ladies, quite frankly, seem to be not very bright, so Ms. Prejean’s views seemed neither surprising nor coherent. I didn’t care about what the media reported on this, and I haven’t read a single interview with her—until now.

Veteran gay über-journalist Rex Wockner has posted to his blog an interview with Ms. Prejean that’s pretty surprising. She doesn’t offer any stunning insights into her views—indeed, they seem as shallow and unexamined as they did in the initial media flurry. But Rex does a great job of attempting to get her to see beyond the simplistic pat talking points offered by her church.

I was stunned—literally—to read her saying she likes President Obama. What on earth will her megachurch/wingnut supporters make of that?!

The interview is accompanied by a number of photos. Ms. Prejean is pretty enough, I suppose, but what stunned me is that Rex doesn’t seem to have aged in the 15 years since I knew him in Chicago. That was surprising in itself.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bea and me

A lot of bloggers are posting about the death of Bea Arthur, and many work into it somewhere the song lyric, “Thank you for being a friend”, Andrew Gold’s 1978 hit which was used as the theme music (sung by Cynthia Fee) for the hit series The Golden Girls. My history with Bea goes back farther.

I don’t remember ever seeing Bea play the character Maude on All in the Family, since my family didn’t watch the show during the first years it was on. However, when I saw her on Maude (1972-1978) she and the show quickly became favourites.

When I started watching, my politics had more in common with Maude’s conservative foil, Dr. Arthur Harmon (played by Conrad Bain), than with the liberal Maude Findlay. That changed over the years, and by the time the show ended in 1978, I was hooked and largely—and perhaps largely secretly—in agreement with the liberal icon.

During its run, it tackled many “controversial” issues of the day, including abortion (which is what the clip above is from) before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal throughout the US. It’s hard to remember it now, but in that pre-Internet era the main place America debated the burning issues of the day was TV sitcoms. Can anyone imagine current US sitcoms being in any way similarly topical?

I was also a fan of The Golden Girls (1985-1992), and my original attraction to it was the re-teaming of Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan. I was happy that this show also took on “controversial” issues, but as with Maude, the writing and acting that kept me watching. The creator of The Golden Girls, Susan Harris, was also a writer on the famous (infamous?) Maude abortion episode.

In the early years of Maude, I had no idea that Bea Arthur had had a stage career before television. Mind you, in those days I wasn’t very aware of stage generally, so it’s not really a surprise. The clip below is of Bea and Angela Lansbury performing “Bosom Buddies” from Mame, which they did together on Broadway in 1966. Reportedly, Bea based the character of Maude on her portrayal of Vera Charles.

So, first and foremost, Bea Arthur gave me countless hours of entertainment and more laughs than I could possibly count. That’s tribute enough. But her performance as Maude also made me realise that it was okay to think differently from the majority. The character of Maude certainly didn’t turn me into a liberal, but it helped me feel it was okay to be myself and think for myself, which had so many other important implications. I can’t think of many other TV sitcoms that had that kind of affect on me. Heck, I can’t even remember that many other old sitcoms, and those that I do are mostly from that same general era.

So, Bea, thank you for—well, you know.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Wilderness report

Continuing a three year trend, Scott Murphy, a millionaire venture capitalist and Democrat, defeated the Republican candidate for US Representative in New York state’s 20th Congressional District. Murphy is replacing Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to fill the US Senate seat of Hillary Clinton, who left to become Secretary of State in the Obama Administration.

The candidates were separated by very few votes on the March 31 election day, but absentee ballots carried Murphy to victory. He expects to be sworn in next week.

Republicans are actually trying to claim victory in their defeat: "We should not ignore some of the encouraging signs that came out of this race. Just a few short months ago, President Obama carried this district and Kirsten Gillibrand won by an overwhelming margin against a well-funded challenger. For the first time in a long time, a Republican congressional candidate went toe-to-toe with a Democrat in a hard-fought battle over independent voters," the National Republican Congressional Committee said. Yeah, but they lost.

The “chairman” of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, had declared winning this race a top priority for this year. Republicans would no doubt love to use this loss to get rid of Steele, but they won’t be able to do that if they declare their loss was actually a victory.

Interesting times in the Republican wilderness.

Update: After I posted this, I found out that the Republicans filed a challenge to the absentee vote cast by, of all people, Kirsten Gillibrand! Why? Because she ended up being in the district on election day; New York law allows voters to cast an absentee ballot if they have a good faith belief that they'll be out of the district on election day, as Senator Gillibrand clearly thought she would be. The actions of the Republicans could be dismissed as the party's typical mean-spirited partisanship, or it could be yet another example of the Republican Party trying to make sure that all votes are not cast. Clearly the party has a long way to go if it wants to get out of the wilderness.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Christian wars?

When I was fresh out of university and flush with energy and unbridled optimism (despite living in Reagan’s America), I made a disparaging remark about an anti-gay rightwinger’s Christianity: I suggested that the bigot in question wasn’t really a Christian.

I was immediately reprimanded—gently—by a close friend, far more leftist than I was, who was also a committed and practising Christian. “You can never know what’s in someone’s heart,” she said to me, “so you can’t know if their Christianity is real or not. That’s up to God to decide.”

I took her advice, partly because being a Christian at the time, I deferred to her, and also because, good Liberal that I was, I didn’t want to oppress anyone. Despite provocation, I’ve held to that line for more than 25 years. I go out of my way on this blog to talk about “christianists” rather than “Christians” because I want to make clear that there’s a difference between religious faith and those who would use that faith for (conservative) political ends.

So, while in my heart I may have doubted the Christianity of my opponents, I never again said that publicly.

The far right isn’t so Christian in its outlook. Today I was at a wingnut site and I stumbled across the most blisteringly bigoted attack on Christians I’ve ever seen—by someone who says they’re Christian.

The bigot drew a metaphor of identity theft, then said “The ‘victim’ is biblical Christianity, and the operatives of this fraud are millions of Americans, both clergy and laity, who are walking around using that identity with no right to do so.” I thought maybe he was going to attack Christian political activists on the left, until he added:

“Many will insist that we all have the right to practice Christianity as our conscience dictates. Wrong. We have the privilege of living out a faith based on absolute truth as given to us by the Author and Finisher of that faith without error or omission in His written word. If we want to invent our own religion, we are ‘free’ to do so, ‘free’ to reap the consequences and ‘free’ to call it anything we want—but Christianity.”

This struck me as the same sort of absolutist mentality that the Bush-Cheney regime shoved onto America, but all the more troubling because it attacks and defames the majority of America’s Christians.

According to 2008 estimates, Christians of all sorts make up 76% of Americans, of whom 25.1% are Roman Catholic, the rest Protestant of all types. Evangelicals/Fundamentalists combined make up 36.6% of Americans, but only 3.5% of Americans are Pentacostal/Charismatic and a mere 0.9% are Evangelical/Born Again (the rest are various types of conservative and/or fundamentalist protestant denominations). On the other hand, 15% of Americans have no religion (of whom 1.6% are atheist—nearly twice as many as there are
Evangelical/Born Again).

All of which means that this wingnut was attacking those who are by far the majority of Americans. My question is, why do I have to call attention to this, and not mainstream Christians themselves?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

‘This Place’ of common sense

When the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state’s constitution requires that same-sex couples have the right to civil marriage, the result was predictable: Far right christianists crawled out from under their rocks to try and peddle their campaigns of lies, hatred and bigotry. They're determined to attack the rights of GLBT Iowans and will stop at nothing to end liberty and religious freedom in that state.

Standing in their way is One Iowa, a group equally determined to prevent far right religious bigots from imposing their will on everyone else. One Iowa produced the ad above, an ad that speaks to core Midwestern values. It also correctly points out that the hate campaigns are being pushed by people from out of state.

I’m a native Illinoisan, and my state shares many of the values of its neighbour—not enough, obviously, but many. I’m hoping that my fellow Midwesterners can successfully fight off the haters and bigots. You know what? I think they can.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The running joke

The far right in America have been providing plenty of unintentional laughter lately as they flounder about looking for a reason to exist. Apparently, desperately trying to ignore their loss in the last election has unleashed their funny side, or maybe we can just see it now that they’re out of power. I think maybe we should pay them to be national comedy writers, because they sure are funny:

A christianist group created a really bad anti-gay commercial to fight against marriage equality. It was so bad that it was almost self-parody and led, inevitably, to countless more parodies (two of which are below). The group also launched a hate campaign they called “2M4M”, after apparently being unable to figure out how to use Google.

Funnier still were all those people wanting to “teabag DC!” or “teabag Obama!”. Their inability to figure out how to use Google led to inevitable snickering and off-colour jokes. My favourite joke was delivered by MSNBC Countdown guest host, David Shuster, on the April 13 broadcast. After pointing out how in addition to Faux News, old-time Republicans were pushing the “tea bagging,” people like former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former US House Majority Leader Dick Armey and far right Republican financiers. Said Shuster: “If you’re planning simultaneous teabagging all around the country, you’re going to need a Dick Armey.”

And now, CNN quotes another source of mirth, Republican National Committee “Chairman” Michael Steele. Denying that the Republicans have devolved into bickering, ineffective factions, he said the party had "bottomed and we hope that's the case… But, whether or not you've bottomed or not, you better have something to say to the American people.”

Those who vaguely remember what the Republican Party used to be like, before the term “Moderate Republican” became not just an oxymoron but also an historic footnote, will be wishing that someone would teach the frothing right who now run the party how to use Google. Those of us opposed to the radical christianist agenda of the Republican Party will hope they don’t: The Republicans are far more entertaining now than they’ve been in years.

This low-budget parody of the christianist ad is one of the best yet:

And here’s another parody, A Gaythering Storm, featuring Jane Lynch, Alicia Silverstone, Lance Bass, George Takei, Liz Feldman, Jason Lewis, Sarah Chalke, and Sophia Bush.

I originally saw the videos and the Michael Steele quote over at Joe.My.God, my daily read. I listen to MSNBC Countdown with Keith Olbermann as a podcast.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dumbest idea yet

The National-led government has announced one of its dumbest ideas yet: They want to sell off New Zealand’s military bases and have private companies (including, one assumes, foreign companies) lease them back to taxpayers—at market rents of course. Why? Well, of course private enterprise will be cheaper than ownership by the people! No company would even think of trying to profit at the people’s expense and, even if they do, well, profit is all that matters, isn’t it?

This probably came from the same National Party “brain” trust that thought it would be a good idea for schools to sell their buildings and land to private companies to lease back at market rents. It’s the same party that wants to sell off prisons, making the imprisonment of citizens a source of private profit.

This is the same National Party that promised it wouldn’t sell any state assets in its first term. I wonder if they’ll really keep that promise—or is that for sale to the highest bidder, too?

Monday, April 20, 2009

The obstacle

I try to write quieter posts on Sundays, even though “sometimes circumstances have interfered with that good intention”. I simply couldn’t write a “quiet post” yesterday, although I did try: It ended up becoming what was on my mind, so I gave up and left the day without a post.

In the past couple weeks, America has seen crazy christianists, the “rebel” Texas Governor and the teabaggers. They’re all related.

I wrote about the teabaggers last Thursday. Since then, I’ve read extensively and I’m convinced of a few things about the participants. First, the portion of true Libertarians was small. There was a larger number of “Ron Paul Libertarians”, folks who came to identify as Libertarian after Paul’s quixotic campaign for the Republican 2008 presidential nomination. But by far the greatest number came from the hard right generally, most Republican by voting behaviour, if not by self-identification.

The teabaggers were whipped up by Faux News performers and by traditional Republican “leaders”. And what were they protesting? President Obama. Libertarians (new and old) aside, teabaggers had no coherent tax message, and all of them probably will benefit from President Obama’s tax cuts—the largest in US history. So what do they want? To extend Bush’s tax cuts for the rich and super-rich? Obama’s budget doesn’t even raise taxes for them, but allows Bush’s cuts to expire, restoring them to the same rates as the Clinton Administration, which, by the way, were still lower than during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. So why protest a non-existent tax increase?

For some it was about having to pay any taxes at all. Yet not one of them said what, precisely, they’d give up to end taxes.

Some claimed to be protesting “government waste”, whatever that means. What one person sees as “waste” another will see as indispensible. It all comes down to priorities, and reasonable people can have a reasonable discussion about priorities. Dismissing all government spending as “waste” is both unreasonable and downright irrational.

But the real purpose of the teabaggers stunt was to lay groundwork for the Republican attempt to retake Congress in the 2010 elections. That’s why the focus was solidly on President Obama: Republicans think—or desperately hope—that the lies they churn out about Obama and taxes will get some sort of traction.

Partisan politics is also the reason the governor of Texas talked about his state seceding from the Union (clearly not understanding the conditions under which Texas joined the US in the first place). He was pandering to the far, far right of the Republican Party, the “I hate my government” crowd, who the governor hopes to win over for his presidential campaign.

And looking even more isolated and downright weird is that extremist christianist group and its gathering stormtroopers (or whatever) ad. They seemed to be the only ones left on the right fighting marriage equality. Faux News performer Glenn Beck was okay with Vermont passing marriage equality (because judges didn’t do it), John McCain’s old campaign manager endorsed marriage equality, far right preacher Rick Warrern now claims he’s not and never has been a leader against marriage equality, and even “Dr. Laura” Schlesinger said gay relationships are A-OK.

So, the extremist group is increasingly isolated in making marriage equality an issue as much of the right wing moves on. At the same time, Republican governors and other party “leaders” are pandering to the far right, whether it’s joining grandstanding “teabaggers” or loudly opposing marriage equality. And the teabaggers themselves presented a multi-front unfocused attack on President Obama and anyone who supports him.

Taken together, this could very well be the collective death whine of the far right as they fade deeper into irrelevance. Or, it could just the loony tip of an extremist and potentially violent political underbelly. I simply can’t tell which it is. We may have chased off the monster in the 2008 elections, but it certainly isn’t dead yet, and it remains an obstacle to restoring American democracy.

And that’s why I couldn’t write a quiet post yesterday.

The image at the top of this post is a montage I made from photos of teabaggers’ signs. The original photos are all available for viewing at the Huffington Post. These signs were pretty representative of ones I saw all over the Internet, on sites belonging to both ends of the spectrum. The racism—both blatant and not-too-thinly veiled—was everywhere.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Waking up Canadian

A new Canadian law took effect on April 17 granting Canadian citizenship to potentially hundreds of thousands of people, whether they live in Canada or not. An amendment to Canada's Citizenship Act restores Canadian citizenship to people forced to renounce it when they became citizens of another country (like the US), and it also grants Canadian citizenship to their children.

While the US is hardly unique in forcing naturalised citizens to renounce their former citizenship, other countries—like New Zealand—don’t require it. The US has case law that recognises the existence of dual nationality (being a citizen of two countries) for US-born US citizens, and such citizens who become citizens of another country through naturalisation don’t threaten their US citizenship unless the US government can prove that the US citizen specifically intended to end their US citizenship by becoming naturalised in another country.

So the US still requiring that immigrants seeking naturalisation renounce their birth citizenship is clearly unfair, and it seems positively antique—which figures, since it’s an 18th Century concept designed to force a common nationality on citizens of the new nation. Still, there’s nothing in US law to prevent a naturalised US citizen from having their foreign citizenship restored; Canada has done the hard work for their citizens, including those who, as the announcer says, live “ootside Canada” (sorry, couldn’t resist…).

Well done, Canada! See? There are things about the Harper government that can be applauded, though I can’t think of any others off the top of my head…

Friday, April 17, 2009

Republican hypocrisy

In America, Republican is a word that seems naturally joined to the word hypocrite. In fact, these days the party seems unable to be much else.

The latest example is Republicans losing their shit over a Department of Homeland Security report that they claimed characterised military veterans as right-wing extremists.

Naturally, Republicans aren’t telling the truth.

As Secretary Janet Napolitano put it, "Let me be very clear—we monitor the risks of violent extremism taking root here in the United States. We don't have the luxury of focusing our efforts on one group; we must protect the country from terrorism whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence."

What the report actually said was that right-wing extremists could use the bad economy and the election of the first African American president to recruit members. It adds that returning military veterans who have trouble adjusting to being back home may be susceptible to extremist recruiters or they might engage in lone acts of violence. There’s nothing new in that assessment: Let’s not forget that the biggest act of domestic terrorism to date was committed by a disgruntled ex-military man.

But Republicans have gone apoplectic. One Florida Republican said, "The department is engaging in political and ideological profiling of people who fought to keep our country safe from terrorism, uphold our nation's immigration laws, and protect our constitutional right to keep and bear arms," neatly summing up most of the ideological checklist for far right Republicans. Another Republican complained that the Department was attacking "law-abiding Americans, including war veterans, as 'extremists.'"

Here’s the thing: Last February, the Department warned that left-wing extremist groups were likely to use cyber attacks more often in the next 10 years. Yet I didn’t hear of a single Republican complaining about "law-abiding Americans” being branded as “extremists” back then. Of course not: Republicans consider all centre and left Americans as “extremists”.

And this is just another example of why the Republican Party is led by hypocrites. The Party of No is quickly becoming the Party of No Clue.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

More about the new Auckland

We’ve now had a little time to digest the implications of the proposed changes for Auckland, and my own feelings about it have changed slightly, though I still support the planned amalgamation because it’s the best way forward for Auckland.

There will be one unified city—that much is certain. The Government plans to move under urgency to enact the relevant legislation, as I thought they would. I’m not a fan of using urgency to pass legislation, though the current National-led Government has been using it constantly to implement its agenda. The problem with urgency is that it prevents citizen input into the legislative process.

However, some things don’t need full consideration, and some things are too urgent to delay. Auckland fits both criteria: Amalgamation has been on the agenda for years, and seriously investigated for over a year and a half. We don’t need to re-litigate the whole thing. Also, if this is to be settled in time for the 2010 local elections, time is running out.

So, if the government plans on setting up the transition board under urgency, I have no problem with that—in fact, I think it’s necessary. However, the final make-up if the new Auckland Council and the power and number of community boards must be decided with full community consultation because that wasn’t part of the recent consultation process.

As I’ve said, I’d prefer that there be no “at large” council seats. I think they’re inherently anti-democratic and would likely be won only by the very rich, the very conservative and/or the very well known—and probably only older white males. No one from a minority community or progressive perspective would stand much chance of being elected “at large”.

As for the Maori seats, I said before that I don’t like the idea of race-based seats; to me they’re condescending. However, I also said that because Maori have a special constitutional relationship with the Crown, an argument can be made for seats reserved for Maori.

Also, Maori have argued that under the current system, few Maori have been elected in greater Auckland. They suggest that the proposed system would tend to lock out Maori candidates, and I think they’re probably right. So, I suggest that Maori have two or three seats elected by voters on the Maori electoral roll, and that those three seats come from the eight seats that were supposed to be elected “at large” (I don’t support any Maori seats being chosen by elders because it’s anti-democratic). Then, they’ll only have to come up with five or six more wards to get rid of the nonsense of “at large” seats altogether.

There will be more to come on this story. Who knows? I may change my mind again.

Tea morons

For the second time in a week, I find myself pulling my punches in talking about the antics of the far right. Earlier, it was a far right christianist group’s latest anti-gay crusade and its inept implementation. Now, it’s the stupid “tea bagging” protestors. For goodness sake, can’t these rightwing whackjobs use Google?!!

That’s the thing that holds me back: Making fun of the right wing is just too easy, too obvious—so much so that it feels a bit like punching someone who’s in a straightjacket (cuz, you know, they sorta are… or ought to be?). What they try and present as “ideas” are the same old steaming piles of non-intellectual poo that they’ve been trying to pass off for decades. Instead of ideas, they give us tired extremist religious dogma, instead of arguing for freedom they still offer nothing but theocracy.

So, quite frankly, I can’t be bothered with this tiresome lot or their vapid, shallow and utterly meaningless “tea bagging” (snicker) protest. Of course I’m keenly aware of the dire threat they still pose to freedom and liberty, and I’ll take them on from time to time; it’s just—how can you take seriously a bunch of cranky, moaning, whining malcontents who think “tea bagging” would be bad, or that “M4M” would agree with them?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Exploding christianist lies

Recently, I planned to post a rebuttal to a far right christianist group’s multi-million dollar ad campaign about gathering stormtroopers or something. Anyway, the truth is, I was so angry at the bald, blatant and so easily refuted lies in the ad that the post was reaching epic lengths.

The video above (found via Joe.My.God) dispels the four main lies told by far right christianists in their campaign to end marriage equality. We all know that if far right christianists are saying it, it can’t be true. Well, this video sets out the truth, and in some depth. It’s also the first time I’ve heard anyone argue that supporting marriage equality is supporting religious freedom—if you count that one, this video dispels 5 lies the far right tells.

And videos are always nicer than a long (very long) angry rant…

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A hero against censorship

Over the past weekend, blogs and Twitter were all aflame over alleged censorship by Amazon, but they mostly missed the passing of a real hero in the fight against censorship. Judith Krug, the founder of the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, died Saturday, aged 69, after a long battle with stomach cancer.

Krug had been head of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom since 1967. Banned Books Week has been observed the last week of September since 1982.

I first heard of Banned Books Week in 1984 when I was living in Chicago and visited an independent neighbourhood bookstore (back when there were such things…). I saw a few well-known books displayed in a cage, along with information about Banned Books Week.

Filled with righteous indignation, I set out to read books on the “most frequently challenged” list of the day “while they’re still legal,” I told people (click the link to see a list of: Banned and Challenged Classics). This was in the era of Reagan, when official suppression of intellectual freedom and censorship of free expression seemed not only possible, but likely. I bought and wore a button that said, “I read banned books.”

So, in my own small way, I tried to help promote Banned Books Week, but until now, I never knew what person was behind it. Judith Krug deserves our thanks for all her efforts to prevent censorship. “Censorship dies in the light of day,” she said. It was usually thankless, often ridiculed work, but vital to a functioning democracy. We should honour her efforts, and those of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom generally, by making sure we observe Banned Books Week September 26–October 3, 2009. It’s a small thing, but it’ll help bring a little "light of day" to stop the forces of censorship.

Update 12 August 2009: I clicked on the ALA's Banned Books Week-related links in this post—they were dead. You'd think of all people librarians would realise the need to have links redirect, wouldn't you? But, no. So, I manually updated those links, and changed the banned list link because it looks like they don’t have the one I originally linked to any more. Sigh! If even librarians can't maintain access to information, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Amazon crossing customers

Online retailer Amazon recently deranked and then removed from front page searches all “adult” books which—surprise!—meant all books with gay and lesbian themes or characters disappeared—including works by authors such as James Baldwin, Annie Proulx and E.M. Forster. However, “adult” heterosexual books, including sexually explicit heterosexual romances and a book of Playboy centrefolds, were not called “adult” and remained ranked.

This set off a firestorm of criticism on blogs and on Twitter, where the tag #Amazonfail suddenly became the top tag. Amazon now claims that it’s all a mistake, caused by a “glitch” and there is no new policy to classify all gay and lesbian books as “adult”—funny, I didn’t know that Amazon was selling swampland in Florida…

Okay, here’s the thing: I don't think that Amazon is lying, but they are trying to come up with an excuse for this. Craig Seymour noticed changes back in February and late last week another author, Mark Probst, received confirmation that non-adult books were deranked because of “adult” content in "consideration of our entire customer base." At the same time, searching for “homosexual” gives as the top result a book to help parents in “preventing homosexuality”, and most of the rest are anti-gay, so naturally people assume an anti-gay bias.

How can a “glitch” of this magnitude go on for weeks without Amazon noticing, despite a growing chorus of complaints? Was that deliberate?

As I see it, the real problem—and this is important—isn’t a plot by Amazon to somehow suppress gay and lesbian themes and authors. Instead, I suspect the real “glitch” is that wingnuts can pervert Amazon’s systems to object to a book, demanding that one with gay and lesbian themes be classified as “adult”. If that happens often enough—and wingnuts are nothing if not determined—a non-adult book can become labelled as “adult” for purely political reasons and then de-ranked. This is the same fault in the iTunes Store’s system of allowing users’ pettiness or politics to determine rankings.

This is potentially a much bigger problem because it strikes at the core of Amazon’s culture of customer involvement. To stop customer “objections” leading to the false categorisation of books, Amazon will have to put all objections into a queue awaiting review by humans, during which time the book’s classification—and rankings—must remain unchanged.

This blog is a participant in the Amazon Associates programme, originally as a way of making music and books I mentioned on my podcast available for purchase. Until this situation is clarified and resolved, I’ve suspended my participation in the programme. (I restored participation when the problem cleared).

Update 14/04/09: Hackers are claiming responsibility for this, including one who claims he did it because his online sex ads were blocked (he claimed he was looking for women to have sex and do drugs with). The connection? He claims ads of gay men looking for similar action weren't blocked, therefore, his ads being blocked was the fault of gay men. Right. Anyway, others have doubted this claim is actually true, but I honestly have no idea either way.

What's certainly true is that it was very easy for a small number of "objections" to get a book classified as "adult", so someone with an anti-gay agenda, whatever their motivation, could have exploited the "glitch" in Amazon's systems. The company has reportedly now stopped users' ability to get a book classified as "adult" and, personally, I doubt Amazon will be able to bring it back or this sort of attack—which is looking far more likely than any deliberate censorship—will happen again. Personally, I think the idea of fellow users being able to assign "reputation" is a deeply flawed concept, but that's a topic in itself.

Doing the devil’s work

Last week, an extremist christianist group ineptly launched a campaign against marriage equality featuring a TV ad using actors pretending to be real people to give credibility to the group’s lies and distortions. The deception was revealed by the Human Rights Campaign, which posted the actors’ audition tapes. The embarrassed haters responded by asserting copyright over the auditions and forcing YouTube to take them down, apparently hoping that hiding them would help them promote their lies without the general public knowing the truth.

The commercial is part of their hate campaign using as part of its acronym, “M4M”. A simple Google search would’ve shown this wasn’t a good idea for them. They also didn’t buy all the web domains with the full acronym of their hate campaign, so one has been set up to oppose them.

Add it all up and the hate group seems bumbling and buffoonish. But despite their ineptitude—or because of it—they received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of free publicity. As rational people laughed at the group’s cartoonish antics, their target audience found out about them—and may not have otherwise. Maybe the group’s stupidity was real, maybe it was an act to get a reaction, but in any case they got far more publicity than they or their far right backers could ever have funded.

As is so often the case, the centre and left did far more to advance the message of the haters than the haters themselves. They may have mocked the hate group or merely refuted the group’s lies, but in doing so they spoke only to people who already agreed with them, while helping to spread general awareness of the hate group and its campaign.

This is the dilemma for political bloggers: How much attention do we give to what our adversaries are doing? Do we ignore them and hope their project goes away, or do we take them on in the hope of stopping them? Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong, and both are fraught with potential danger. This week’s events demonstrate that conundrum with crystal clarity.

I think that the attention that we on the centre and left give to the antics of the right has to be determined, in part, by the scale of the threat. But whatever our response, we must make sure we don’t do the haters’ work for them: It’s tempting to link to the latest hate project in order to mock or refute it, but it’s not always the right choice. For one thing, the more links a site or video gets, the higher it will be in Google rankings.

It’s possible to refute the lies of the far right without calling attention to the haters themselves, which is why I seldom mention far right groups or their leaders by name or link to rightwing sites. For me, the issue isn’t any one group—since they’re all interlocked one way or another, anyway—but rather the lies, deceptions and distortions they use in their hate campaigns. For me, it’s important to fight the devil’s work without helping to advance that work. Sometimes it’s impossible to do the first without also doing the second, but we must be aware of that when we’re doing it. Otherwise, we may inadvertently help our enemies without even realising it, thereby helping the devil grow stronger, and that’s a bad thing.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


This weekend is the main event for religious Christians, and even some who aren’t. I haven’t had any personal religious association with Easter for a very long time, but I still have plenty of memories to keep me connected to it.

Recently I wrote that my mother “had a flair for the dramatic”, which is certainly true. But so did my father: His strength was stage management, you could say, and Easter weekend is a good example.

Every Christmas, my dad’s church had a couple Christmas trees and once the trees came down the branches were cut off and the trunks set aside. For Good Friday, the tree trunks were lashed together to form a cross and placed in a Christmas tree stand in the chancel. The altar cloths were stripped away, the brass cross usually on it was put away and a plain wooden one brought out. It had a sign saying “INRI” attached to it (my mother made the sign using cardboard my dad’s shirts were wrapped around by the laundry; to this day I call this white-on-one-side, gray-on-the-other-side cardboard “shirt cardboard”).

In those days, ministers usually wore a black cassock with a white surplice over it and a coloured ecclesiastic stole around the neck. On Good Friday my dad and any other service leaders wore the black cassock without the surplice (though my dad eventually had a black stole just for the night’s services), and he wore a crucifix, rather than the usual Protestant empty cross.

The sanctuary was dark, apart from a spotlight on that Christmas tree cross. Eventually my dad read The Passion and when he got to the phrase “He gave up the ghost”, the lights were shut off. Very dramatic. At the end of the service, parishioners filed out in silence.

Easter Sunday was a complete contrast: All the altar cloths were back, so was the brass cross, and the chancel was filled with flowers, especially Easter Lillies (which, because they’re spring flowers, are usually called Christmas Lillies in New Zealand). Everything was much more upbeat in keeping with what is for Christians a joyous celebration.

When I was younger, I was as into all that as anyone else, though my dad’s stage management no doubt helped. But the thing I remember most from those years isn’t the services, but my Easter baskets.

Each year my mother would tell me “the Easter Bunny hopped”, and I’d go to see the usual jellybeans and chocolates in my Easter basket. But each year they also gave me a stuffed animal, and one year they put my stuffed rabbit outside, leaning against a fence where morning glories were growing; most years, the weather didn’t allow that.

So, while I may no longer be religious or a Christian, I nevertheless have strong personal connections to Easter. The perfume of Easter (or Christmas) Lillies instantly brings me back there. So, too, do memories.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Saturday v2

The thing about Easter Weekend is that it’s confusing. Friday is a public holiday, so it feels like a Saturday. That makes Saturday feel like Sunday, followed by an inevitable good feeling when Sunday really arrives, followed by yet another day off.

But this weekend is especially weird because it contains two of New Zealand’s 3½ days on which there's a trading ban (the other day is Christmas Day and the half day is ANZAC Day morning). On those 3½ days, hardly anything can be sold: Cafés and restaurants can open, but shops can’t; video stores can rent videos, but can’t sell anything; hairdressers can do your hair, but can’t sell you shampoo; supermarkets are closed, but neighbourhood dairies (superettes) can open. Weird. Inevitably a few stores will flout the law, facing possible $1,000 fines.

The real result is that those 3½ days are pretty quiet. TV commercials can’t even be broadcast during this time, though broadcasters can—and do—show commercials promoting their own programmes instead, so the effect isn’t as obvious as one would think. Still, I can live with the oddities of the trading bans if it means that on those 3½ days we get a break from hard-selling TV commercials.

For most New Zealanders, there’s little or no religious significance to this weekend. However, it’s also one of the few times during a typical year that some people will attend church services (not counting weddings and funerals); New Zealanders aren’t terribly unique in that regard—it’s true in many English-speaking countries.

So, Easter Weekend is a quiet weekend in New Zealand, one enjoyed mostly as a four-day holiday. I like it, for many reasons.

Friday, April 10, 2009

‘Star Trek’ on the red carpet

Last night, we went to the Auckland premier of “Star Trek”, which opens in New Zealand on May 7. We got to walk along a red carpet to the cinemas, with a lot of security and frequent checks of our invitations. Nigel waited out front to see the stars arrive, but I stayed in my seat.

There were goody bags waiting on the seats, and before the film started, four of the film’s stars came in to say a few words to the audience: Chris Pine (Kirk), Zach Quinto (Spock), Karl Ubran (Dr. McCoy) and John Cho (Sulu).

After a few minutes in the cinema, and after saying a few words, they left shaking people’s hands along the way. Nigel and I shook the hands of Zach Quinto and John Cho, both of whom seemed very nice (and Zach was nothing like Sylar). They were all attractive in real life (which isn’t always the case with film actors), especially Chris Pine who (let’s be honest…) was pretty hot.

As for the film, I won’t give an in depth review, but I will say this: This film will be enjoyed by both “Star Trek” fans and people who’ve never cared for the previous versions. It’s pretty much non-stop action, cramming a lot in.

Fans will see appropriate references—even homage—to the original series that non-fans may not even notice: No one needs to know anything about “Star Trek” to enjoy the film. In a way, it’s kind of a breakthrough “Star Trek” film.

I highly recommend it, and we’ll go back to see it when it opens next month.

I tried to take photos of the stars in the cinema, but my camera couldn’t focus. Afterward, I had to check my camera (at the insistence of a burly, gruff security guy). During the film, I saw him wandering around with a night vision scope looking for people with cameras. The cameras were returned at the end of the film.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Thanks, Helen

Yesterday former Prime Minister Helen Clark delivered her valedictory speech to Parliament as she prepares to begin her UN job. She noted in her speech how much things had changed since she entered Parliament in 1981, such as that in that year “the number of women elected to parliament doubled from four to eight, and there were only six Maori MPs.”

Things have moved on, and the Parliament of today is inarguably far more diverse and representative of New Zealand than the mostly male, mostly Pakeha Parliament of those pre-MMP days. Helen Clark had much to do with helping Labour advance its ideals of fairness and justice for New Zealanders.

"Entering Parliament was for me a way of translating ideals into positive action—hard as that can sometimes be. There have been many issues over my 41 years of political activity when I’ve perhaps been ahead of public opinion at the time. Yet, so often, today’s avant-garde become tomorrow’s status quo. Such thoughts cross my mind when I see a cross section of New Zealand families celebrate their children’s civil union; or a government delegation from Vietnam welcomed as friends and regional partners, when once to support relations with their country was thought to be beyond the mainstream."

She noted that when Labour became government in 1999, “Fairness, opportunity, and security were our core values—and they were applied across the board.” She added, “Reconciliation, respect, inclusion, human rights—these were important themes for me as a Prime Minister with a deep belief in equality.”

Like most people, I take the keenest notice of issues that affect me directly, and here those values were clear to see. Helen Clark said that among other issues, “The Civil Union Act enabling rainbow couples to express their love for each other by cementing their relationship in law…[was]…important to me.” Obviously I agree.

There were plenty of people who despised Helen Clark, partly because she really was often ahead of public opinion. But she was also a strong, capable leader who managed her caucus and coalitions effectively. At the moment, she’s the only Prime Minister to successfully manage a coalition government under MMP. Despite the lingering negativity among some on the right, she’ll no doubt go down in history as one of our best prime ministers precisely because the hallmark of her premiership was competent management, done on behalf of all New Zealanders and not just the privileged few.

1999 was the first year I was eligible to vote in New Zealand, and my “two ticks” helped to make Helen Clark Prime Minister. It was one of the best votes I ever cast. I’m sorry to see her leaving, but I’m grateful for what she and Labour were able to do.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Iowa puts the heart in ‘Heartland’

The right wing in Iowa wanted to move an amendment to the Iowa Constitution to undo the state’s recent Supreme Court ruling establishing marriage equality. Such and amendment has to be passed by two consecutive state legislatures before being submitted to voters. Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, in the video above, is blocking the amendment. Assuming he continues to block it in next year’s session, an amendment to end marriage equality couldn’t appear on the Iowa ballot before 2014, by which time Iowa voters—like most of America—will have moved on.

This speech is special because it is both simple and profound—the simple declaration of truth from a Midwestern politician that most of us have probably never heard of before. He expresses a few facts that the right wing is too obtuse to understand. In any event, Iowa and Senator Gronstal have helped to give new meaning to the Midwest’s other nickname, “America’s Heartland”.

Video via Joe.My.God.

As predicted

A popping sound could be heard all over America today: It was caused by the heads of wingnuts exploding when the Vermont legislature overrode the veto of marriage equality legislation by that state’s Republican governor. Vermont then became the first US state to successfully enact marriage equality through the legislative process (the California legislature passed marriage equality twice and the state’s Republican governor vetoed it twice).

Among my favourite wingnut reactions was this gem: “I await the volcanoes, the tsunamis, the hurricanes and hopefully, the destruction of Vt and its pacifist secular socialism by the Lord. I actually do want it to happen…” And, of course, by “Lord” the wingnut obviously meant Lord Voldemort.

Conservatives on the farther end of the spectrum—whether wingnut or less crazy—haven’t quite realised that they’re losing this war, one step at a time. I believe that the tide is turning and over the next few years these sorts of victories will become more common.

In any case, it makes me happy to see states do the right thing, as both Vermont and Iowa have recently, and it restores my faith in democracy. That, and I do enjoy the sound of wingnut heads exploding—it sounds like victory.

Well done, Vermont: You’ve done America proud. And special thanks to the Vermont citizens who worked tirelessly to make this victory happen. They deserve out thanks as well as out praise for a job well done.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The new Auckland, Part 2

The Government has announced its plan for Auckland: A single unified city, as the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance suggested. However, they’re also making some important changes, including some very good ones.

The position of mayor is largely the same as proposed by the Royal Commission. The sole difference is that the mayor will be elected for three years, not four as recommended.

The Auckland Council will consist of 20 members, not 23. Eight will be elected at-large, and 12 will be elected from single-member wards (the original proposal was 10 elected at large and 10 from wards). There will be no specific Māori seats, but the Auckland Council can establish them later, pursuant to the Local Government Act 2001, if there’s community support for them. This seems reasonable, rather than having them imposed. Councillors will also be elected for three years, not four.

Instead of the proposed six Local Councils, the Government will set up 20 to 30 local boards with a total of 125-150 members (the Local Councils would have had 82 under the Royal Commission proposal, while current community boards have 145 elected representatives; the number of boards and boundaries will be determined by the Local Government Commission). The boards will be similar to the Local Council proposal in that they won’t be able to levy rates and will have responsibility for purely local issues, but they “will not replicate the service delivery structures that will be managed by the Auckland Council.”

The Government says, “Unclear accountability and allocation of functions across the two tiers of governance are the main reasons the Government decided not to accept the Royal Commission’s proposal of six local councils. Another reason for this decision was that the proposed councils were too large to provide for effective grassroots community representation.” They’re absolutely right about that, as I said in my previous post.

The boards will “advocate for their local community and have input into the Auckland Council’s plans”, which is at least partly an advisory role. They’ll also “develop local operational policies for local issues, for example dog control, liquor licensing and graffiti control”. While the boards will be able to “influence the Auckland Council by petitioning for extra services that their community wants,” they won’t be able to levy rates for those projects and instead will seek funds from the Auckland Council, including possible targeted rates rises.

The Government has addressed my main criticism of the Royal Commission proposal, namely, the need for more democratic representation. In that respect at least, the Government’s proposed structure is an improvement, but I would’ve preferred no at-large members of the Auckland Council or, at most, four.

What surprised me the most about this is timing: The Royal Commission planned to have the Mayor and Council elected in the October 2010 elections, but the full integration of council functions and the 6,000 staff employed by them was to take four years. The Government proposes to have everything completed by October 2010 “to minimise uncertainty and disruption for council staff and the public.” That’s a great goal, but it’s a huge challenge, especially given the resistance and even obstructionism by some local politicians.

However, after a process lasting a year and a half, and problems stretching back much longer, it’s good to get things moving. Now that the course has been set, it’s important to get things completed in a timely and orderly manner. Then, it’s time to move on.

Later, this all could be happening for Wellington, too.

The new Auckland, Part 1

Later today, the government is set to announce their plans for Auckland after the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance released its recommendation for a single unified city for Auckland (a concept someone dubbed “super city”, a name which is epithet as much as descriptor, so I won’t use it). This is a very complicated issue, so I’m splitting my reaction into two parts: First, in this part, I’ll talk about what the Royal Commission recommended and what I think about it. In Part 2, I’ll look at what the government proposes.

First, some background: The Royal Commission was announced back in July of 2007 as a way of finally solving Auckland’s notoriously fractious politics and inability to cooperate regionally. With roughly a third of the population of New Zealand, the Auckland region is a major force in the national economy. The eight councils ruling the Auckland area were simply unable to act together to the detriment of the entire country.

The Royal Commission proposed a completely new structure for the region, abolishing all eight councils in favour of a unified city ruled by what they called the “Auckland Council”, which would exercise all the powers under the Local Government Act. Under it would be four urban and two rural “Local Councils” dealing with local matters including dog control, hearing and deciding resource consents, processing building consents, regulating gambling, liquor licensing and brothel policies and also managing and maintaining local parks, roads and footpaths. Only the Auckland Council can set rates (similar to property taxes in the US), but Local Councils can request rate rises for specific local projects. All existing community boards will be abolished, except for Waiheke and Great Barrier Islands. The Auckland Council is advised to set up a committee dealing with the Auckland waterfront, and another dealing with the city centre.

There would be one Mayor elected by all Aucklanders who would be unlike any other mayor in New Zealand, but arguably less powerful than mayors of cities in other countries. The Mayor would propose the Auckland Council budget and initiate policy (thought both must be approved by the Auckland Council). He would also appoint the Deputy Mayor and committee chairpersons and would run the executive Mayoral Office.

The government’s initial reaction questioned whether there was enough democratic representation, and I would heartily agree with that. It seems to me the Royal Commission’s proposal attempted to strip away layers of democracy in the interests of promoting regional focus and efficiency. I think they went way too far.

The Auckland Council would be made up of 23 Councillors: Only ten elected from wards (8 urban, 2 rural). A further ten would be elected “at-large” from throughout the region. Two would be elected by Māori voters registered on the Māori electoral roll with one more Māori Councillor appointed by mana whenua, defined as “local Māori with ancestral ties to the land”. This structure would be an undemocratic nightmare.

Having only ten Councillors elected from wards would mean that they’d “represent” tens of thousands of people. The ten “at-large” councillors are proposed so they’ll have a region-wide focus, rather than focusing on a single ward. The reality would be that certain regions or parties could come to dominate those positions, and they’d end up being every bit as parochial as the Royal Commission apparently assumes ward-based councillors would be. Electing councillors Auckland-wide, like the Mayor, also means the Mayor would have ten potential political rivals on the Auckland Council. That suggests the same sort of infighting, game-playing and political self-interest we’re trying to get away from.

The Māori representation is an issue in itself. First, I need to say that I’m extremely uncomfortable with race-based representation of any sort. However, as the tangata whenua, and the specific partners with the Crown through the Treaty of Waitangi, a case can be made for Māori having such representation. Even so, appointed seats are definitely undemocratic, and I don’t support that. Add a third elected Māori seat if need be, but no one should be simply appointed to the Auckland Council.

I suspect that the government will pay the most attention to the next layer of government, the Local Councils. These councils will vary in size, but in all of them members will be chosen by wards. They’ll select a chairperson from among them who will be replaced as a ward representative by the next-highest polling candidate in that ward. I’m not sure that the answer to increasing democracy is reinstating community boards—quite frankly, I have no idea what they actually do. Perhaps the answer is more Local Council members (so they represent fewer people), or maybe there should be more local councils.

On balance, I think the Royal Commission was on the right track, and with a little tweaking to increase democratic participation, it could work. But we don’t need to have even more public consultation on the entire thing. After a year and a half, thousands of submissions and reports commissioned from various experts in particular areas, the last thing we need is more expensive re-visiting of the same issues. Yesterday the Prime Minister said that they wouldn’t do that, which is positive. Certain aspects of the implementation may get further consultation, but the plan as a whole is pretty much settled.

One final thought for now: Many people assume this whole thing is about saving money. While it probably will save some money, especially though combing “back office” functions and other efficiencies, that’s not the main objective. Instead, the whole point is getting Auckland functioning as a unit, finally addressing the regional problems that have held it—and New Zealand—back. The new Auckland has the potential to be one of the leading cities in this part of the world, but that can never happen while it’s being held back by petty, parochial, squabbling local politicians. The people of Auckland deserve better, and so does New Zealand.

Monday, April 06, 2009

One Thousand Posts

This is my one thousandth post on this blog; it took two and a half years to get to this point. I have to wonder, what have we been discussing?

The background in the graphic above is a list of the 500 words used the most in the English language. I have no idea how many of them appear in any of these 1,000 posts (not counting the graphic, obviously), and I don’t really care. I just thought it was a good way to illustrate the idea of 1,000 posts, most filled with words.

So, what should we discuss in the next 1,000 posts? Thanks for reading!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Coincidence of baptisms

Today is a special anniversary: Fifty years ago today my grandfather baptised me, giving me the wrong name in the process. Baptism didn’t have any legal standing, of course, and the certificate had my correct name, anyway. Since the only legally required item was my birth certificate, I forgot all about my baptism.

In the early 1980s, I was living in Chicago and one day I was going through a few old papers and found my baptismal certificate, dated April 5, 1959. By the time I found it, it really didn’t mean much to me—I was a bit young to remember the event, after all.

Actually, I should say that the certificate didn’t mean anything to me until I found it because I realised April 5 was also the date that I went to a gay bar for the first time (in 1981, in Carbondale, Illinois), twenty-two years after my baptism to the very day. Since that first visit was only a couple years before I found the certificate, I immediately saw the coincidence.

Shortly after this discovery, I mentioned it to a friend and he said the day in 1981 was my "second baptism." Maybe, but the second is the only one of the two that's possible for me to actually remember, and it's the only one that still has relevance for me. However, the coincidence of the dates of the two events is probably the only reason that I remember the date of either.

April 5, 1959 was part of the beginning of a journey controlled mostly by others. April 5, 1981 was the beginning of a journey controlled mostly by me, making it more like the start of my life than a "baptism" in any sense of the word.

I guess I was lucky that I found that paper. Despite time and distance, I can still remember the events of that day 28 years ago—and, thanks to that coincidence, also the date they happened.

Maybe I should schedule everything important for April 5 each year so that I can remember—or maybe I should just leave well enough alone. On every April 5 my life is different in some way, big or small, than on previous ones. I just wish I could remember more of them.

Fifty years and twenty-eight years later—again, to the very day—it’s clear it was the second event that had the bigger personal effect on me because on that day, in a sense, my parent’s work was completed as I began my own life. On that 1981 day I started to stop being afraid, though I had more work to do.

But it all began on April 5.

I scanned the photo above (taken exactly 50 years ago today), from a 35mm slide using that same bad scanner I used last week. I must come up with a better solution for all the slides I have, because there's only so much I can do to fix a terrible scan.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Jake’s Birthday 2-day

Today is Jake’s second birthday! It hardly seems possible it could have rolled around so quickly, and yet it also seems like he’s been with us forever. I said way back in 2007, when Jake first came to live with us, that I’d “never seen a puppy so seemingly happy to be in a new home.” That happiness has never worn off, and he’s as happy and friendly now as when he only eleven weeks old (below).

Today Jake got lots of extra cuddles (including the one below with Nigel) and a few extra treats. Obviously he has no idea what a birthday is, but he clearly enjoyed the attention.

He is unlike any other dog I’ve shared my life with, filling the entire house with his presence and his constant happiness. He came into our lives in a dark time, and brightened everything up again. He still does.

Happy birthday, Jake—we’re so happy you came to live us!

Update 05/04/09:
Jake's real brother Doyle (pictured below) had a big day, too!

Planet Wingnut explodes

It’s been a tough week for the residents of Planet Wingnut, an alternate reality that exists alongside our own. Those of us who live in the real world have probably barely noticed some of the things rocking Planet Wingnut, and we certainly haven’t seen them from the dark place where the Wingnuttians dwell.

The Vermont House of Representatives approved marriage equality by a vote of 95-52, despite Wingnuts using robocalls to try and harass normal people into joining the Wingnuttian dark side on the issue. The state’s senate earlier approved a different version, so they’ll need to reconcile the bills before sending the final version to the Republican Governor for his promised veto in the first act of his 2012 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination (or so Vermonters say). The legislature will attempt to override Governor Pander’s (not his real name) veto and, if they succeed, there will be popping sounds all over Planet Wingnut as heads explode.

Then the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a 1998 state law restricting civil marriage to one man and one woman violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa state constitution. Same-sex marriages will be legal in Iowa in three weeks, beginning April 24. Reality-impaired residents of Planet Wingnut have declared that Iowa will now have crop failures, but they haven’t yet said whether the crops will fail before or after the aliens make their circles in them.

All of that was on top of their continual apoplexy about the very existence of President Obama who is, as they all know, a communistsocialistfascist dictator. In case you’re unfamiliar with who the Wingnuts are foaming and frothing about, it’s the guy who has a 2/3 approval rating, the guy who leads a county in which the number of people who think the country is heading in the right direction has tripled since Inauguration Day. Yeah, that dictator.

Planet Wingnut is a place where things are simple and absolute, where thinking isn’t permitted—and neither is any connection to reality.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Gratuitous Jake photo

I have things to say, but still not enough time. So, instead, here’s another gratuitous Jake photo. Ain’t he sweet?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

ACT of a loser

It should be pretty obvious that despite recently praising the ACT Party’s leader, I generally can’t stand the party. They continue to push the failed and discredited 1980s politics of Reagan/Thatcher/Douglas/Richardson, condemning everything that gets in the way of unfettered profit.

During the previous Labour-led Government, there was probably no fiercer critic of the government than ACT, even more so than the official Opposition, the National Party. The party leader, Rodney Hide, was nearly relentless in his criticism of then-Prime Minister Helen Clark. All of which is politics and commonplace.

Once an election is over, and especially after a change of government, the need for such relentless partisan attack-dog politics subsides (apart from blaming every single problem you face on the previous government, something every government does). Another convention is that when a Member of Parliament leaves, especially a former Prime Minister, and especially for a prestigious international diplomatic position, parliamentarians send them off graciously.

One ACT Party MP apparently doesn’t know how to be gracious.

Yesterday, every party in parliament rose to congratulate former Prime Minister Helen Clark on her appointment as Director of the United Nations Development Programme. Every single Member of Parliament, regardless of party, rose to give her a standing ovation—every member, bar one.

ACT Party MP David Garrett refused to stand. Radio news Newstalk ZB reported that “he does not have a lot of time for Helen Clark and what she stands for” so he remained seated, claiming that to do otherwise would have been “hypocritical”. Today, Newstalk ZB reported “Mr Garrett says that would have been a gesture of respect, which he does not have.”

In a situation like that, one is acknowledging the achievement of a fellow Parliamentarian. There’s a long tradition of bipartisan support for Members of Parliament who seek positions in international organisations. All sides recognise that when a Kiwi does well on the world stage, it reflects well on New Zealand.

So what are we to make of Garrett’s behaviour? In my view, it was a beginner MP being churlish and childish. I can guarantee that some of the MPs who stood didn’t respect Helen Clark or Labour, and some, like Garret, have openly expressed their contempt. But, unlike Garrett, they recognise that there are bigger things than petty personal feelings.

With the possible exception of Rodney Hide and his deputy, Heather Roy, the entire ACT Caucus is made up of lightweights and morons, people who aren’t fit to be in Parliament (yes, I include Roger “way past his use-by-date” Douglas in that). Garret’s contemptible behaviour clearly demonstrates that. If Hide is any kind of leader, he’ll give Garrett a strongly worded telling off for bringing ACT and, by extension, all Members of Parliament, into disrepute. If Garrett doesn’t have the decency to be ashamed of his actions, then ACT must be ashamed for him.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Too busy, too

Not for the first time, I’m extremely busy with work commitments and don’t have time for proper blogging—which is a real shame considering I’m zeroing in on a pretty big (for me) blog milestone. And there are so many juicy things in the news simply begging for comment—well, probably not from me, but I have a few things to say about them all the same.

Not today. Right now I’m too busy to post anything substantive (and I’m thinking, this is different how, exactly?). This, too, shall pass. But I wouldn’t mind if the substantive thing sticks around.