Saturday, March 31, 2007

Quick road trip

Today, I drove down to Ngatea to pick up some things for a work project. It ended up being a good trip, with decent weather and traffic that wasn’t too bad. I met with the client, had lunch from the Copper Kettle (as always) which was great (as always) and came home.

I put a few podcasts on CD to listen to in the car on the way (because my car stereo doesn’t have an iPod interface). It was a good way to catch up with some podcasts. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before, but I’ll do that in future months.

Today was actually a pretty laid back day, but there was one thing from the TV news tonight: As from midnight tonight, it’ll be illegal to catch and kill great white sharks in New Zealand waters. The sharks are endangered here, with extinction a real possibility. Worldwide, the sharks are threatened. The sharks are also not the deadliest shark species, from a human perspective. From a shark’s perspective, the deadliest species is apparently human.

The sickness spreads

The “Weekend” edition of Wellington’s Dominion Post newspaper reported that fundamentalists are bringing “purity” camps to New Zealand. The camps were inspired by the “purity balls” in America, where adolescent girls pledge their “purity” to their fathers in ceremonies that have a creepy similarity to weddings.

The article reports that the
New Zealand camps will be focused more one “wholesome” activities than on chastity, but the leaders of the effort agreed it would be “awesome” if purity balls spread to New Zealand. That’s not the adjective I would’ve used.

I wrote recently about the media obsession with purity/chastity/virginity groups. I personally find this media obsession absurd, but not nearly as absurd as the programmes themselves.

There’s a high failure rate of such programmes. The article mentioned a local American-style fundamentalist church that says its abstinence programme has a 78% success rate (or 22% failure rate). However, the article provided no context. The article didn’t say how long those 78% maintained their pledges. If the period is short enough, any abstinence programme can claim a high success rate; the longer the time period, the more likely people are to break their pledges. All of which means that newspaper readers had no way to evaluate the accuracy of the church’s claim.

The thing that bothers me the most about the church-based chastity programmes is that they’re inherently sexist and misogynistic. Why are the girls pledging their purity to their fathers and not their mothers or to both parents? And why is it just girls? It’s because to fundamentalists, female sexuality is the property of men. The first owner is the father who eventually passes it on to the husband (traditionally shown in heterosexual weddings when the father gives the bride—and her virginity, symbolised by the white dress—to the husband).

If the fundamentalists were really serious about promoting “purity”, they’d seek it equally from boys and girls and both parents would be the recipients of the pledge. But doesn’t don’t fit well with a fundamentalist world view.

Most New Zealanders would be as sceptical about these fundamentalist programmes as I am, and probably equally as dismissive. New Zealanders just don’t need easy, simplistic fundamentalist answers to complex problems, which is the main reason that fundamentalists remain a small minority in this country. And most Kiwis would think that’s a good thing.

Friday, March 30, 2007

On Parade

Today I accompanied my mother-in-law and a sister-in-law to an unusual event: The Graduation Parade of my partner’s nephew, who has just completed basic training in the Royal New Zealand Navy. This is commonly called “passing out” because they’re passing out of basic training. To me the phrase has an entirely different meaning.

I’ve never been to anything like this here or in America, so I can’t compare and contrast at all. Even so, there were a couple things that surprised me: There were no New Zealand or RNZN flags (unless you count a wall mural). The New Zealand national anthem wasn’t played. As an American, growing up on a steady diet of flag-waving, oh-say-can-you-seeing conspicuous patriotism, this seemed odd to me—strangely understated.

Which is not to say there wasn’t a lot of pomp. Plenty of navy officers in dress whites, ceremonial swords dangling. There was a lot of marching around, saluting and shouted commands. Guns were fired. Bagpipes and drums were played (from a nearby shed).

A lot of the ceremony involved various navy officers inspecting the graduates. But a large—and strangely entertaining—part involved various demonstrations of their training, including routine physical training (many gyms would be envious). The sailors, male and female, took part in all this equally—except the sister-in-law noticed that it was only female graduates cleaning up bullet casings after a shooting demonstration (a later clean-up crew was both male and female).

And then it was over. The guests and new graduates milled around, posing for photos. Family and friends offered congratulations to the graduates. And then people headed over for morning tea, though it was lunchtime by then, so we left.

With new patrol ships to be delivered soon, these new graduates will probably not have long to wait before being assigned to a ship. In the meantime, they get two weeks leave.

It was an interesting experience, actually, and one I’d guess the average immigrant doesn’t get to have.

The photo at the top of this post shows some of the graduates entering the parade ground.

Below: Some of the graduates.

Below: Yes, the guns were real. Yes, they fired them. Yes they were very loud.

Now I’m a guest

I posted my first podcast episode, then the next day I was a guest for the first time on someone else’s podcast. You gotta love this “new media”.

One of my favourite podcasters [the podcast is now gone] records a group discussion every week. The guests are podcasters, bloggers or sometimes other people (usually with some sort of “web presence”). The discussion is split into two shows posted on Thursday and Friday.

[The podcaster
asked me to join the group show but, frankly, we weren’t sure how well Skype would work for this (I'd heard that Skype was a bit dodgy when used internationally from New Zealand). We tried it, and it worked very well. So, I’m part of this week’s group. The first part, "Outing Gay People", is out now (the second part will probably be uploaded sometime after
9pm tonight, New Zealand time). [neither episode is available any more]

It was a great experience. The podcaster is a really good host (and no, not just because he invited me to join…). As a listener, I’ve noticed he keeps the discussion moving and interesting. And he’s always entertaining on his solo podcasts, too.

It was also fun to interact in real time with guys who had previously been only recorded voices to me. Before then, I’d only interacted with any of them through comments, emails or sometimes an online chat.

Also, Mike Hipp of Podcast Soup covered my first episode (and this guest episode). I highly recommend his site. I’ve tired out several podcasts I’ve seen listed there, so I think it’s a great place to find some new ones to listen to. I also find Mike’s synopses to be really helpful (I first listened to Feast of Fools, for example, because of his synopsis).

In the weeks ahead I may pop up on other podcasts, and I plan to eventually have guests on my own, though that’s probably still several weeks away. In the meantime, my ordinary schedule for posting new episodes of my podcast will be on Fridays (New Zealand time)—except the next episode. Friday next week is a public holiday, so my next podcast will be Thursday or earlier (I can’t be any more specific because next week is the busiest week of the month for work). When it’s released, the show notes will be here.

Thanks to everyone who's listened to my first podcast! Always feel free leave comments about anything in my shows or on this blog. To me, that's what all this new media is all about.

Update: The second espisode was posted, but is no longer available. I talked a bit more on that one, mostly about New Zealand.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The friendly skies

Okay, this is weird:
An Auckland-bound jetliner came close to being hit by blazing pieces of what is thought to have been a Russian satellite hurtling into New Zealand airspace.
NASA says it was probably a meteor, but whatever it was, the objects passed five nautical miles in front of and behind the plane. The pilot reported that the objects made a roar loud enough to hear over the noise of the jet, and they could see the fiery trails the objects made in the sky.'

According to the article in today’s New Zealand Herald, it was estimated that at the speed it was travelling, the jet was 40-seconds away from collision with the objects.

And you thought all you had to worry about were terrorists, drunk passengers and deep vein thrombosis! In all seriousness, though, the odds of being hit by anything falling from the sky are really long. However, even though it’s highly improbable that the flight that you’re on would be struck by space junk, it might pay to read the fine print of your traveller’s insurance—just in case.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A podcast is up

AmeriNZ #1:You gotta start some place

What was I thinking?

I posted my first podcast—or first episode of my podcast, as the case may be (we’ll see…). It was intended to be a test recording, which I made last week, but I decided to go ahead and post it anyway. That way, I couldn’t put off doing it any longer. It also had some stuff that I didn’t really want to re-record. So, there it is, in all its rough glory.

I’ve been thinking about doing a podcast since before I started this blog, but I decided to listen to several before giving it a go. All the podcasts listed at the right of my blog provided some inspiration, some directly. I’ll talk about that in another post.

In the meantime, this blog will remain largely as it has been, but it’ll also be the home for the show notes for podcasts and show comments. Feel free to leave a comment, ask a question, whatever. I hope to post new episodes every 7 to 10 days, and they’ll always be announced here.

So, on with the show:

On this episode I talk about the Prime Minister’s trip to America, the thaw in NZ/US relations, life as an expat and having two countries to call home.

Funny Americans

People outside America love to make fun of Americans. Considering the political and cultural influence of the US, it’s understandable. But all countries have people who are made fun of—usually people who are stupid or who do stupid things. America’s sheer size makes it easy to find such people.

However, let’s be honest here: America does seem to have more than its fair share of geographically-challenged people. Part of that’s probably due to history and geography being taught less frequently and less well, but I’ve always thought that the main reason Americans are so often ignorant of the world is because they don’t need to know about the world. American-made television, movies and music are big business. America’s internal markets are huge, so Americans can expect products and services to meet their desires.

For example, the rest of the world has switched to the metric system, but America stands alone with the old Imperial system—because it can. American businesses who export have found ways around that, like, for example, packaging capable of holding similar amounts (12 US ounce cans hold 355ml elsewhere; 20 US ounce bottles hold 600ml elsewhere).

That doesn’t excuse Americans not knowing more about the world. The “ugly American” tourist stereotype exists because, like all stereotypes, there’s an element of truth (stereotypes are so pernicious precisely because they contain an element of truth). American tourists run into trouble overseas because they don’t know about the place they’re visiting.

However, Americans who choose to live overseas are different. In general, since they’ve chosen the country they live in, and they want to be there, they’ve learned about the place and try and fit in. We’re so good at it, in fact, that in nearly twelve years in New Zealand I’ve never met another American apart from the occasional store clerk.

Over at Ramble Redhead I ran across a YouTube video of an Australian comedy programme’s segment making fun of American stupidity. They likely only picked the shots where people said the most ignorant things, but I’ve actually heard people say similar things. There are at least three versions of this on YouTube, and I picked the full version because it includes a segment where the host pretends he’s Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Okay, so the video isn’t scientific or representative, but it is a bit of fun. After all the serious subjects lately, a little diversion is in order.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Beat the children well

New Zealand has a dark secret that no one here wants to talk about: Child abuse. UN agencies routinely find high levels of child abuse in New Zealand. In recent years there have been some horrific and sickening cases of violence directed at children, too often fatally. Just today the Dominion Post reported on a case in which “a three-month-old baby was left brain damaged and partially blind after an assault with force equal to that of a car accident.” The baby’s assailant, currently on trial, was his father.

So against this backdrop the propaganda campaign against Green MP Sue Bradford’s proposed law on smacking is sickening in its own right. Opponents, led by social and Christian conservatives, have demanded the right to smack their children. Their disinformation campaign has tried to fool people into believing that the proposed law will force the police to arrest and prosecute parents who give their children a light smack. That claim is an absolute and deliberate distortion.

The Crimes Act already outlaws assault, but a parent can get away with pretty severe physical abuse by claiming they were exercising “reasonable force”. In such cases the police can’t prosecute a parent for clear assault. In
America, we’d say they “got off on a technicality”, but this isn’t a technicality, it’s the intention of the law.

Prime Minister Helen Clark said:

The bill is about legal defences to the crime of assault. It is not the normal practice of our police to rush around prosecuting technical assault which happens day in, day out on the sports field, on the streets, in the bars and in the homes. The point of the Bradford bill is to enable the police to successfully prosecute serious child beaters and if we're serious about tackling the problem of violence against children in our society—which is rife—then it's an important measure.

Contrary to the propaganda, there’s nothing in
Bradford’s bill that outlaws smacking itself. She said:

My bill does not deny good parents who may occasionally smack their children, nor is it a ban on smacking. If I wanted to make smacking a criminal offence I would have found a way to define it.

Seems pretty clear cut. But not to opponents, who loudly proclaim their right to smack their children. Since light smacking is and will remain legal, one can only assume that opponents are demanding the right to beat up their children.

Obviously, most opponents would never dream of beating children, even if some would and do. Most of the opponents are decent people who mainly don’t want the government telling them how to parent. That’s an area where reasonable people can reasonably disagree.

These ordinary people have been deceived and manipulated by a cynical right wing that’s using them to get the current government, whom they despise. A reasonable discussion has become impossible because the right wing has successfully framed the debate as being about parental rights, and the imaginary threat of good parents being prosecuted.

But who, exactly, speaks for the children?

Update 28 March 2007: MPs are under increasing pressure to vote against Sue Bradford’s bill, with MPs sometimes getting 200 emails an hour, according to a Dominion Post article. The same article reported that Prime Minister Helen Clark said that one of the main groups backing a newspaper ad campaign aimed at defeating the bill, Focus on the Family New Zealand, has ties to “an evangelical group in the US with ‘extreme, right wing fundamentalist views’”. The article also reported that an MP from the right wing National Party, Chester Borrows, “said Labour's claims about US Focus on the Family leader James Dobson were ‘way off beam’”. Anyone who knows anything about American politics knows that Dobson’s group does exhibit “extreme, right wing fundamentalist views”. If National doesn’t know that, one wonders about who else their friends might be.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The stuck record

Someone get Dick Cheney a new writer. Seriously. He says the same thing over and over and over and over and each time it sounds as stupid, idiotic and morally and intellectually bankrupt as the first time he said it.

The AP reported:

Vice President Dick Cheney on Saturday accused the Democrat-led House [of Representatives] of not supporting troops in Iraq and of sending a message to terrorists that America will retreat in the face danger.

He and his neocon buddies just don’t get it: America has had enough of their lies and distortions. They lied to get America into their war, they lied to keep America there and they’re lying now about their war’s future.

They say 20—no, wait, 25—no, wait—maybe 30, or maybe tens of thousands more troops are needed, then that will finally bring stability and the troops can come home. Yeah, right. They didn’t have a plan for dealing with Iraq after their invasion ended and they don’t have one now. How long will American troops be there? “As long as it takes,” they say. Weeks? Months? Years? Decades? Cheney doesn’t have a clue.

And that’s the real problem, isn’t it? Cheney and his cohorts don’t have a clue. So they resort to spewing propaganda lines over and over in the hope that people will be fooled again. No such luck Dick and Karl.

The thing about propaganda is that sooner or later the lies become transparent. That makes it increasingly easier to oppose them. The years of lies and distortions have finally caught up with this administration and no one buys their bullshit.

And the bullshit sticks to George Bush, too, of course. If he seriously thinks he can defy Congressional demands that his aides testify then he’s more deluded than I’d have thought possible. He simply can’t win in the long run.

Even if he wins the battle with a court ruling in his favour (which is possible—after all, George only became president when the Supreme Court installed him), he’ll lose the war at home, facing solid majorities in both houses of Congress opposing him. Why? Because it won’t just be the Democrats opposing him, but also savvy Republicans who can read the public mood—and keep an eye on their own re-election campaigns.

The Dick and George Show may have just under 22 months to go, but it’ll be a stormy time. It makes it all the more imperative that Congress, the states and individual citizens keep their eyes on the current administration to keep them from damaging America any more than they already have.

Busy times for nothing

I don’t know anybody, really, who doesn’t say “I’ve been so busy lately!” So, I won’t bother, though it’s been true for me.

On Saturday, my mother-in-law returned from her trip, so she stayed with us that night and we had a little family get-together with the sister-in-law and niece who live in
Auckland. Then on Sunday it was off down country for another niece’s fifth birthday party and another family get-together. Added to all that, I’ve had a lot to attend to, both with work and tax time in two countries.

Nevertheless, I’ve managed to stick to my post-a-day goal, aided by having some less busy days that allowed me to do rough drafts of posts for busier days. Or, so I thought: More often than not, that brilliant plan collapses when something comes up in the news or a blog or a podcast and I need to say something about it. Okay, I want to say something.

Anyway, one thing I missed during this busy time was the return of one of my favourite bloggers, Evil European, whose blog has been on hiatus for awhile (it’s okay, though, I found it again today).

And that’s the catch-up. It may seem like a lot of nothing, but sometimes “nothing” takes up more time than “something”. But there are many things to talk about (okay, that’s always true), and I’m also working on a few other things that I’ll talk about in due course.

In the meantime, this post doesn’t count as the one for today, so stay tuned.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Abstain from reason

There have been a lot of mainstream media reports lately about programmes, usually from fundamentalist Christians, promoting sexual abstinence among young people. Aside from the fact that some of these programmes are downright loopy (and many are overtly sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, etc., etc.), the one thing they all have in common is their small numbers.

So why is the mainstream news media tripping all over themselves to promote these groups, despite knowing that according to the best studies to date, 90% of young adults who make an abstinence pledge will break it? Some of it is the typical pack mentality laziness of the mainstream news media, reporting what each other reports. Part of it, too, is that it’s easy: They can talk to a few people and file the story without having to do any actual journalism.

The AP reported on students at Harvard who have formed an abstinence group:

The group, created earlier this school year, has more than 90 members on its Facebook.com page and drew about half that many to an ice cream social.

Having 90 people on a Facebook page doesn’t mean they’re all students, but even if they are, 90 out of 6,700 undergraduates is hardly a mass movement. Couldn’t it be the media might be again blowing things just a little bit out of proportion?

However, it’s worth noting that it’s not all bad: The fundamentalists who promote these groups are providing an unintentional pubic service to lesbian and gay America. By providing an environment in which people are expected to not have sex, it creates a cover for closeted gay and lesbian youth who don’t want to have sex with the other gender, anyway. Membership in these groups provides these closeted lesbian and gay youths, especially those from intolerant, homophobic fundamentalist families, with a socially-acceptable way to avoid intimacy with the opposite sex and to do so without raising suspicion.

Sure, the motivation behind these groups is suspect, their politics reprehensible, but by promoting these groups they nevertheless may help to make life for deeply closeted gay and lesbian youth just a little bit easier, allowing them to survive until they can get out on their own and away from the oppression.

The job of society in general is to be there to help these people—gay and non-gay alike—once they emerge on the other side of chastity groups. That’s something the fundamentalists can’t and won’t do. Seems to me there’s a story in that.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

US finally gets it

The media were touting it as a turning point in the relationship between New Zealand and the US. In his meeting with New Zealand Prime minister Helen Clark, George Bush indicated that he recognised that New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy is a core value of New Zealanders. This policy has been a major point of division for the past two decades.

The major sanction that the US placed on New Zealand for going nuclear-free—a ban on joint military training exercises—will remain. As I said before, this bonehead policy is “a startling act of myopic petulance” on the part of the US. Someday, there will be a president not so bound up in neocon myths who will recognise that and drop the sanctions.

Nevertheless, the US has at least finally recognised that there’s no chance of the policy being repealed. Both of New Zealand’s two main political parties, Labour and National, are committed to keeping the ban as are most minor parties and, of course, the voters. In fact, former National Leader Don Brash’s support for repealing the nuclear ban is one of the factors that caused National to lose the last election. The current leader, John Key, won’t make that mistake.

So the US has finally seen the reality of the situation: Being nuclear free is extremely important to New Zealanders, and it would be political suicide for any party to try and change the policy. The US has decided, apparently, to focus on the areas where the two countries agree and are already working together.

The NZ news media talked about how Helen Clark left Washington without anything tangible. They’re wrong. If the US has finally recognised that New Zealand has the sovereign right to make laws that the US doesn’t like, that’s pretty dramatic progress. If the US government now realises that their pressure over the past two decades has done nothing to change NZ’s nuclear free policy, that’s positive. And if the US is finally willing to move on and concentrate on the areas where New Zealand and the United States share common goals and objectives, that’s a tangible sign of progress.

As I said in my recent post on the subject, “it would be nice…if the US was better able to see the countries that are its friends.” Maybe it’s finally willing to do that.

Friday, March 23, 2007

God online

Okay, so it’s not really from a deity, but an Auckland church has launched its “Godcast” called iGod, and plans on expanding into “Second Life”. It’s all part of its plan to create a virtual congregation.

American readers might assume it’s some fundie church out recruiting and spreading less-than-Christian values again. Instead, it’s St Matthew-in-the-city, one of New Zealand’s most prominent churches, and a decidedly liberal Anglican church that performs same-sex blessings (despite opposition within the denomination). Among other things, it’s also home to Auckland Community Church, which has a special focus on the GLBT communities.

I mention all this as another way to show that New Zealand is really quite different from America. Also, this story gave me the opportunity to demonstrate that I’m not anti-religion or anti-Christian. If more Christian churches were like St Matthew-in-the-city, I wouldn’t need to be so critical.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Teach them well

The New Zealand government will be teaching immigrants about New Zealand values, according to a Christchurch Press article (via Stuff). The programme will target immigrants from Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East before they get here as well as ones who are already here.

According to the article, the programme was inspired, in part, by race riots in
Sydney, Australia’s Cronulla area in 2005 and the furore over the publication of cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammad last year. New Zealand hasn’t experienced any similar problems yet, and both these incidents seem to me to have less to do with immigrants not knowing their new country’s values than with the new country not understanding its immigrants.

Nevertheless, in general the idea of educating immigrants about
New Zealand values has got to be a good thing, and may well head off trouble in the future. Ethnic Affairs Minister Chris Carter said:

To date, we have been well served by the Kiwi “live and let live” attitude and the moderate nature of our minority communities. But the Government is concerned to ensure this remains the case as our society becomes more complex, and tensions flare elsewhere in the world.

So far, the plan doesn’t call for any compulsory tests, unlike other countries have. In fact, I can’t recall ever having to demonstrate knowledge about
New Zealand, its culture, history or government. All I had to prove was an enduring link to the country.

In fact, Settlement Kits, which contain all sort of information about life in
New Zealand, were given out only when permanent residence was granted, and for me that was several years after I arrived in the country. Some of it would have been helpful if I’d had it when I first arrived here. As part of the changes, the government is working to improve the information about New Zealand given to temporary residents, as I was for the first few years.

This is all such a big deal because 23 per cent of
New Zealand citizens were born overseas. That’s one of the highest rates among countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Related to all this is an attempt to form a “national statement on religious diversity”. This statement will be aspirational, not law, and will promote tolerance and understanding.

Demonstrating neither, a New Zealand TV preacher claimed that it was “some type of treason” because, in his view, “Christianity” is the state religion of
New Zealand. In fact, this country has no state religion, which means an official established church like the Anglican Church in England. New Zealand undeniably has a Christian tradition, but no established state church.

I think it’s a good thing for immigrants to learn about
New Zealand values. But maybe it would also be a good idea to teach New Zealand values to certain Kiwis—like TV preachers, for example.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Next to go?

Knives are being sharpened for Bush’s Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House, told the Chicago Tribune, “I believe we need a new attorney general.”

I think it’s inevitable Gonzales will go, and one wonders if the whole Bush regime is starting to unravel. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking. It’s clear, however, that as Pelosi also told the Tribune, “They [the Bush administration] knew that the era of no oversight was over and that they would have to be held accountable.”

If the trend of forced resignations continues, sooner or later the administration will run out of fall guys and someone will start talking. Scooter Libby may be willing to go prison for his boss, but how many others will take loyalty that far?

After Libby was convicted, my friend Tim Drake in Chicago emailed me an interesting prediction:

Late this summer Dick Cheney will resign for “medical reasons.” Bush will then nominate Condi Rice to serve out Cheney's term (though not seek the nomination), making W’s legacy not the war, but the “visionary” who made it possible for the first woman, and first African-American, to become VP. All of this is being orchestrated by George H.W. and Cheney, not by W or Karl Rove—damn Hillary, one-up Dems on racial politics and deep-six Iraq as his sole legacy. Senate Democrats will have a nervous breakdown figuring out how to handle Condi’s confirmation hearings.

It’s an interesting scenario, but one I pretty much dismissed at the time. Cheney and his gang didn’t spend all that time, money and effort to install Bush as president just to hand power away. Still, Donald Rumsfeld, who was part of the ruling circle, quit when his position became untenable with a Democratic-controlled Congress. That same Congress will frustrate much of Cheney’s agenda.

Today, I read an AP story on the Chicago Tribune website saying that Cheney headed back to the hospital because of “discomfort in his left lower leg.” The article also listed all Cheney’s health complaints:

He had six hours of surgery on his legs in 2005 to repair a kind of aneurysm, a ballooning weak spot in an artery that can burst if left untreated. He has had four heart attacks, quadruple bypass surgery, two artery-clearing angioplasties and an operation to implant a special pacemaker in his chest.

I read all this and I thought maybe Tim’s right after all. Cheney doesn’t have to actually be in office to be a puppet master, after all. Maybe he’ll leave rather than face any Congressional investigations, while retaining control from afar. But it’s just as likely that he’ll stay on until the bitter end, especially since Gonzales leaving will make it unlikely Cheney could leave this year, and there's not much point after that.

Still, if this administration really is starting to unravel then Gonzales may not be the only one to go. One can always hope.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Religion and politics

There are two subjects we’re told to avoid mentioning in public: Religion and politics. In America these days, the two are virtually inseparable. Here in New Zealand, they’re practically enemies.

When Ronald Reagan won his first term as US President, fundamentalist Christians began taking control of the Republican Party. Now, most of the Republican Presidential candidates are conservative or fundamentalist Christians (the two notable exceptions being Mitt Romney, who is Mormon, and Rudy Giuliani).

It’s often been alleged that Republicans are hypocrites on “morality” and “family values” issues and Greg Sargent over at The Horses Mouth has shown one way in which this is demonstrably true: The top four Republican presidential candidates all oppose gay marriage and say they support the “sanctity of marriage”. Yet among them, they have a combined total of four divorces and nine marriages. Do as they say, not as they do, apparently.

And the Democrats? You know, the party that Republicans say is anti-family? The top four Democratic presidential candidates have had four marriages and zero divorces. They all oppose same-sex marriage, but at least they practice what they preach.

Of course, hypocrisy around religion and politics isn’t limited to Republicans, nor to

Here in
New Zealand we had the spectacle of the then-leader of the National Party, Don Brash, voting in favour of the Civil Union Bill, then suddenly leading the charge against it. What changed? The election approached and National’s poll ratings were sinking. By adopting the wedge politics that George Bush’s campaign used in the 2004 US election, he guaranteed the support of far right groups, including a secretive right wing religious sect that strongly opposes gay rights, and marriage in particular, in addition to promoting other far-right issues.

That secretive fundamentalist sect—whose members are forbidden to vote—went on to spend a couple million dollars, give or take, on a smear campaign directed at the Green Party and the Labour Party. Brash denied ever meeting sect members, then admitted he had met them. He denied knowing anything about the campaign, then had to admit he did.

It was likely this closeness to the sect that cost National the last election, a point not lost on the man who deposed Brash as leader, John Key. Key—who’d been tainted by contact with the group, too—declared that the party would have no dealings with the sect in future elections.

Recently, the deputy leader, Bill English, was revealed to have met sect members. When he was criticised about it, he angrily declared that he didn’t and wouldn’t ask about religious beliefs when meeting constituents. Given how much trouble that sect caused his party in the last election, one would think that an angry retort was probably counter-productive, making him sound both overly sensitive, and possibly like he has something to hide. One can’t help but be suspicious after the sect’s attempted secret interference in the last election.

There have been other times in recent years that fundamentalist Christians have attempted to influence politics or public policy in
New Zealand. They’ve failed each time. Speaking of the recent controversy and the attempts at influence by Christian fundamentalists generally, the New Zealand Herald said in an editorial:

No party could ignore public distaste for the secrecy of such involvement and, more importantly, the blurring of the line between church and state. The record of Christian political parties shows that New Zealanders do not like public affairs served as a stir-fry meal of politics and religion. They prefer each part to be clearly distinct on the plate.

That editorial describes the main difference between
America and New Zealand when it comes to religion and politics.

America, right wing religious views are treated as mainstream, despite all evidence to the contrary. It leads American politicians toward hypocrisy as they pursue the votes of the religious fringe. Many of them get away with it and even prosper.

New Zealand, where religious identity is already weak and getting weaker, politicians who try and pander to the religious right fail miserably, like Don Brash did. Hypocrisy is also punished by New Zealand voters, as well it should be.

New Zealand, we rarely speak about politics and religion. Perhaps here, we don’t need to.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Immigrants are scum

We aren’t really scum, of course. Well, most of us aren’t, anyway. But it’s an attitude toward immigrants that seems common in many developed countries.

I’m an immigrant to
New Zealand in part because of the anti-immigrant and anti-gay policies of my homeland. The US has no way for American citizens to bring their same-sex foreign partners into the country. New Zealand, like many other countries, does, so we live here and I’m the immigrant.

While the policies against same sex couples affected me personally, in
America—a land of immigrants—anti-immigrant feeling is widespread. Various groups may be disliked in various places, but dislike (or worse) of Hispanic people seems universal.

I’ve heard otherwise calm, rational and even liberal Americans explain to me in great detail how “Mexicans” (usually a generic term for all Hispanic immigrants, both legal and not) are getting all sorts of “advantages” that “real” Americans don’t get. I’ve been told how the system “bends over backwards” to help illegals and how much these people are “costing” American taxpayers.

I’ve tried to point out (quite gently, mind you) that illegal immigrants are hardly living in the lap of luxury, that their status keeps them unsettled, at risk of victimisation and afraid to seek help when they truly need it. I’ve pointed out that illegals still pay taxes, though they can’t directly claim the same benefits as American citizens. They also purchase goods and services, ther
eby providing work for countless thousands of others. I’ve also suggested that it does no one any good to cut off healthcare and education to children of illegal immigrants, not only because children should never be made to suffer for the “sins” of their parents (the morality argument), but also because it breeds an angry, resentful underclass (the pragmatic argument).

And I get the same response to all of these rebuttals: “You don’t live here anymore. You don’t know how it is.”

So, the people who do know, apparently, “crack down” on illegal immigration. We see immigrants rounded up in surprise raids, their children left stranded or—even worse—put into prisons with little or no access to their parents.

Many Americans cheer these raids, continuing to believe that tired old myth that illegals “take jobs from Americans”. Do they, now? That must be why the work of illegal immigrants, particularly in areas like fruit-picking, is now often being done with prison labour. It’s a capitalist’s dream: Replace badly paid, easily exploited labour with slave labour. Yesiree, there’s a victory for American workers and simple justice all in one!

But raids aren’t the current administration’s only tool: They’re spending hundreds of millions building a wall along the Mexican border “to keep illegal immigrants out.” Sure it will. Here’s a wild and crazy thought: Instead of building a pointless wall, and instead of spending hundreds of billions on ill-advised foreign wars, wouldn’t it be a good idea to help develop
Latin America so its people won’t need to come to America for a better life?

Here’s the one simple fact that most Americans simply refuse to acknowledge: Not everyone wants to live in
America. As wonderful as it can be, America is not home for most people in the world. The reason America gets illegal immigrants isn’t that they all want to live in America, it’s because they need to provide for their families and can’t do it at home. Help develop their home and they won’t need to come to America. It’s really that simple.

But American citizens also need to realise that politicians—mostly Republican, but some Democrats—are playing them for chumps. The strategy is simple: Keep people distracted by the “threat” of illegal immigration, keep the people divided and afraid, and they won’t notice that every chance they get politicians are robbing the country blind and exploiting that lack of attention.

And the much touted “guest worker” status? In the past, similar schemes have provided a green light for greedy businesses to exploit workers, treating them as virtual slaves. I’ve seen no evidence yet that Bush’s proposal will avoid that happening again.

I know that some folks in
America will dismiss everything I’ve said in this post. They have in the past. I understand that because I used to think as they do. My thinking began to change when I realised that as a part of an oppressed minority, I had no business oppressing others. But I became passionate about this when I became an immigrant. For the first time in my life, I could imagine—only just—how difficult it must be for legal Hispanic immigrants to America, lumped together, as they are, with illegal immigrants. I can’t possibly imagine how hard it must be for actual illegal immigrants.

I do know this, though: Before being so quick to assume that all social problems stem from immigrants, legal or otherwise, I wish Americans would get a little cynicism. I wish they’d ask who’s raising the issue and what do they have to gain?
New Zealand has had politicians try and use immigration (legal immigration, in our case) to win votes. They failed. I hope one day American politicians who try and exploit racial and cultural divisions by focusing on immigration will fail, too.

Immigrants, legal or not, are human beings. They deserve to be treated as such.

Lahar finally flows

To be honest, it was a bit of an anti-climax.

For many months we’d been hearing about preparations for an inevitable lahar that would happen when the wall holding back the crater lake at Mt Ruapehu finally burst. Earthworks were undertaken to try and channel the flow, bridges were raised and strengthened. Road closure procedures were tested.

Yesterday morning, it finally happened.

The lahar moved as had been predicted, and earlier efforts to strengthen and protect things like rail bridges appear to have worked. The early warning system also worked.

Conservation Minister Chris Carter said “I am pleased that we now have a robust system to manage this kind of natural event.” Yes, well, this may be one of the few times a natural event could be managed, given there was so much time to prepare.

Scientists will now try and reach the summit of Mt Ruapehu to assess the remaining crater lake (more on this story and video are here).

The main thing, really, is that everything worked perfectly, and apparently people and property were kept safe. In a country prone to various geologic events, this success is comforting.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

MSM Bad too

Fox News isn’t the only “news” source in America to get things wrong, to have biased reporting or sloppy journalism. Arguably, they’re the most blatant, but they’re certainly not unique.

Consider the extent to which mainstream news organisations quickly adopt White House positions as conventional knowledge not requiring questioning. The biggest example of that is talk that any opposition to Bush’s
Iraq war is “undermining the troops”.

The Associated Press reported on Bush speaking to a fundraising dinner where he raised US$6.2 million for Republican candidates for the US House. Bush urged Congress to pass his emergency war spending bill, despite resistance from many Democrats.

The AP reported:

Democrats won control of the House and Senate in November, fueled in large part by the public’s weariness with war. Yet asserting influence is tricky for Democrats. They have the power of the purse but don't want to undermine the troops. [emphasis added]

As Greg Sargent of The Horse’s Mouth pointed out, the AP paragraph is

…another sign of just how thoroughly some have absorbed this absurd GOP talking point. …This might have read that Dems fear being made to appear to undermine the troops, or that they fear being accused of undermining the troops. But the AP is now reporting as objective fact that cutting funding would “undermine the troops.” Nice.

Why should anyone be surprised? The news media rarely use traditional journalistic tools, relying instead on anonymous sources without ever considering, apparently, that these sources may be trying to promote a single monolithic view.

It’s a standard Republican mantra that Congress exercising oversight and fiscal responsibility would somehow undermine the troops. Bush himself reinforces that theme at every opportunity. In his weekly radio address, he re-used much of his speech from the Republican fundraiser to make the same point:

In times of war, Congress has no greater obligation than funding our war-fighters, and next week Congress will begin debate on an emergency war spending bill… Unfortunately some in Congress are using this bill as an opportunity to micro-manage our military commanders, force a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, and spend billions on domestic projects that have nothing to do with the war on terror. Our troops urgently need Congress to approve emergency war funds.

In this short selection from the beginning of his radio address, Bush manages to tie war funds to support for the troops. He also tries to link his
Iraq war with the “war on terror” and to fend off Congressional oversight as “micro-management”.

Oversight isn’t a concept that the Bushies are very familiar with, since it was entirely missing during the first six years of their rule. However, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Congress is going to have a tough time acting on its responsibility if the mainstream news media fail to act on theirs.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Being leftist today

After my rant about Fox News yesterday, I thought I might present part of a speech that seeks to define what it means to be a leftist. The following is part of a speech delivered by Cornel West, professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University. The speech was delivered at the last day of Left Forum in New York City.

What does it really mean to be a leftist in the early part of the 21st century? What are we really talking about? And I can just be very candid with you. It means to have a certain kind of temperament, to make certain kinds of political and ethical choices, and to exercise certain analytical focuses in targeting on the catastrophic and the monstrous, the scandalous, the traumatic, that are often hidden and concealed in the deodorized and manicured discourses of the mainstream. That's what it means to be a leftist. So let's just be clear about it.

So that if you are concerned about structural violence, if you’re concerned about exploitation at the workplace, if you're concerned about institutionalized contempt against gay brothers and lesbian sisters, if you're concerned about organized hatred against peoples of color, if you're concerned about a subordination of women, that's not cheap PC chitchat; that is a calling that you're willing to fight against and try to understand the sources of that social misery at the structural and institutional level and at the existential and the personal level. That's what it means, in part, to be a leftist.

The speech was included in the Democracy Now! podcast of March 13 (near the end). You can read the complete transcript or download the podcast here.

Personally, I don’t make a very good leftist, since I’m an avowed capitalist. In American terms, I’m a liberal, centre-left in New Zealand terms. I don’t agree with real leftists on everything, but certainly more than I agree with neocons. But that’s a subject for another day.

In the meantime, this is part of my ongoing attempt to understand what it means to be centre-left today.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Foxed up

I was Foxed today, and it wasn’t pleasant.

Most days, I watch “ABC World News Tonight” and/or “CBS Evening News” on Sky News Australia, one of the news channels on our pay TV service. Today, however, they broadcast a funeral for some Australian sports guy I’d never heard of, so I channel surfed.

I ended up landing on Fox News which I detest (evidence here and here). The show was O’Reilly Factor, something I’ve never seen before. I hope I never do again.

I’d heard about O’Reilly, having read about him on blogs or in news stories when he’s gone too far. Having seen his show, I’m surprised it’s not more often.

In a half hour or so, I got the following: Anyone O’Reilly disagrees with is either an “extreme leftist” (MoveOn.org) or “ultra liberal” (Boston Globe, which he repeatedly called the most extremely liberal newspaper in America). I also found out that all TV and film reviewers in America are liberal—“ultra liberal,” even. I’d bet Michael Medved was surprised to learn he’s an ultra liberal.

What I noticed most was that O’Reilly didn’t always tell outright falsehoods. Most of the time, he simply manipulated facts in a way that made them tell the opposite of what they really presented. He made the facts lie so he didn’t have to, I suppose.

But what I found gut-achingly hilarious was a comedy sketch he had with nattering nabob Dick Morris. The two complained loudly about “extreme leftist” organizations threatening to use the Internet to “smear” Democrats they disagree with.

We were warned these people raise a lot of money and influence a lot of other “extreme leftist” people, so they have a lot of power, and will stop at nothing to get what they want. Apparently, they’ll lie, smear, cheat, strong-arm and generally bully into submission all who disagree with them.

You know, like O’Reilly’s buddies in the extreme right. Except that they made it all up. The threats they mentioned? MoveOn.org said it would be watching. Oh! So very scary!

New Zealand’s airwaves were darkened with Faux News when free-to-air channel Prime began carrying it overnight. Then pay TV operator Sky added the 24-hour channel to their lineup (without commercials, interestingly enough). Sky TV, like Fox, is owned by “extreme rightist” gazillionaire ex-Aussie Rupert Murdoch (he became an American citizen, renouncing forever his Australian citizenship, so he could build his media empire in America). Sky now owns Prime.

Fox “News” is so cartoonish, so over-the-top that it’s hard to believe that anyone would take it as anything other than a comedy channel. Looking at the various network promos they ran, it occurred to me that Fox is the home of grumpy, washed-up news readers from other American networks, people who are finally freed from normal conventions of accuracy, fairness and balance.

It's official: I hate Fox News.

Republican spine regrowth

In shocking medical news from America, Republican politicians have apparently started to re-grow spines, despite George Bush’s opposition to stem cell research. While experts are baffled as to the cause of the sudden skeletal regeneration, most point to the process beginning when it became obvious Democrats would retake Congress.

This week, we heard a nutty American general named Peter Pace say that homosexuality was immoral and akin to adultery. He’d barely had time to say “Whoops! Did I say that out loud?” when John Warner, a Republican Senator from Virginia, released a statement declaring ““I respectfully but strongly disagree with the chairman’s view that homosexuality is immoral.” Pace, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is Bush’s top military commander.

Warner is one of a number of Republican members of Congress who back repeal of the notorious “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bars lesbian and gay people from serving in the US military. Among the thousands of members of the US armed forces discharged for being gay or lesbian were more than 50 language specialists—speakers of Arabic and Farsi in particular, this despite the fact that the US military can’t find speakers of these languages.

We also saw the spectacle of Bush’s attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, tripping over his shoelaces repeatedly. First, he acknowledged illegal domestic spying took place, then it became clear that his department ordered the firing of US Attorneys for purely political reasons (mainly that they weren’t going after Democrats fast enough or hard enough). Gonzales allegedly misled Congress about it.

A conservative Republican Senator from New Hampshire, John Sununu, has called on Bush to fire Gonzales. Congress, meanwhile, is preparing to subpoena White House documents that could prove to be even more embarrassing (and possibly reveal blatantly illegal activity). My prediction is that Gonzales will be gone soon.

Sadly, some Republicans in Congress seem beyond the reach of this recent medical miracle. Senator John McCain continues to back Bush’s Iraq war, often more strongly than Bush. And Sam Redneck Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, has issued a statement strongly supporting Pace. Both are also Republican presidential candidates.

We must continue to support research to help these suffering Republicans re-grow their spines. And we should support efforts to help strengthen the spines of Democractic presidential candidates, who apparently suffer from weak spines, though they’re not yet entirely missing.

The miracles of modern medicine may yet cure these politicians. That, or the 2008 elections, perhaps.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Humble pi

American media was having fun with the fact that March 14 was "Pi Day" in America, where they write the date "3/14", which is similar, kinda, to 3.14 and that's pi to two decimal places.

First of all, BFD—you know what I'm sayin'?

Second, that just doesn't work in New Zealand or much of the world where dates are expressed the other way around—day then month. So, we'll never have a "Pi Day" here because that would be the third day of the fourteenth month.

Today is, however, the Ides of March. Perhaps today we should beware of Americans bearing pi. Unless it's pumpkin. I haven't had pumpkin pie in a dozen years. Oh wait, that's different. Hm, maybe it's obvious why I didn't do well in math class...

Hopeless self promotion

I’m terrible at promoting this blog. In fact, the only thing I do to promote it is to ping Technorati when I make a new post. I also added a Feedburner feed, but that’s not to promote my blog as much as to make it easier for readers to know when there’s new content. Hopeless, I know.

So I’m always pleased, and a little embarrassed and surprised, when I’m mentioned somewhere. I just got a mention and a link from the Real Men Wear Pink podcast (Episode 18). JayT had some kind words for my blog, too (thanks, JayT).

At one time or another I’ve been mentioned by all the podcasts listed at right under “Podcasts I never miss”. Most recently, that included Kalvin’s Hello Waffles.

These mentions came about because I comment on their shows. I have a simple rule: I don’t comment unless I think I have something to add (others, of course, may feel that I don’t say anything worthwhile). But I never—ever—leave a comment somewhere just in the hope of driving traffic to this blog. Others do that, I don’t and won’t.

In a way, this goes back to the days before blogs and podcasts when people participated in forums and newsgroups. The etiquette was that one should read the threads for awhile before participating. I still do that—I spend time reading blog or podcast comments before I leave one, and this is on top of reading the blog or listening to the podcast, of course.

To me, this whole thing—blogging and podcasting—is a form of conversation. Commenting is an important part of that conversation, but just like real life I don’t engage with everyone; time is short, after all.

Most ordinary bloggers write their posts and that’s pretty much the end of it. There might be the occasional comment or link to a post, but the percentage of blogs that get dozens—let alone hundreds—of comments is pretty small. I’d guess that it’s probably the same for most podcasts.

So, I really appreciate it when I get acknowledged someplace where I participate in the conversation. In that spirit, I’d like to acknowledge my two most loyal commentators of late, Evil European and Lost in France, and thank them for their contributions to the conversation here. I may be hopeless at promoting my own blog, but that won’t stop me from trying to promote theirs.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

NZ and US friends again?

An article in today’s Dominion Post says that relations between New Zealand and the US are warming. Apparently, this is a good thing.

Relations between the countries have been cool since the mid-1980s when
New Zealand passed legislation making New Zealand nuclear-free. After that, the US unilaterally ended its defence commitments to New Zealand, effectively ending the Cold War-era ANZUS alliance between Australia, New Zealand and the US.

Right before the 1984 NZ elections, the NZ Labour Party wanted a nuclear ban and many in the party also wanted an end to the ANZUS alliance. Although Labour Party Leader David Lange had long opposed nuclear weapons, he supported the ANZUS alliance. He believed that the issue of nuclear propelled ships was different from nuclear-armed ships.

This mattered because the
US considered visits by its ships to be among the most important demonstrations of alliance. Their policy then as now was to neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons on any ship. Therein lay the problem.

For more than twenty years, neo-cons in
Wellington and Washington have promoted the notion that Lange indicated he would allow a visit by the USS Buchanan, despite America’s “neither confirm nor deny” policy. They go on to suggest that Lange buckled to pressure from within the Labour Party and refused to allow the ship to visit.

However, Lange stated repeatedly in his autobiography, My Life, that this wasn’t true.

In a startling act of myopic petulance, the
US retaliated by barring New Zealand from participating in any military training exercises with the US. Australia trained with both countries, but separately.

September 11, 2001 changed everything.

New Zealand joined the international coalition invading Afghanistan, and became part of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), in which nations agree to intercept ships believed to be carrying weapons of mass destruction or materials for making them. New Zealand’s participation in the PSI has led the US three different times to allow New Zealand to participate in military exercises with the US, despite the ordinary ban.

America has also seen the threat posed by instability in the Pacific, a region where New Zealand has influence and is an important power, often in cooperation with Australia.

New Zealand’s participation in Afghanistan and in the PSI and its work in the Pacific has led America to view New Zealand with new eyes, ones not so clouded by more than two decades worth of paranoia by administrations of both parties.

New Zealand government recently announced that it will keep troops in Afghanistan through September 2008. It will cost NZ$30 million. The government will also be sending a frigate to the Gulf as part of the international task force intercepting ships there. This announcement came just as Prime Minister Helen Clark is due to leave for a trip to Washington where she’ll have a meeting with George Bush.

It’s good to have friendly relations with the world’s most powerful country. However, what does New
Zealand get out of a closer relationship with the US? The traditional answer has been a “free trade” deal, but that seems unlikely for the rest of Bush’s term (whether it’s even desirable is another matter altogether). At the moment, the NZ government is apparently asking for regular bi-lateral briefings.

Still, it’s probably better to be seen as a friend than not. It would be nice, though, if the
US was better able to see the countries that are its friends, even when it doesn’t act like they are.