Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Fast away the old year passes

Every December 31, I like to look back at what went right, what could’ve been better, that sort of thing. Back when I kept written journals, I used to look back at news stories, too. Now, all I have to do is peruse the archives of my blog to see what I thought of some of the news from the year. Such a time saving!

Since I’ve had the blog, though, 2006 was the only year I was able to do a year-end post (last year, I was in Chicago and had a very quiet—and cold—New Year’s Eve/Day). So this year I again get to look back, and on a year with far more highlights than lowlights.

The election of Barack Obama is clearly a major highlight, and still pretty much surprises me. Actually, it was probably the highlight of the year. The election of more Democrats was a great thing, but is held back from being a highlight only by the fact there weren’t more elected (I mean, really: After all the Republican fuck-ups over the past 8 years, you’d think voters would have been tripping all over themselves to give the other team a go).

Far closer to home, a major highlight was the Custom LASIK eye surgery I had. It’s the closest thing to a surgical miracle that I’ve ever experienced, and it’s made my life so much better. Expensive—very—but worth every cent.

Highlights for me also continue to be my podcast and this blog. Most of my blog posts are like any other person’s—opinionated rants—but every once in a while I write one that I think is pretty good. Sometimes, I add on to news stories to give some more background and information (like I did here and also here). Hardly journalism, but useful to people who read them.

Probably my favourite podcast episode of the year was my interview of Kiwi Singer/Songwriter Monique Rhodes in AmeriNZ 91. Unfortunately, that episode was posted at the same time I was switching feeds, so I’m afraid not as many people heard it as I would’ve liked. That’s a shame, because she’s great and deserves to be heard more widely. I’m not mentioning other episodes for fear of forgetting a guest (they were all great, especially my old friend Jason and e-friend Mark). This year I also began, tenuously, adding videos to my media stable.

What about lowlights? Well, the biggest also comes from the American election: The passage of Proposition 8 in California, as well as other anti-gay measures in other states. They were an affront to democracy even as it was used to make the propositions law. I was disappointed (though not surprised) to see Labour lose Government in New Zealand. They’ll be back sooner or later, of course, because that’s the nature of democracy. Similarly, in the perhaps longer term, this year’s hateful American ballot measures (and those from other years) will eventually be reversed because that, too, is the nature of democracy.

Mainly, the highlight for me this year, as it has been for so many years now, is ordinary, day-to-day life in a beautiful, tolerant land (with sane politics!), shared with someone I love, the best dog in the world, and an embracing extended family. Really, because of all that, how could anything else be all that bad?

Happy New Year!

Proportionate responses

The news of Israel’s massive airborne attacks on the Gaza Strip implicitly suggested that the response was “disproportionate”, that the Israelis were being brutal and pre-emptive in their actions.

Here in New Zealand, veteran activist John Minto led protests outside the US Consulate in Auckland. Later, protesters marched up Queen Street to Aotea Square where they burned a US flag. The US gets the focus and blame because of its ardent support for Israel.

Truth and reality are always far more complicated than either the news media or activists on any side of any issue are able to comprehend, and nowhere is that more true or certain than in the Middle East generally, or the current situation in particular. In an editorial, the Chicago Tribune said:

It makes you wonder what would have happened if there had been such international outrage back in June, when the first rockets fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip disrupted a cease-fire that was just days old… What would have happened if there had been such outrage when the rocket attacks from Gaza began to escalate a few weeks ago? Or if there had been outrage when Hamas formally declared on Dec. 18 that it was ending the six-month truce with Israel?

They have a point. I can’t remember hearing or reading a single word about any of that in the news, and it certainly wasn’t emblazoned all over the evening TV news. So, the Tribune goes on to ask,

Has this been a "disproportionate" response, as Israel's critics contend? What would be a "proportionate" response? Military strikes that bloody the citizens of Gaza, that leave the citizens of Israel still at risk, and that perpetuate a simmering war?

I don’t pretend to know the answer, or even if the Israeli response was as disproportionate as it may seem. The one thing that is clear is that the people who are suffering are not the leaders but the ordinary people of both sides—Israeli and Palestinian alike—who are caught up in the bitter hatred between their leaders.

It’s not helpful for the outside world to blame the US or Israel or Hamas—and all three come in for blame from someone. Anyone with a brain can see that there are no saints in this. How can we expect the people there to find peace when so many of us are quick to back one side without even trying to understand the other? If we can’t or won’t find a middle ground, how can we expect them to?

If we want to see this conflict end, maybe we should start with a more proportionate response among ourselves. We probably all agree that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must end, that a permanent peace with justice must be found. I wish that both sides would pull back and enter into a truce so that—yet again—the work of diplomats can begin. Again. One day, they may even succeed. But if we are to help the peacemakers, we must reflect the values of peace and respect—even when the “other side” doesn’t deserve it.

The ordinary people on both sides are waiting for us get it right, too.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Memories and words

Every year around now, I think of my mother, who was born this time of year. She would’ve turned 92, though she died the better part of thirty years ago. It’s been so long, in fact, that I can go a long time without being able to remember the last time I thought of her.

And then this time of year rolls around again.

My mother always complained about having a birthday so close to Christmas. When she was a little girl, her relatives would say to her, “Instead of getting you two small presents, we’ll get you one big one.” She thought that was a fraud. “I knew that if my birthday was any other time of the year, I’d get TWO big presents,” she told me. Even as a kid, with no money of my own, I tried to make sure I got her two presents.

I’ve lived more of my life without her than I had with her. I passed that milestone a few years ago, the year I reached the age my parents were when I was born. It was kind of a sobering thought at the time.

I wish I was able to write something really special to commemorate her day, but the truth is, I haven’t been able to. In 2006, I couldn’t think of what to say, and last year I had my trip to the US. Actually, that’s been true, to varying degrees, for years, and I’m sure part of it is the number of years since she died.

So instead, I’ll just say the obvious, “Happy Birthday, Mom.” I still think of her around her birthday every year, I think of her two presents and I wish that I had just one more chance to give them to her. That’s the way life goes, and sometimes there just aren’t any words.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The street has no train

This is something I don’t think I’ve seen until today: A street in Newmarket (an upmarket shopping area of Auckland City) has been cut in half by a commuter train platform (under construction). Until recently, the street went through (the old “Railway Crossing” sign is still on the lightpost), but now the street has been cut in two by the new rail platform. This isn’t exactly a major street, but it does make the businesses on the part I was standing on arguably less accessible than before. I have no idea whether this was a good idea or not, it just struck me as odd, since I’ve never seen it before. However, it’s so bloody difficult to get around Newmarket as it is that, in that sense anyway, this is kind of in keeping with the area.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Auckland Christmas

This is my third video, but only the second one I’ve posted to YouTube. All of my videos are available for viewing or download over at my AmeriNZ Podcast site (the Videos category has just the videos). You may remember the Christmas tree lads from my post a few days ago.

Not that it matters, but this is my 400th post this year.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Chelsea Sugar Refinery

I hadn’t planned on just posting photos this week, but I guess it’s sort of a Christmas present—taking a break from serious subjects to show a little of my Auckland this time of year.

Today’s photo is of the Chelsea Sugar Refinery taken from Northcote Point last week. In the middle distance is Birkenhead Wharf, which is a ferry terminal.

The refinery’s 18-month construction began in 1883 on a site chosen because it was flat, had a fresh water supply from Duck Creek and because the Waitemata Harbour (also called Auckland Harbour) is at its deepest a few metres offshore. 1.5 million bricks were made by hand from clay on the site, one million for the refinery itself and another half million for a damn across Duck Creek.

The site eventually consisted of 450 acres, and today much of it is kept in park-like condition that the public is welcome to visit. It’s a lovely site, and maybe one of these days I’ll go and take some photos there.

Anyway, for more on the refinery and its history, the company has a page I excerpted above.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Another seasonal view

Here’s another seasonal view: This is Rangitoto from Takapuna—after a dentist appointment yesterday, but we’ll ignore that part. The volcanic island is the most dominant view around Auckland, next to the Sky Tower. I’ll leave it to you to determine if this is as scenic as yesterday. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Christmas era ends

For the past couple years, a group of lads has been selling Christmas trees by the side of the road, usually wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts. They wanted to make a little money in December, when most of them were on break from university.

Why the skimpy attire? “I think it was by accident, really,” one of the lads told me. “We were out here one day…and then all the sudden we started getting bored and started waving at cars and took off our shirts, and it started growing from there.” The lads had a child’s paddling pool they sometimes used, and sometimes they carried out special routines—exercise sessions, dance parties, champagne breakfasts (for them, they were more thoroughly dressed in suits). A few times they wore only budgie smugglers (Speedo-style swim suits). Despite the skimpy attire, it was all just a bit of a laugh and actually completely innocent.

They got the attention of people driving by, often earning a friendly toot from a car horn as well as some sales, though apparently not as much this year as last. “It doesn’t really worry us,” they said about the reduced sales this year, “as long as we could have a bit of fun and make bit of money.”

Today was their last day ever, and somehow it just won’t be the same without them. They added a bit of silliness to the season, and some fun, too. And no one could fault them for their commitment to earning some money in a novel way.

One of the best things for me about it was that is was certainly something that could never be copied for Chicago’s Christmas. Warm weather Christmases definitely have their advantages.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fighting the liars and bigots

I always said that the people backing California’s Proposition 8 were bigots and liars. I said that because of two things: First, since there was no logical reason to take away gay and lesbian people’s right to marry, their motivation was religious bigotry. I called them liars for an obvious reason: They blatantly lied in their ads promoting Prop 8 and when they weren’t lying they were distorting truth, which amounts to the same thing.

During the campaign, the Yes on 8 people claimed they were only interested in outlawing same-sex marriage, but had no interest in the 18,000 same-sex marriages that had already taken place. Even in the days after the election, an AP story said, “Supporters of the ban said they will not seek to invalidate the marriages already performed and will leave any legal challenges to others.” The Yes on 8 people were lying.

Despite what they promised in the campaign and in the days after, this past Friday the Yes on 8 campaign did what I always said they would do: They filed a brief with the California Supreme Court arguing that the existing same-sex marriages must be nullified because the new law declares that only marriages between a man and a woman are recognized or valid in California.

In the aftermath of the vote, California Attorney General Jerry Brown said that all 18,000 marriages would remain legal. He also said he would defend Prop 8 against legal challenges under the California constitution. But after further study of the implications of Prop 8, on Friday, he, too, reversed his early position and asked the California Supreme Court to invalidate Prop 8, saying "Proposition 8 must be invalidated because the amendment process cannot be used to extinguish fundamental constitutional rights without compelling justification."

Predictably, the wingnuts are apoplectic, though I think they’re faking it for PR value. When the challenges to Prop 8 were filed, Yes on 8 demanded to be able to lead the defence because they said that Brown wouldn’t do so, or wouldn’t be forceful enough for their liking. They ultimately hired the reviled Kenneth Starr who led the persecution harassment witchhunt investigation of President Bill Clinton. Starr’s enthusiasm for backing the far right on its crusades was evident in the attempt to nullify same sex marriages, a brief he co-wrote. It’s something they didn’t need to do to defend their ballot measure—they could have done as they tried to make us believe they would do and leave it to others to litigate. But that wouldn’t have fulfilled what was clearly their goal and plan all along.

There are plenty of people—not all of them on the right—who say that Prop 8 is done, and opponents should work on a repeal effort. That ignores the fundamental problem with Prop 8: A simple majority vote fundamentally altered the California constitution to take away the rights of a minority. If this is allowed to stand, ALL minorities are at risk. Human rights can never be put to a popular vote because at any given time the hated minority of the moment is at risk from the tyranny of the majority.

Every concept of justice as well as fairness demands that the California Supreme Court invalidate Prop 8. Jerry Brown was right to change his position. The Yes on 8 people didn’t change their position on those 18,000 marriages, they just revealed their true agenda—and reinforced yet again why they’re called liars and bigots: It’s because they are.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


Disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich today said he’s “done nothing wrong” and plans to fight to stay in power. Never mind that there can’t be more than a handful of people who believe him, or that he’s brought the entire state into disrepute, or the fact that he cannot carry out the duties of the office. No, the only thing that seems to matter to him is his precious ego—and money, too, apparently; after all, who would hire him now?

So he’s digging his heels in, the Illinois Supreme Court won’t act, so impeachment is left as the only way to get him out of office. It’ll be an expensive, time-consuming and thoroughly destructive process the state will have to go through, thanks to one man’s selfish, self-centred egomania.

If that man had even the slightest bit of integrity, the tiniest fraction of concern for the people of Illinois, if anything mattered to him apart from his own ego, then he would do the honourable thing and resign. But his actions show he has no integrity, no concern for Illinois and he’s clearly not honourable in any way.

Nevertheless, there’s one and only one thing that Blagojevich must do: Resign. He must stop making things worse than they already are. Go, Rod, you’re not wanted and certainly not needed. Just GO!

Disappointment and reality

Yesterday I wrote about President-elect Obama’s mistake in choosing homophobic far-right christianist Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. If you believed what some gay activists and bloggers have been saying, Obama has morphed into another Bush. Those people need to get a grip.

Which is not say they don’t have some valid points. For example, activists are right that GLBT concerns and issues aren’t taken as seriously by the new Administration as other minorities’ are. Also, there are no out-gay or lesbian people in Obama’s cabinet. Let’s contrast these two with the Bush-Cheney regime: Not only did they not pay any attention to GLBT issues, they did everything in their power to make things worse for us. A current example is the US opposing the UN’s gay rights resolution: Some State Department staff wanted the US to back it, but Bush-Cheney’s “pro-family” appointees made sure the US opposed it.

In my opinion—and it’s just that—there was never any real possibility that an out-gay or lesbian person would be appointed to the Cabinet. It was rumoured that lesbian labour activist Mary Beth Maxwell might be appointed Secretary of Labor, but I wonder if that was just a kind of wishful-thinking. Nancy Sutley was appointed chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality and some media said she was the first prominent, out-gay or lesbian person to join Obama’s cabinet—but that’s hardly a cabinet or even cabinet-level position. It’s also important to remember that very often Secretaries have little power, and often these “lesser” positions have a lot of power. Needless to say, there would never even be a rumour of an out-gay or lesbian cabinet official for any Republican.

Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, has an anti-gay voting record. He voted to enshrine a “one man, one woman” definition of marriage in the Constitution twice, he voted to ban gay adoptions in the District of Columbia, he voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and he twice voted against the Uniting American Families Act which would have allowed US citizens to bring their non-US citizen partners into the US, a law that would affect people like me. This is part of his solidly conservative voting record, including being completely anti-abortion and against stem-cell research, for example.

As Secretary of Transportation, however, LaHood won’t be working on any of these issues. It has been suggested that if Obama is to get Congress to pass the biggest transportation infrastructure legislation since Eisenhower’s interstate highway program, he’ll need a legislative insider respected by both parties. So, LaHood’s anti-GLBT record is irrelevant, especially because he was never a leader on any of those issues—he just voted the wrong way on them.

So, what do we get in the new Administration? We have mostly good, competent and fair-minded people, and a few who are well behind the times on social issues. There’s a mix of races, genders and parties—and arguably even ideology within those parties. What we have, in other words, is an Administration that looks more like America than the one that’s about to leave. If President Obama is to win the support of all Americans, and not just those on the centre and left, then not all of his appointees can be expected to pass our litmus tests. That’s politics.

The issue of Rick Warren, however, is completely different due to the huge symbolic message it sends out. That’s a mistake that I can’t—and won’t—defend. I’m disappointed about the speaking role for Warren, but you know what? I’ll glady take this Administration after eight years with nothing but disappointment over and over again. The reality is that even with these disappointments, the worst day of the Obama-Biden Administration will be far, far better than the best day of the outgoing one. Not even Rick Warren can change that.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Obama’s first mistake?

So far, President-elect Barack Obama has been doing pretty much everything right. Now, however, Obama is facing criticism for what many are calling his first mistake: Inviting far-right preacher Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. Mind you, some progressives say keeping Robert Gates was his first big mistake, but that’s another topic, and one I’m personally not sure about ether way.

Warren is an ardent opponent of GLBT rights, most notably in pushing California’s Proposition 8, which took away the right of same-sex couples to marry. In a recent interview, he said he couldn’t see a difference between same-sex marriage and incestuous, polygamous and pedophile “marriages”. He’s also declared that those who don’t believe in God shouldn’t be allowed to hold public office. He’s not a nice man.

In fact, Warren himself has said that the only difference between himself and arch-homophobe and überbigot James Dobson (of Focus on Hate, er, the Family) is one of tone. On that one thing, I completely agree with him: Warren, Huckabee, Dobson, Bauer, etc., etc., are all the same apart from the way they express their bigotry.

Understandably, gay activists and progressives alike are outraged. Obama responded:

I think it is no secret that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans. It is something I have been consistent on and something I intend to continue to be consistent on during my presidency. What I've also said is that it is important for America to come together even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues… What we have to do is create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable, and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans. So Rick Warren has been invited to speak, Dr. Joseph Lowery—who has deeply contrasting views to Rick Warren about a whole host of issues—is also speaking.

I completely agree with the president-elect that we need to find a way to “disagree without being disagreeable”, but this is not the way to do it. Warren’s ignorant, divisive and bigoted rhetoric, along with his use of gay people as a political weapon, mean he’s not fit to take part in an event meant to bring all Americans together. He uses his faith to instil fear and sow the seeds of hate, and he’s never shown a willingness to “find a common ground” on any issue.

It’s not “finding common ground” to give bigots such a prominent role. If he were a preacher who used his bible to justify racism, we would never have this discussion because he would never have been chosen. In America, racism is not given official sanction, but homophobia, well, that’s to be given respect and tolerance “even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues”.

The only mitigating factor I can think of is that the wingnuts are every bit as outraged, but for different reasons: They think that all “Christians”— a word they define as meaning only those who hold the same loony beliefs they do—should shun Obama. So, if this makes the wingnuts angry, it can’t be all bad.

Still, choosing Rick Warren to give the invocation was a mistake. I hope that those at the Inauguration will turn their backs on Warren when he speaks. I know I’ll definitely ignore him when I watch the TV coverage.

But here’s the thing: Choosing Warren, wrong as it was, is not the end of the world. If anyone seriously thinks that this Administration will be anything but a massive improvement over the current one—for all Americans, including GLBT Americans—then they need to have their heads examined. This was a mistake, and I call it as I see it, but there are definitely better days ahead.

Paul Weyrich is dead

Yet another Republican hatemonger has died. He will not be missed.

Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan was quoted as saying that Weyrich "was instrumental in the development of conservative thought" in the US. That’s an understatement: He was one of three founders of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” (which, as we all know, was neither), he helped form the “Christian” Coalition and was the first president of the Heritage Foundation. When he died, he was head of the hard-right Free Congress Foundation.

Weyrich was long an enemy of gay people, and not just by promoting the political involvement of the far-right christianists who eventually took over the Republican Party. On a TV preacher’s show, he proclaimed that all gay men are child predators. More recently, he promoted another right wing homophobic stereotype when he wrote that President Obama will "emasculate the military" when he repeals the infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” anti-gay military policy. He also claimed that Obama will force Roman Catholic doctors to perform abortions.

Weyrich was wrong about pretty much everything imaginable. That’s okay, liberty gives us the freedom to be wrong. But he tried to impose his beliefs on everyone and to suppress the liberty and freedoms of people he disagreed with. That’s not okay.

So, another hatemonger is dead. No one in the centre, let alone the left, will be mourning this death.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Beginning to look like Christmas

One defining feature of this time of year is, as I wrote back in 2006, the pohutukawa trees in full, red bloom. This happens every year around Christmas, with the peak sometimes in early December, well before Christmas, other times later in the month.

I’m not sure which it is this year.

Today I had a lucky combination of both time and a sunny day, so I headed out to see if I could get some photos. The photo above is one I shot today. Actually, I took many more photos and video, for a bigger project I’m working on.

For now, though, I thought I’d share one of my favourite things about Christmas in this warm and friendly place.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Saluting Slap

Congratulations to my e-friend Mark whose blog, “Slap Upside the Head”, was just named Best GLBT Blog in the Canadian Blog Awards, winning a commanding 45.77% of the votes cast. “Slap” has been on my e-reading list for a very long e-time now. Okay, okay, that’s e-nough…

Seriously, well done, Mark!

National’s weakness

A major weakness in the National-led Government may be emerging: The environment. Within days of winning the election, National bowed to the demands of the neoconservative ACT Party and suspended the Emissions Trading Scheme, which in the campaign they only said they would amend. They also agreed to ACT’s demand for a Parliamentary enquiry into climate change to allow climate change deniers, like ACT, a forum to create a “plausible case” for ending New Zealand’s commitment to fighting climate change as ACT wants; National had campaigned on fighting climate change.

Once its government was set up, National set about ending subsidies to help insulate older houses. New Zealand’s death rate is 18% higher in winter than would normally be expected precisely because of poorly insulated and heated houses. So the programme wasn’t just about saving energy, but also improving New Zealanders’ health, thereby cutting costs.

Now National is gutting New Zealand’s biofuels legislation. The previous Labour-led Government had enacted world-leading legislation in this area. It mandated the percentage of fuel that must be biofuels (a mix of 0.5% biofuels and 99.5% petroleum) and—more importantly—it mandated sustainability in biofuel production so that food wasn’t diverted to fuel cars and trucks. National is repealing the mandated percentages and ending the sustainability requirement.

The mandate was critical because in the absence of natural demand, government needed to create demand through compulsion. The multi-national oil companies would never move to biofuels on their own, just as they would never have removed lead or reduced sulphur or benzene levels without government requiring them to do so.

The mandate, together with the sustainability requirements, also created certainty in the market, encouraging investment in sustainable biofuels production. Thanks to National’s actions, an innovative plant that would turn tallow (a dairy manufacturing by-product) into fuel will now likely be cancelled, taking dozens of jobs in an economically depressed area with it. The tallow will likely be shipped to China for its own biofuels production.

The net effect of National’s moves is to take New Zealand from being a world leader to being the first nation in the developed world to abandon biofuels. National will live to regret that for many reasons.

So, why did they do it? Pure ideology. National is genetically opposed to government mandates, even when they would produce a clear benefit to the country as a whole. Like most conservative parties, National believes in the sanctity of “the market”, that it will deliver all great and good things if only it is left unfettered and unrestricted (in fairness, they recognise that some regulation is necessary, unlike ACT). But the worst part is that—yet again—they’re doing all this under urgency to keep ordinary New Zealanders from having input into the process.

National needs to re-focus on their election promises and work on the environment, as ordinary New Zealanders want, and not just do what big business wants. If they don’t, this could be their Achilles’ heel.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

New Illinois motto

A email joke making the rounds has the new state motto for Illinois:

"Illinois, where our governors make our license plates"

I don't post email jokes to my blog, but even serious things deserve a little humour, so I decided to make an exception.

Sent to me by a podcast listener.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Burning Opinions

The Wasila, Alaska church sometimes attended by Sarah Palin caught fire Friday night (local time), causing an estimated $1 million in damage. Those are all the facts we have at the moment, but the left and right alike have seized on a possibility that the fire was caused by arson to score political points. Naturally, the right wing is far more extreme and loony in their reaction, but the left is nipping at their heels.

First, though, it’s important to stress that there's NO proof yet that this was arson. The Anchorage Daily News, which can be expected to have more thorough coverage than the truncated AP story many people are reacting to, quotes the local fire chief as saying, "We are definitely treating it as suspicious and as potential arson at this point." They go on to say that the chief "declined to say why investigators believe the fire might have been set deliberately, or whether accelerants were found on the scene."

Potential arson is not the same thing as confirmed arson. Since fire officials didn't release any reason as to why they "suspected" arson, we must assume it's simply "suspicious" because they don't yet know the cause and it possibly could be arson, among other possible causes.

The paper goes on to quote the church pastor as saying "the fire was burning in the walls and took hours to put out." That sounds more like an electrical fire. If so, there are a lot of reasons why that could've happened, not all of them involving dark motives. For example, sometimes churches suffer from poor workmanship done by volunteers followed by no real inspection by authorities.

So, no one should jump to the conclusion that it's arson. Unless some evidence is presented to the contrary, this is simply an unfortunate accident. If it’s arson, however, we must wait to place blame. The paper said the fire chief told them, "Nothing thus far suggests any political motivation for the fire".

Not that any of that’s stopped the extremes from blaming each other. The extreme right has accused liberals generally and gays specifically as being behind the fire. This was encouraged by the AP report that mentioned the church hosting a seminar from one of the “ex-gay” scams (curiously, the AP failed to mention the church hosting an African witch doctor who “protected” Sarah Palin from “witchcraft”).

The left’s theories ranged from the prosaic—a simple electrical fault—through to the conspiratorial, like suggesting insurance fraud (the building was reported to be worth $4 to 5 million). But in suggesting a Reichstag-like fire committed by the church or Palin supporters to portray themselves as victims, the left showed themselves every bit as capable of bizarre conspiracy theories as the right is.

In a way, though, the left wing’s theories are doing us all a favour. The right wing desperately wants to pin this fire on the gays as part of the wingnut propaganda about being “victims” of aggressive gay people. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, or even if it’s arson, they want to portray themselves as “victims”. So the left is helping to deflate that by pointing out an equally loony counter-theory—that the wingnuts set the fire themselves.

However, until there’s some evidence of the real cause, none of us should speculate on a possible arsonist that may not even exist. Every time the centre or left assumes arson, we fall into the right wing trap and unwittingly reinforce the wingnut propaganda. We shouldn't be helping them in their smear campaign.

Update 16/12/08: The Anchorage Daily News now reports that "Federal investigators say an accelerant was poured around the exterior of [the] church before it was heavily damaged by a fire." The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is conducting tests to determine the type. This will also provide an accelerant to the wingnuts who have blamed "liberals" and gays for starting the fire. Expect to see their rhetoric intensify and veer solidly into hate speech—even with no official word on who set the apparent arson fire or why. It suits their propagada purposes to blame us regardless.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Democracy’s enemy

Despots the world over suppress dissent as a matter of policy, but Western democracies have undertaken it in well-intentioned, but ultimately ill-advised, attempts to protect their democracies. For example, in the US, during the Vietnam War there were infamous scandals involving police infiltration and disruption of peaceful protest groups. Many countries are still doing this as part of the “war on terrorism”. Like many Western democracies, New Zealand is partway down that slope.

An article in the Sunday Star-Times detailed how special police had spied on legitimate and peaceful protest groups—like Greenpeace—“and used a paid informer to gather information not just about planned protests but the personal lives and sexual relationships of group members.” By itself, this isn’t particularly surprising: Give police the power to spy along with a noble-seeming purpose and this sort of thing happens. And let’s bet clear: New Zealand’s over-zealous spying on peaceful, legitimate protest groups is still mild and pretty banal compared to countries like the US.

Still, it’s that proverbial “slippery slope” from unwarranted snooping to deliberate disruption and on to suppression of peaceful dissent. In a democracy, we need to keep a sharp eye on how those special police powers are used. That’s exactly what the Star-Times article is doing.

What’s alarming about the story, however, is the attitude of the new National-led government’s Police Minister, Judith Collins. The article quotes her as saying: "This government wants to ensure [the police] have the tools and the support they need to keep the public safe.” I was thinking that that was possibly not as ominous as it sounded, but then she went on: “I think most New Zealanders would find it reassuring that the police are out there keeping a watch on the whole community. That's what they're there for” (emphasis added). Well, no, Judith, I don’t find that reassuring. I don’t want police wasting time and resources finding out about the sex lives of activists when there are potentially real, serious threats.

Maybe Collins didn’t mean to suggest support for unwarranted spying and snooping, nor for draconian police powers. But when we start surrendering liberty in the hope of achieving safety, we become demonstrably less free. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” The US has learned this lesson over the past 8 years; New Zealand doesn’t need to repeat those mistakes.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The game is joined

Ever since the NZ elections, it’s all been about National, as you’d expect. The deals they did to form government, what their agenda would be, that sort of thing. Based on media coverage, you’d be forgiven for thinking life would now be nothing but sweetness and light.

Obviously, that wouldn’t last long.

Parliament is now deliberating on National’s agenda and of course the new government’s getting everything it wants (they have the majority, after all). But this week we saw Labour outstanding in opposition.

I watched Parliament TV as the House was debating a change to bail laws—under urgency, of course, so the public could have no input. As each reading was held one after the other, I saw Labour MPs absolutely eviscerate Government MPs who were reduced to speaking spin or simply attacking the former Labour-led government. At the best of times, Parliament is a circus, but this was one entertaining show.

But as Labour MPs took to full flight, several National MPs crashed and burned. Brand-new MP Melissa Lee had the temerity to declare that no one in Labour understood what it was like to be a victim of crime. Labour gratefully accepted the gift from Ms Lee and attacked her arrogance (rightly, I think). Then Chester Borrows stood to defend Lee and came across as the grumpy old man who yells at the kids to get of his lawn (and he’s only a couple years older than me). Amid pro forma attacks on Labour, he repeated the holier-than-thou nonsense talking points from some National MPs (especially Gerry Brownlee), that now that National’s in charge, the House will be so much more civil than it was when Labour led government. Yeah, right: Brownlee was one of the biggest loudmouths in the old Parliament—so he’s reformed his ways, has he?

I’m not the only one who was noticed Labour’s performance. Christchurch Press political editor, Colin Espiner, wrote on his blog on Stuff:

I have been extremely impressed by the way Labour has pulled itself together since its defeat. It would have been easy to limp back to Parliament sullen and bitter, and slump into the Opposition benches with arms folded and the odd interjection. Yet Labour has positively bounced back this week.

Mind you, National made it easy by pushing through things under urgency, even massive changes that the public should have been able to be involved in. Having so many inexperienced MPs leading legislation hasn’t helped their cause, either, but even so, Labour did very well in its own right.

It’s funny reading the comments on mainstream news stories: The extremes of the two main parties attack each other with silly and childish rhetoric, while the folks in the middle (like me) opt out of participating. But if I did, I’d say this: There is no way anyone can know right now who will win the 2011 election, and it’s absurd to declare who will and who will not be government or opposition then. So neither the good performance of Labour nor the wobbly performance of National are indicators—this has been one very early week. Now if this continues, that’ll be another matter, but there’s no way we can know that, either.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Don’t Tell Me Who To Love

Recently-out contemporary gospel singer Ray Boltz has released a new single, “Don’t Tell Me Who To Love” (you can download a free copy from his blog). The video was created by Soulforce, a group combating religious bigotry. Religious or not, this is the one message that all GLBT people are united in declaring to anti-gay religious bigots: “Don’t Tell Me Who To Love”.

Found, as some many great things are, over at Joe.My.God.

Time to oppose

I said yesterday that there were issues coming up “where I’ll definitely be opposed to government plans”. At the time, I was pretty sure that included the government’s tax cut plan. That’s now been enacted, so it’s moot, but it seems to me that the tax cuts will make poor and even many average workers worse off than they would’ve been under Labour’s tax cut plan.

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English was being dishonest when he said the plan had been known before the election and voters supported it by choosing a National-led government. The truth is, voters were never told the details of National’s plan and had no way to properly evaluate it. People may have voted for tax cuts, though that’s uncertain, but it wasn’t an endorsement of National’s plans.

My bigger complaint is the way that National is rushing through legislation under urgency so that the people have no chance to have any input into the process. National claims that it’s only doing what Labour did, but that’s simply not true. Labour did occasionally use urgency to pass measures, but never a whole slew of legislation, including some making pretty fundamental changes, and never in an attempt to cut off public input.

A case in point is the government’s plan to introduce a 90-day probationary period for newly-hired workers, something business lobbyists have sought for years. Under the plan, businesses will have 90 days to fire workers with the worker having no right of redress. Business lobbyists and National claim that it will lead to marginal workers or new immigrants “being given a chance,” but what it certainly means is that some 100,000 workers will lose protections.

The Human Rights Commission has slammed National’s speed in making such a fundamental change, but the government claims that the bill was heard in select committee in the previous Parliament, before it was defeated. They say that they’ve made changes to the bill to address problems, but still the public will be prevented from making submissions—and won’t even know the details until National presents it for approval. To its credit, the Maori Party is opposing the bill because they say it will still hurt low income workers. That won’t be enough to stop the bill being shoved through Parliament.

So far, I’ve opposed National’s tax cut plan (Labour’s was better), their changes to Kiwisaver (ill-advised and short-sighted) and I also oppose their 90-day probationary period—I think; given the undue secrecy under which National is doing the people’s business, I can’t be sure. A few days ago, I said the two things democracy needs to survive are an active citizenry and fresh air. At the moment, National is ensuring we won’t have either. National must do better.

Mike Huckabee is a moron

Failed Repubican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, out hawking a book, has been taking the opportunity to promote hatred and bigotry along with sales. That’s not unusual for the slickest snakeoil salesman the far right christianists have.

Huckabee has already said that gay people don’t deserve human rights because the body count isn’t high enough: Not enough gay people have been attacked or killed for them to have earned human and civil rights. He says black people didn’t choose to be black, after all.

Mike is a moron.

Religion is 100% choice and it gets—and all the Huckabees of America demand—special rights. But sexual orientation is not a choice—that’s a rightwing myth. There’s ample scientific evidence to prove that sexual orientation is an innate characteristic. You can’t argue that with the Huckster, though, because he and his far right christianist buddies don’t believe in science (Huck believes the world is about 6,000 years old, remember). Which brings me back to religion: If the Huckster thinks that gay people don’t deserve equality because of their “choice”, then fine: Neither do religious people.

Huckabee bleats on and on and on and on about marriage being between one man one woman for 5,000 years. Uh, no, Mike, that’s a total lie: 5,000 years ago polygamy was quite common. Mike says that marriage is about proceation. No, Mike, that’s just plain stupid: There are plenty of married couples who never have children, by choice or circumstance. And, by the way, there are gay couples who do have children, but in 48 states those parents don’t have the legal protection of marriage.

Mike whines, if same-sex marriage is legal, you’d have to legalise all other sorts of marriage—like the man with 49 wives!! Uh, why, exactly? Contrary to your propaganda, gay people are NOT redefining marriage: We, too, see it as the legal union of two people who love one another and are committed to each other. All we are seeking is the legal equality that all citizens deserve as a birthright.

Is it just about that word? No. Huckabee and his ilk want to deny all legal recognition to same-sex couples—and they have the gall to say they’re not homophobic. Sure some of them say they may, quite possibly, be willing to allow us to have a few privileges, like hospital visitation. Maybe. I’ve got news for the Huckster: Equal means equal. You cannot pretend to believe that all people are born equal and then put an asterisk on that. In America, marriage conveys instant, transferrable rights that some “separate but not really equal” creation doesn’t and can’t. If there was a single, universally recognised form of marriage without the word, like New Zealand has, maybe we could talk.

Mike is probably the most dangerous extremist christianist in America, precisely because he doesn’t seem like it. His easy-going demeanour, his attempts to sound reasonable make the threat he poses seem less serious than it is. The book he’s been hawking is all about forcing the Republican Party to adopt a christo-fascist agenda (which means a fascist agenda using extremist Christian fundamentalism). It’s been well documented that Huckabee wants a far-right christianist theocracy in America (like, for example, when he said America should be run according to “God’s law”—you know, like the Taliban or Iran).

If Mike Huckabee really believes the homophobic lies and nonsense he spouts, then he’s a moron. But if he’s using gay people in a cynical ploy to become president, he’s despicable. Either way, he’s no “man of God”. It’s time more people started speaking that truth.

Update: For more on Huckabee’s nonsense, and the first strong example I’ve seen of someone calling him on it, check out the clip from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” (the link is to Joe.My.God, because the website for The Daily Show doesn’t yet have a separate link to the video. Besides, this is where I saw it.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

About THAT guy…

I wondered what to say about the arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blogojevich. I could comment on the specifics, but plenty of pundits have done that already. What can I offer that’s different?

I’m an Illinois native—born, raised and educated in Illinois. I began my adult life there. And I’m totally not surprised by the events.

Growing up in Illinois, I came to assume corruption was just a normal way of life. We viewed Chicago and its Mayor Daley (the first) as the very definition of corruption. Chicago was in “Crook County”, we said.

Then politicians started falling. Governors (Otto Kerner, Dan Walker) and Secretary of State Paul Powell died leaving more than $800,000 in cash—much of it in shoeboxes. At his death, he was worth $3.2 million. All of this was after earning $30,000 a year in salary. Yeah, you do the math.

Then Governor George Ryan was sent to prison and Blogojevich was elected to clean things up. Guess that didn’t work out so well. Ryan and Blogojevich were elected after I was no longer eligible to vote in Illinois elections. I was too young to vote for Kerner or Walker, but they were Democrats and in those days I was a Republican.

Illinois’ longest-serving Governor, Republican James R. Thompson (who I helped elect in 1976), made his name on the Kerner prosecution and has remained indictment-free, as has his successor, what’s-his-name (I’m kidding—it’s Jim Edgar, who I was never a real fan of).

So, the FBI guy (or whatever he was) said Illinois is the most corrupt state in the USA. BFD: Corruption is our birthright. The truth is, nothing will change because no one wants it to change. If it did, we’d have to complain about the weather non-stop.

Oh yeah, one more thing; Throw the book at that son-of-a bitch. Next?

Two bouquets

When National won government following the recent NZ election, I knew that the more centrist approach of party leader John Key would mean that I wouldn’t have to automatically oppose everything they’d be doing, as I’d probably have to with Republicans in the US. In fact, I anticipated supporting things they’d be doing right, and there are two things in the news that reinforce that.

First, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett (whose appointed I praised) has killed a $200,000 conference sponsored by the Families Commission. The conference, which was approved when economic times were still good, was positively over-the-top in bad times, and Bennett saw that immediately. This was a very sensible move.

But the bigger bouquet must go to the Government following through on a pledge to fund a full 12-month treatment of breast cancer with Herceptin. New Zealand’s central drug-funding agency, Pharmac, would only fund nine weeks, arguing that there was no scientific evidence that longer treatment was warranted. 34 countries disagree with them and fund 12 months, and now New Zealand does, too.

The previous health minister said, correctly, that he couldn’t overrule Pharmac. But the National-led Government has done a clever work-around, funding the rest of the treatment directly through the Ministry of Health. This way, women get the full 12-month treatment and the government doesn’t have to take the dangerous course of legislating to allow politicians to tell Pharmac what to do. Everyone wins in this move.

I do have one mild criticism of another minister, Gerry Brownlee, who’s cut off funding for the “Buy Kiwi” ad campaign. I think that’s short-sighted and a bit “penny wise, pound foolish”. Even so, I’m certainly not willing to go to the barricades over it.

There are issues coming up where I’ll definitely be opposed to government plans, but in two of the cases above I think the new government has gotten it completely right (the third I mentioned is, for me, a “meh” situation). Here’s hoping that I’ll have many more opportunities to offer praise.

Hide seeks

ACT Party leader Rodney Hide has been acting like he’s NZ Prime Minister. All arrogance and bluster, Hide has been pushing his neoconservative agenda even as he settles into his roles in the National-led Government.

In interviews as Local Government Minister, Hide’s been blustering about “reigning in” local councils, apparently including drastic cuts to rates (similar to property taxes in the US). What Hide never says, however, is that much of local government’s responsibilities are dictated by central government. So if he somehow convinces the Government to legislate cuts in rates, but doesn’t end mandates, he’s effectively telling local councils to slash or end local, elective spending—for things like parks and reserves, sports facilities, swimming pools, libraries—even street maintenance and infrastructure repairs. His blather to date about what can be cut has been superficial and disingenuous.

But Hide is most out of touch on climate change and the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Hide’s a climate change denier, meaning he rejects scientific research, repeating the myth that “the jury’s still out” or that the reality of climate change is “inconclusive”. He extracted an official review of the ETS as a “price” for his support for National. This review will put climate change deniers on an equal footing with real scientists with the obvious goal of finding ways to “credibly” dump both the ETS and New Zealand’s participation in the Kyoto Protocols. He seems to think he’ll be able to force National to abandon the ETS and Kyoto Protocols completely.

While this puts Hide on the same side as fundamentalist christianists, it’s important to note that’s not where Hide is coming from. A liberal (in the modern sense) on social issues (he voted for the Civil Unions Act, for example), he is a neoconservative on all other issues.

Neoconservative philosophy can be boiled down to this: Government does nothing well, the private sector does nothing bad, and preventing the former from interfering with the latter will deliver prosperity and paradise for all. It’s silly to say that government does nothing well, it’s absurd to say business does nothing bad, and an outright lie to say that unfettered business will benefit us all. The financial crisis and bank bailouts in the US were caused in no small measure by the complete failure to regulate and supervise business.

The ETS and anything else designed to combat climate change would affect profits, which is why Hide opposes them. He wants local councils to privatise pretty much everything, which is how he’d want them to deal with cuts in rates. Similarly, he wants most central government functions privatised, too, including health and education. He wants, in other words, the same things as American Republicans, though without the moralistic religiosity.

All of which will present a challenge for Prime Minister John Key, who has worked hard to pull his party back to the centre after it’s disastrous flirtation with Hide-style extremism (but including moralistic crap, too) in the 2005 election. Key has forged a government that tries to balance left and right to keep his government centrist. So far, I still think he’s been able to do that.

But I think that ultimately the cost of keeping a centrist government will be to cut Hide loose. It’ll begin with publicly distancing himself from Hide’s rhetoric, and if that doesn’t work, it’ll mean sacking Hide. After all, what’s Hide going to do? Bring down the government?

Hide is already shaping up to be among the worst members of the National-led Government. But, then, I suppose every government has to have at least one.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Reality oppression

Last Saturday, I wrote about the hypocrisy of far right christianists whining about being “victims”, when they’re absolutely not. Instead, they’re actually indifferent to—or enabling of—real oppression against people they don’t like (women, racial minorities, gay people).

There are two strains to their PR campaign. The first is that those evil homosexual “fascists” are oppressing the poor, beleaguered “Christians”. That’s basically what I was talking about in my earlier post. The second is more subtle: Simply ignoring their oppression of others.

A christianist uproar is providing an example of this second strain. In Olympia, Washington, a multi-faceted religious display in the state capital building includes a sign from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which says: “At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

I’ll be honest: I don’t like the way atheist activists often go out of their way to be provocative and confrontational. I think it’s counter-productive, though I know that they’re trying to spark debate by being jarring. While I think the last sentence is arguably true, it seems to me it was unnecessary for that particular sign. Quibbles over tactics and wording aside, how is what they say any less valid than promotion of the Christian story? Or Hanukkah?

Naturally, extremist christianists don’t see things that way. They say it’s offensive to “people of all faiths” (who they always claim to speak for), ignoring the fact that many of their own activities are offensive to “people of all faiths” and atheists alike. In fact, the vitriol they direct at people who don’t share their religious views can be downright shocking, not just offensive.

As I often say, freedom of religion means nothing without freedom from religion, and no government has any business giving official endorsement to any one religion. Extremist christianists want Christianity—or, more precisely, fundamentalist Christianity—to be the only religious viewpoint allowed, and further, that those rejecting religion must never be allowed to express that viewpoint.

Well, I have a news flash for the far-right christianists: Freedom of religion and freedom of speech don’t give you freedom from being offended. In a truly free society, all of us will be offended by something someone says somewhere while exercising their freedoms. My argument isn’t with right-wing christianists’ beliefs, even though I clearly disagree with them on pretty much everything. Rather, I object to their demand that their beliefs be the only ones permitted. Similarly, even though I may quibble about atheist activists’ tactics, I believe they absolutely have the right to state their beliefs and if a state capital is having religious displays, then they have every right to have theirs included.

It’s not “Christian-bashing” to criticise christianist activists or beliefs—notice how they don’t consider their attacks on atheists “atheist-bashing”? They have no right to avoid being offended—they certainly don’t worry about offending people who don’t agree with them. And, just because they don’t like criticism and are offended, that doesn’t give them the right to suppress opposing beliefs.

Given all that, they’re not being oppressed, but merely experiencing life in a free society. Also, their being the majority in America means by definition that they can’t be victims when they hold the power, and their dishonest claim is highly offensive to people who really are victimised because of their race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

Christians—real ones, as well as far-right activists—often use the phrase “the reason for the season” when talking about this time of year. Just for once, I wish it could also be the “season of reason”. Sadly, that’s one bit of peace on earth I don’t expect to see, not when there are so many points to be scored. Still, this is also called the season of hope—isn’t it?

Footnote: I found the above graphic at Joe.My.God, and have since seen it all over the Internet. Unfortunately, I have no idea where it comes from originally nor who created it, so I can’t give proper attribution. I’ll correct that omission if I find out who the author was. Update: I recreated the graphic, adding footnotes for the data sources.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Fuel of democracy

Democracy needs two things to survive. The first is an active citizenry, because no democracy can survive indifference. The other thing democracy needs is far simpler: Fresh air. The more openness, transparency and exposure, the better.

So it came as great news for Australian democracy that a new public affairs network, A-SPAN, is about to launch, 100% funded by the pay-TV sector, Foxtel and Austar, in association with Sky News. It will help provide the air democracy needs, and will make it easier to citizens to become informed and active.

Shortly after taking office, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd held a 2020 summit to look at where Australia should be in the future. One of the things that was recommended was an Australian version of the USA's C-SPAN, and that it should launch in 2020. Instead, it'll launch in January (carrying C-SPAN's broadcast of the inauguration of Barack Obama as US President). That's eleven years ahead of schedule.

A-SPAN will be an affiliate of C-SPAN, carrying much of its US and Canadian programming. It will also carry Question Time from the UK Parliament, as well as expanded coverage of New Zealand's Parliament. The thing that's extraordinary about it is that C-SPAN will also carry A-SPAN programming, meaning for the first time Americans will be able to watch Australian democracy in action (for better or worse…).

Probably more important for Aussies is the local coverage: Full coverage of sittings of Parliament, important committee hearings and other public events. A-SPAN will also eventually carry Question Time from the Parliaments of all Australian states and territories. Australian democracy will never be the same.

I was a big fan of C-SPAN in America, so I hope that A-SPAN is carried in New Zealand. It will eventually be streamed over the Internet. It's highly unlikely that New Zealand will see it's own public affairs network because there's only one pay-TV operator, and the Freeview consortium is also unlikely to pay for it. Still, as technology evolves anything could happen—even a little fresh air.

This post has been edited to fix some formatting errors that slipped through when I used a different program to write it.

TV shock?

For the first time, a viewer complaint against the TVNZ soap opera Shortland Street has been upheld by the Broadcast Standards Authority. Actually, that kind of surprised me, because over the years the programme has dealt with many “controversial” subjects and storylines.

A Balclutha man complained about an episode in which two young gay men undress and get into bed. One of the men disappeared under the blankets, with the implication it was for oral sex. This is what the man objected to, saying he'd "have had enough of a problem explaining to younger kids what might just be happening under the bed clothes if that had been a heterosexual couple".

That led TVNZ to suggest that the objection was purely based on the gay nature of the relationship, arguing that “the same scene with a heterosexual couple would not have breached broadcasting standard.” They also pointed out that there was no actual sex (simulated, obviously), and the scene ended up in comic disaster when the character under the blankets is accidentally kneed in the face, giving him a bloody nose.

The complainant countered the sexuality of the couple wasn't the point, that any such pairing was inappropriate given the show's timeslot (7pm),and that neither the show's PGR rating nor its warning of sexual content were sufficient. The BSA agreed with the complainant, adding that the sexual orientation of the characters was irrelevant.

I actually saw the scene in question—which is weird, because I never ordinarily watch the show. I was, it's fair to say, surprised by it, but when it delivered its punchline (knee line? Kick line?) I thought it was funny. I can understand how parents might find such scenes difficult to explain and might not want to, but here's my gripe: Whatever happened to personal responsibility of parents?

The programme is rated PGR and has warnings about it's content. Clearly it's not suitable for young children, but why should grown-ups and teenagers have to endure "child-safe" TV mush when parents can use the "off" button? Where is it written that people with children get a total veto over what those without children are allowed to watch just because its broadcast at a time a child might, theoretically, be watching?

And there's the issue of the content itself. I take the complainant at his word that he'd oppose any sexual pairing at that time, but with all due respect, it's a little dishonest to say it's irrelevant. History has shown that anything related to gay content draws more complaints.

Actually, TVNZ has a track record of overzealously censoring gay content. It's few attempts at a GLBT programme have always been aired late at night, even though heterosexual programmes with more overt sexual content have aired much earlier. There was also an infamous incident when TVNZ censored the video for Christina Aguilera's song "Beautiful" by cutting a scene in which two young men kiss while seated on a park bench, attracting disapproving stares from passersby. Ironically, the song was about helping people's feelings of low self-esteem and insecurity brought on by the hateful attitudes of others (the song reached number one in New Zealand, and was the number three song in NZ for the year 2003).

So while I understand parents' desire to shield their children from inappropriate content on TV, I think they should take some personal responsibility and they shouldn't have an absolute veto power over what's broadcast. I also think that all too often people have a double standard when it comes to gay content, regardless of what time it's broadcast. A little fair-mindedness is all I'm asking for, but I don't expect to see it—not on TV, anyway.

This post has been edited to fix some formatting and spelling errors that slipped through when I used a different program to write it.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

More christianist hypocrisy

Not content with stripping 18,000 married California couples of their human rights and preventing the recognition of those same rights in most other states, right wing religionists now claim to be victims of “violence” and “intimidation” so they can shut down all criticism directed at them.

Ever since gay people and their supporters began protesting the passage of Proposition 8 in California, rightwing religionists have been claiming they’re being threatened with violence because of their anti-gay stance. Specifically, they cite protests outside Mormon temples and the public naming and blacklisting of individual and business contributors to the passage of California’s Proposition 8 as proof they’re “victims”.

Now one right wing religionist group has taken out a full-page ad in the New York Times demanding no “mob veto”. The group, which claims to be “protecting the free expression of all religious traditions”, self-righteously defended the right of Mormons specifically to promote Proposition 8, ignoring that they did that by exploiting their tax-exempt status to mount a nationwide campaign in all their churches. This meant they ended up contributing over half of all the money raised to pass Prop 8, despite only about two percent of Californians following that religion. Having done that, they have to expect a backlash, and boycotting the businesses of contributors is a legitimate response.

Make no mistake: No one condones actual violence; it must be condemned at all times. But many of these complainers don’t condemn violence—actual, daily, physical violence—directed against GLBT people, even if the ad has an anti-violence sentence. Indeed, many of the rightwing backers of the ad don’t condemn anti-gay violence because they’re too busy effectively encouraging it with their rhetoric.

The group behind the ad plans to respond by publicly “naming and shaming” anyone they say “resorts to the rhetoric of anti-religious bigotry”. So, they plan to use the same tactic that anti-Prop 8 people use. Apparently, when our side does it, it’s “intimidation” and actions of a “mob”, but when they do it, it’s perfectly acceptable. The only word for that is hypocrisy.

The group behind the ad promotes special rights for religions and their followers. In an earlier media release, the group complained that “only 37 states have explicit religious exemptions” to laws banning gender discrimination. “Only 37”—that’s 75% of the states.

They want religions to be able to discriminate not just against women, but also—especially, perhaps—gay people. They say 33 states ban discrimination based on marital status, but “only 13 of these states provide religious exemptions”. They note that among the 20 states (only 40% of US states) that ban discrimination against gay people, 18 have a religious exemption. Put another way, 90% of the states that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation exempt religions from obeying the law. The group demands that any state that permits same-sex couples to marry also exempt religion from obeying the law.

They want religions to have special rights to discriminate, though private, secular institutions are forbidden to discriminate, even when doing exactly the same work—like education, social welfare, healthcare, etc. This has nothing to do with what churches do in their religious ceremonies, but about how they treat their employees and the general public they serve in their non-religious activities.

Why is it “anti-religious bigotry” to oppose churches’ special rights to discriminate, but a legitimate expression of religious faith when they oppose outlawing discrimination against us—even if they get special rights to be exempted from obeying the law? Why is it “anti-religious bigotry” to stand up to churches’ anti-gay crusades, but legitimate expression of religious faith when they oppose us?

Plainly put, right wing christianists and Mormons are hypocrites, not victims. It’s plainly impossible to be a victim when you have power and money and can wield both to force your religious agenda on those who believe differently, let alone those who reject religion. Criticism and opposition is legitimate. If they don’t want either, then they shouldn’t take part in political debates. And they definitely shouldn’t make phoney claims of being “victims”.

Update December 11: Truth Wins Out has taken out a full page ad in the Salt Lake Tribune pointing out the blatant hypocrisy of the signators to the New York Times ad: Three in particular have made remarks promoting the very religious bigotry the group behind the NYT ad falsely claims to be fighting. Two of them specifically attacked Mormons, who the ad falls all over itself defending.

The group behind the NYT ad is just another far right anti-gay group of religionists—and hypocrites. Truth Wins Out has helped to expose that.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Prop 8 – The Musical

I’ve been sent this—and seen this—through several different sources. So why not share a good viral video?

Update 06/12/08: A far right christianist group has, predictably, demanded an apology for “Prop 8 – The Musical”. Their media release quotes a spokesperson as saying, “Appearing as a sarcastic, rotund Christ, [Jack] Black distorts the Bible and condones shameful, homosexual acts. Associating Christ with perverse activity is an affront to all people of faith, especially Christians.”

So, according to these religious winguts, one can never make even gentle fun of them, but they can call us “shameful” and “perverse” with impunity. They also get to make fun of Black’s weight, too. Put another way, they’re free to mock—even to hate—but no one has the right to criticise them or make fun of them.

Personally, what I find “shameful” and “perverse” is their assertion that they speak for “all people of faith, especially Christians.” Just because they believe it, it doesn’t make it true; a bit like their religious beliefs, actually—oh dear, have I just mocked them? In any case, they need to get over themselves—seriously.

Critical thinking

To provide further evidence (like it was actually needed…) that wingnuts aren’t rational, comes a story I saw at Joe.My.God. Apparently, a teacher at a rural Wisconsin high school is using a questionnaire from the 1970s designed to get people to challenge their own assumptions about homosexuality, and the nature of sexuality in general. The questionnaire was part of the school’s efforts to teach students critical thinking, so they don’t just accept blindly what they’re told.

Demonstrating their own lack of critical thinking ability, wingnuts are frothing over the story, declaring that it’s part of the imaginary “radical gay agenda”. To them, it’s “promoting” homosexuality.

In fact, the questionnaire was built on questions that gay people are often asked by heterosexuals. When they’re turned around like this, the questions clearly show the absurd thinking and assumptions behind them.

So I challenge you to read them and decide for yourself. I promise this won’t recruit heterosexuals to the “ho-mo-seck-shul lifestyle”. Although, I suppose it’s only fair to tell you that according to my copy of the Radical Gay Agenda, we get a toaster for every heterosexual we recruit, though we can trade them for larger appliances if we recruit enough heterosexuals in a given quarter. Since we get double-points for successful recruitments in months with major Christian holidays, I’m hoping for a new toaster oven. Ambitious, I know, because I’d have to recruit a lot of heterosexuals this month. Get reading that list! /sarcasm
  1. What do you think caused your heterosexuality?
  2. When and how did you decide you were a heterosexual?
  3. Is it possible that your heterosexuality is just a phase you may grow out of?
  4. Is it possible that your heterosexuality stems from a neurotic fear of others of the same sex?
  5. Do your parents know that you are straight? Do your friends and/or roommate(s) know? How did they react?
  6. Why do you insist on flaunting your heterosexuality? Can't you just be who you are and keep it quiet?
  7. Why do heterosexuals feel compelled to seduce others into their lifestyles?
  8. A disproportionate majority of child molesters are heterosexual. So you consider it safe to expose children to heterosexual teachers?
  9. With all the societal support marriage receives, the divorce rate is spiraling. Why are there so few stable relationships among heterosexuals?
  10. Statistics show that lesbians have the lowest incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. Is it really safe for a woman to maintain a heterosexual lifestyle and run the risk of disease and pregnancy?
  11. Considering the menace of overpopulation, how could the human race survive if everyone were heterosexual?
  12. Would you want your child to be heterosexual, knowing the problems that s/he would face?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Why they’re called ‘wingnuts’

One of the main derogatory (only just) terms for extreme right wingers is “wingnut,” which is, obviously, derived from “right wing nut”. They call anyone they perceive as even slightly liberal or left of centre a “moonbat”, though there’s no agreement on the origin of the term (which seems to reinforce the feeling that wingnuts are a few sandwiches short of a picnic).

Anyway, I like the term. It’s short, a put down, but doesn’t use obscenities, even though swearing is so often justified when talking about wingnut ideology. It’s actually kinda cute in a way. However, there’s one wingnut fantasy going on right now that is so crazy that it reinforces a literal meaning to the word: Wingnuts claim that Barack Obama isn’t “really” a US citizen, and so, is ineligible to be President.

The only reason I’m mentioning it at all is that a wingnut anti-tax group has taken out full-page ads promoting their obsession. The Chicago Tribune, which published the ad, ran an excellent refutation of the absurd claims made. They also speculate that the group is seeking publicity for themselves. That’s obviously true, but I suspect that another purpose is to set-up some bizarre justification for treating the Obama presidency as illegitimate.

They’ve done this before. The wingnuts thought Bill Clinton’s 1992 election was “illegitimate”, and spent four years trying to tear him down by exaggerating claims of “scandals” that never were. When he was re-elected in 1996, they went into overdrive to try and drive him from office (and the main leader of that effort, Ken Starr, is now apparently leading the defence of the anti-gay Proposition 8 before the California Supreme Court).

So the wingnuts spent eight years undermining, sniping at, muckraking over, smearing and lying about Bill Clinton, and they seem to be preparing to do it all over again. I have absolutely no idea what their problem was with Clinton—he was hardly a liberal, after all. But their problem with Obama is obvious: He’s a black man.

Hatred is a funny thing. At first it may seem to the hater that they’re being reasonable and rational, but over time it consumes them, driving out all higher brain thought functions until, in the end, they become nothing but the hate. In the case of the extreme right, they then become the very definition of “wingnut”, demonstrating why the term was coined in the first place. The real tragedy is that such a term is needed at all.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

National stumbles—already

The new National-led government isn’t even a month old, and already it seems wobbly and unsure what to do. Specifically, it’s seemed ill-prepared and indecisive about what to do for New Zealand citizens stranded in Thailand: Should they send in a plane? Will it all just go away?

Also, last week Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully warned that taxpayers shouldn’t be expected to pay for rescue operations when anti-whaling protestors have trouble after opposing Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean. Apparently, he’s unaware that international law requires that New Zealand come to the aid of any ship in distress, regardless of whether the NZ government of the day approves of how they got into strife or not. Hopefully he’ll study quickly and learn New Zealand’s international obligations before saying something so ill-informed again.

Early days—that’s what I keep telling myself. So far, though, John Key’s premiership isn’t inspiring confidence.

Update 03/12/08, Midday: Prime Minister John Key dispatched an Air Force Hercules to work at airlifting stranded New Zealanders from a military base near Bangkok. The planes would ferry 65 Kiwis at a time to Kuala Lumpur. There are about 300 New Zealanders stranded in Thailand. At present, protesters are said to be ending their occupation of the airport tomorrow.

The Government has maintaines that people should ideally find their own way out on private carriers, but was sending in the Air Force because no one could count on the commercial option working, particularly because the country may be edging toward civil war. The Hercules will still be available if the protesters don’t actually leave the airport.

My earlier criticism about this was based on what was best summed up in today’s New Zealand Herald: “Mr Key began yesterday unable to give a clear indication of what could be done for the up to 300 New Zealanders stranded in Bangkok. Asked if he was confident he could get them out should the violence escalate in the next hour, he replied: ‘I don't know the answer to that.’”

The Government is acting now, however, and I doubt very much they’ll be caught again without a contingency plan.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Street views

Google’s Street View has now gone live in New Zealand, the seventh country to get it, and, predictably, some are suggesting it’s the end of civilisation. Of course, they’re mistaken.

Street View is a subset of Google Maps (maps.google.co.nz), in which the user enters an address and chances are good that a street-level photograph is available. The USA and other countries have had it for awhile, but Google’s “photograph everything” cameras have only been in New Zealand a relatively short while.

On tonight’s news, I saw a woman who’s made money from books and TV appearances built on her profession as a private eye, bemoaning the introduction of Street View as something that will make it easier for criminals. Yeah, whatever. It never seems to occur to these wowsers that there are perfectly legitimate uses for technology like Street View, and—perhaps more importantly—we must never restrict our freedoms based upon what some miscreant “might” do. If we stop ourselves because of them, then the miscreants win.

I suppose I can afford a somewhat cavalier attitude, since these views are quite literally street views, and don’t go down driveways where many houses in our city are to be found. The Street View for one house we used to live in shows a man pushing a wheelbarrow as part of construction work (which, by the way, looks hideous; bet they ruined the inside, too). So, many people’s houses won’t be shown at all, and many others risk only having their bad taste exposed to the world.

Technology is neither good nor bad—the use it’s put to that determines that. For me, right now Google’s Street View is mostly entertainment. One thing it definitely is not is the end of all civilisation. See, I have a little more perspective than some, apparently.

Monday, December 01, 2008

World AIDS Day 2008

In the period between 1981 and 2007, some 25 million people died from HIV/AIDS. Right now, there are an estimated 33 million people living with HIV worldwide. This is why World AIDS Day, 20 years after its creation, still matters.

Previous related blog posts:

World AIDS Day 2007

World AIDS Day 2006

Welcome to summer

Today is the first day of summer. Well, some people insist on waiting for the astrological date of the Summer Solstice in three weeks, but for most Kiwis December 1 marks the first day of summer.

After a glorious—and hot—weekend, the weather today turned cool and cloudy and sometimes rainy. Not a very promising start to my favourite season. But, being weather, that will certainly change.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

NZ Views: Paeroa hills

This weekend, we went to Paeroa (where we lived for a couple years) for a family birthday party. We stayed with Nigel’s Mum, and the Paeroa hills in this photo are visible from her house (by the way, I wasn’t being lazy: I left in the roofs and house to give a sense of perspective).

Anyway, the hills are one of the natural features of Paeroa, and form the backdrop as you’re driving into town from Auckland on State Highway 2. This particular part of the hills—with the rock outcroppings—is visible from several places in town, and it’s one of my favourite views. While we were living there, some bright sparks suggested that the hills have Hollywood sign-style white letters spelling “Paeroa” mounted on the hills. The idea never went anywhere, and while it probably wouldn’t have been in this particular spot, it shows you why few thought it was a very good idea.

There may well be gold in those hills, as neither Thames nor Waihi, and their gold mining history, are very far away. For now, though, the hills are farmed, mostly with sheep who can handle the steeper slopes, but also with some dairy cattle. I just think the hills are nice to look at.

Change for Canada?

It’s looking like the current Canadian government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party (pictured) may be about to fall. All three of Canada’s opposition parties—the New Democrats, Liberals and Bloc Québécois—have wanted a stimulus package to help Canada's economy. Now, two opposition parties (the Liberals and the NDP) are planning on asking Canada’s Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, for permission to form a new government.

The Liberals’ motion reads: "In light of the government's failure to recognize the seriousness of Canada's economic situation and its failure in particular to present any credible plan to stimulate the Canadian economy … this House has lost confidence in this government and is of the opinion that a viable alternative government can be formed."

While the economic situation is their main criticism of Harper’s government, apparently the spark was the Conservatives’ plan to cut public subsidies for political parties. Currently, parties get C$1.95 (about NZ$2.87, US$1.57) per vote for every vote they receive in the elections. This money is used for various running costs and is vital to smaller parties, though largely unneeded by the Conservatives, who have no trouble raising money.

Harper is leading a minority government, which continues only as long as the other parties don’t form a coalition, as they’re now proposing to do. Harper called an election, which was held last month, in an attempt to get a majority government for the Conservatives, but failed to do so.

Governor-General Michaëlle Jean is reportedly cutting short a trip to Europe to return home to Canada. Harper has set the next opposition day for December 8, at which time the no confidence motion will likely be voted on. In a little over a week, we should know if Harper can hold onto power.

Part of what’s interesting to me in all this is that after living in a Commonwealth country, I understand what’s going on in Canada. I hope that some of my fellow Americans now do, too.

A tip o’ the hat to my Canadian e-friend Mark for pointing me to the story.