Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Lords of Misanthropy

A young man, not long out of his teens, walked to a concert venue carrying an explosive device designed to cause maximum damage to a large number of human bodies, his own included.  

He had chosen the softest of soft targets - a pop concert that attracted a mainly young audience. He detonated the device as people were leaving the venue.  The blast and the shrapnel killed and injured dozens of those softest of soft targets. 

Of the 8 people who have been identified as being dead at the time of writing this, 7 are women and girls. The youngest was just 8 years old.

In carrying out that act of appalling cruelty, the young man had to overcome two deep human senses - self-preservation and empathy towards other human beings. 

His preparedness to die and his inability to empathise with his victims were probably rooted in both a belief in an afterlife full of rewards for what religious ideologues define as acts of faith, and in a disconnection from, and disillusionment with the society in which he had lived his whole life.  

It's likely that a further ingredient in that already corrosive mix was a vicious misogyny that finds ready succour in fundamentalist sects within patriarchal religions.  

Judged by any rational and humane standards, the killing and maiming of the defenceless and the young, is as counter-productive, cowardly and dishonourable an act as it is possible to imagine. 
We are all entitled to ask what sort of god is it that demands such a cruel sacrifice as proof of faith?

The truth of course is that a vengeful, bloodthirsty god is both the creation and the reflection of vengeful bloodthirsty and power-hungry men who seek to elevate and justify their actions with the notion of divinely ordained right to take an eye for an eye.  The British state kills defenceless young Muslims by dropping bombs  on them, ergo it is justifiable for Muslims to kill defenceless young British people in retaliation. 

In order for a person to take that vengeful path and to stay on it to its bloody end, they either never had or have switched off the connection to other people's emotions and states of mind that marks us as properly formed social beings - as fully human. 

It's probable that this young man had been exposed to people who systematically stripped him of any empathy he had and filled in the resulting hole in his being with bitterness, intolerance and hollow certitudes.  

But, I have to wonder whether, for that to happen, he must already have been a deeply flawed person.  There are many people in his situation who feel deep anger and bitterness towards those they see as oppressors but who could never carry out such an atrocity.  

I find it hard to express how I feel about the sort of people who are easily manipulated by patently absurd propaganda - whether that be religious or political, who have a deformed sense of self and a crude and one-dimensional world view.  I understand and deplore the social conditions that led to some of them becoming so morally and psychologically malformed.  I might even feel pity for them - but probably not - their actions are just too awful and the consequences of them are too far-reaching. 

The consequences of their actions are not confined to the immediate deaths and injuries they inflict – they also serve to support the interests and extend the influence of malign men who would destroy the whole world rather than yield even a little of their power or budge an inch from their ideological position.

So, while I reserve my deepest loathing for the puppet masters who manipulate others from places of comfort and safety – I cannot forgive their puppets. 

And in case you think I am speaking only of radical Islamists - I draw no clear distinction between the likes of this morally defective young man and the pilot of an attack helicopter who guns down civilians in an Iraqi street, or the operators of a drone that slaughters civilians at a Yemeni wedding. 

They are all props holding up a global system, run by corporate cowards and political poltroons, that depends on bringing out the very worst in people. 

The way to counter that malign influence is to strive to bring out the very best in ourselves. 

Monday, 22 May 2017

Trust Issues

The British Tories' proposal to take personal assets to pay for long term care for the elderly and people with dementia has proved so unpopular they have resorted to buying up Google ads in an attempt to stop people from reading about it and directing them to their website where their spun version of events is available.

Here in NZ there is a government subsidy for aged care which is payable when people have personal assets of less than $220k. Assets include savings and privately owned property, like houses. 

On the surface that seems reasonable - if you have a lot of assets you can afford to pay for your own care which frees up state provision for those who have no assets. However, dig beneath the surface and it’s demonstrably unfair and is heavily weighted in favour of the already affluent who are far more able to, and adept at protecting their assets because they can afford to employ accountants and financial advisors who know all the ways in which tax can be minimised, and access to state benefits can be maximized. 

They do things like create a Family Trust into which they settle their private assets. This can be done by selling the assets to the Trust or gifting them.  The settlors may make themselves discretionary beneficiaries, which allows them full and unfettered use and enjoyment of those assets until their death or the termination of the Trust, when their designated heirs - the final beneficiaries - inherit all the Trust’s assets or income from it.

The debt that is created when ownership of property is transferred to a Family Trust is considered to be an asset because the Trust owes the settlor/s the value of the property sold to it.  One way round that is to write off or forgive the debt.  Up to 2011 that could be done at a rate of $27k a year without incurring gift duty. 

So, if you had property worth let’s say, $1.5 million, which you settled in a family trust making yourself and your partner the discretionary beneficiaries and your children the final beneficiaries, writing it off at $27k a year meant it would take 55 years to completely forgive it.   

If you needed care, any monies that were owed to you were considered in the calculation of assets.  So, if you had forgiven $1m of the debt, the Trust owed you $500k which would take you over the asset threshold for aged care subsidy. 

In 2011 the National Party changed the law to allow people to forgive Family Trust debts in total and to gift additional assets without incurring duty.  One of the benefits of this was that people could transfer assets into a trust and forgive the debt more quickly, leaving themselves free to claim the full aged care subsidy - as long as the bulk of the gifting was done 5 years before claiming the subsidy which currently is in the region of $50k per annum.

It is not uncommon for people in retirement homes to have their license to occupy a unit owned by a FT which allows them to qualify for the state subsidy and receive a full state pension.  I know someone who - by virtue of having a microwave in her unit - also claims independent living supplement on her pension although all her meals / laundry / cleaning etc are provided by the facility.

My mother (who had assets over the threshold courtesy of the insurance settlement on her earthquake destroyed home) and who did not have the wherewithal to create hiding places for her assets, paid the maximum cost of her care until she died.  She was also personally liable for all the ‘extras’ the aged care sector pile on top of the $890-970 per week government subsidy (depending on area).  Pretty much anything that makes life in residential care a bit more tolerable, carries a significant additional charge.

There are other similar iniquities. If a person in receipt of an old aged pension or any other form of social welfare payment, is in hospital for more than 3 months, their pension or benefit, minus a small amount of pocket money, is clawed back by the government to offset the costs of the medical care. 

Only the state pension is treated in this way.  Someone can have substantial personal assets and be in hospital long term and not be expected to pay a penny but a pensioner on the basic state pension will simply have the bulk of it taken off them after 3 months.  

If the loss of that income threatens the person’s ability to maintain their home (payment of rates, insurance etc) they can make a case for those costs to be covered, but as with so much else, the onus is on them to do that, often in circumstances in which their ability to protect their own interests is at the lowest ebb.

So – if the Tories get in again and the UK follows NZ’s lead in forcing the sale of family homes to pay for care, there will be all manner of tax and banking loopholes that the affluent will be able to utilize to protect their assets.

And, if the care system is anything like it is here – the assets that a person is permitted to keep will be whittled away by all the things the state provision doesn’t cover which here includes the premiums imposed by the facility for such things as an en-suite shower room/toilet, a room with a view, a larger or a sunny room etc;  specialist visits (that are not publicly funded); transport to other services or to outside social events; toll calls, private phone or cell phone; newspapers, books or magazines; personal toiletries; recreational activities that are not part of the normal programme; hairdresser; dietician, podiatrist, or other services that have not been prescribed by a doctor and are not publicly funded; glasses, hearing aids and dental care.

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows that the good guys lost
Everybody knows that the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes

Everybody knows
-Leonad Cohen

Saturday, 29 April 2017

"War, what is it good for?"

Guest Post by Roy Myers

Why do so many Kiwis persist in lying to their children?  

The rantings of a 12 year-old to peace activists at an Anzac Day service in Wellington caused me to reflect on the 'alternative truths' that misinformed this boy.

Anzac Day focuses on the First World War and takes its direction from remembrance events which emerged after that war. We are presented with statements which are repeated like a mantra without any apparent reflection on their meaning: 

“Our glorious dead.” 

“They fought for our freedom”.

Having read extensively about war and talked to old service personnel, it is hard to find anything glorious about it.  

The First World War was the mismanaged slaughter of millions and left those who returned, with scars that we now recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder.  When I was growing up there was a neighbour who shuffled around his garden, constantly shaking and switching his head this way and that.  When I asked what was wrong with him I was told it was “shell shock”.  

As AJP Taylor states in his history of the First World War, it was run by  commanders whose strategy was based on cavalry principles, fighting mechanical and industrial technology pitting human beings against powerful weaponry, that led to such a tragic loss of life.  Not glorious at all but bloody horrific and totally wasteful of human life and its potential.  

We must also remember that society at that time was stratified by class divisions and people were expected to do what they were told.  It was the same expectation of doing one’s duty, which drew New Zealand into the war in service of Britain, the metropolitan centre of the empire.

This brings me to the second piece of misinformation - that the war was fought for freedom. This is very much an alternative truth.  WW1 was a conflict between competing Imperial powers, Britain, Germany, France, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. These countries had been busily acquiring colonies, suppressing indigenous populations and fighting off competitors to meet the needs of their domestic industrial bases for raw materials. The point was reached when they had to turn directly to each other’s territories and consequently there was war in Europe. The war was not about freedom in any sense but about knocking out and subsuming the opposition. Those who died in WW1 did not ‘give their todays for our tomorrows’, but in service of imperial competition.

The end of the First World War set up conditions for the Second World War, 21 years later as an indirect result of the humiliation of Germany and the crippling reparations imposed on it.  The stricture of the post war years on the German people led to their support for Hitler and a Fascist dictatorship.  So, whilst we might argue that WW2 was fought in opposition to the totalitarianism of Fascism, the conditions that led to that ideology taking hold were born as an outcome of that earlier war.

The focus here like Anzac Day itself has been on war and on military casualties but there are two other aspects that we need to consider which Anzac Day ignores and the activists in Wellington were drawing attention to.

It is convenient to ignore civilian casualties but the fact is that war disrupts civil populations and, whilst the modern euphemism ‘collateral damage’ conceals the reality, there are always significant deaths of ordinary people in any conflict.

“We will remember them” but what about the civilian populations whose lives were sacrificed – should we not also remember them or is that too uncomfortable a truth which distracts from the “glory”?

This brings me to the ultimate irony of Anzac Day, which is that instead of being an opportunity to promote peace and avoid the horrors and waste of war, we actually celebrate war. The Anzac Ceremonies are organised along military lines, parades, buglers, military hardware and service personnel or people in military dress, old soldiers and medals all presided over by priests who conveniently ignore the fifth commandment.

“They grow not old as we who are left grow old”.  This ceremony, the pomp and cant that surround it are manifestly ideological.  It is not saying “enough of wars let’s avoid them”, it is saying that there is glory in war and that dying in the service of an incompetent commander may be necessary in service of  “your” country.  These ceremonies are not so much a remembrance of the sacrifice of the dead as keeping alive the ideology of war and the need to be ready for war.  It is the living embodiment of the well known poster featuring Lord Kitchener pointing commandingly  above the legend “Your Country Needs You”.

That’s what you are doing people when you lie to your children about war.

War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!


Welfare Cheats Versus Tax Avoiders

 A story on Fairfax’s Stuff NZ website in July 2013, proclaimed that : more than 3000 alleged welfare cheats receiving a total of $33.7 million a year have been caught in the past six months.”

Shock horror!!  

I came across people who read this as - 3200 benefit cheats scammed the tax payer out of $33.7m.  But, the $33.7m was how much those 3200 people (1948 on unemployment benefit and 559 on sickness benefit) received in benefits - an average of about $10k each - NOT how much they were overpaid.

An article in The Christchurch Press later that year bawled:  "Region's Cheats Scam $1m". 
It stated that 54 people were prosecuted in the 2012-13 financial year for fraudulently claiming a 'whopping $1.3m', which was 'part of the $32m overpaid to welfare cheats nationally'. 

A sidebar detailed six of those 'Welfare Cheats’ - ranging from professional criminals, to two people who had over-claimed an average of $7k a year for 24 years by not revealing they lived together in a marriage-like relationship. 

The article went on to comment on the creation of an offence targeting the partners and spouses of convicted fraudsters. The highly relevant fact that fraudulent claims constitute just 0.15% of the $18bn of income assistance paid annually, was relegated to the penultimate paragraph.  

Roll forward to 2016 and a mother of three was charged with benefit fraud totalling $92k over a period of almost 6 years. The fraud was her failure to declare her partner's income which led to her claiming $15k a year she was not entitled to.  

The Judge informed the woman that he had considered a prison sentence but, as it was her first offence, she had pleaded guilty and had showed the required amount of remorse, he would only impose a sentence of 6 months home detention, plus 100 hours of community work and repayment of $40,000 in weekly instalments of $50 - meaning she will be a debtor for the next 20 years, assuming the MSD do not add interest to that debt. 

There was of course no consideration of the effect of this on her children, on future employment or retraining opportunities, or how it would make her financially dependent on her partner which could cause relationship difficulties.

The emotive language typically used by the media to describe beneficiaries who are charged with fraud cannot be justified either in light of : the claim that a journalist’s job is to just 'report the facts'; the tiny amount of fraud there actually is;  the most common type of fraud, or the way that corporate and personal tax fraud are typically reported.

How many people even know how much detected tax fraud there was last year?  Do we ever see stories headlined ‘Tax cheats scam a whopping $1.2bn"? 

In relation to benefit fraud, there are a few criminals who defraud the public purse by such strategies as creating false identities and claiming from multiple agencies, and there are people who claim benefits while working, or who fail to declare a ‘marriage type’ relationship. 

Some of the latter may be calculated frauds but most are just people who are genuinely struggling to make ends meet. However, they’re all lumped together and labeled as cheats, scammers, scroungers, bludgers and skivers. 

The stereotype of the 'hard-working tax-payer' is set up in opposition to the stereotype of the 'feckless fraudster' who has become acculturated into living out of the public purse.   

Collectively described as a ‘feral underclass' of lazy, feckless, good-for-nothings who waste hard working people’s taxes on junk food, booze, fags and gambling, they are a convenient - and powerless - scapegoat for a society that has lost its social way. 

Among other fabrications, this fails to recognise the simple fact that beneficiaries are also tax payers. 

The sheer absurdity of New Zealand's 'free market' tax system - a complex, costly superstructure that weighs most heavily on the ordinary citizen - is illustrated by the fact that benefits are paid from the state coffers by one arm of the state - the Ministry of Social Development - and taxed by another - the Inland Revenue Department.  How is that anything but a job creation scheme for the Civil Service? 

That taxed income is then taxed further by the imposition of a 15% goods and services tax on EVERYTHING - except rent and gold bullion.  New Zealanders not only pay tax on already taxed income, in light of the fact that such things as central and local government levies and rates are taxed, we pay effectively pay tax on tax. 

The poorest people are the least able to avoid that draconian tax burden.  In truth, they pay a very high proportion of their income in tax.  Very poor people (which the overwhelming majority of beneficiaries are)  will spend ALL of their weekly income so the proportion of that income they pay in tax via GST is far higher than those who have a surplus that they can save.

Many people do not stop to consider how many of the 1 million New Zealanders who receive ‘income assistance’ annually are supernannuants; or how much of that $18bn is paid to superannuants, and that a large amount of that goes directly to the private providers of residential aged care, and is why retirement homes are such an attractive investment option.  

When do we ever see screaming headlines about the owners and investors in the burgeoning aged care sector being parasites on the social body?  On the contrary - we read about how hard it is for them to make a profit (which industry data completely contradicts) and especially so now that they have been forced to increase staff wages.

Where were the shrieks of indignation when it was revealed that William Wales, heir to one of the world’s greatest personal fortunes, was found to be claiming state paternity benefit?  Far from it being seen as inappropriate, the media reported it as entirely proper and further evidence of what a down to earth and ordinary chap he is. It is a wonder the writers of those stories did not suffocate in the clouds of sulphurous sanctimony.

A beneficiary, who is a mother of four, commits a fraud by failing to declare she was in a marriage-type relationship and was jailed for 12 months.  Around the same time a property developer who evaded $1m in tax was punished with a small fine and 12 months home detention.

The courts - the formal ones and the court of public opinion - never stop to consider the fact that a year's home detention in a warm, dry, well equipped, aesthetically pleasing and secure home for someone who has no worries about paying the increased heating bill is a very different sentence from a year's home detention in the typical dwelling of a Kiwi beneficiary - i.e. cold, damp, poorly equipped and expensive to heat. 
There are numerous examples of the different values placed on blue collar and white collar crime and the extremely punitive attitudes towards what is labelled as benefit fraud. 

The sharing of IRD and MSD information makes it more likely that under-reporting of income – ie people receiving more than the permitted $100 a week from paid work - is detected. The other major area of fraud that this sharing of information is intended to show up, is not declaring or under-stating the incomes of people living in the same household.

Given that partners are now also liable to face prosecution, the likelihood is that more poor people will end up in prison – costing the state way more money, directly through the costs of incarceration, and indirectly through the costs of family support.

How would the country react if a similar proposal was made in relation to the partners of tax cheats who will also have benefited from the fraud?

The answer to the question may be found in the fact that in 2012 the Serious Fraud Office announced that, in conjunction with the UK National Fraud Authority, it would complete the first ever 'Cost of Economic Crime Report' in NZ. 

"... in collaboration with the UK National Fraud Authority, the SFO will complete the first-ever the 'Cost of Economic Crime' report. It will be modelled on the UK equivalent, which has become a core source of information for the UK's financial crime strategies in recent years. This report will be linked to a comprehensive analysis of existing resources, agencies, powers and funding currently devoted to economic and financial crime, and the results being achieved. Together they will provide a map of the current fraud landscape and the basis on which government agencies can report back to the Government on future legislative and operational options for fighting economic and financial crime."

But the report did not get to Cabinet and was never released.

The draft report was obtained under the Official Information Act in October 2014 by Radio NZ.  It estimated that the total cost of economic crime was between $6.1bn and $9.4bn or about 4% of the country's GDP.  By far the biggest component of that was an estimated $2 billion a year in tax fraud - compared to $80 million in benefit fraud. 

RNZ said that $2bn is very likely on the light side and other estimates place it at $7bn, and the IRD itself claimed in 2011/2012 that it had detected $1.2 billion in tax evasion. 

The SFO report stated that just over 5% of tax fraud is being detected - compared to over 30% of benefit fraud. Or more accurately perhaps, there is a far greater chance of the MSD reporting and acting upon identified benefit fraud than the IRD identifying, reporting and acting upon tax fraud.

So why was this report never considered by Cabinet; why was RNZ''s exposure of its contents and the spurious nature of the reasons given for it being shelved, not the subject of the same sort of media interest as benefit fraud figures inevitably arouse?

Underpinning the obvious commercial interests is the belief among a large number of  NZers that tax is 'their' money that the government is taking from them - therefore if people try to avoid paying tax that's a legitimate action.  

Beneficiaries on the other hand, take taxes they have not earned so they have no right to that money and taking more than they are entitled to from the state is far worse than shielding your money from the state. 

That is a profoundly asocial attitude and ignores the fact that if we abolished taxation and had a pure 'user pays' system, given the rate and nature of the consumption of goods and services by the affluent and the wealthy, they'd very likely end up paying way more than they currently do in taxation.  

If you are found to have underpaid your tax, unless there is compelling evidence that you submitted a deliberately false claim to get a tax refund or have deliberately under stated your income with the intention of evading tax – you are considered to be a debtor and the IRD will negotiate a repayment schedule with you - which is perfectly fair. 

The same broad principle applies to the MSD except they are much more likely to label over-claiming as fraud and to prosecute – and that is not the only way the two departments treat their clientele differently.
According to a study by Victoria University Associate Professor Lisa Marriott, the notoriously hard-nosed IRD is more likely to write off unpaid tax in the short term than the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) is to let welfare debts slide. The MSD will often keep payment arrears on its books until people retire or die. 

What is not widely known is that the MSD debt includes outstanding loans for essential living expenses that have not been paid back, along with accidental over-payments to beneficiaries – some of which are the department’s fault.

Taxpayers can apply for financial relief from the IRD, but the there’s no similar provision for welfare debtors. The average Kiwi taxpayer was S14,479 in debt to the IRD in 2011/12, while the average indebted welfare beneficiary owed $2,523. Tax debt represented 10 percent of total tax revenue, while welfare debt amounted to 4.1 percent of total social welfare expenditure.
Marriott found that, in the 2011 / 2012, the IRD wrote off nearly 50% of the interest and penalties applied to overdue tax, costing the public purse  $374m.  It waived 11.6% of collectable debt ($435m) while the MSD cancelled just 2.1% of its collectable debt ($8.7m).

And the disparities are widening according to the latest figures released in the course of the inquest into the suicide of a woman who had been threatened with prosecution for benefit fraud. The MSD first downgraded the amount the woman was accused of defrauding from $22k to $5k, then withdrew the allegation completely.
People avoid paying GST, take office supplies, use phones and computers in work time for personal business, do private work in the firm's time, inflate expenses, hide all manner of private expenses in business accounts - and the same people who do that sort of thing are often the loudest in condemning someone on a subsistence income who does a few more hours paid work than they are allowed to before their benefit is cut, or who hides a relationship so their benefit is not cut.
The stereotyping and targeting of the poor and the vulnerable is despicable. It’s a pernicious and destructive form of social bullying.  The ways that government departments and the media behave make it far too easy for some people to let their anger off the leash and put the boot into the poor and marginalised. It takes guts and integrity to challenge the crimes and scams of the rich and powerful. 

Many New Zealanders these days demonstrate way too much bullying and way too little guts and integrity.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Anzac Day : Lest we Forget

Lest we forget

Forget what exactly - the deaths of the young Kiwis in Gallipoli and France?   Or the cynicism and venality of the economic elites, the casual cruelty and gross incompetence of the military elites, and the servile complicity of the political and religious elites which took NZ into that inglorious imperial shambles - and which used it subsequently as a propaganda tool?

The political elite will always act according to its degree of subservience to the economic elite - which is seldom directly affected by war but inevitably profits hugely from it - and according to its relationship to the military elite, which has an obvious interest in perpetuating the conditions in which war is a persistent, imminent threat.

The mourning of war dead is often hijacked by reactionary forces which cynically use people's grief and anger to foment nationalism.  Nationalism can seem to be a genuine love of country but is easily flipped into a hatred of the 'other' - into the jingoism and xenophobia which lay the foundations for yet more wars.  

Around 1 in 10 New Zealanders served overseas in WW1. New Zealand lost 18,000 young men - 1.6% of the total population.  The numbers explain the ubiquity of WW1 war memorials, present in even the tiniest of New Zealand towns.  

A significant number of men who served in the NZEF were born in England, Scotland, Wales and Australia - illustrating the fact that this was the British Empire's war.  

Competing imperial powers were fighting to protect the interests of ruling elites which threw their young men into that nightmarish conflict as casually as they would have shot pheasants or deer.  

At least most of those young New Zealanders who went off to fight for King and Country had the vote. Many of those they fought alongside and against did not even have the right to vote for the governments that stole all or a large part of their lives.

The use of terms like the 'glorious dead', 'sacrifice' and the heavy military symbology of Anzac Day risks turning any commemoration into a glorification of war.   If it is not to glorify and thereby justify war, why is it a military parade?  Why are people who wear the white poppies of peace and conscientious objection, treated as traitors? 

A day to mourn the WW1 dead initially took place in churches and town halls in New Zealand but was taken over by the RSA in the 1920s, supported by the military and politicians, and the services increasingly took place at war memorials with full military trappings. 

The military parades, the laying of wreaths at war memorials, the 'honouring' of the 'glorious' dead, the copying of the dawn service from the Aussies -  all were heavy with military symbology and intended to promote nationalism and to divert people's attention away from the truth - and from revolutionary ideas.

WW2 revived an interest in these militarised rituals. They waned again until the country lurched rightward in the late 1980s - and have steadily increased in popularity ever since.  

Thousands of young Kiwis troop off to Gallipoli as a sort of OE rite of passage and attend dawn parade services without the slightest clue as to why WW1 was fought - or any war for that matter.  

They dutifully express a ritualised and largely meaningless 'sorrow' for the men who died 'protecting our freedoms' despite the fact that WW1 was nothing to do with their 'freedoms'.   It was purely and simply a battle of empires to have the freedom to ride roughshod over the lives and concerns of ordinary people.

The fight against Nazism and Japanese militarism in WW2 was a battle of ideologies as well as competing imperial interests - but there were no clear lines between good and bad in that war either.  

And that was the war that set the pattern for all subsequent wars.  Service personnel,  increasingly buffered by technology, now fight in ways that aim to maximise civilian casualties.  

The shock and awe doctrine was born with the German bombing of cities in the early years of WW2. It grew into a monster when the Allies used carpet bombing with incendiaries against largely civilian targets in Germany and Japan - and it reached its peak horror with the use of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  

Its architects were almost granted their insane wish to direct the atomic bomb against the USSR when Japan surrendered, but fortunately they were over-ruled by people who had seen into the abyss and were terrified of it.

Proponents of the doctrine re-emerged and stomped across South-East Asia, unleashing massive conventional bombardments and spraying millions of litres of toxic agents.  They thundered across the Middle East - the US-led attack on Iraq involved 42 days of the greatest ever airborne bombardment in the history of warfare; and, most recently,  the Demented Ones used the largest ever single bomb in the history of warfare in Afghanistan - allegedly to kill a few insurgents but in truth to terrorise civilians, there and across the world.

On Anzac Day the mourners never talk about the estimated 6 - 7 million civilian casualties of WW1, or the 50-55 million in WW2 - people killed directly and who died as a result of disease and privation caused by the war.  Nor do they refer to the millions of civilian deaths in the myriad wars since, or the millions who will die if we do not mend our leaders'  cruel and murderous ways.

Nor do they speak much of the billions of non-humans that have died as a result of war - except to paint some sentimentalised gloss over the ones they profess to care about. 

The dead are dead. What matters is why and how they died and what value we, the living, place on that, what lessons we learn and apply. 

To me, the best way to honour the war dead is to dispense with the military and religious rituals and symbology and turn the commemorations into a secular expression of mourning for ALL victims of war with the emphasis on ensuring PEACE-  now and in the future. 

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Writes and Wrongs of a Matter

Ah, the trials and tribulations of social media.  A few weeks ago - a lifetime in the land of social media - Idris Elba, an internationally celebrated British actor, agreed to be part of a competition to raise money for an African girls’ charity. The sexualised premise of the competition was to win a date with him on Valentine's Day and featured the actor saying to the panting masses, 'I'll let you pound my yams.' 

In far away New Zealand, a white, married, middle class mother wrote a blog post in response to the advert, in the style of ‘a liberal feminist’s version of how a laddish bloke might write about a woman he fancies'  - and a load of folk started running around proclaiming the sky had fallen. 

I only came across Emily Writes' piece (which, it seems, no longer exists) because a gay man on Twitter made a caustic comment about the quality of the writing.  Emily fired back an equally insulting rejoinder and was then supported by some women who piled in and kicked the cyber-shit out of him.

I think it's fair to say that had liberal social media’s bĂȘte blanc -  a cis/het, white, middle class man - written about a black female actor in the way Emily Writes wrote about Idris Elba, he’d have been lucky to come away with his yams intact. But it’s become almost de rigeur these days for women to think that behaving like blokes is sexual liberating.  

The rationale is that it’s ok for women to behave towards men in the same ways that men have behaved towards women because women’s sexuality has been denied, suppressed and deformed within various forms of phallocratic rule for millennia and behaving as men have done is a way of reversing the power polarity and regaining female sexual agency. 

I get a tad annoyed with that, in the same way as I get annoyed with women who think that feminism is simply about ensuring they have legal and economic equality within a social system that is inherently oppressive and exploitative of vast swathes of people.   That was the mindset of the white, middle class British suffragists who, in 1914, stopped agitating for the vote for women in order to support an imperial war in which millions of disenfranchised working class men were sent off to die or be maimed.

I’m a different generation of social activist so I find the whole girls being laddish thing annoying.  Call me old fashioned, but the idea surely is for women to work together and form alliances to create a different and a better way to conduct all the many facets of the business of living - not to simply seek ‘equality’ with their male peers within viciously stratified and exploitative social arrangements that for the most part have been created by, and for men of wealth and power.

But then I’m a grumpy old socialist feminist so I would think that wouldn’t I? 

The first thing I thought when I read Emily’s post was what the hell makes women think that behaving like men behaving badly is making a stand for female equality; the second thing, which arrived hot on the heels of the first, was that she was completely oblivious to the race dimension. 

OK the ad which provoked Emily to write the post invited that sort of response but what Emily forgot is that, in the current hierarchy of oppression, white still trumps all – especially when it’s affluent and educated white women whose only competitors for most privileged creatures on the planet are white, affluent and educated men. So, when a white, educated and affluent woman objectifies and stereotypes a black man – the usual gender dynamic shifts a little on its axis.

It's stating the blindingly obvious that the mismanagement of the complex intersection of all the factors of identity can, and often does, cause all manner of damaging collisions.  Emily was so busy fantasising about having sex with Elba, she drove too fast into that intersection, failed to give way to the right of black people not to be sexually objectified by white people – and crash.

Emily had her bad driving pointed out to her in a post by Lana Lopesi and she publicly apologised for her ‘racism’.  Much self-congratulation ensued on social media  about the actual operation of intersectionality - as opposed to reading about the theory of it -and everyone learned a bit and moved on as better people, less likely to offend. Or so we hope.

Lana Lopesi’s post made some very good points - and some not so good ones. 

Lopesi suggests that it is good for women to publicly sexualise men as a way of regaining sexual agency (I assume she has accounted for factors of age, race, affluence etc) but, just as men cannot publicly sexualise women without reinforcing male privilege and power, white people cannot publicly sexualise black people without reinforcing white privilege and power.  By publicly sexualising Elba as a black man, Emily trapped him in her 'oppressive white gaze' and was therefore guilty of being racist.  

By that logic, had a black man publicly sexualised a white woman, that would be ok because his male privilege would be cancelled out by his lack of privilege as a black man. The knots in the logic tie themselves. 

In support of her argument, Lopesi referred to the twin stereotypes of the hyper-sexualised black woman and the black male rapist.  

Angela Davis writes compellingly about how those potent racist stereotypes were used as calculated instruments of terror, providing the fuel for acts of unspeakable horror perpetrated by white people against black people during the American Jim Crow era, and providing the ideological underpinnings of equally unspeakable acts of judicial murder.

Davis quotes a chilling statistic in her book Women, Race and Class – it is one I have quoted a number of times : of the 454 men executed on the basis of a rape conviction in the USA between 1930 and 1968, 405 were black, i.e.  10% of the population and 90% of the executions for rape for the simple and horrible fact that black men were more likely to be accused of rape, charged with and found guilty of it, and more likely to be sentenced to death for it.

Similar negative stereotypes have existed in other cultures – but the sheer power and spread of American culture has meant that the USA’s vicious dehumanising stereotypes of black people are especially potent.

So – when a woman having a little keyboard fantasy about an attractive black man – in which she breathlessly writes about his 'big hands' (and we all know what that means), claims he’d ‘fuck like a champ’ and ‘throw down like he’s seconds away from a gold medal’, that he’s a ‘grindsman’ and ‘a stud’ –(if she’d bothered to look up the meaning of the former she’d have realised that was a tautology) -  she’s come perilously close to creating the racist stereotype of a black man as a penis with legs.

It is a stereotype that some men play up to and Elba chose to go along with the fundraising idea and chose to overtly sexualise himself. He is also a mature, rich and successful actor, supported, advised and protected by a small army of agents and PR people - so to argue that when a white woman responded to him sexually, he became the hapless black prisoner of an oppressive white gaze, is over-egging the theoretical and political omelette.

However, the truth is that many black men have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of those and other negative stereotypes and that is a fact white people need to always have at the forefront of their political consciousness.

Was Emily being racist?  I knew there’d be people who would think she was and she should have been alert to that possibility but she was on a wee high from indulging in a fantasy that she thought appropriate to share with the world  - not because it was great writing or it was striking a blow for the liberation of women – but because it was fun and it would attract readers. She may be accused of being thoughtless, self-absorbed and enjoying doing what blokes have been allowed to do since time immemorial– but I don't think she was being racist.  

Racism - as a term to denote the operation of an ideology that has been a key underpinning of a viciously destructive and cruelly exploitative social system – is far too important a concept to be used lightly. Applying it indiscriminately risks emptying of political meaning and content. If you call the likes of Emily a racist for publicly lusting after a black man who put his celebrity and his sexuality on a plate and invited the women of the world to partake of it - how do you distinguish between her behaviour and that of a vicious white supremacist? 

Lopesi made the claim that black people have been oppressed for thousands of years which is not true, nor is the oppression of black people or more widely, people of colour, absolute or the same for all of them across the whole of recorded history.  Nor can the experiences of black Americans be extrapolated to all peoples of African extraction and especially not to all people of colour.

Peoples of colour built great civilisations, made great discoveries and they conquered and enslaved other peoples.  Uncomfortable though it might be for those who want to paint a monochrome picture of a white oppression of all people of colour since time immemorial, the history of imperial expansion and colonisation and the oppression and subjugation of conquered peoples and use of them as slaves is not exclusive to Europeans.  The Arabs had a thriving slave trade which was both precursor to and provided expertise for the European trade. The Ottoman empire was based on slavery, a great many of them provided by the Crimean Khanate which enslaved an untold number of people from Russian and the Ukraine and further afield in Europe over the course of centuries. The capacity to be rapacious, oppressive and cruel towards other human beings is not confined to white men however convenient it might be to use them as the scapegoat for the world's ills.

Lopesi also argues there is no such thing as reverse racism ie people of colour cannot be racist although they might be prejudiced – which is different.  It is a fact that in the current world order, the ability to harness racial prejudice to power and use it to disadvantage others lies mostly with peoples of European extraction, and so it has been for several centuries.  However, that will change and the new order will be just as unfairly discriminatory, exploitative and oppressive - unless the structural bases that allow people to harness unfair prejudices to power are changed. 

Prejudice in favour of paler complexions existed in various cultures long before Europeans dreamt up the idea of a hierarchy of races, with them at the top, to justify their enslavement and exploitation of peoples of colour.  A weathered complexion was the mark of a person who laboured in some way or other - only those who had others to labour for them could keep the paler, softer skins they were born with. The seeds of European classificatory racism fell on the fertile soil of ancient class divisions.

Finally, there is another element to this - one which underpins rape culture - and that is the notion that men have uncontrollable sexual urges, that they cannot look at a woman without wanting to have sex with her.

What was Emily doing but indulging in just that notion, that good sex is the ‘throw down’ - which has become the staple of modern entertainment - people so much in the grip of an uncontrollable sexual urge they frantically rip each other's clothes off, stumbling and fumbling their hormonally driven way to the nearest table, wall, bed or floor.  It accompanies other modern entertainment sexual staples which, more often than not, involve women on their knees or bent over with their buttocks raised. 

Women thinking that two can play that game – that they can recapture their sexual agency and control by being blokeish – is just so wrong-headed. Men created that ideological arena – they created the ‘battle of the sexes’ – they created the phallocracy and they have reaped the bulk of the benefits that have flowed from it. So why enter the phallocracy’s sexual arena? Why not break it down and build an entirely new one?