Monday, 11 July 2016

On Brexit

Short attention span warning :  this is a long post and will take several minutes to read.

A meme popped up on my Facebook page just after the Brexit result was announced. It was described by the poster as the ‘most intellectual and eloquent piece about Brexit’ he had read. I hope he's gone on to read more widely since.

The writer of the snippet claimed it was the ‘working classes’ who voted for the UK to leave and that is sad as they will be worst hit by the fallout because they have 'exchanged one distant and unreachable elite whose governance results in a dearth of jobs and investment for another’.

Given the lament was about the tragedy' of Britain leaving the EU – it could be interpreted that the distant and unreachable elite they rejected was the European parliament and the EU’s vast bureaucracy but I assume the writer was referring to the Johnson / Farage / Gove cabal versus the Cameron cabal.

The writer did not even admit the possibility of Britain voting in a progressive government after leaving the EU i.e. getting rid of all distant and unreachable elites whose governance results in a dearth of jobs and investment.  After all, the UK does not need the EU to protect workers rights, it just needs to vote in a government that will stand up to the bosses and the banks. It does not need the EU to pass laws that safeguard the environment or protect the rights of women and minorities - it just needs to vote in a government that will do those things. 

Of course whether it would be permitted to do so by the political and financial forces that would be arrayed against any move to a more progressive and rational system of governance and production - forces which include the EU as it is currently structured  -  is another question. 

The writer also lamented the fate of a generation of young people who are ‘drowning in the debts of (their) predecessors’.  To stick with the aquatic theme, whilst there is a large cohort of young people who are drowning because they’re in deep water and no-one taught them to swim, quite a few of those who claim to be to be drowning because they can’t get on the property ladder as easily as their parents or grandparents did, will inherit the assets those forebears acquired during their working lives.  

Far from drowning, quite a few of the younger generation in Britain and here in NZ - and I suspect a large proportion of those who are waving most frantically - are actually just standing in knee deep water and are wearing life jackets. 

I do agree with the writer of the snippet - anti-intellectualism is scary but so’s a culture of pseudo intellectual headupbuttism. If you want to pontificate about the leave vote being the outcome of Britain having become a post factual democracy characterised by a prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism - then less of the glib ascription of a whole generation economic advantage / disadvantage please. However superficially attractive generational labels are, not all older people own their own homes and have property or share portfolios to buffer their retirement. 

                                                    *  *  *  *  *   *  *  *  *

I lived in Britain through the notorious 'winter of discontent.' I watched British squaddies with their green goddesses fight a house fire next door to mine during the 1977 firefighters' strike. I  watched the country lurch to the right and elect Thatcher.  I watched in horror as sections of the British public slid into xenophobic blood lust during the Falklands debacle.  I remember joking with friends when the Tories started to sell off state owned assets, that the next thing would be they'd privatise water.  The joke was on us. Little did we know what the neo-liberals had in mind for us. The 1984 Miners' strike and Wapping brought that into sharper relief. 

I was politically active enough to have my application for British citizenship denied in 1984 (auspicious or what?) despite being married to a British citizen and being a law abiding, employed, tax paying person in my own right. When I applied to find out the reasons why, I was told they were to be kept secret 'in the interests of state security'.  I must point out that this was way more a measure of the depths of the Thatcher regime's anti-left paranoia than of my political significance.

When Tony Blair led the Labour Party to victory in 1996 there was such relief at the end of the loathed Tory rule, even those of us who had watched his smooth and rapid rise with some disquiet, were happy.  It did not take long for reality to kick in. Blair was Thatcher revisited - without the crazy megalomaniac eyes. They came later. Blair was to be the good cop to Thatcher's mad, bad cop to disguise the fact that the neo-libs were still in charge. The underlying agenda was the same, but there was a smooth icing on the top making it look superficially more attractive.

And there was Europe - with its requirements to widen legislation against discrimination, to ensure equal treatment, to limit maximum working hours and grant paid annual leave, to enact health and safety legislation in workplaces (albeit making much of it workers' responsibility) and to extend limited employment rights to part-time and temporary workers.  

The European Courts had provided a safety net in the vertigo-inducing days of rampant Thatcherism. The threat of taking unfair treatment claims to the European courts went some way to keeping racists and unscrupulous, exploitative employers in line and allowed workers in more progressive areas of employment to protect pay and conditions of service and sometimes even improve them. 

It seemed like a beacon of fairness and decency and international cooperation. 

The move towards the European Union as being openly an arm of global corporate capitalism has been steady and undeniable but for some people, the essentially pro big business, anti trade union and anti democratic nature of the EU is still obscured by its rhetoric and its stand on certain aspects of human rights. 

There are four essential 'freedoms' enshrined in the EU Treaty: the freedom of the movement of capital and of labour; and the freedom for businesses in one EU country to operate in, and to provide services to, any of the member states.  

Removing restrictions on the movement of capital was the first shot fired by the Thatcher regime. It signalled the neo-libs' intent.  The free movement of labour principle seems like a progressive idea and it does work to the benefit of certain workers - mostly it must be said, people who don't see themselves as workers.  It has also been the means by which some workers can be exploited as cheap labour and the use of that cheap labour has allowed employers to push down wages and conditions and undermine collective bargaining. 

Although the right to collective bargaining is protected as a fundamental right within the EU, the right of an employer to run a business invariably takes precedence over workers' rights to contractual benefits that have been gained through collective bargaining. Time after time the EU has come down in favour of employers and against workers in the area of trade union agreements.  

The role of the EU as a facilitator for corporate capitalism has been thrown into starker relief by secretive free trade agreements which aim to reduce regulatory barriers for big business in areas such as banking regulations, the environment and food safety. The daddy of all free trade agreements is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the twin brother of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement  (TPPA).

The negotiations exclude most of the people they will affect but open the doors to powerful industry lobbyists. The TTIP and TPPA have the potential to undermine the democratic authority of governments.The essentially undemocratic nature of the negotiations signals a dangerous erosion of fundamental rights and freedoms.  

The argument for the likes of the TTIP is that the current social and financial system which runs the world is robust, rational and well ordered.  It has declared itself to be the most efficient, effective, economic and, by virtue of being global, the most equitable way that governance and trade can be arranged. 

But when Britain, a country which has always kept one foot out of the EU by virtue of keeping a separate currency, voted to opt out of the EU,  the global markets went into immediate meltdown.  Billions were wiped off the stock market; the pound slumped and the pundits all predicted a world shaking recession.  

Why?  Why would a system that claims to be the most robust, rational, efficient, economic and effective possible go pear shaped so instantly and so massively because of a non-binding democratic referendum?

The answer may be that within the deep structural fissures of the capitalist finance system there are myriad opportunities for people to make vast profits when the markets are volatile.  After having created a period of hysteria during which some people make a lot of money and others get a kicking - miraculously the markets restabilise.

Not only do some people get to make a load of money but the fear and uncertainty that is unleashed drives many people towards authoritarian governance.  They turn to those who have proclaimed themselves to be fiscally responsible - in contrast to the spendthrifts who want to waste money on social housing, free healthcare and education instead of on armaments, massive salaries and bonuses for the technocrats and tax cuts and open slather for the corporatocracy.

We all know that the trickle down of benefits to the base promised by the propagandists for global corporate capitalism, is all smoke and mirrors.  It's an illusion which serves to obscure the flow down of detriments which, in a crisis, can gather so much force it destroys whole swathes of the poorest and the most vulnerable - sometimes even affecting those who are relatively privileged.  

Relatively privileged people like the woman who wrote angrily about Brexit because she will not be able 'to buy the house in the sun' she planned for her retirement; because the value of her house has dropped, her food will cost more, and her son will not be able to live and work freely in any one of 28 countries. 

There's a lot of bemoaning the loss of employment and other rights for the younger generation of Britons. What's actually meant are the reduction of opportunities for the educationally and socially advantaged to sell their labour in the small number of the 28 European economies that have the sort of jobs such people want.  The fact that most of the EU countries are exporting labour, not importing it, is ignored.

The people doing the loudest moaning mostly avert their privileged gaze away from the flood of impoverished people imported into the EU's powerful economies to work for low wages and in poor conditions - the fruit and vegetable pickers, the labourers on construction sites, the sex workers, the industrial and the domestic cleaners, the shelf packers - the literal and the figurative shit shovelers

The world outside the bubbles of relative privilege is heaving with people who are living at or below subsistence. There are millions of EU citizens whose life choices are circumscribed by massive structural inequalities that have resulted in poor education and health, inadequate or non-existent housing, unemployment or underemployment, and disproportionate rates of incarceration. These are people for whom travel, the wider range of foods, the cheap wine, the holidays and the second homes - are not just unattainable but are like salt in many deep wounds.

It's as if the rainbows on the surface of the bubbles of privilege have obscured the ugly reality of the world outside because how else could the privileged not have noticed how awful it actually is for a very large proportion of their fellow Britons and their fellow Europeans – not to mention the rest of the world’s poor and oppressed?  

And how could they not have noticed there was a large and vicious racist underbelly about to pop out of the nation's trousers? 

On Facebook someone posted a pictorial representation of the results of Brexit:  a photo of a table on which there were a load of 'European' goods grouped in one corner - cheese, wine, danish pastry etc - and on the other side of the table, a tin of baked beans.  I thought it was funny until I stopped to consider the number of people for whom a tin of baked beans may well be representative of the sorts of food they can afford to buy. 

Choice is meaningless without the means of exercising it.

The self-proclaimed spokespeople of the 48% who voted to remain depict the 52% who voted to leave, as provincial, stupid, parochial, racist, beer swilling, baked bean eating,  xenophobes. They see themselves as sophisticated, cosmopolitan, well informed, progressive internationalists - veritable guardians of the enlightenment.

What those caricatures obscure is that among the 52%, along with rabid and not so rabid right wingers, were people of colour, principled left wingers and decent working class people who are deeply disillusioned by the whole political system.  And in the 48% were the likes of David Cameron and his cabal,  the entire Blairite faction of the Labour Party and other people who did not and still don't give a toss about the impoverished peoples of their own country or the rest of Europe.  

The vicious lies of the Brexit campaign derailed the debate and obscured the fact that the EU is no longer a progressive entity.  In the context of the referendum, to question the EU, to argue the case for leaving was to stand alongside a bunch of racists and xenophobes.  

However disgusting many in the leave camp are, the fact remains that the EU has shown that it is prepared to interfere in, and override democratic decisions of member states; that it is as anti-nationalisation as it is pro-austerity, and that it will collude in the undermining of workers' rights by making loans conditional upon labour market 'reforms' which invariably strengthen capital at the expense of labour.

Where the EU once passed laws that protected workers' rights,  it now requires a free movement of labour which permits the hyper-exploitation of workers by hand inside the richer economies, and strips the poorer economies of many of its skilled workers by hand and by brain.  It spouts rhetoric that appears to be internationalist and progressive but in truth is little more than a pleasant flavoured froth on top of a toxic brew of neo-liberalism.  The dulcet tones of the EU’s human rights rhetoric do not drown out the sound of NATO's sabres being rattled on Europe's eastern borders – leastways not to those of us who have good hearing.

When it comes to the EU I see austerity measures that hit poor people hardest. I see collusion with the IMF's economic blackmail and NATO's war mongering. I see interference in democratic processes in member states. I see a coating of apparently progressive laws that serve to obscure a primary role of ensuring the smooth functioning of global markets  that are controlled by and for global elites.

I do not see the EU as a force for good, for progress, for internationalism any more than I see the likes of Johnson, Gove and Farage, Cameron and the Blairite faction of the British Labour Party as having the back of the working class  - unless it's to stand on. 

I have spent my entire adult life standing up against racism in all its ugly forms. I would have struggled to vote leave because of some of the people I'd have been voting with and what their rhetoric risked unleashing. I'd have been equally appalled at voting to remain because of some of the people who I'd be voting with and what they have already unleashed on the world and what they are planning for the future. 

To typify the leave voters as racist, gullible, parochial idiots and the stay voters as disinterested, well informed guardians of a united Europe and all things progressive and good reduces a complex situation to a crude caricature.  It’s as crude a caricature in its own way as those painted by the right-wingers who, to further their own political ambitions, tapped into a wellspring of racism and xenophobia - a wellspring they have been party to creating.

The people behind the inflammatory and ugly anti-immigration propaganda of the leave campaign loosed a pack of attack dogs that the ruling elites in Britain and Europe have bred and fed.  The pack comprises not just white power pudding-heads, but the cynical and vicious rabble rousers in the media and reactionary forces within the various arms of the state.  

The dogs were intended to intimidate and divert political opponents and to terrify the vulnerable but what those who hold the leashes always forget is that, having tasted blood, the dogs may not come back to heel.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Nation's Interest

172 British Labour Party MPs have called for Jeremy Corbyn to resign on the grounds that he did not do enough to ensure LP members voted to remain in the EU.  

So, not what he did do, but what he failed to do, i.e. the reason the country is in a total shambles and the self-proclaimed centre has been left with egg on its face and people in Europe are laughing at them, is all down to him. 

The 172 are backed by the likes of Cameron - that vile, duplicitous example of over privileged windbaggery - who also says it is 'in the nation's interest for Corbyn to go. 

Like he has any idea whatsoever about what is in the nation's interest.

Some of those 172 Labour MPS will be responding to peer pressure; some will want to be on the winning side; some will personally dislike Corbyn; some will have been bought off with promises of future political or other benefits; some will be embarrassed by having a bike riding, bearded, principled socialist as their leader, and some will be calculating ideologues who want to drag the party firmly back to the political centre, aka the right.

They all overtly or tacitly support a political system in which two major rightwing parties compete against each other - creating circuses, cults of personality and promoting tribal loyalties to con the electorate into believing they have real political choice. In truth that political system is about ensuring conditions in which global corporate capitalism can operate feely and without having to adjust itself to changes in political direction every 3 to 5 years. 

They knew Corbyn was between a rock and a hard place on Brexit - that like any principled and thinking person he has serious reservations about the EU and its role as a hand servant of neo-liberalism, US imperialism and militarism, and that he sees free movement of labour as being about the ability of business to access cheap labour and to undermine organised labour in more subtle ways than the sledgehammer approach of the likes of Thatcher.

Like any politician, Corbyn has had to compromise. He swallowed his personal beliefs and he stood the party line of remain in the EU and try to negotiate a better deal for Britain. He unconditionally deplored the vile racist and xenophobic lies of the leaders of the Leave campaign and its many supporters in the Tory Party and the media. He stood as firm to his principles as it possible for a mainstream politician and leader of a deeply divided party could. And anyone who thinks that is easy has never been involved in politics. 

Had the Remain camp won they'd probably still have used Brexit as a stick to beat him with but, perhaps by having been so embarrassed by their unexpected defeat, they've added tones of hysteria and unrestrained vitriol to their calls for him to go. 

That they can turn away from attacking the Tories who stage managed this cruelly divisive fiasco and who are in total disarray, and choose instead to publicly eviscerate their democratically elected leader is almost beyond comprehension. 

BBC Newsnight reported that 45 of the 50 Labour Party constituency chairs they contacted support Corbyn and are furious with the revolting MPs.  Clearly there is a chasm between the grass roots of the Labour Party and the MPs it has selected.  

If I was a member of the LP in Britain I would struggle to stay if Corbyn is ousted. I would be torn between the need to fight to retain the name, the history and the resources of the Labour party and the need to send a message to the Labour light/right that more than ever, there needs to be a strong, united, principled opposition to the short termist, profligate, war mongering, self serving forces which currently are spinning the world into an uncontrollable nose dive. 

Over the top? No. Not even close to the top. In the context of the world as it is today and what it will become unless radical changes are made now, the top is so up there we can't even see it.

More than ever before in their ignoble history,  the Blairites and the spineless fellow travellers who have attached their self interest to the Blairite bandwagon have demonstrated they are Bogus Labour Advancing Indefensible Rightwing Ideology To Eliminate Socialism. 

It's time they did the decent thing and resigned - in the interests of the nation.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Dancing Horses

You may have seen the video of the 'dancing horse' - Blue Hors Matine - the Danish grey mare which came second in the freestyle dressage at the 2006 WEG.  Matine was a glorious horse and mostly excused her trade mark tail swinging - a sign of tension which should result in loss of marks - by judges and audience alike because of how expressive her movement was and because she was white and fans of equestrian sports do so love a white horse. 

Marine had a meteoric rise to the top and a spectacular fall after just one season of competition at Grand Prix.  She was retired at the age of 10 and put down at the age of 13 after a field accident in which she broke her carpal joint (the anatomical equivalent of the human wrist). She had been retired to stud after straining her pastern when she slipped off the ramp of a transporter, and never came right.  It's a common enough story. 

Lots of people see the video - it is the most commonly viewed equestrian video on YouTube - and most think it's an example of rider and horse in perfect harmony, the peak of equestrianism.  But there's a dark side to all equestrian sports, and one that gets darker the higher up you go largely because more money and ego are involved. 

Matine's rider, Andreas Helgstrand, was a proponent of 'rolkur'. This training method relies on extreme hyperflexion of the horse's neck with the alleged aim of building up the muscles of the 'topline'.   It is highly controversial.  Opponents of it argue it is cruel and damaging to the horse; advocates and proponents of it argue it is a perfectly safe form of exercise when performed by skilled riders. 

Dressage is supposed to be the 'highest expression of horse training', progressing through stages to the highest possible level, Grand Prix.  The outline demanded of the advanced dressage horse is derived from the horse's natural display postures - i.e. arching the neck, and elevating and /or lengthening the stride. The advanced dressage horse has to be - i.e. it is a requirement of the FEI - worked in a double bridle in competition. That's two bits attached to two sets of reins.  The single jointed snaffle element has a nutcracker action and is judged to be less severe; the solid curb bit has a chain that runs under the chin which tightens when pressure is applied to the rein, and has a lever action on the tongue and lower jaw occasioned by the bit's long shanks. The pressure that can be exerted on the jaw, tongue and chin by even moderate rider action can be extreme. 

The picture above is a close up of a horse being worked in by Andreas Helgstrand at a competition.  The way the horse's nose is wrinkling and the fact his mouth is open indicate he was in some distress.  The fact that his tongue is blue is as a result of the loss of blood flow because of the pressure of the curb bit. That, and spur marks on the horse's flanks, evoked international outrage and resulted in Helgstrand facing cruelty charges. 

Helgstrand was acquitted of animal cruelty although he was judged by the Danish Dressage Federation to have been using the double bridle and aids 'inappropriately'.   The spur marks were judged by a vet not to have caused the horse harm but the question that was not asked or answered by the vets or the courts was, is why did a supreme equine athlete need to be spurred so heavily? 

The answer may be that the horse was in pain from the bone spurring the vet found on the right side of the animal's lower jaw, which would have been caused by repeated pressure and concussion from the bits. It may also have been that he was in oxygen debt because of the impairment of his respiration - both from having an open and wet mouth, and having his head cranked into a posture that, in effect, almost pinched his airway shut. 

This is another Grand Prix rider employing hyper flexion when working in a horse before a competition.

Anyone who knows anything about the horse's anatomy and physiology knows that extreme hyperflexion both inhibits breathing and prevents the horse from seeing where it is going. It is a simple anatomical fact that when the horse has its nose 'behind the vertical'  i.e. it is 'over bent', it cannot see properly, nor can it breathe efficiently. The physiology is simple so there is no excuse for how often and how utterly it is misunderstood - to the horse's detriment.

Horses at liberty adopt display postures only briefly.  All horses when exercising at liberty have a closed and dry mouth because the more the horse exercises, the more air it needs. When the horse is exercising it does not want to be producing large amounts of saliva because of the fact that it - like us - cannot breathe and swallow at the same time.  Unlike us, the horse can only breathe through its nose.When it needs to maximise air intake, it swallows what is in its mouth and closes its mouth firmly  which ensures its oesophagus is fully closed off and its airway is fully opened. It flares its nostrils and stretches its head forward which ensures a smooth flow of air into its lungs. Its body is in exercise mode - i.e. adrenaline and cortisol are being produced to kick start and fuel activity and saliva production stops - the mouth is closed and dry. Saliva and/or food in the mouth when breathing heavily means there is a risk of breathing fluid or solids into the lungs  which would result in a severe coughing fit in the short term and aspiration pneumonia in the longer term. 

Put simply, a closed dry mouth ensures no choking and the full opening of the airway. An elongated neck and flared nostrils means the passage of air to the the lungs is maximised. You have only to look at the way the horse stretches its neck down and forward when is is galloping - going flat out - or when it is recovering from extreme exertion to see how important that anatomical arrangement is. 

A bit interferes with those processes by creating confusing signals - i.e. unless the horse is in a state of panic, the presence of something in the mouth provokes autonomic saliva production. Horsey folk are told is a sign of 'the horse 'accepting' the bit which means that the horse is not panicking but is experiencing competing autonomic signals: something in mouth = produce saliva to aid mastication and digestion; exercising =  need for closed, dry mouth to maximise efficient respiration and avoid aspiration of saliva or food particles.

The reason that ALL dressage tests from beginners to advanced have periods of extended or free walk in them are to allow the horse to regain its breath because the head posture required of the dressage horse - even when technically perfect, i.e. the nose being on or slightly in front of the vertical - restricts the airway. It also inhibits vision. The horse raises its head to focus on distant objects and lowers its head to focus on anything close to it. The more 'over bent' the horse's head is, the less it can see - its vision is restricted to what is immediately in front of its front feet.  

Being released from a position of severely restricted vision and air intake is the reward associated with the pressure of hyperflexion.  Hyperflexion is not about building up the top line, it is all about domination. 

The horse was and remains a potent status symbol. The image of the prancing horse, a powerhouse of brute strength and energy held in check by the rider's hands on the reins is one beloved of ordinary folk as well as megalomaniacs and those who portrayed them in stone, bronze and on canvas. To my eye, these statues below depict horses that are in pain and terror. There is no excuse for this these days.

In case you are tempted to think that cruelty cloaked by tradition is confined to the upper echelons of dressage - think again. This piece of abject grossness below is American saddlebred showing - and there are equally vile and routine abuses of horses in reining and rodeo, in show jumping and eventing and horse racing. 

If you want to see how a Grand Prix dressage horse will choose to position its head when ridden without a bit - this is a demonstration by Polish rider Andrzej Slack. 

Clean, green, hmmm.

We went for a walk up the south branch of the Kowai river a couple of weeks ago.  For those who don't know this small river, it rises on the flanks of Maukatere-Mount Grey, splits into two branches and carves a route to the sea just north of Leithfield Beach village. It often dries up in the summer, sometimes going dry several kilometres inland.  Even when it is flowing, by the time it gets close to the sea it's so shallow and warm and turgid, much of its stoney bed is coated in various forms of algae. 

A couple of years ago there was a massive flood in the Kowai.  Very heavy rain in the foothills after a very wet autumn combined with the extensive clear felling of the exotic pine forest on the lower slopes of Maukatere.  The north branch of the Kowai rejoins the larger south branch a few hundred metres above the SH1 bridge at Leithfeld. By that point the flood was like a lahar -a torrent of massive boulders, trees, shingle and mud that once it subsided, had raised the river bed by a metre. 

Up above what we call the top ford on Marshman's Road, the damage from that flood is still raw and impressive. At one point the waters would have reached almost 4 metres above the current bed.  Huge deposits of yellow and blue clay litter the river bed and everywhere there's an ugly tangle of downed willows.  The fallen leaves of the willows that line the banks clog the stream, which was still very low despite recent rain.  Because the area in the headwaters is a mass of gorse, the flood brought down masses of seed and the river bed is sprouting a forest of the vile stuff.

What struck us as we wandered along was there was no bird song. We get used to the background chatter of birds on our own property but the Kowai was almost completely silent. 

As we walked along I could not help but feel anger and grief at what this sad little river once would have been.  

Maukatere was once covered in east coast beech forest.  The Kowai river would have risen amongst this forest with its complex understory of small trees, shrubs, flaxes, ferns, mosses and lichens and wound through bush on its way to its estuary where it formed lagoons and wetlands rich in fish and bird life. Its waters, filtered through the bush, would have been pristine. 

Now we have a largely denuded estuary, choked with gravel and exotic tree debris. The river bed along almost its entire length is choked with gravel and mud and festooned with the scars of gravel extraction and the tracks of various off road vehicles which use it as a playground.  It is full of pine and willow debris from the flood and gorse and broom and a host of other exotic weeds.  Its banks are lined with wildling pine, willow and poplar hybrids with blackberry, old man's beard, ivy and convolvulus choking the life out of any native that tries to reestablish itself or which people have planted in attempts to restore a little of what once was there.

It's pretty ugly. 

And when you emerge on the edge of the commercial pine forest that was sold to Ngai Tahu as part of the Treaty of Waiting settlement (*) and has recently been clear felled, it goes beyond ugly. It looks like a war zone - which, in a manner of speaking, it is.  The flanks of the bare mountain are scarred by the run off from those heavy rains 2 years ago. Deep gashes that were once bush lined gullies, will continue to pour clay and shingle and boulders down into the Kowai in heavy rain.   

Pinus radiata is not a pretty tree en masse and it pours its toxins into the soils beneath it to deter competitors. Not much likes to grow under densely planted pine trees and when you plant vast forests of them you create an environment that is hostile to most plants and animals.  Gorse will cope though - give it a bit of light and it will colonise and - as it seeds several times a year in NZ and its seed is almost indestructible - it spreads with astonishing speed and vigour. If you've ever burned gorse you'll know that it's also highly flammable. 

Someone once said to me when they were looking at my heap of composting horse and sheep poo that, given I grow native plants, I wouldn't need to use it because natives don't need such rich compost.  That struck me at the time as not just wrong factually but also a metaphor for a lot of what is wrong with NZ. 

That person never stopped to consider that the NZ bush is largely evergreen and foliage tends to be quite fibrous and slow to rot down; that it evolved in symbiosis with an vast array and number of birds, and that the deep litter on the forest floor would have been heavily fertilised by bird droppings which are full of readily accessible nitrogen - among other nutrients.  I wonder how much the vitality of our remaining bush is affected by the loss of its bird life.  

I look at Maukatere with its numerous scars and the tiny remnants of its once glorious beech forest and bush and think what a wonder it would be to regenerate it, to turn this symbol of all that is wrong about NZ into a beacon of hope for a greener and more sustainable, planet-friendly future. 

Over to you Ngai Tahu.  

*Ngai Tahu bought the Ashley Forest then a Crown asset, freehold at market value in 1989 as part of the deed of settlement, and granted Carter Holt Harvey long-term forestry rights which were assigned to Matariki in 2005.  Ngai Tahu owns the land and Rayonier manages the Ashley Forest for Matariki Forests which is part owned by Rayonier.  The Department of Conservation manages the top of the mountain, the tiny remnant of native bush at Lake Janet and the tracks which lead up to the lake and the summit. 

Monday, 16 May 2016

On the state of housing

Housing is fundamental to life on many different levels.  It's physical shelter and emotional security and it signals place in a status driven world.

It's accepted as a basic human right by all people of common sense and common decency. 

There are people who think it's ok for there to be homelessness; for people to be paying a massive proportion of their wages on rent or mortgage and to have to scrimp on essentials in order to pay the rent; for young children and old people to die because of their home is cold and damp and mouldy; for landlords to be in receipt of vast sums of public funds which could be invested in social housing; for social housing to be sold off and not be replaced, and for the remaining social housing to be allowed to run down and its occupants to be stigmatised. 

To explain why it is inevitable or even desirable that some people have more than they could ever need while others have to scrape by with barely enough, such people devise all manner of explanations and justifications - from the myth of market forces to the barren belief that people are the authors of their own misfortune - the bad choice mantra. 

All their ideological manoeuvring is an attempt to justify the unacceptable.

I spent a fair bit of my childhood in state housing with a period in a private rental. Being young I wasn't overly aware of the social stigma of the former but I was acutely aware of the stress on my family of the latter.

My parents lost their farm cottage when my share milker father had a bad tractor accident. My mother had a 3 year child and was 8 months pregnant - with me.  The farm they worked on was very remote; by the time they got my father to hospital his wounds and compound fracture of his leg had infected. He got gas gangrene. They saved his life with penicillin and tried to save his leg with newly developed plastic surgery techniques, using skin from his rib cage. They controlled his pain with morphine. He spent over a year in hospital and came out with a  permanent disability and an addiction to morphine which he fed with various over the counter pharmaceutical drugs like codeine phosphate.  

While he was in hospital my mother lived with her parents until RAF friends of my father's got us housed in a transit camp at Wigram.  They were eventually housed in a small 2 bed 1940s state house in a North Canterbury township. By modern standards it was very basic;  it had no insulation, no reticulated water supply, it was heated by a small open fire in the living room and was clad in asbestos-cement sheets. It's still there - probably upgraded a bit and with reticulated water, town sewage and ceiling insulation but basically it's the same house. I don't know if it's still owned by the state or has been sold off. 

My parents got a 3% state mortgage and built their own small home in another township where my father had got a job.  The house was a classic, all wood 3 bedroom place on a half acre section. It wasn't insulated, had polished wooden floors in the living room and lino every where else. It was heated by an open fire in the living room, a small incinerator in the kitchen and a diabolically dangerous kerosene heater in the hall. The bedrooms were icy in winter. We had a hot water bottle which heated a small patch in the middle of the bed and was then pushed down to keep feet warm. We had flannelette sheets if there were enough go round all 5 kids and we wore flannelette pyjamas and woollen socks all winter.  Getting up to go to the toilet not only meant braving the monsters that lived under the bed, it meant freezing your feet and butt off on the cold floors and in the bitterly cold toilet. 

But it was ours.  Well it was until the bone in my father's injured leg decided to die and he had to have the limb amputated. He lost his job, they had to sell the house and had no capital gain. We moved to Christchurch into a 2 bedroom plus sunroom private rental because there were no state houses available that were large enough. My older brother had to stay in North Canterbury boarding with another family because there was no room for him in the rental.  

Christchurch was much damper than where we had lived before.  The windows in the house constantly ran with condensation.  My memories of it were an unremitting, penetrating cold dampness, my father trying to adjust to losing his leg, and my mother trying to cope with 5 kids and too little money.  Although electricity was cheap we could not afford to run electric heaters and the open fire could never be persuaded to give out any heat.  The electric water heater was useless and inadequate for a large family. 

She had to ask for help - harder than I knew for someone as proud as her.  I  found her one day standing over the old washing machine which had broken down. She was sobbing.  When I asked her what was wrong, she screamed at me.  For about 5 minutes I copped all her exhaustion, frustration and humiliation.  I was 12 years old.  Then she calmed down and we hauled the load of sheets out of the machine into the stone tubs, rinsed them in cold water, hand wrung as much water out of them as cold hands allowed and hung them on the line to get as dry as they could on a damp Christchurch winter day.  The thing was, we didn't have a linen cupboard full of spare bedding. 

We didn't have to suffer that for very long as we were eventually housed in a brand new 4 bedroom brick state house in Aranui.  My older brother was able to come home and for the first time in his 16 years had a bedroom to himself. It was not much more than a box room but it was his own. My mother and father probably felt the stigma of living in Aranui in a state house more than we did but there was no denying that the house was the best we had ever lived in.  

For my father in particular, owning his own home was a visceral thing. The eldest son of a farm labourer, he had spent all his childhood living in tied accommodation.  They managed to scrape together some money and bought a house with another state mortgage. A lovely 1920s villa which my father was as proud of as any man could be.  

He died in it. He was younger than I am now.  It died too. Perfectly sound and saveable but in the east Christchurch red zone, it was bulldozed and dumped by a government too far up the backside of a venal insurance industry to be bothered to save it, and my mother was in need of the money tied up in it to pay an equally venal aged care industry when we were no longer able to care for her.

The 4 bed state house in Aranui died also. 

Our little story is worse than some but far better than most when viewed globally and historically.  Despite the crappy housing we grew up healthy and we thrived - mostly it must be said due to the social welfare systems that are being undermined and starved of funding in the cause of the great neoliberal project of enriching the rich and impoverishing the rest.

The way I live now is at a vast remove from my childhood. I benefitted from free education, from that small window of opportunity that opened up for working class girls like me.  I lived and worked in the UK in relatively well paid jobs and with my partner managed to end up with a mortgage free house in London. Selling that and moving here before the housing market took off meant we live in a house that is warm, dry, spacious and aesthetically pleasing, and we rent out the cottage we lived in while we were building. 

That cottage is the cheapest rental of its size and quality within 50 kms of Christchurch. That's because we would rather take a loss than be leeching landlords. 

That some people live in absolute luxury alongside others who live in garages or cars or under bridges or in shop doorways is not just unacceptable in a first world country. It divides, it destroys, it stifles and it wastes potential. 

It is the exemplification of all that is wrong with our society.   

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Spinning the web

The current wave of outrage about Ken Livingstone’s defence of fellow UK Labour MP Naz Shah is a media beat up of epic proportions.  The target isn't Shah - who has even been forgiven by some in the rightwing press because she has confessed her sins and issued a ‘heartfelt’ apology -  the target is Jeremy Corbyn and the left of the Labour Party. The media and rightwing politicos are directing yet another artillery barrage at Livingstone in the hope that it will also wipe out Corbyn.

Livingstone is a hostage to fortune on the Israeli-Palestinian issue in part because he refuses to condemn as anti-semitic (among other things) the often controversial and contradictory Muslim Cleric, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradwi.  In light of the high probability that he would be attacked and anything he said taken out of context and used against him in the court of popular opinion, Livingstone would have been wise to have kept out of the debate. Had he done so we might have been spared the awful sight and sound of John Mann charging up to loudly claim the moral high ground. 

Livingstone also stated in his media interviews that Hitler had once been supportive of a Zionist plan to relocate German Jews to Palestine. In the line with current standards of media accuracy and impartiality, he was promptly accused of saying Hitler had been a Zionist. 

The overall tone of the rightwing media response is exemplified by this comment from The Independent: "A Labour MP has stepped down as an aide to John McDonnell after it emerged that she once backed a plan to relocate the state of Israel to North America".  

Since when has an obviously ironic and amateurish meme on Facebook constituted a 'plan'?  Only a rightwing journo, nose down in the dirt, in hot pursuit of an anti-Corbyn story could produce such arrant nonsense.   

As for the foolish man who is Communications Director for the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism who claimed that Shah's action was evidence of 'gross and brazen anti-semitism' and an "expression of extreme prejudice towards Jewish people" - may I suggest a regime of cold baths and deep breaths. 

I suspect there are few people who are more alert to, or critical of anti-semitism than me. I know how deep and widespread its roots are and how easily it can spring back into destructive life even when people think it has been killed off. I've been vociferously anti-anti-semitism for as long as I've been vociferously pro-Palestinian rights - ie for many decades. 

If I’d seen the meme - which was unearthed from Shah's Facebook page by right-wing blogger and Sun columnist Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes) - I may not have shared it because it has spelling mistakes and I am a pedant - but it is clearly meant to be ironic.  There is nothing in it to suggest it is anti-Jewish. It is a piece of anti-Israel and anti-American agitprop but however hard the right-wing contorts itself, there is simply no basis for arguing that being critical of the actions of the Israeli state automatically constitutes anti-semitism.  

Another charge against Shah is that she posted a link to an article which draws parallels between al Qaida and Zionism. I'm not sure if it was this one by Catherine Shakdam but if it was, it's worth reading. 

Rightwing Zionism and rightwing Islamism definitely have one thing in common - and that's a hatred of the political left. Israel and the US and their allies were totally opposed to and actively undermined the moderate leftwing Palestinian leadership.  As stated in Shakdam''s piece and elsewhere, there is evidence pointing towards the US and Israel having fomented extremist Islam as part of a wider move to 'Balkanise' the greater Levant region as part of Israeli expansionism. It's surely worthy of note that the extremists of Al Qaida and ISIL have not directly attacked Israel or Israeli interests - in fact most of their victims are other Muslims and it is Muslim countries which have suffered most from the unrest in the Middle East. 

The Israeli government and its supporters cynically and persistently use the accusation of anti-semitism to deflect and defuse criticism of Israeli actions.  In so doing, they are busy stripping anti-semitism of its political and historical meaning and significance.

The actions of the Israeli state with regard to Palestinians are indefensible. The irony and the tragedy is that that they are reminiscent of how Nazi Germany and all its collaborating states and peoples acted towards Jews in the 1930s. 

I've talked to young Israelis travelling in NZ after the end of their military service and been appalled at the unthinking racism some of them display towards Palestinians. It's an almost word for word replication of the bigoted supremacist ideology trotted out by white racists:  Palestinians are stupid and uneducable, they are incapable of running their own affairs, they are aggressive and untrustworthy and innately predisposed towards being thugs and terrorists. 

Those young Israelis didn't arrive at those ideas by themselves, such notions don't pop up out of a social vacuum - they are fed to the young through educational and religious institutions and military service. 

To create the sort of soldier-medic who can shoot a helpless young man in the head with as little thought or compunction as he might step on a bug, or the sort of crazed religious fanatics that can burn a family alive  - the 'other' has to be turned into a faceless, soulless, non-human being. The trouble is that the only way people can come to see the 'other' as faceless, soulless and non-human is to become those things themselves.

That is the horror of fascism.  

I abhor Muslim fascists as much as I do Jewish or Christian or Hindu or Buddhist ones. In fact I abhor any ideology that is founded on and perpetuates ignorance, irrationality and bigotry. And I abhor all people of violence - most of all those who dispense their violence from the safe distance and comfort of conference and board rooms. 

There are people - including a few who claim to be of the left - whose support of Palestinian rights owes a great deal to a hatred of Jews.  The political rightwing - the traditional home of anti-semitism - currently fears and hates Muslims more than it hates and fears Jews, except of course for those Muslims who happen to be part of the ruling elites of the likes of Saudi Arabia who are granted a temporary exemption.  Such people support Israel because, for the moment, they hate and fear people of another religion more.  Why and how much they hate and fear Muslims varies of course. For most it's ignorance, they have swallowed the toxic ideologies and political spin pumped out by the rightwing media, but for others it's a calculated and calculating strategy at the heart of which is the principle of divide in order to continue to rule.