Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Part Two: Losi Filipo and NZ Justice

I have to admit to having had a knee jerk reaction to this story - caused by the fact that the mainstream news media often beats up a substantial head of froth on stories, that the law and order brigade always bays for blood before stopping to think, and that young men of colour in NZ do not usually get a fair deal at the hands of the courts or in mainstream and social media.

I have a long memory when it comes to issues of injustice and I collect examples of police and judicial bias so, even accounting for the rugby factor, I viewed the Newshub story with a degree of scepticism.

For example, I  could not understand why, if Filipo had punched a woman hard enough in the face for her to need plastic surgery, he was not charged with aggravated assault rather than male assaults female.  I could believe the police might downgrade charges because of a sympathy for a rugby player but this was not the case as they had charged him with a serious assault on one of the men. 

I was also interested in why it took so long for the story to break and whether that had anything to do with the controversy over the lenient sentencing of Nicholas Delegat for a serious assault on a female police officer. 

Delegat's legal team fought hard for over a year to retain name suppression and for a discharge without conviction to safeguard his future career prospects. The judge lifted name suppression and convicted him but handed down a very lenient sentence of community service.  If Delegat had not had money and influence behind him, he may well have been sent to prison. If he is remorseful, if his violence was fuelled by alcohol and he is taking steps to deal with that - then the decision not to send him to prison was a good one.

Losi Filipo would have avoided prison because of his youth and previous good character but it was his connection to professional rugby that led to the unusual discharge without conviction. New Zealand justice is not usually so benign when it comes to dealing with young men of colour who commit crimes of violence.

In Christchurch in 2007, a young Samoan man, Lipine Sila, drove a car away from a racially charged incident at a party and ran into a group of party goers crossing a road. He hit several of them, killing two 16 year old girls, Hannah Rossiter and Jane Young,  and badly injuring several others. He drove off and was arrested later at his home. 

The police did not accept his explanation that he had been frightened for his life and had panicked. They alleged there had been an 'element of intentionality' in his actions - i.e. that he had either driven into the crowd deliberately or he had not tried to avoid them.

He was charged with two counts of murder and eight counts of GBH.  So seriously did the police take the threats to Sila's life from enraged members of the public, he had to be remanded in custody for his own protection.  Threats were made to storm the court if the 'right' verdict - i.e. guilty of murder - was not returned.  The coverage of the prosecution case in The Press initially was so lurid, the Judge told the paper to tone it down.

Sila was said to 'swagger'; it was said he did not look like he was sorry because he smiled and waved to his family in the court; he was said to speak sullenly and monosyllabically.

There was no thought that the 'swagger' might have been an attempt at bravado in the face of so much hatred and antagonism; there was no understanding of his need to acknowledge the only friendly faces he could see in the court, and there was no account taken of the fact that he did not speak good English and found it hard to articulate his feelings.

He was subjected to a tidal wave of antagonism orchestrated by some highly vocal members of the public.  Ironically, both he and the girls who were killed were newcomers to Canterbury; he was from Samoa; they were from England and the USA respectively. What made his crime so rage-inducing for some people was that he was a poor, inarticulate brown-skinned man who had ended the promising lives of two young daughters of middle-class white people. 

It was just not possible to ignore the racial dimensions in that case any more than it was possible to ignore the tragedy of two young lives lost.  The way the original party was advertised which led to Sila's younger brother going to it and getting into a fight; the actions of the aggressive white 'security' men who attacked Sila; the racial undercurrents in this city which burst out that night and again in the subsequent threats to Sila's life, and which were manifested in the way the trial was covered in The Press.

Sila was sentenced to life with a minimum non-parole period of 17 years, less than the 20 years the prosecution had called for. There was an outcry about the sentence being too lenient and after the trial Harry Young, Jane's father, called him a 'thug' and 'scum'  whose punishment should have been 'a violent death'.

When I asked Sila's barrister why a change of venue had not been sought given the hostile attitudes towards his client in Canterbury, at first he couldn't remember whether they had applied for it, then said they had decided Sila would face as much antipathy wherever he was tried. 

It is interesting that, 20 years earlier, another racially charged case - that of Peter Holdem - was relocated to Dunedin because a fair trial could not be guaranteed in Christchurch.  Such was the antagonism towards Holdem, who is Mâori, a petition had been circulated prior to the trial calling for reinstatement of the death penalty so he could be executed. 

Different times and different crimes obviously but it's interesting that Sila's notoriety was more widespread than that of a paedophile and child killer.  For that we can thank social media.

I have absolutely no doubt that, had Lipine Sila been white and the son of people of affluence and influence, had he been fleeing a gang of aggressively angry brown men one of whom had hit him on the head with a bottle, and had his victims been brown kids, he'd have been charged with manslaughter.   If he had been charged with murder I don't doubt that a Christchurch jury would have found him guilty of a lesser charge.

I think this because of the many examples of obvious racial and class bias to be seen in the NZ criminal justice system.  It is so manifestly and consistently biassed against people of colour and poor people that my first reaction when I read the Losi Filipo story was to question it. 

Here's another tale of two young men who each killed someone.  The circumstances in both cases indicate that neither set out to kill but it may be fair to say that each behaved with reckless disregard for the probable outcomes of their actions. 

In 2002, 17-year-old Sharne Paul Van der Wielen, who is white, drove his turbo charged car at speeds up to 200 kph in suburban streets in Christchurch. Doing an estimated 180kph, he hit and killed a young Chinese student, XiaoXi Gao who was the only child of a judge.   He drove off, conspired with two friends to lie to the police and made racist statements about Asians when arrested. 

He was charged with, and pleaded guilty to manslaughter presumably because the police doubted they would get a conviction for murder given his age, ethnicity, family background, lack of previous convictions and the 'get out of jail free' card that the law and the public can deal when someone commits vehicular homicide. (1)

A year earlier, 15-year-old Alexander Peihopa, who is Mãori hit Michael Choy on the head with a baseball bat in the course of a robbery planned and committed by a gang of kids, the youngest of whom was 12.  Tragically, Choy was not found until several hours later and died of his injuries.  It was obvious the youngsters had not meant to kill Choy as they took him back to his car and left him there, but police contended that Peihopa had recklessly disregarded the probable consequences of his actions and, because of his background and the enormous amount of publicity around the case, the police knew they would probably get a murder conviction.

In his client's defence, Van der Wielen's lawyer said that 17-year-olds typically lack judgement and behave stupidly when behind the wheel of a car. This viewpoint was not shared by the judge who stated at sentencing that Van der Wielen had used his car as 'a lethal weapon' and the manner of his driving and his failure to stop could 'hardly have been more culpable'.  However, the judge still opted for the relatively lenient sentence of 5 years and suspension of license for 7.  

I don't know how much of his sentence Van der Wielen served as neither the media nor the law and order brigade are interested in him. Unlike Michael Choy, XiaoXi Gao's name has not been etched into the public consciousness.

The possibility that a 15-year-old, exposed to violent television and video games might not understand the probable consequences of hitting someone on the head with a baseball bat was rejected by the police, and Peihopa was charged with murder. The jury also rejected that plea of mitigation and, despite having already pleaded guilty to manslaughter and aggravated robbery, he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was paroled in 2012 having served almost 10 years. 

These are both fairly typical of the general pattern of NZ justice. There is a definite bias towards poor and / or people of colour being arrested and charged more often, being charged with more serious offences, being found guilty more often and receiving harsher sentences.

Losi Filipo was lucky to have people of influence behind him and to be sentenced by a judge who seemed to be of the opinion that the law should not unnecessarily blight young lives. 

I guess it all comes down to what you see the purpose of the law being -  retributive or restorative and rehabilitative. 

if the logic behind the push to appeal Filipo's DWC is that he ended a rugby career (and put a modelling and singing career in jeopardy) so his career ought to be similarly blighted, then that is retributive and it's a small step away from the notion of an eye for an eye. 

Monday, 3 October 2016

Some thoughts on New Zealand justice : Part 1

The following two part post was written over the course of a week or so. Family commitments interrupted me and I decided to leave it in the form of a diary. Part 1 follows the story as it unfolds; and Part 2 looks at some other examples of the workings of NZ justice and how the media report on and react to it.

September 26th 2016 

Nicholas Delegat is a 19-year-old from an extremely wealthy family who was charged originally with aggravated assault of a female police officer, assault of a security guard, wilful damage and resisting arrest. He eventually pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer in the execution of her duty, plus the other two charges. His legal team fought for months for name suppression and for a discharge without conviction.  

He was convicted and sentenced to community service and name suppression was lifted.  The case caused a great outcry because it seemed such an obvious exercise of wealth and privilege. 

The brouhaha about the lenient sentence has died down fairly quickly due mainly to the fact that it has been overtaken by an even more controversial sentencing decision.This time it's not a wine dynasty which has sought to influence the courts, it's the world of rugby - a wealthy and powerful surrogate family. 

The breaking of the Losi Filipo story is a serendipitous bit of timing for the Delegat family as it has had the effect of pushing Delegat Junior's story out of the headlines and off the social media radar. 

Losi Filipo is a 17-year-old who has a talent for playing the country's favourite game.  Presumably because he is seen as a future star, NZ rugby spread its blazers over him to protect him from what would be the usual consequences of his actions were he just any working class kid from Porirua. He pleaded guilty to four charges of assault and on August 16th the judge discharged him without conviction so as not to interfere with his promising sporting career.

In talking about this case I'm expected to make the standard obeisance to law and order - to condemn not just what Filipo did but also to condemn him and the rugby / booze culture that is presumed to have led to him acting as he did.

But the fact is that, as of today I do not know exactly what he did or why he did it.   All I know is what is in the public arena and at the moment that is dominated by a somewhat tabloidesque story on TV3's Newshub which focuses on Filipo's victims - especially on two young women who say that their lives and careers have been blighted by a brutal and unprovoked attack.

As well as punching the women in the jaw and the throat respectively, Filipo is said to have stomped several times on the head of one of the men who was lying unconscious on the ground.  

If a large, powerful man punches women in the head region, knocks a man unconscious and stomps on his head - those actions are serious enough to warrant the charges of injuring with reckless disregard and assault with intent to injure. The most serious of the charges carries a maximum penalty of 7 years

Filipo is very unusual in that, as a young man of colour, the system has treated him very leniently - it might be said it treated him with common sense and humanity.  The acceptance that his stated remorse was genuine, the fact of his youth (he was 16 at the time of the offence), the understanding that a conviction would ruin his career and that incarceration might well put him on the path to an entrenched criminality  - these are not ways that the criminal justice system typically treats young men of colour who are charged with crimes of violence.  

I see no reason not to discharge without conviction where there is a compelling case for it. I want to see the sensible prosecution and sentencing of young people of previous good character but the reality is that this does not usually happen to anyone other than those who have people of considerable power and influence on their side.  

The fact that Filipo, because he is good at rugby, was lucky enough to have such people on his side is not in itself a bad thing; the bad thing is that so many do not. 

September 27th

Filipo has terminated his contract voluntarily. A Stuff headline announced that he and Wellington Rugby have been 'judged in the court of public opinion'.  The views of the public I have read on social media range from racists bellowing for him to be deported, to justifiable concern about this being another example of the all too prevalent violence in this country.

September 28th

That arbiter of good taste and moral probity Paul Henry has weighed in on the debate and NZ Rugby has apologised to the victims and their families. I suppose it is better late than never but what are they apologising for?  For the fact that Filipo is a rugby player? For having used their influence to effect a discharge without conviction? For presiding over a culture in which these sort of incidents are all too common place? Or all of the above?

September 29th

In response to the hue and cry in mainstream and social media, the Solicitor General has recommended that the judge's decision be reviewed.  The victims and their families are said to be 'blown away' by this development.

Anonymous law experts are claiming the decision has nothing whatsoever to do with the outcry in social media.  Yeah right.

John Kirwan has apologised on behalf of all rugby. 

September 30th 

A man who tried to organise a protest against Filipo's contract with the Wellington Lions but  was upstaged by Filipo's decision to terminate it himself, got his moment in the media spotlight by revealing that he had been threatened on Facebook.

Also on Facebook, Eliota Fulmaono-Sapolu posted edited highlights of the judge's ruling and claimed that  the media coverage has been slanted and exaggerated to sensationalise the case at the expense of Filipo and his family. He has a point. 

October 1st

Some of the obvious questions - was this an unprovoked attack and how severe it was - have been answered with the release of official documents. According to the judgement, the gravity of the offending is 'unquestionable and inescapable'. It was a case of 'fairly serious' street violence.  Filipo's attack on one of the men involved punching and stomping which rendered the man unconscious. The charge for this was injuring with reckless disregard. The two charges of male assaults female were  'more in the nature of pushing and shoving'. The victims indicated that the offending had a serious effect on them. 

There are questions that remain unanswered.  Why wasn't Fliipo tried in the Youth Court? If the male assaults female charges were in the nature of 'pushing and shoving', why did Newshub report them as a punch to the jaw and throat severe enough to require plastic surgery on one and threaten the singing career of the other?  Was the judge wrong about the nature of the offence? Were the victims talking up their injuries and how they were caused for their own reasons? Or did Newshub whip it up for their own reasons? Why did it take so long for the case to be publicised? Who approached who - i.e. did the victims approach TV3 with it or the other way round? 

I think the judge was right to say that imprisonment was not warranted. Having made that decision he then needed to consider the effects on Filipo of a conviction. In deciding to discharge without conviction he was influenced by several factors including Filipo's youth, his remorse, preparedness to pay reparations and enter restorative justice (refused by his victims)  and his previous good character. 

So - as critical as I am of the world of rugby and of the whole toxic locker room culture - I see Filipo as one who got away.  Or, as things now stand, as one who got away only to be recaptured and publicly flogged - thanks in no small measure to a social media primed and fired by Newshub.  

Whatever the stuff that went on behind the scenes, if Filipo was genuinely remorseful; if this incident had made him a better, more mature and more controlled person, then surely that is all to the good. Let's see more humane and sensible sentencing.  I want to see the CJS behaved with kindness and leniency when it deals with ALL young first time offenders. I'd rather it considered what terrible harm all forms of prison WILL do to most young people and how convictions at critical stages can devastate lives.   If that means sometimes some people get away too lightly, then that's far better than people typically being treated too harshly. 

Sunday, 2 October 2016

The many facets of abuse

How the public and / or the various agents of the state respond to the abuse of women is tempered by many things. The social standing, age, ethnicity, attractiveness of both the victim and the accused will often come into play.  

It's not so long ago in NZ that an outcry about a stripper being badly treated by sporting icons would have been - well, improbable - unless there was a reason why the state, the media or the public wanted to target particular sporting icons. 

The myriad of statements that were made about the ill-treatment of a woman at a rugby team's end of season party were very welcome as anything which exposes and weakens locker room culture is a good thing.  

But people might like to take a moment to ponder how to square all that condemnation with the way that David Cunliffe was mocked and vilified by opposition politicians and influential media commentators for his statement in support of abused women in the build up to the last election. 

Many of those who have been puffing themselves up with self righteousness are hypocrites, and hypocrisy - when mixed with political opportunism - becomes an especially odious thing.

The mockery of Cunliffe for expressing solidarity with abused women has its roots in, and appeals to the same macho, 'laddish' culture that led a group of young, intoxicated sportsmen to act abusively towards a woman who they had employed and who was on her own with them. The sexual element aside, when a group of physically powerful young men gang up on a solo woman, it is an especially unpleasant act of bullying. The noxious culture that gave rise to the aggressive and predatory behaviour of some of the players, also resulted in a lack of empathy or a lack of courage on the part of those who were not involved but who failed to intervene to stop the abuse and to protect the woman.  

It's good that rugby is not being let off the hook but I wish there was as consistent and as loud an outcry from the great and the good about the daily abuses of women in our society. 

I am reminded of a case which involved a woman who lived in terror of and in thrall to a violent and controlling man. He beat her 7-year-old child so badly the boy died from his injuries eight days later.  The woman was charged with failing to provide the necessities of life for not getting medical help for her son. She said she did not do because she had not realised how bad his injuries were and her violent partner had threatened to kill both her and her child if she called a doctor.

She was advised to plead guilty and to throw herself on the mercy of the court. That proved to be bad advice.  She had been bailed to live with family in the North Island and as a result was sentenced in Auckland where the judge sentenced her to 3 years in prison. 

In passing sentence the judge acknowledged that she loved her son and was 'oppressed by her abusive partner, however, whilst he had been at work, her 'good sense should have asserted itself.' He went on to say that he hoped the sentence would act as a 'deterrent' to other women who might be tempted to fail their children in similar ways.  

I don't recall any outrage about the way that woman had been treated - first by her violently abusive partner and then by those who decided to charge her with a crime, by the legal aid lawyer who advised her to plead guilty to that crime, and by the judge - who did not just incarcerate her for three years but who decided to use her as a soap box from which to declare his support for children's rights. 

She served a year in prison and the last I heard of her she was still so stricken with guilt and grief she had contemplated suicide. 

She is powerless - poorly educated, working class and Mãori. The judge is powerful - male, educated, affluent and white. 

He is to be commended for his stance on children's rights but is to be roundly criticised for his complete lack of understanding of the dynamics of a violently abusive relationship. It is well known that victims of domestic violence can be controlled by their abuser even at a distance; that physical and emotional abuse can paralyse a person and reduce their ability to act independently.  

Yes, the child's mother should have sought help; she should have known how badly injured her son was; she should have put him before her own safety, she should have trusted the authorities to protect her and him from her abuser.....'should have ' is all too easy to say from a comfortable distance. 

When a tired and over-worked doctor left her toddler locked in her car because she'd forgotten she had him with her and the child died of hypothermia - it was seen as a tragic accident in which the woman was in need of sympathy and support. 

The cases are not the same obviously but the possibility that a tired, harassed, preoccupied mother could make a terrible mistake that she will live with all her life was - quite properly - accepted by the police and the public.  

The possibility that a physically beaten and psychologically abused woman could be so in terror of her abuser that she was rendered incapable of independent action, was not. 

And now onto the vexed question of Losi Filipo ......

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.