Monday, 24 April 2017

Anzac Day : Lest we Forget

Lest we forget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Writes and Wrongs of a Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Four Ps of the Phallocalypse

If you are very religious you may find elements of what follows, challenging.  If you do not like being challenged - do not read it.

At a point, possibly as long ago as 3500 years, an idiosyncratic little religion popped up in the Middle East, in what we now call the Levant. It was idiosyncratic because it worshipped a single, all-powerful deity - in contrast to other religions in the region which were either animist or polytheistic.

Most polytheistic religions had a more or less balanced collection of deities with distinctly human characteristics - such as a gender.  The Greek pantheon for example may have had a male god in overall charge but he didn't have it all his own way and the attributes and roles of the roughly equal number of classical Greek goddesses and gods indicated a more ancient understanding of the complementarity of, and continuum between the biological sexes.  

Ares was the god of war, violence and bloodshed but Athena was the goddess of wisdom and military strategy; Cupid was the god of love and Artemis was the goddess of the hunt.

The First People of the Book, the Hebrews, arrived at a conception of God that was very useful for a patriarchal society, or one hellbent on becoming patriarchal. Only men could interpret God's word and man was the last Creation and declared favourite of God. Woman was an afterthought who, as a lesser and deeply flawed being, was in need of both protection and correction.  Men were also granted dominion over the rest of God's creation -  which proved to be very useful when claiming the right to exploit the hell out of it.

The Hebrews didn’t develop their religion in isolation - as a people they were squashed between two great polytheistic cultures - Egypt and Babylon.   Like all religions, they developed a set of compelling myths and legends to strengthen community and religious bonds and to explain why contemporary arrangements should or should not exist.  

The Hebrew myths included an enslavement in Egypt, a great escape, 40 days wandering in the desert, a great prophet who received God's commandments, the parting of a sea and the destruction of Pharoah’s army, Joshua’s defeat of the Canaanites, the division of the land among the twelve tribes of Israel which eventually boiled down to the twin kingdoms of Judah in the south, and Israel in the north - or Samaria as it was also known. 

In the way of these things, the machinations of men of power swept back and forth across the region resulting in the destruction of the Judahites' First Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of the ruling elite of Judah to Babylon (in modern day Iraq) where, it seems, many of their descendants lived and flourished for a thousand years. 

Under the rule of the Persian King Cyrus the Great, those of the Judahite elite who wanted to return were allowed to and he even helped them build their Second Temple in Jerusalem. Cyrus was a pretty cool sort of emperor by the standards of the day who operated an early sort of federalist multiculturalism.

Poor old Israel/Samaria though was sacked by the Assyrians who came down on it like a wolf on the fold and I guess the Samaritan elite were either killed or fled or were assimilated. I imagine that the poor people of both Judah and Israel/Smaria did what poor people always do when the elite play their power games - survived as best they could, stayed put and did as they were told, or got the hell out of it until the fighting stopped.

But, no sooner had things settled down in the Levant than a young megalomanic Macedonian set off with a plan to conquer the world. Alexander the Great defeated the mighty Persians and pretty much declared the whole ‘known’ world to be Greek.  

The Judahites flourished under Greek rule and absorbed a load of clever Greek stuff to add to the clever Persian stuff they and the Greeks had already absorbed and everything was going along quite nicely until the ruling Judah elite, the Hasmoneans, decided that they needed to grow their own power base. As the Greek empire started to fray at the edges, they stepped up the pressure on people who’d become ‘too Greek by far’ and forced a Judaic monotheist orthodoxy on them.

Then, along came the Romans who’d developed this weird notion of a republic. They were polytheists from a cultural backwater who - against all the odds - founded the greatest empire the world had seen. They spread out from their city state in modern day Italy and conquered everything - by force or cunning or very often, a combination of both.  The Romans first recognised the Hasmoneans but after some rebellions, they finished them off, joined a load of bits and pieces together to form the Roman province of Judea, and installed a puppet king- the infamous Herod.

And so we get to the Second People of the Book. 

After a bit of imperial arging and barging, a man was born in the Roman province of Judea who became what was seen as a political agitator and rebel by the Romans and their local administrators, a heretic by the orthodox Jews, and at first as a prophet then latterly as the Son of God, by his followers.  

Jesus questioned some - but by no means all - of the current arrangements of the time - and he established a religious/political sect which at first was suppressed by everyone.  The problem was that Jesus not only questioned the local rulers and religious orthodoxies and practices, he also challenged imperial power - so they killed him. 

They hadn’t factored in the power of martyrdom and the new religion of Christianity founded by Jesus' followers - against all the odds - grew and spread. Its adherents were persecuted by the Romans - probably not as much as was claimed subsequently but they did give them a hard time.

Then the damnedest thing happened - the Romans started to convert to the new religion. At first these Christian converts were persecuted but eventually the Roman elite booted the pantheon of gods and goddesses (which they'd inherited pretty much intact from the Greeks) into touch because they thought - whoa - this all-powerful omniscient god has a lot going for HIM - especially if you go back to the original source material which totally legitimates the subjugation of both women AND the natural world - so let's go Christian!  

And they did, and they set a pattern for pretty much the next 1700 years by arguing about interpretations of the one God thing and killing those they labelled as heretics and heathens in various really nasty ways. 

The Roman empire had got so big it was impossible to manage so they split into Western and Eastern sectors - with one headquarters in Rome and another in what used to be called Byzantium and was renamed Constantinople when Constantine moved his court there. With that, the great city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) became the main centre of the Christian world. 

Rome was eventually lost to what pro-Roman historians told the world were barbarian hordes who fought dirty - but by that time most of the Roman elite had legged it to Constantinople. 

Imperial rule was reimposed in the Western provinces for a time by the Eastern Empire but, by the 5th century CE the Western Roman empire had disintegrated into a multiplicity of kingdoms, princedoms and dukedoms of western and southern Europe and the Iberian peninsula. These were united only by being Roman Catholics - co-religionists under the spiritual guidance of the Bishop of Rome who often was not based in Rome as when it became too dodgy a place to store all the papal loot, they'd move to various other places such as Perugia and Avignon.

The history of the papacy is the history of the power plays that surged back and forth across Europe in the lead up to, and after the fall of the Western Roman empire.

Religious ideology held together what became known as the Holy Roman Empire once it was no longer possible to hold it by force. The title of Holy Roman Emperor was conferred on Charlemagne, leader of confederation of Germanic tribes, by the Pope in 800. The title  and its religious/secular power base sat at the heart of European political and religious machinations and manoeuvrings and is why the German nobility married into the royal houses of the whole of Europe.   

Religious lore as interpreted by the Pope, who was God’s number one guy on earth, over-rode local secular law.  Kings and Princes and Dukes who did not do what the Holy Mother Church told them to do or who didn’t pay their earthly dues - could be excommunicated by the Pope - a sort of spiritual decapitation.  Papal power and the power of the Emperor sat in tension with each other, sometimes resulting in the Emperor holding the Pope captive, or sacking him and appointing more malleable bishops.

Around 1000 CE the schism between the two branches of Christianity was pretty well entrenched.  The first unholy crusades had started with a call by Pope Urban for Western Christians to help the Byzantine empire against the incursions of the Turks - some say with the hope of reuniting the two branches of Christianity against the common enemy of Islam but, as the Crusaders often pillaged and murdered and refused to return the Byzantine lands they’d liberated, and eventually sacked Constantinople, that was never going to happen and the schism was widened and deepened.  

As it gained strength, the Roman Catholic church encouraged and condoned forced conversions and persecutions of people who would not convert or who challenged the status quo - and they did this on a scale and with a ferocity that made what the Romans had done to Christians look benign.  

Western Christianity continued to develop its militant muscles, the Byzantine empire crumbled and fell to the Ottomans in 1453 - and Eastern Orthodox Christianity retreated. 

And so we come to the Third People of the Book who had entered the ideological arena in 610 in Mecca (modern day Saudi Arabia), when a 40 year old man, Muhammad of Mecca, had a revelation.  God spoke to him and revealed how He wanted His people to worship Him and to behave - reinforcing the words He had handed down to His earlier prophets and countering what was perceived as the idolatry of the polytheists of Mecca and the Christians - who had developed the notion of a Holy Trinity to explain God's relationship with his son who was born of woman, the cult of Mary and other such beliefs and practices which Muhammad saw as a move away from the pure monotheism of Abraham and Moses. He emphasised the omniscience and omnipotence of a Creator that is so unknowable it is impossible for humans to imagine or to depict - hence the Islamic proscription on any images of God.  

Muhammad and his followers were persecuted by the Meccans so they travelled 200 miles to Medina to set up their own base.  They were attacked by the Meccans and by a confederation of Arab tribes but they prevailed and eventually Muhammed united the Arab tribes and they all converted to Islam. 

The religious polity that Muhammad established became a caliphate after he died - and under various leaders it set off on its own proselytising path and colonised and conquered surrounding Persian and Byzantine lands. Like the Christians, islam mostly adhered to a policy of militant proselytism - convert or die.

Disputes over leadership led to Islam also developing a schism - between Sunni and Shia - which remains a defining feature of of the reliigon today. 

Islam spread into Northern India via the Delhi sultanate and the Mughal dynasty;  into south-eastern Europe via the Ottoman Empire and into sub-Saharan Africa, central Asia, the Malay peninsula and China via trade.

This new religion declared its god was the one true god, omnipotent and omnisicent and that the Christians were wrong about Jesus being the son of god - he was a man and another Prophet, like their founding Prophet Muhammed and like Moses and Abraham before him.  But, they of course maintain that their prophet is the true and the final word of God. End of story.

The situation of women and ordinary people in Islam is often defended as being an improvement on their status within the polytheistic religions of the region which Islam supplanted - but we need to remember that it is the victors who write history and those victors were and still are, men.

Like its brother religions - Islam has a core ideology that places woman as secondary to man and both as subservient to a God as conceptualised by men who varying numbers of centuries ago, recorded and interpreted the words of men who claimed to speak for God.  

Unlike Judaism and Christianity, Islam allowed polygamy for rich men who could afford multiple wives and, like them, it promoted a powerful cult of female obedience and chastity - breaches of which were harshly punished in the real world as well as promising damnation in the next. Like them it was obsessed with female chastity prior to and within marriage, as the only absolute guarantee of paternity and it devised many ideological and physical means of binding women into a chaste and obedient life.  Although all of them also demanded high standards of men, the punishments for the breach of those standards were different and often less onerous. And not much changes. 

All of the monotheist religions claim they are the one true religion; their god is the one true god; that god is neither male nor female and the use of the male pronoun to describe god is just a 'literary convention'. Yet they all encode the essential subjugation of woman to man; they all started out with only men holding religious office and their contemporary power base is still overwhelmingly male and in the case of Islam, almost exclusively so. 

Despite their protestations that God - being omnipotent, omniscient and unknowable - has no gender, none of these religions created sacred pronouns that could be used only to describe God, that carried no connotations of gender and with that, of human form. The default masculine form was used- with a capital letter to denote that it is God that is being referring to. 

Even Islam, which does not allow any pictorial representation of God or even of Muhammad, could not step outside its phallocentric world view and take the logical step of creating a sacred pronoun for use when talking about the unknowable Almighty. If the scholarly men who were the guardians of their faith had genuinely believed that God was beyond knowing - how insulting to God to not have created a sacred pronoun.  

The fact that the default pronoun was male was because it was men who wielded religious and secular power and they created God in their image.   Religious lore and secular law were so entwined and interdependent, and the vested interests were so powerful and entrenched, there was no impetus for change.  Besides, doing so might have given women ideas and God forbid that women might start to challenge men’s privileged place at both the earthly and the celestial tables.

Descent in the male line, transmission of property and title through the male line and the consolidation of male power via the first born son - all were key structural bases  for the subjugation of women that is a common feature of all the monotheist religions.  

The four Ps of the phallocracy - patrilocality, patrilineality, primogentiure and patriarchy are also the four Ps of monotheism.  Monotheism's God was created by men and for men within social relationships that were already strongly phallocentric.  Monotheism has enabled the creation and perpetuation of a global phallocracy - and look what a fine mess that’s got us into. 

Friday, 17 February 2017

The Port Hills Fire

For those who don’t know much about my little corner of the world, Banks Peninsula sticks out of the eastern coast of Te Wai Pounamu – more commonly and prosaically known as the South Island of New Zealand. To Māori, the Peninsula was Te Pataka o Rakaihautu.

Captain Cook, named what he thought was an island after naturalist Joseph Banks and it was once an island until the great rivers that flowed out of the Southern Alps deposited enough gravels and soils to join it to the mainland.

It is the twin craters of ancient volcanoes whose seaward sides have been eroded through to the crater hearts, creating two deep-water harbours – Lyttelton and Akaroa – along with many other bays and inlets. The Māori name for Lyttelton harbour is Te Whakaraupō - harbour of the Raupō  - reeds that once filled the marshy area at the head of the harbour.

Before European settlement the 1150 square km peninsula was still largely forested with tōtara, tī kōuka, kahikatea, mātai, akaake, miro, puruhi, houhere, kānuka, mānuka, harakeke, tarata, kōhūhu, korokio, koromiko, nīkau, mānatu, makomako, whauwhaupaku, horoeka, horopito, matipou, kawakawa, rōhutu, karamū, tītoki…..and many other trees, shrubs, flaxes and grasses which formed the diverse coastal and hill forests that blanketed the land.

Most of this glorious and diverse forest was lost in the first 50 years of European settlement - either logged or burned. The Canterbury Plains and the Peninsula are among the most altered landscapes in one of the most rapidly altered countries in the world.

Along with the forest went the millions of birds that depended on it; and with the birds went the nutrient rich droppings that fed the bush and the soils that overlaid the igneous rocks. The land that the logging and fires exposed was mostly very steep and deeply folded having been formed by lava flows.  Many of the streams that trickled out of gullies dried up once the bush had gone.

Many of the old hill farms on the peninsula were marginal because the land is so steep and folded and, because of the loss of the deep damp litter of the original forest floor with nutrients provided by the droppings of millions of birds, the soils quickly lost heart. The loess erodes in the wind and rain and it dries out fast and hard. In light rain the exposed soil turns as slick as ice and in heavy rain into a sticky porridge.  Holes in the volcanic rock can collapse and trap animals. They can also harbour fire.  

The fire risk was massively increased when settlers planted fast growing gorse and pines to try to stabilise the land and to give shade and shelter to, and contain sheep and cattle.  Gorse quickly became a very harmful noxious weed because in NZ it flowers almost all year round, is highly flammable, broadcasts its fire resistant seeds widely, and nothing eats it.  Pines, which  tend to poison the ground beneath them, are invasive and flammable and co-exist very happily with gorse which colonises pine forest margins and spreads to open land.

The part of the peninsula to the south of Christchurch / Ōtautahi is known as the Port Hills which form a 300m barrier between the city and the port.  There are three roads into and out of the port other than the road tunnel: Evans Pass, which went up from Sumner and came down into Lyttelton from the east and was so badly damaged in the February 2011 earthquake sequence that it remains closed on the Lyttelton side; Dyers Pass, which runs over to Governor's Bay and is closed at the time of writing this because of the fires; and Gebbie’s Pass, that runs in through the low hills at the head of the harbour.

The scenic Summit Road which runs along the crater rim was meant to have a series of tea shops named after native birds of which only three were ever built and two remain.  The Summit Road was the creation of the visionary, Harry Ell. 

The three road passes and the Summit Road give people access to a wide variety of walks and bike paths on the hills and to the numerous small communities that have grown up in the bays around the harbour. 

It is fair to say that the Port Hills and the peninsula more widely, occupy a special place in Christchurch history and in the hearts of most of the people who live there.

Generally Christchurch turns its back on the sea because of the prevailing strong and cool on-shore easterly winds, and the city’s eastern suburbs are largely working class.  The hills have always drawn the more affluent and their interest pushes up the price of land. People have built homes on the hills and cliffs above the small Christchurch seaside suburbs of Sumner and Redcliffe and along the roads that lead out there from the city for generations because of a microclimate and the spectacular views across Pegasus Bay and / or the Southern Alps. 

The new housing developments west of the older hill suburbs are the latest encroachments on the hills, with higher density housing on the lower slopes, and lower density housing further up where the views are the best.

In addition to the encroachments of housing, some of the old hill farms have been subdivided into what are known in NZ as ‘lifestyle blocks’.  Mostly the people who buy these blocks have to work to earn the money to live on them, which is why they’re often referred to as ‘life sentence blocks’.

These blocks range in size from .5 of a hectare to 25 or so hectares, after which they become small farms.  Lifestyle blocks tend to have smaller paddocks than hill farms and the owners plant more trees – which is a good thing except they tend to plant fast growing exotic species like pines, conifers and gums.

The grass cover throughout Canterbury this time of year, other than the land under irrigation for dairying, is tinder dry. If grass is left long under fences - i.e. not grazed hard by sheep or sprayed, fire will track along fence lines igniting fence posts. These posts are treated with highly toxic chemicals that are released into the atmosphere when burned and fire can also smoulder in them underground.

There’s an increased fire risk from overhead power lines shorting onto trees or if a transformer is overloaded and blows, or when electric fences short onto dry vegetation – as well as sparks from exhausts, mowers etc.

Although Christchurch got normal rainfall over the last year it wasn’t enough to replenish soil moisture levels depleted by preceding years of drought. We’re in the driest part of the year so trees are stressed, leaf dries out and falls early, the litter on the ground becomes tinder dry and - wherever the sun can get at it - very hot.  It takes very little to ignite it. 

All vegetation will burn in certain conditions - anyone who has burned gum tree slash will know that even when green and soaking wet, once the water evaporates and heat gets to the oils in the leaf, it will explode.  The same with pines and gorse.  Arguably the key element in this fire was the heavy fuel of mature pine trees. All the really big wildfires in NZ have been in pine forests and most of the ones in the South Island have occurred in February. 

The Port Hills now have extensive commercial pine plantations, a lot of it owned by companies like McVicars, which owns the land the new Canterbury Adventure Park is on.  Commercial pine planters are notorious for not cleaning up litter from trimming trees or after logging. They’re not required to provide things like storage ponds for firefighting and their attention to fire breaks may not be all it should be.

The Fire

I first heard of the Early Valley fire at 6.30pm Monday and it had been burning for a couple of hours or so by then. A strong north-west wind was blowing that was forecast to blow all night and the following day.  

The Canterbury nor-wester is a foehn wind – dry, hot and powerful. That wind, plus tinder dry conditions and decades of poor land management, provided the conditions in which a fire  - if it got away – had the potential to roar right across the very steep pine, grass, gorse and bush covered hills. 

I had an ominous feeling that the fire was going to be a bad one. That feeling became worse when I heard about a second fire on Marley Hill to the east. Fire can’t be fought from the air at night or in low cloud cover and with power pylons and convection currents it’s highly dangerous even in daylight. The nature of the fire meant it was almost impossible to get in front of it from the ground.

If I, as a lay person, could work out that this first fire needed to be hit with everything that could be mustered while there was still daylight - how come the people managing the fire seem not to have done the same?  

I don’t mean the people on the ground - for whom I have nothing but praise - I mean those people whose job it is to assess the situation and deploy the necessary resources as rapidly and effectively as possible.

The situation seems to have been exacerbated by the intrusion of jurisdictional issues.  The rural fire chief who made the statement on TV that the rural service knows how to deal with rural fires while the urban firefighters just rock up and plug their hoses into a hydrant - may have betrayed a schism that has no place in an emergency service at any time, let alone when facing a fire of this magnitude.

It also exposes New Zealand’s rigid bureaucracy, which too often leads to an inability to respond fast and effectively.  In rescuing and housing animals, catering for exhausted firefighters, offering accommodation for evacuees and their animals - the public was sprinting far ahead of the authorities in the first two days.

The first responders to the fire were the professional firefighters from Christchurch city and they and various members of the public fought the fire initially but were struggling to contain it.  They had been deployed because the fire was at the edge of the city and there’s always a delay with the rural fire service because volunteer firefighters have to get from home or place of work to fire stations, get geared up and get to the fire.  The professionals from Christchurch were stood down and - because the fire was within Selwyn District Council boundaries - the Selwyn rural fire service then led on it.

By the time the second fire was reported further east along the Summit Road within city boundaries - it was too late to hit either fire with helicopters or fixed wing planes so both fires burned out of control overnight gathering massive energy and momentum. The two fires eventually joined up and the cold air sinking into valleys at night took it back down the hills and onto houses.

As to the anticipated wind change to north-east on Wednesday that the person leading on the fire hoped would blow the fire back onto already burned land - I’m not sure how a north-easterly wind would blow a north-westerly driven fire back on itself and it seemed to take no account of the fact that the second fire was to the east of the first. That aside, given the vagaries of convection currents in steep folded land and fire’s propensity to take lines of least resistance, it was obvious it was already in a state of extreme unpredictability.

This was not the biggest wildfire in NZ's history - what made the Port Hills fire so dangerous was that it was just 6 kms from Christchurch city centre.

If we are in an era of climate change driven east coast drought and increased fire risk, then these jurisdictional issues need to be sorted out and our reliance on volunteer fire services on urban margins may need to be reviewed. 

I’m not taking anything away from the volunteers of the rural fire service - they do an amazing job - but this situation exposes the logistical absurdity of rural versus urban fire services on city margins and of artificial lines of territorial demarcation.

Individual landowners' responsibility to minimise fire risk will need to be clarified and enforced - especially large scale commercial planting of exotic trees. One of the main problems in fighting this fire was finding sources of water for monsoon buckets. It seems ludicrous that an individual or a company may plant massive pine plantations on the hills above a city and its satellite settlements but not be required to build and maintain fire breaks and create water storage for fire fighting.

My father farmed on the eastern bays of the peninsula years ago and I remember his diatribes about bad land management and the horrors of a mix of dry grass, gorse, wilding pines and gums.  This fire was a disaster waiting to happen.  Of course native forest will burn but it is not as flammable as bone dry pine, gum, gorse, dry grass and houses. 

We destroyed the vast bulk of the original ecologically balanced forest cover on the peninsula. Pockets of it survived in gullies and dedicated people have invested lifetimes of work trying to protect and extend those pockets, control predators and encourage native bird populations.  A fair bit of that regenerating bush has been destroyed and that’s beyond heart breaking.

There’s a battle going on for the heart and soul of the world, which this situation exemplifies - between those who want to sustain, nurture and co-exist and those who see the world as something to be pillaged for short-term gain, and/or as their playground.

Monday, 16 January 2017

The Age of Something or Other

I read an article some time back by Garrison Keillor lamenting the triumph of Trump.  My life is probably quite similar to Keillor’s - courtesy of a moment in history that allowed a working class girl to get an education that was denied to her foremothers and forefathers. 

The pleasant middle class lifestyle choices Keillor refers to - which he places on a higher plane than the likes of watching football - rest on the backs of others; not just the low paid workers and pool of reserve labour in his own country, but the workers of all the countries to which American capital has fled in pursuit of greater profits.

The distribution of social benefits does not occur within an impartial meritocracy and Keillor’s claims about the ability of the children of an American waitress still being able to become physicists, ring very hollow in the face of the mountain of disadvantage that all poor people have to climb in order to ‘succeed’. 

Exceptional talent, exceptional luck, being exceptionally driven or a combination of all three may see the children of poor people succeed, but they are the exception to the rule that poverty blights lives. As I have written elsewhere, it's a very powerful trap and those who manage to escape it often leave a part of themselves locked in its jaws.

The people who voted for Trump are widely typified as beer swilling, football watching, crotch-scratching, racist, homophobic misogynists. No doubt quite a few are one or more of those things but, among those voted for him, there will also be some essentially good people who have good reason to feel aggrieved about the political class and its machinations on behalf of the global corporatocracy. 

Around 1 in  2 of those Americans who voted - against all the expectations of the Clinton camp, the media pundits and, it seems, sections of the deep state - were persuaded to see Trump as someone who would stand up to the politicos and fight their corner, make America great (ie feared / respected  / envied) again.  What is sad and bad for them - and the rest of us - is they were royally conned but arguably no more than other people were conned by Obama’s oratorical skill, affability and urbanity. Or, for that matter, by Clinton’s dry credentialism.

Clinton was undoubtedly the most qualified candidate having acquired an impressive array of experience during her long career as a politician. But you do have to ask, qualified to do what?  A measure of what she intended to do may be found in the fact that she raised a vast sum of money to fight for the presidency but precious little was spent on reaching out to the almost 1 in 2 Americans who were not registered to vote. 

There's no doubt surely in any sensible person's mind, about Clinton's loyalty to the neo-conservative project. That proven loyalty is why the financial world and the deep state both expected and were content for her to win. 

Trump’s a paid up dynastic member of the American corporate class. He’s the product of high privilege. He’s not as patrician as George W Bush but his ‘man of the people’ act is just as contrived and phoney.  He's not the champion of the downtrodden; like his father before him, he got where he is by doing the treading. 

The reason Trump succeeded was he tapped into the deep vein of anger, fear and resentment felt by people who have been acculturated into believing that a degree of privilege is their birthright.  He claims to stand for domestic business interests in opposition to shadowy, poorly defined ‘foreign’ interests. He glosses over the fact that US Main Street is subservient to, and dependent upon Globalised Wall Street and the changing of that arrangement will require the changing of the whole world.

He’s changed the actors and some lines in the script but he won’t be able to deliver on his vague promises to change the plot and he will have to find a scapegoat to blame his failures on - assuming the US deep state doesn’t dispose of him first.

It's stating the blindingly obvious that the global corporate class has no real national loyalties; it will use nationalism and patriotism as weapons of social control but its members, for the most part, care only about money and power -  how to make it and how to keep it. 

The political class serves global economic interests that are inimical to the interests of a large and growing number of people.  It forms an essential buffer zone between the corporatists and the world they must, as a condition of their own existence, exploit - and is amply rewarded for its services. 

There are others who provide more tangential support - by voting correctly, paying taxes, being patriotic, playing the game and marching off to war when convinced enough of the awfulness and threat of whoever is today's enemy. It all works - as long as the great unwashed are content to remain dirty and downtrodden.  

The people who have voted for Trump are not the great unwashed. For the most part, Trump supporters are still on the track to 'success' -  they've just lost the slight starting line advantage they once had and they're blaming that on all the wrong people.

Obama's subservience to global interests quickly became apparent.  Clinton's has never been in question.  A bit of tinkering around the social margins and making some concessions to the formal and informal rights of groups of people who’ve been marginalized, but essentially acting to advance the power and interests of global finance capitalism and the military-industrial complex.

The main thrust of the neo-conservative project with its monetarist economic theory was to facilitate the operation of transnational corporations - by definition - companies which operate and extend across national boundaries and which, of necessity, seek to reduce the power and influence of national governments that might want to regulate business.  

It's an ideology that came to the fore in Reagan's administration and has been implemented with varying degrees of fervour by every US administration since.  Controls on the export of capital are removed, jobs are exported and/or labour is imported with the sole objective of driving down labour and other production costs in order to increase profits.  Profits are privatized and production costs are socialised as far as is achievable. This is why American primary industry crumbled and why its manufacturing base has been decimated.  

There's no place for nationalism in global neo-conservatism EXCEPT as a weapon of social control. If a form of revolutionary nationalism were to threaten global interests- it would be crushed mercilessly.  

Reactionary nationalism - which is usually draped in the national flag - is useful because it diverts, divides and inflames.  It makes some people say and do unconscionable things - such as advocating or participating in the slaughter of others. 

There are many in both the Republican and the Democratic parties who want to take US into yet another war – as usual disguising their aggressive imperialistic intent with rhetoric about patriotism and the defence of the ‘free world’.  Trump may well have to defer to them to stay in power.

Trump appealed to the vein of reactionary nationalism that runs both wide and deep in American society by claiming to support American national interests against external ones.  That may well have been genuine but even if it was genuine it was naive and is unlikely to survive the unprecedented tidal wave of propaganda, mockery and opprobrium that has engulfed him even before he has been inaugurated.  He will either have to capitulate to the globalists or they will destroy him – cheered on by those who detest him.

If his ego will not allow him to defer, the question is how will his opponents get rid of him without unleashing the potential for civil unrest?

If the bulk of the media are to be believed, a large proportion of those who voted for Trump are heavily armed bigots – some of whom, logic suggests, will be in the police and the army reserves.  How then, to persuade all those people who see Trump as the saviour of their America that their idol has clay feet, without unleashing the father of all rightwing backlashes?

When propagandists want to sow division and discord, they harness their ideological plough to a team of deep and ugly prejudices. The fields that they plough have been well fertilised by tons of shit and blood so growing a good crop of fear and rage towards the other is easy.  Trouble is you reap what you sow and fear and rage are not always easily directed. 

It gets all the more messy when the loss of secure employment has resulted in the loss of working class collectives, and when those who should be the voices of reason and common-sense are too busy arguing among themselves about whose interests are primary. 

In the context of the wider individualisation and social isolation promoted by neo-conservatism, the destruction of working class collectives has meant that a key means of organizing, educating and mobilising large numbers of people has been lost. 

The neo-cons' destruction and hamstringing of trade unions was not just about wages and conditions, it was about fragmenting and isolating those people whose stake in their society was about to be reduced to a splinter.

It’s also apparent that liberalism's not an absolute any more than bigotry is.  Political conservatives can be kind and forgiving people in some circumstances and political radicals can be cruel and retributive in some circumstances.  You have only to trawl through Twitter when the political liberals and radicals are in hot pursuit of someone who has been deemed to have breached protocols to see that.  

The degree of and attachment to social liberalism often correlates with the degree of actual and potential economic security and social mobility. The more threatening and unnerving the world is, or can be made to seem, the more likely some are to be drawn to simple answers and authoritarian conservatism.