My memory seems terrible these days, so these requests may become a common feature of the blog. A few weeks ago, at the height of the abortive leadership campaign against Jeremy Corbyn there was an excerpt from a speech doing the rounds on various UK blogs and social media of (I think) a former Labour leader (MacDonald? Atlee?) castigating his own party for an obsession with principle over pragmatism with lines similar to ‘what wins applause at party conferences does not win applause in general elections’. Now I can’t find it! Anyone else see this and remember the speaker, or any searchable details?
August 8, 2016
I just listened to RNZ’s Morning Report, which consisted of a bitter debate between Matthew Hooton and Stephen Mills over whether the Labour-Green plan to build new state houses is a plan to build ‘slums’, and the vital point that wasn’t made is that many of the original state houses built by the first Labour government, ie the first ‘slums’ are now worth so much money that the government is selling them, because they can’t justify owning state houses with a multi-million dollar list value.
Also, I have this theory that Asimov’s Foundation trilogy is one of the most influential literary works of the twentieth century. The theory doesn’t have much credibility with many of the literary people I talk to, who have mostly not heard of it, but Paul Krugman had a good essay about the books in the Guardian a while back, and now I’m reading The Unwinding by George Packer, and Newt Gingrich and Peter Theil both cite Foundation as influential texts when they were growing up. Go Foundation.
August 6, 2016
Rob Hosking has had a few columns in the NBR (paywalled) advancing the theory that:
because most or all writing about New Zealand’s political history was written either from a pro-Labour perspective or, if it criticised Labour it was from the Left, it means there is a colossal ignorance about half the New Zealand political scene
Hosking argues that the left does not understand the ‘traditions of New Zealand conservatism’, which makes the left blind to National’s strengths and renders themselves unable to counter their arguments. And he recommends several books people could read, like Gustafson’s books about Muldoon and Holyoake, or Michael Bassett’s The State in New Zealand to deeper understand the traditions of kiwi conservatism.
Firstly, I am guilty of the lack of perspective he’s writing about, and I plan to finally getting around to reading some of those books – the Gustafson ones especially. (I feel like I wasted enough time reading Bassett’s ridiculous tantrums and rants in The Dominion to ever trouble myself to pick up one of his books.)
But, secondly, while I agree that not many left-wing MPs or activists are familiar with this New Zealand conservative tradition Rob is talking about, I doubt many of them have read many books about left-wing traditions either. And I simultaneously doubt that many National Party MPs or activists have read many of the books on Rob’s reading list. Most MPs read a lot but they tend not to get through many weighty books, mostly because of the endless reams of other crap they have to read. And I’m not convinced that many people on the right share Rob’s adherence to this tradition. Rodney Hide, who writes a column every winter about how global warming is obviously wrong, because he is cold, seems to be a greater influence. This indicates that intellectualism does not closely correlate with political success and, I feel, invalidates a lot of Rob’s thesis.
Thirdly, I am dubious about the idea that the relative lack of historical writing about conservative New Zealand governments is about the bias of left-wing historians, so much as the general bias of all historians to privilege things that are interesting over things that aren’t. Are there more books about the first Labour government than the first National government because historians are left wing, or are there more books because Savage’s government is much, much more interesting than Holland’s?
Fourthly, what even is the ‘tradition of New Zealand conservatism’? Rob’s answer to that would be, I think, go and read the books I talked about. And I will – some of them. Eventually. But I am always suspicious of an argument that merely instructs you to go away and read a lot of very thick books. Popper’s Open Society and its Enemies is arguably the most influential work of political philosophy in the twentieth century: it consists of two large volumes, but can be summed up in one sentence (democracy is the best form of government, not because it guarantees good government but because it is the only way to non-violently remove bad government ). Other political traditions – environmentalism, neoliberalism, identity politics, social democracy – can all be effortlessly summarised by anyone familiar with them. Why is New Zealand conservatism so deep and nuanced that only lengthy study can elucidate it?
Rob’s argument strays dangerously close to ‘The Courtiers Reply’, a term invented by P Z Meyer’s in the wake of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, in which many religious critics simply dismissed Dawkins as not qualified to discuss religion because he wasn’t trained in theology. To mock this argument Myers imagines a courtier replying to the outrageous claim that the Emperor is naked:
I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste.
Fifthly, while I am admittedly ignorant of the New Zealand conservative tradition, I’m very familiar with the UK tradition, famously summed up by Oakeshott:
To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.
Although I think conservatism is useful as a critique, or a temperament I have never been able to take it seriously as a philosophy, or even a tradition. Strip out the rhetoric and it amounts to a declaration by people privileged by the status quo that the status quo, and therefore their own privilege, must be preserved (although some conservative thinkers argue for the odd incremental reform, to forestall any violent revolutions). Which, of course they’d say that, but let’s not pretend that this is a philosophy or a tradition in the manner of liberalism, or neoliberalism, or Marxism, or social democracy or any other political tradition. Marx nailed it, I think, when he wrote:
Thus the Tories in England long imagined that they were enthusiastic about monarchy, the church, and the beauties of the old English Constitution, until the day of danger wrung from them the confession that they are enthusiastic only about ground rent
But maybe the New Zealand conservative tradition will be more convincing?
Sixthly, I think that what sparked all this off is Rob taking umbrage at various lefties attacking the Key government as neoliberal. I don’t think they are, although neoliberal beliefs in the efficacy of the market are definitely in the mix when they’re forced into policy development. They’re primarily conservatives, but the most important thing to preserve is their own government and in that sense they’re populists who prefer market-based solutions when their focus groups compel them to do something. Maybe that’s what the New Zealand conservative tradition is? I don’t know yet.
Seventhly, a conservative-populist is a smart thing to be if all that you really want to be is in government for as long as possible, but not do very much. But it’s not something that future historians are going to be inclined to write about.
August 5, 2016
Celia Wade-Brown has called a press conference for later today where she will, presumably, announce that she isn’t contesting the mayoralty and that she’s endorsing Justin Lester. Who will almost certainly win. Which will mean that after the local body elections the mayors of our three largest cities will be Labour Party politicians. Is there a counter-cyclical thing happening here, in which the Parliamentary party is languishing so the good candidates switch to local body politics? A dumb coincidence? Something else?
August 3, 2016
President Barack Obama has said Republican nominee Donald Trump is unfit to be president, and questioned why his party still supports the New York billionaire’s candidacy.
“There has to come a point at which you say: ‘Enough’,” Mr Obama said.
Mr Trump has been sharply criticised for attacking the parents of a fallen US soldier who spoke out against him.
He has also been condemned for backing the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Mr Obama said he had had policy differences with previous Republican presidents and candidates – but added that he had never thought they could not function as president.
At last week’s Democratic National Convention, Khizr Khan – a Muslim whose son was killed serving in the US military in Iraq – criticised Mr Trump’s plan to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the US.
Mr Trump responded by attacking the “Gold Star” family, the term for families that have lost a relative in war. Democratic and Republican leaders as well as veterans’ groups quickly condemned him.
I feel like we’re seeing the Clinton campaign’s strategy for handling Trump play out: keep him in a constant fight against various surrogates and proxies, all calculated to damage him with swing voters, while Hilary remains above the fray. Trump’s brand is all about dominance and winning so he has to engage with these attacks from democratic surrogates – otherwise he’d look weak. And he, personally seems unable to see these traps for what they are, so he repeatedly blunders straight into them. Let’s see what his response to Obama is.
August 2, 2016
The Māori Party says it can’t support Helen Clark’s bid to head the United Nations because of the way she treated Māori when Prime Minister of New Zealand.
Miss Clark, who now heads the United Nations Development Programme, hopes to become the next secretary-general of the world body.
But Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox said Helen Clark had a poor track record when it came to respecting the rights of indigenous people.
“The Labour Party refused to sign the Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is a part of the UN agenda.
The Labour Party in its time saw the Tuhoe raids and of course also there is the Foreshore and Seabed amendment which took the rights of Māori away to go to court.”
Ms Fox said someone seeking the top role at the United Nations should be able to acknowledge their past mistakes and apologise for them.
But Labour says the Māori Party’s refusal to support Helen Clark in her bid to head the United Nations stinks.
The stakes here seem pretty low to me, because Clark seems to have almost zero chance of winning this thing. But the politics are very clever: Labour and the Maori Party are locked in a deadly struggle for the Maori seats, and this is such a sweet way for the MP to remind their constituents how comprehensively Labour fucked them when they were in government. Which is, presumably, why Labour are so outraged.
July 31, 2016
Various Sunday morning thoughts which don’t deserve their own posts and probably don’t deserve this one either
- We saw Midnight Special at the film festival last night. Unlike seemingly everyone else on the internet we actually bought our tickets. It screened at the Lighthouse Petone, which I’d never been to before and is a very nice theatre. And was a pretty good movie. Although, as always with films motivated by interesting ideas, I’d much rather have watched a TV show about it than a two hour film.
- RNZ is included in the radio ratings for the first time since the Paleolithic era! And they’re killing it! I hope their success doesn’t send swarms of media lobbyists into the Beehive demanding National cut RNZ’s funding even further so that commercial media can grow their audience base!
- It again makes the case that what is interesting to audiences that advertisers want to advertise to (generally the dumbest people in the country, hence most persuadable) is not what’s interesting to most of the rest of us.
- There’s speculation on the internets that Donald Trump might not debate Hilary Clinton. Which would be a shame, but got me wondering: who would Hilary’s practise adversary be for those debates? Obama prepped against Romney by debating Kerry, which was perfect. But Trump? I’m thinking Danny McBride. He had this line in, I think, Eastbound and Down where he described himself as ‘King Shit of Fuck Mountain’, which seems like the kind of A material Trump is likely to bring to the US Presidential debates.
- I am not worried about the US election. I think Trump is too flawed as an individual to win the election, and I think the contest from now on will start to amplify those flaws in a way that makes him quite unpopular, and that Clinton will win easily. I am a little scared by the idea that Trump is a kind of John the Baptist figure for a future, more sophisticated messiah of white identity politics.
July 30, 2016
Duncan Garner writes about two recently sentenced child-killers:
I support Massey law professor Chris Gallavin on this.
We should be applauding him for his bravery and guts in speaking out. He won’t be popular with some in his profession.
He says when these two appear before the Court of Appeal their convictions for manslaughter should be quashed – and they should be re-tried for murder. Like they should have been in the first place.
He’s confident they would be found guilty. Then they could be given a life sentence. Then they would be sent to jail for 20 years plus.
Does the appeals process actually work like this? I’m not a lawyer but I saw a trailer for the Ashley Judd movie Double Jeopardy once, and I don’t think this is how the legal system works.
Update: Andrew Geddis has already written about this inaccurate description of the appeals process here. A shame, what with all this talk of post-truth politicians that senior academics and broadcasters are getting something like this so wrong.
July 29, 2016
I like the way the media have taken to covering incidents of young people buying houses and putting them on the front page of the newspaper/web site. Y’know, to show how super, totally extremely normal it is for young people to be buying property. Also, young people deciding to enrich themselves via the property market, becoming a landlord instead of getting a professional qualification, or starting a business is just another super normal thing that we shouldn’t worry about at all.
Gordon Campbell has a Roland Barthes-based theory on John Key’s enduring popularity (Key is actually less popular than his party nowadays). I’ve had a non post-structuralist theory about the dynamics of New Zealand politics for a while:
- The two left-wing opposition parties (Labour and the Greens) aren’t competing against the government in any substantive sense. They’re competing against each other for the same reasonably small pool of university educated urban liberal voters.
- The reasons for this are partly strategic but mostly cultural: both parties are dominated by members of this small but influential class.
- So policy and messaging are both directed at them and not at the much larger pool of centrist soft National voters. Which is why Labour spent the first half of the year talking about free university degrees, a universal basic income and medicinal pot, issues of little valence to middle New Zealand but endless fascination to left-wing intellectuals.
- And its why there’s virtually no movement from National to Labour in the polls. All those voters (80-90% of the population?) are mostly ‘excluded from the narrative’ (to quote Barthes?). The left-wing political parties are working hard, but running as fast as they can just to stay in place with each other in relative terms.
- Because they’re immersed in their own class, both in Wellington, other urban enclaves and in the social media world, the caucus, party and staffers of these parties are constantly validated by their courtship of this demographic. Only polls and the occasional election interrupt the discourse.
- And because they are so indulged in terms of policy and messaging, members of this class are baffled by the failure of the rest of the country to be equally persuaded about the merits of changing the government.
- This culture and process constrains either party from any attempt to break out of this dynamic.