Monday, 16 October 2017

Faith, Reason, and Democracy

by Ian Harris                Otago Daily Times                Oct. 13, 2017 

With the election behind us and democracy in good heart, let’s move on to a new guiding story, urges Ian Harris

Abraham Lincoln famously affirmed democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Winston Churchill considered it “the worst form of government except for all the others”. And said the best argument against democracy is “a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.

Somewhere in the middle of all that sits the state of democracy in this country – and, thinking not so much of the voting score-cards but the way the latest campaign was waged, it came through pretty well. There was a genuine contest of values, ideas and courses for the country to follow in the years ahead. Tribal branding words such as “socialist” and “conservative” slipped into the background. Even “left” and “right” nuanced into “progressive” and “stable” – though these can mean all things to all people. Who would not want steady gains in human well-being? Who in their right mind would favour turmoil over stability?

One of the roles of political leaders is to embody and convey the values their party stands for, even their vision if they have one, and when we look around the world, New Zealanders can be thankful for our party leaders. All but one showed they were registering a palpable mood for change and ready to move on, some cautiously, some resolutely, from a blinkered neoliberal paradigm. National’s Bill English has found a way to respond by changing the language of “welfare” to one of “social investment”. This clothes a humane impulse in the garb of financial prudence, which presumably has greater appeal to his constituency – and if that’s what it takes, so be it.

Politicians of the left work the other way round, responding first to human need and then setting out to find the wherewithal. The parties forming the new government now have the chance to show that their prescription delivers for all New Zealanders. That means getting serious about climate change, truly lifting people out of poverty, helping them into warm dry houses, assuring them of health care, and giving them the confidence to contribute to and feel fully part of their communities. If they fall short, other parties have other remedies ready to hand.

Elections are never seasons of sweetness and light, but the latest one lacked much of the visceral hostility to “the other lot” (or lots) that sometimes mars campaigns. Of course there were disappointing aspects. National resorted to fake news, Trumpeting [Subs: cap is intentional] a fictional $11.7-billion hole in Labour’s budget, falsely advertising that Labour was bent on taxing a glass of water, overtly quarrying voter self-interest and fear. Labour undermined its sunny positivity by lack of attention to economic detail where it mattered.

But a major plus of MMP is that it incentivises the larger parties to show at least some courtesy towards the smaller players, knowing they might need them one day as partners in government. Hence former prime minister Jim Bolger’s advice to his successors to show respect to Winston Peters and work with the Greens.

Another positive for democracy in New Zealand is that an MMP Parliament is more broadly representative of voters than its first-past-the-post predecessors. Till 1996, elections usually swung on a relatively small group of voters in a handful of electorates. And then the result delivered, in effect, a blank cheque to a cabinet chosen from the winner, valid for three years. True, proportional representation does not necessarily mean proportionality of power, and NZ First’s pivotal role in forming a government is out of all proportion to the seven seats it won.

However, any coalition partner can expect to have a tempering effect on whichever party it blesses (or curses) with its presence. It will be tempered in turn. Negotiation and compromise become virtuous necessities. Looking ahead, the times demand new horizons. Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote last month that the planetary environmental crisis makes the “stories” that drove politics in the 20th century – Keynesian social democracy, then individualistic neoliberalism – inadequate for the 21st. A new guiding story is needed to capture the imagination of the populace, springing from what he calls “the central facts of our humanity: our altruism and mutual aid”.

Whenever there is a disaster, those qualities immediately kick in. Building community through “a politics of belonging”– Monbiot’s new story – would make our altruism and mutual aid the norm in political, economic and social life. Signs are that such a story is stirring here. Transformation and renewal lie at the heart of a Christian approach to life, meaning and purpose. Will churches see they have a part to play?

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

I wanted to know why racists hated me, so I met some Klansmen

By Daryl Davis                    Sydney Morning Herald               2 October, 2017

One night in 1983, I found myself playing in a country band at a truck stop lounge. I was the only black person in the joint. Taking a break after the first set of music, I was headed to sit at a table with my bandmates when a white gentleman approached from behind and put his arm around my shoulders. "I really enjoy y'all's music," he said. I shook his hand and thanked him.

"This is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis," he continued. I told him that Lewis was a friend of mine and that he had learnt his style from watching and listening to black blues and boogie-woogie pianists. My new fan didn't buy it, but he did want to buy me a drink. While we sipped, he clinked my glass and said, "This is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man."

Why? "I'm a member of the Ku Klux Klan," he said. I burst out laughing. Then he handed me his KKK membership card, and I recognised the Klan's symbols. In that moment, I was overcome by a question: How could anybody hate me when they didn't even know me?

I decided to figure it out by getting to know those who felt hostility towards black people without ever having known any. Several years later, I recruited that man, whose name was Frank James, to put me in contact with the grand dragon of the Maryland Klan. He tried to deter me, warning that the leader would kill me. But eventually, after I promised not to reveal how I'd got the grand dragon's contact information, James gave it to me.

By then I had decided to travel around the country and interview KKK leaders and members from various chapters and factions to get the answer to my question: how can you hate someone you've never met? I was planning to write a book detailing my interviews, experiences and encounters with these Ku Klux Klan members. (The book, Klan-Destine Relationships, was published in 1998.)

I had my white secretary, who typically booked my band and assisted me with my music business, set up a meeting with the Maryland grand dragon, explaining that her boss was writing a book on the Klan and would like his input. As per my instructions, she did not reveal the colour of my skin.

The grand dragon agreed to participate, and we secured a room at a motel in Frederick, Maryland, where my secretary filled an ice bucket with cans of soda so I could offer my guest a drink. Regardless of how and what he felt about me, if he entered my room after seeing the colour of my skin, I was going to treat him with hospitality.

Punctual to the minute, there was a knock on the door. The grand nighthawk (the grand dragon's bodyguard) entered first, and then the dragon himself. "Hello," I began, "I'm Daryl Davis." I offered my palm, and the dragon shook my hand as he and the nighthawk introduced themselves.

We were both apprehensive of the other, and the interview started haltingly. We discussed what he had hoped to achieve by joining the Klan; what his thoughts were on blacks, Asians, Jews and Hispanics; and whether he thought it would ever be possible for different races to get along. A little while later, we heard an inexplicable crackling noise and we both tensed. The dragon and I stared each other in the eye, silently asking, "What did you just do?" The nighthawk reached for his gun. Nobody spoke. I barely breathed.

My secretary realised what had happened: the ice in the bucket had started to melt, causing the soda cans to shift. It happened again, and we all began laughing. From there, the interview went on without a hitch. It was a perfect illustration that ignorance breeds fear and possibly violence. An unknown noise in an ice bucket could have led to gunfire had we not taken a moment to understand what we were encountering.

Even though the grand dragon,had told me he knew that white people were superior to blacks, our dialogue continued over the years. He would visit me in my home, and I would eventually be a guest in his. We would share many meals together, even though he thought I was inferior. Within a couple of years, he rose to the rank of imperial wizard, the top national leadership position in the Klan.

Over the past 30 years, I have come to know hundreds of white supremacists, from KKK members, neo-Nazis and white nationalists to those who call themselves alt-right. Some were good people with wrong beliefs, and others were bad people hell-bent on violence and the destruction of those who were non-Aryan.

There was Bob White, a grand dragon for Maryland who served four years in prison for conspiring to bomb a synagogue in Baltimore, where he had been a police officer. When he got out, he returned to the Klan and later went back to prison for three more years for assaulting two black men with a shotgun, evidently intent on murder. But afterwards I reached out to him with a letter while he was in prison for the second time, Bob became a very good friend, renounced the Klan and attended my wedding.

Imperial wizard Frank Ancona, who headed one of the largest Klan groups in the country, would also become a very close friend. When Frank was killed this year (his wife and stepson have been charged with murdering him), one of his Klan members, knowing how close we had been, called me and told me before notifying the police. I accepted the Klan's invitation to participate in his funeral service.

Three weeks after this summer's violent clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was invited by the leaders of the Tennessee and Kentucky chapters of Ancona's branch of the Klan to speak at their national Konvocation. I accepted, spoke and took audience questions after the lecture. Whether or not anyone there immediately changed their minds, we talked as people - and we all benefited from that.

I am not so naive as to think everyone will change. There are certainly those who will go to their graves as hateful, violent racists. I never set out certain that I would convert anyone. I just wanted to have a conversation and ask, "How can you hate me when you don't even know me?"

What I've learnt is that whether or not I've changed minds, talking can still relieve tensions. I've seen firsthand that when two enemies are talking, they are not fighting. They may be yelling and beating their fists on the table, but at least they are talking. Violence happens only when talking has stopped.

And sometimes, people do change. One day in 1999, after having been in the Ku Klux Klan for about 20 years, the Klan leader from the motel interview, whom I watched go from grand dragon to imperial wizard, called me, said he was leaving the Klan and apologised for having been a member.

He told me he could no longer hate people. I had not turned out to be what he had always thought of black people. He went on to become one of my best friends, and today I own his robe and hood - one set of many in my collection of garments donated to me by apostate Klansmen and Klanswomen, which is always growing. [Abridged]

Daryl Davis, author of Klan-Destine Relationships and the subject of the documentary Accidental Courtesy, is an award-winning musician, actor, lecturer and race relations expert.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/i-wanted-to-understand-why-racists-hated-me-so-i-befriended-klansmen/2017/09/29/c2f46cb8-a3af-11e7-b14f-f41773cd5a14_story.html?utm_term=.7087db60ae83

Reclaiming the Truth About Vietnam

Robert C. Koehler                  Pub by Common Dreams            2 September, 2017

Just the other day 89 senators voted to pass the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, signing off on a $700 billion defense budget, which ups annual military spending by $80 billion while also authorizing the production of 94 F-35 jets, two dozen more than the Pentagon requested.” And of course there’s no controversy here, no demanding to know where the money will come from.

The Full Disclosure campaign rips away the lies that allow America’s wars to continue. The U.S. Air Force dropped over 6 million tons of bombs and other ordnance on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1964 and 1973, more than it expended in World War II, Howard Machtinger notes at the Full Disclosure website. And more than 19 million gallons of toxic chemicals, including the infamous Agent Orange, were dumped on the Vietnam countryside.

“Accurate estimates are hard to come by,” he writes, “but as many as three million Vietnamese were likely killed, including two million civilians, hundreds of thousands seriously injured and disabled, millions of internally displaced, croplands and forests destroyed: incredible destruction — physical, environmental, institutional, and psychological.

And then there was the war’s effect on the soldiers who fought it and the “moral damage” so many suffered: “To date,” Machtinger writes, “estimates of veteran suicides range from a low of 9,000 to 150,000, the latter almost triple the number of U.S. deaths during the actual conflict.” So I pause in the midst of these numbers, this data, letting the words and the memories wash over me: Agent Orange, napalm, gook, My Lai.

Slowly, the powers that be regrouped, redefined how we fought our wars: without widespread national sacrifice or a universal draft; and with smart bombs and even smarter public relations, ensuring that most of the American public could watch our clean, efficient wars in the comfort of their living rooms. Eventually, endless war became the new normal, and blotting the shame of our “loss” in Vietnam from the historical record became a priority.

The Full Disclosure campaign is saying: no way. One aspect of this campaign is an interactive exhibit of the 1968 My Lai massacre, in which American soldiers rounded up and killed more than 500 villagers. The exhibit was created by the Chicago chapter of Vets for Peace, which hopes to take it on a national tour and rekindle public awareness of the reality of war.

A slice of that reality can be found in a New Yorker article written in 2015 by Seymour Hersh, the reporter who broke the story some four and a half decades earlier. In the article, Hersh revisits the story of one of the GI participants in My Lai, Paul Meadlo:

After being told by (Lt. William) Calley to ‘take care of this group,’ one Charlie Company soldier recounted, Meadlo and a fellow-soldier ‘were actually playing with the kids, telling the people where to sit down and giving the kids candy.’ When Calley returned and said that he wanted them dead, the soldier said, ‘Meadlo just looked at him like he couldn’t believe it. He says, “Waste them?” When Calley said yes, another soldier testified, Meadlo and Calley ‘opened up and started firing.’ But then Meadlo ‘started to cry.’

And that’s the war, and those are our values, buried with the dead villagers in a mass grave.

https://www.commondreams.org/views/2017/09/21/reclaiming-truth-about-vietnam

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Election Voting 2017

by Ian Harris                   Otago Daily Times               Sept. 8, 2017

Before we settle on which political party to support, let’s ask a few questions of ourselves, urges Ian Harris.

An election is traditionally an opportunity to ask questions of would-be politicians. More fruitfully, it’s an opportunity to ask questions of ourselves. Questions to candidates will then follow, but the self-examination is actually the more valuable for democratic engagement. That’s because a healthy democracy involves more than ticking a box on a ballot paper once every three years. It thrives when we give serious thought to what kind of society we want to live in, and what changes we are willing to contemplate to bring it about. If you think you already live in an earthly paradise, of course, you will want nothing to change at all.

That’s unlikely, so here’s a check-list to get you started: 

■ What values are core for you – so important that they will determine your vote? Do those values tilt more towards yourself and your own advantage, or towards society and the common good?
■ Do you think economic considerations outweigh social issues? Moral issues? Environmental issues?
■ Are you content with the New Zealand that 30 years of neo-liberal economics have produced, and therefore want more of the same? Or do you favour a more inclusive economic model?
■ Are you open to good ideas, no matter which party offers them?
■ Is this invitation to self-reflection a waste of time, because you always vote for the same party regardless?

Only when you have held up the mirror to yourself are you democratically primed to turn your gaze outwards and evaluate the parties, their programmes, and the candidates who aspire to represent you in Parliament. And there, as often as not, a trade-off begins. No party is perfect, and there will always be unintended consequences from whatever policy is implemented. That’s why the values shaping those programmes should be the crucial test and measure.

A previous column highlighted the values of care, community and creativity. So another question: How important are those values to you? Will you apply them to assess the parties and their platforms? There are plenty of other questions touching on New Zealand and its place in the world. One bears directly on the kind of country that we’d like to pass on to our children and grandchildren, but it is distinguished by hardly figuring at all: a comprehensive population policy to give stability and direction as we move steadily forward into a globalising world.

For many years the prime focus has been on growing the economy, as though that were sufficient in itself, without worrying too much about the overall effects on people and the land. One result has been a tight lid on wages through ramping up immigration. That’s totally inadequate. A population policy would settle on a desirable level of immigration, taking into account the diversity and balance of ethnicities, the country’s bicultural foundation, what will be needed in housing, health care, schools, social welfare as the numbers grow, increasing pressures on the natural environment, the impact on productive land as cities sprawl into orchards, market gardens, and farms.

The market-driven emphasis on growth, growth and more growth has a lot to answer for, and one serious effect is its colonisation of head-space, closing out other options. Let’s strike a blow for freedom by unhitching “wealth” from its present connotation of amassing piles of money, and restoring its original meaning of “well-being”, both individual and social. That is a prime concern of all major religions, and people of faith should want to see that truer concept of wealth applied across the board.

Politicians won’t usually look to the prophetic poetry of the Bible for guidance, but a distinguished American Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, thinks voters can and should. He says the poetry of the prophets urges people: Don’t let anyone tell you that the dominant ideology is a given. It may suit the moneyed elites of the day to say so, but you can maintain a zone of freedom in your lives that allows you to imagine otherwise – and then act accordingly.

Your vote is an excellent place to start. Child poverty in a land of plenty, housing too expensive for many to contemplate, rivers too polluted to swim in any more, health care unavailable to many who need it, a tepid response to climate change, not requiring a living wage for the lowest-paid – these are not inevitable states of nature. They are the result of political decisions based on economic theories serving those who already have the most. How different all these would be if care, community and creativity were central! It’s time they were. 

The best weapon to de-radicalise Isis returnees? Our own humanity

Sanam Naraghi Anderlini                     Guardian/UK               15 September 2017

With relentless air strikes and ground attacks against Islamic State in Syria, hundreds of their foreign fighters and supporters are massing on the Turkish border, trying to get out. Of the at least 20,000 foreign fighters estimated to have been in Syria, 2,500 were thought to be Europeans, of whom 850 were British. Many may have died, but those who remain are likely to try to return home at some stage. The looming question is: what now? How do we treat them? Even if they say they are repentant, can we trust them? What if these former fighters are returning to form sleeper cells and plan attacks on home soil? It is easy to dehumanise: these are the ultimate bad guys, dressed in black, killing and maiming with glee.

However, there is more to them than meets the eye. For years researchers and activists have delved into why people have been radicalised. Some went to Syria out of compassion for the plight of Syrians at the hands of the Assad regime, and profound anger at the seeming inaction of their own governments – ignoring the thousands of Syrian civil society activists who begged them to stay away. Others, particularly, the younger women, wanted to free themselves of the shackles of familial expectations, and were lured by a mix of online sexual grooming and the promise of empowerment. Many were petty criminals evangelised in state prisons. Undoubtedly some have mental health issues, and others are simply opportunists.

So what do we do? Many might assume they will be imprisoned. But prisons are key sites for recruitment and radicalisation. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis founder, was a two-bit nobody until he landed in an American prison in Iraq. The humiliation he experienced at the hands of US forces motivated his founding of Isis. Prisons in the UK, Belgium and France could enable them to recruit a new cadre of supporters.

In Pakistan the Paiman Trust, a non-governmental organisation, combines psycho-social care with religious literacy, livelihood-skills training and even civic education to teach the reforming Taliban about their multiple identities and cultures as Pakistanis, Pathans and Muslims. Recognising their humanity is at the core of any of these programmes. “I wish them happy birthday, because no one has ever done that. They call me Baba,” says Shafqat Khan, of the Paiman Trust. It turns out caring brings the best outcomes. But it is painstaking work, and families can face tremendous stigma. Some may be ashamed to reclaim sons – and especially daughters – who have transgressed acceptable social norms. Others may be fearful of constant police surveillance. There is doubtless much anger, pain and sense of betrayal.

To avoid a backlash against minority communities, the government and media must emphasise that these returnees represent a minuscule minority of the 2.7 million Muslims in the UK. Some Muslims, like any other Britons, may have felt similar grievances as those who were radicalised, but they have gone on to lead normal lives – so rehabilitation programmes cannot be perceived as rewarding violence. If we fall victim to this sort of thinking, we become that which we abhor and fear

Ultimately, we must be mindful of our own humanity. Extremists can be violent because they separate themselves from “others”. They lose empathy and compassion. As we face the prospect of Isis returnees to the UK, we must challenge our own perceptions. It would be easy if they were all one-dimensional, Bond-movie bad guys – but they are not. If we fall victim to this sort of thinking, we become that which we abhor and fear. Instead our collective task as a nation is to find our own deep well of decency and humanity, to be fair and compassionate, just and kind, and perhaps above all to care: about the victims, the perpetrators, and those who are both victim and perpetrator. [Abridged]

• Sanam Naraghi Anderlini is the co-founder and executive director of the International Civil Society Action Network