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

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The most arrogant people in Australia are business people and we're sick of them

Ross Gittins                     Sydney Morning Herald                      September 6 2017

How the worm – and the world – turns. When the Abbott government came to power just four years ago, it claimed its arrival signalled the "end of the age of entitlement". Don't laugh, it's happening – but in the opposite way to what treasurer Joe Hockey had in mind. As Hockey saw it, the sense of entitlement we'd acquired, but which could no long be afforded, applied to the social needs of individuals and families.

We saw the results of this attitude in Tony Abbott and Hockey's first budget of 2014, which got an enormous thumbs-down from the public and the Senate, so that pretty much all that remains of the attack on unwarranted entitlement is the unending crusade by the government's Don Quixote, Christian Porter, and his loyal Sancho, Alan Tudge, to root out the last welfare cheat.

Not content with the grand stuff-up that was the "robodebt" use of unguided computers to collect amounts that may or may not have been overpaid, the pair are now hot on the trail of drug-taking welfare recipients. Drug testing isn't cheap, so it's likely the exercise will cost the taxpayer more than it saves. And drug care experts – who weren't consulted - say addicts can't be successfully coerced into treatment.

Trouble is, successive governments have been cracking down on welfare cheats every year for decades, so there can't be all that many of 'em left. Why do I get the feeling that cracking down on welfare cheating is, at best, what governments do when they want to be seen to be cutting their spending but aren't game to. Or, at worst, when they want to exploit the popular delusion that we could all be paying less tax if it weren't for the massive sums being siphoned off by dole bludgers and the like.

Sorry, the people doing by far the most to keep welfare spending high and rising are known as age pensioners. And no one has a stronger sense of entitlement than an oldie fighting for the pension. "I've paid taxes all my life . . ." But though one of Aussies' less attractive traits has been our proneness to "downwards envy" – the delusion that people worse-off than us are doing it easy – polling by the Essential organisation suggests it may be wearing off, replaced by disapproval of wealthier tax dodgers.

They used not to be so arrogant, but more than three decades of neoliberal ideology – under which governments should do as little as possible to burden the private sector or restrict its freedom – have left business people convinced they're demi-gods, the source of all goodness and justly entitled to our approbation. They're the source of all jobs, and thus entitled to have their every demand satisfied.

The developed world is still recovering from the carnage of the global financial crisis, caused by letting American banks do hugely risky things in the pursuit of higher profits and bonuses, confident in the knowledge that, should things come unstuck, the government would bail them out. Meanwhile, journalists are uncovering a remarkable degree of lawlessness by other businesses: young people paid less than their legal entitlement, exploitation of foreign workers on visas, employers failing to pay in their workers' super contributions. It's as though business people see themselves as so economically virtuous as to be above the law. Just a bit of red tape those gutless pollies have yet to clear away.

What's changed with the end of the era of neoliberalism, however, is the willingness of politicians on both sides to toughen up on the banks and other businesses. They'll be paying more rather than less tax in future, and governments are already far less hesitant to regulate them more closely. I see a lot more coming. Why? Because voters have got sick of arrogant business people. [Abridged]

Ross Gittins is the Herald's economics editor.

There’s a disaster much worse than Texas. But no one talks about it

Jonathan Freedland                Guardian/UK                  3 September 2017

In this story America is not the victim. Along with Britain, it is on the side of the perpetrator – helping to cause the world’s worst humanitarian crisis

What is currently the world’s worst humanitarian disaster? If you nominated storm Harvey and the flooding of Houston, in Texas, then don’t be too hard on yourself. Media coverage of that disaster has been intense, and the pictures dramatic. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this supposedly once-in-a-thousand-years calamity – now happening with alarming frequency, thanks to climate change – was the most devastating event on the planet. As it happens, Harvey has killed an estimated 44 Texans and forced some 32,000 into shelters since it struck, a week ago. That is a catastrophe for every one of those individuals, of course. Still, those figures look small alongside the havoc wreaked by flooding across southern Asia during the very same period. In the past few days, more than 1,200 people have been killed, and the lives of some 40 million others turned upside down, by torrential rain in northern India, southern Nepal, northern Bangladesh and southern Pakistan.

That there is a disparity in the global attention paid to these two natural disasters is hardly a novelty. It’s as old as the news itself, expressed in one, perhaps apocryphal Fleet Street maxim like a law of physics: “One dead in Putney equals 10 dead in Paris equals 100 dead in Turkey equals 1,000 dead in India equals 10,000 dead in China.”

But I’ve not yet given an answer to my quiz question. Full marks if you put your hand up to say … Yemen. In July the UN determined that it was “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”. If you think it’s hard to get westerners interested in flood victims in Nepal, just try talking about Yemen.

The scale of the suffering in the Arab world’s poorest country is clear. Since it became the site of a proxy war in March 2015, 10,000 people have been killed, with 7 million made homeless. The UN is especially anxious about cholera, which has already killed 2,000 people and infected more than 540,000. It threatens to become an epidemic. That’s no surprise, given that sewage plants have been among the infrastructure bombed from the sky. The Saudi-led coalition has kept Sana’a airport closed, which means food and medicines cannot get in and the sick cannot get out for treatment. Pictures of gaunt children, listless babies and starving mothers recall the worst of Africa’s famines – but this disaster is entirely human-made. Nor is this a remote story utterly unconnected to us. On the contrary, the Saudi government is armed to the hilt with weapons supplied by the UK and the US: £3.3bn worth of British firepower in the first year of this vicious war alone. And yet Yemen has barely registered in the western consciousness, let alone stirred the western conscience.

Of course, there are all the usual factors explaining public indifference to horrible events far, far away. But there is one that is relatively new. Before 2003, whenever word came of some distant catastrophe that posed no threat to our own safety, a discussion soon followed on what “we” should do about it. The two sides would take up their positions: the “something must be done” brigade pitted against those who argue that, however awful things are, it is none of our business and we will only make matters worse. Sometimes the latter camp would prevail – think of Douglas Hurd and mid-1990s Bosnia; sometimes, the former: witness Tony Blair and Kosovo.

After Iraq, that changed. Thanks to the invasion, as well as the bloodshed and mayhem in Afghanistan and Libya, the argument is now settled – and the non-interventionists won. The test case is Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people – more than Saddam ever did – and yet has been allowed to retain his throne untroubled by outside challenge. There’s not much interest even in pressuring London and Washington to stop arming the Saudi regime that is responsible for the country’s torment, despite the warnings that Yemen risks becoming the next Syria: its soil soaked in blood, rendered fertile for the next generation of violent jihadists.

It is worth noting one consequence of this shift: it’s as if, now that we know that we will do nothing about these distant tragedies, we have lost interest in them altogether. If we are not going to act, then why bother knowing about them? The result is that the children of Yemen are dying cruel deaths, while the rest of the world ignores them. They are dying under a hot desert sun, killed by our allies – and by our inattention. [Abridged]

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Jesus and Christ, Part 2

By Ian Harris                       Otago Daily Times                      August 11, 2017

Jesus and Christ are linked but not the same, says Ian Harris. So be sure to place the Christ within the human thought-world where archetypes belong.

There’s only one great, interconnected world. But there are worlds within that world, and two biggies stand out. Theologian Sir Lloyd Geering identifies them as the physical world of nature and science, and the world of human thought. The physical world takes in geology and biology, physics and chemistry, quantum physics and everything where the laws of science apply. The thought-world is very different. It’s all we experience that isn’t subject to the scientific method of observation, experiment, and replication in order to reach a predictable result. It’s the realm of emotion, imagination, reflection, interpretation, dreaming and creativity. It’s the realm that produces a Shakespeare or Beethoven or Mandela in a way no scientist could predict. It’s the realm that prompts people to affirm values and look for purpose in life.

Obviously there would be no thought-world without the physical world, because we’re physical beings – but the fact of being flesh and bone doesn’t go anywhere near to telling us who we are. Obviously, too, our physical brains and bodies affect our thought-world, just as our thought-world impacts on our brains and bodies, as in helping or impeding healing. Traditionally, God was located in that physical world – creating it, intervening directly in it, to cause good harvests, trigger earthquakes, help this person recover from illness but let that one die, protect from danger, bring sunshine or rain. Lots of prayers still assume so.

Today, however, many people see God rather as a product of the human thought-world, finding the concept relevant as they reflect on their experience, seek meaning and purpose, think about values and what is ultimate for them, and wonder about the dynamic interconnectedness of all life. That’s the world of religion, because religion belongs within the world of human thought and consciousness rather than the physical world. The human Jesus belonged in the physical world in the same way as we do, but he contributed to the thought-world in a massively positive and empowering way. So did the apostle Paul. He built on Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God by tapping into a powerful and universal archetype latent within the thought-world: an archetype of love, grace and transformation, which he and others of his day called “the Christ”.

For Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, an archetype is a primordial image or motif that has evolved in the collective experience of humankind and identifies a basic human model or experience. Examples are the hero, the mother, the wise old man, the caregiver, the one who delivers from bondage, the lover, the visionary. They crop up repeatedly in dreams, in mythology, and in religion. Jung’s term wasn’t available to Paul, but the messiah or Christ as an archetype of the bearer of love, grace and transformation was at the heart of his thinking – just as those qualities were the core of Jesus’ teaching in his metaphor of the kingdom of God. So it’s not one or the other, Jesus or Christ, but a fusion of both, with the practical purpose of furthering Jesus’ vision for bringing wholeness to individuals, societies and the world. It’s a wholeness in one’s very being, from which good deeds will flow.

Paul gives that vision wings in a phrase he uses like a signature tune: “in Christ”. Again and again he urges action and reflection “in Christ” as archetype of love, grace and transformation. He greets Christian communities “in Christ” or “in Christ Jesus”. Why not “in Jesus”? Because that would shift the focus to the historical Jesus, a man in the physical world, whereas an archetype belongs in the collective subconscious of the thought-world. Hence Paul talks of “Christ dwelling in you and you in Christ”, echoing Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches, each a living part of the other so that the vine might bear much fruit. This Christ would mean nothing without Jesus behind it. But as an archetype, it lies deep within the human psyche. It has a dynamic that offers a new way of being, empowering and energising right at people’s core.

The Christ, then, is Christianity’s archetype of the lover, the caregiver, the visionary, and the one who sets free, working out in acts of love and grace, and transforming lives. Other world faiths have their equivalents, and whatever name they give it – such as the Buddha within – it’s the same primordial motif or experience they’re drawing on. And as archetypes, they belong normally and naturally within the framework of the human thought-world that spans every age, including our own.