Tuesday, October 11, 2016

America's Dilemma

We have watched the United States presidential race unfold for more than a year now (which is far too long for any country to spend electing its leaders) and, as I have said before on this blog, I was not surprised that Donald Trump became the Republican Party nominee or that he is doing creditably in the polls in spite of his best attempts to offend significant parts of the electorate. That doesn't mean I want to see him become the president. Everything he stands for (protectionism, crony capitalism, further restricting immigration, etc.) is anathema to me.

The problem is that the choice is Hillary Clinton, an inveterate liar who is has already demonstrated during her term as Secretary of State that she is likely to lead the most corrupt White House administration since that of Warren Harding. If you can overlook her illegal futures trading, her involvement in the Whitewater scandal, conspiracy theories that link her to murder, her cover up of her husband's sexual harassments and possibly even rape, her complicity in the deaths of US Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens and his staff, her illegal use of a private email server to send and receive classified emails, and all the other tawdry scandals she has been connected with over the years, she's probably the best qualified candidate for the job!

It is an unfortunate effect of the moribund two-party US electoral system that the American people have ended up with such a dilemma. Voters shouldn't have to choose the least bad of two awful candidates for the most important political office in the land (and the world). But the dilemma is not new - last time voters had a choice between an incumbent who had one of the lowest approval ratings of any president and a magic-underpants-wearing former Wall Street fund manager. Obama may have been unpopular but he wasn't as unpopular as a banker in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Going back before Obama, the two major parties gave voters the uninspiring choice of George W Bush versus Al Gore and then John Kerry, and before that the Republicans gave us Bush 1 and Bob Dole against the more charismatic but morally-challenged Bill Clinton.

I think sound political leadership doesn't have much of a positive impact on a country - after all, the best we can hope for from our leaders is that they leave us alone to get on with our lives. But incompetent and corrupt leaders can really ruin a country - witness the effects on Venezuela of Chavez and Maduro, for example. While all is not well in America after eight years of Obama, you can at least say he hasn't made things significantly worse that his predecessor (with the possible exception of the health insurance system). I am not confident you will be able to say the same after Clinton or Trump.

I will be in North America over the next month and it will be interesting to observe the contest closer to the action.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Mulligatawny Soup, Fiction Writing, and Cultural Appropriation

Recently I was explaining to my children the origins of Mulligatawny Soup and it got me thinking about the latest cause célèbre of the political left-wing, 'cultural appropriation'. The delicious chicken curry soup originated in India and its name is an Anglicization of the Tamil words for 'spicy water'. It was popular with the British who served in India during the Raj and was one of many such dishes they appropriated when they returned home. You only need to visit British cities, particularly in Northern England or Scotland, to see the huge influence of Indian culture - and especially cuisine - on British life. The same applies to Indonesian culture in The Netherlands, North African culture in France and so on.

My musings on Mulligatawny coincided with reports of a speech by American writer, Lionel Shriver, who is best known for her book, 'We Need to Talk About Kevin'. Shriver was asked to address the Brisbane Writers Festival on the topic of 'fiction and identity politics'. The audience undoubtedly thought she would stick to the typical left-wing script about how important it is for authors to make careful deference to identity politics in their fiction, but they were to be disappointed. She signalled the tenor of her speech early on by stating that 'ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all.'

Shriver was, of course, referring to political correctness, but more specifically she was discussing the tendency of the left-wing to take offence any time anyone (or, at least anyone of European descent) adopts any symbol of another culture. She talked about the U.S. college that censured its students for wearing sombreros to a tequila party and the student union in the U.K. that banned its Mexican restaurant from giving out little sombreros (it seems Mexicans are particularly sensitive to appropriation of their headwear). Then she went on to discuss how writers and other artists are finding themselves subject to accusations of cultural appropriation for the mere act of creating a work that imagines the experience of someone of another culture. Shriver points out that it is the very act of appropriating other people's experiences that defines what is fiction (and if it were otherwise, it would be called autobiography).

Shriver said that 'the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with'. She is right - much contemporary fiction has become anodyne drivel - and I think she is bang on with the cause. Many contemporary writers seem much more concerned with convincing us of their bien pensant credentials than with telling a good story.

Some of my favourite writers are those of the early 20th Century, such as Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh, who wrote mostly about their experiences of cultures other than their own. Their appeal is due to the fact that not only were they perspicacious observers of human nature but they conveyed their foreign characters with unapologetic and unadorned authenticity. Waugh's portrayal of an African dictator in Black Mischief is surely one of the greatest (and most comedic) characterisations in modern literature and it is sad that no popular writer today would write such a character for fear of invoking a secular version of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

Shriver's speech, which was reproduced in full in the Guardian (you can read it here), drew a response from a woman in the audience named Yassmin Abdel-Magied who (surprise, surprise) took offence at what Shriver said and equated her views with those of Australian nationalist politician Pauline Hanson. The Guardian gave Abdel-Magied equal space to air her objections and it is worth reading her article (here), if only to appreciate the perverted logic of those who, in the name of redressing imagined historical wrongs, seek to deny fiction writers the very freedom to create.

Taking the objection to cultural appropriation to its logical conclusion, no one would be allowed to learn a language that wasn't of their own ethnic background, which would be a problem for the large numbers of European New Zealanders who, presumably for reasons of cultural virtue, have taken up learning Maori. My ancestry would make my study of Irish Gaelic okay, but I'd probably be in trouble for my Spanish and French.

This is where the left-wing are going. It is they who are doing the appropriating and, not content with appropriating our incomes, our property, our institutions and our language, they now want to appropriate our minds. Like Winston Smith's tormentor in 1984, they are not going to be satisfied with us paying lip service to their cultural hegemony, they insist we must actually believe it. But, of course, that has been their aim all along.

I only hope that more creators of our popular culture are as brave as Lionel Shriver and take a stand against the real threat of appropriation of our free thoughts.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Hillbilly Explains Why America is So Divided

If you want to know why Donald Trump has won the Republican Party nomination for president and is once again leading Hillary Clinton in the polls, you need only read the book I have just read - Hillbilly Elegy by J D Vance. This autobiography of a young man growing up in rural Kentucky and small town Ohio describes a life that many would assume is the preserve of poor blacks in urban ghettos. The fact that the author is a highly articulate, white Yale graduate is the twist in the tale. Vance's upbringing in a violent, unemployed, drug-riddled and fragmented family is an increasingly common story of people in the 'rust belt' of America - places where all the big manufacturers (such as the Armco steel works of Vance's home town) have closed down or moved their factories offshore, taking all the well-paid blue collar jobs with them.

Vance talks with some bitterness about the elites in the cities on the Eastern seaboard and in California, who hold the working-class inhabitants of the 'flyover' states in contempt. He found himself the token hillbilly at Yale, where he was a source of greater fascination to the well-heeled faculty and students than any of the more-recognised minority groups at the university, and he describes a huge gulf in understanding between the lifestyle in which most of his classmates were raised and the circumstances of his own childhood. Vance transcended his upbringing because of a grandmother who provided him with a sanctuary amongst the violence and despair and who instilled in him a work ethic that many of his peers lacked. He discovered that Yale Law School, to which he won a scholarship, is a one-way ticket into the elite and he describes with fascination how he began to benefit from the connections and favouritism that ensure those who graduate from Yale have easy entry into their choice of high-paying and influential jobs.

The great divide in modern American society - and in all Western countries - it isn't so much about race or ethnic origin, despite what the political left-wing would have us believe. It is about a new form of class based on education, connections and political pull, and those who aren't part of the new upper class are increasing disenfranchised politically and detached socially from those who are. There was a time when an American working man could make an income that was sufficient for him to buy his own home and support a family in comfort. That is no longer the case, and the worst thing about it is that the elite know this and don't care - their sympathies aren't with the real working class but with those from preferred minorities whom they can enlist as victims in their political and social cause célèbres. This is why Donald Trump appeals to so many white, working class males - he is the only one on the political landscape who appears to give a damn about them.

American politics today is all about exploiting these divisions. Obama has spent eight years stoking the fires of racial, social and economic division and Hilary Clinton has jumped on the bandwagon with her new-found enthusiasm for left-wing causes. Trump is stoking the fires from the other end of the train. They both present their constituents' fortunes as a zero-sum game, setting Americans against each other in a fight for a "fair share" of the pie. Their supporters on both sides are too foolish to understand that they are being cynically exploited or that under both Clinton's and Trump's policies, everyone will lose. The biggest fools are the members of the elite who appear blind to the fact that they cannot continue to enjoy their cosy positions forever while tens of millions of Americans in the MidWest and South cannot make ends meet.

Vance has given a remarkable, first-hand insight into both sides of the divide that threatens to become an irreparable rent in American society. He does not set out to propose solutions and while his story reminds us that individuals can always transcend circumstances, he offers us no assurance that societies can do the same.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Arbitrary Justice in New Zealand

An article on the Fairfax Media website yesterday reported that the New Zealand Police had seized over a million dollars of assets from a gang leader that were allegedly the proceeds of crimes for which the Police had not been able to gain a conviction. This struck me as an example of how far our legal system had departed from the principles on which our law was founded.

The Police investigated and prosecuted a gang leader for money laundering, presumably (although the article does not specifically say) in relation to the proceeds of illegal drug sales. They failed to gain a conviction in two trials - the first ended in a hung jury, the second a not guilty verdict - and yet obtained a court order under the so-called Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act to seize the offender's assets. They justified this on the grounds that the gang leader could not produce evidence of a legitimate source of income to account for having the assets. The Police claim to have seized $390 million in assets since 2009 in similar cases.

This law is wrong on so many levels. Firstly, it reverses the presumption of innocence, requiring the accused to prove his assets are not the proceeds of a criminal act. Secondly, it is double jeopardy - having been unable to prove their case against the accused, the Police get a second (or in this case, a third) bite of the apple in bringing criminal sanctions. Thirdly, it is a form of arbitrary justice in which the Police are hardly a neutral party in determining the penalty. These things are all contrary to the principles of natural justice and the rule of law that underlie our legal system and that derive from the English liberal traditions and hard-won constitutional protections dating back to the Magna Carta.

I don't have any personal sympathy for the gang leader in question, who belongs to the notoriously violent Mongrel Mob, but I believe we should judge all laws by the standard of whether they adhere to principles by which we ourselves would want to be judged. There is a very good reason why civilised societies have held to the principles of natural justice and the rule of law and in their absence we would be entirely at the mercy of the whims of politicians, bureaucrats, and their armed enforcers in the Police.

Those who support such powers should ask themselves if they would be able to prove that all their assets came from legitimate sources if the onus was on them to do so.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Olympic Tedium

What has happened to the Olympics? There was a time when I would be glued to the television screen for two weeks, hanging onto the words of the commentators as I watched New Zealand olympians in what seemed like titanic struggles for medal glory. But this time the Olympics are just tedious to me, and going by the number of similar comments I have had from others both in New Zealand and internationally, it seems that the ennui isn't confined to me. I think the culprits are the Olympics themselves and the mainstream media that covers them.

It all started with the opening ceremony. Almost as soon as I had turned on the television, I realised it was a mistake. The opening ceremonies have always been a little kitsch but they seem to be getting whackier and tackier with each successive olympiad. Worst of all, they are becoming a platform for political propaganda. The London Olympics were the nadir for this with their awful celebration of the appalling National Health Service (which produces far worse survival rates of all common forms of cancer compared with the US or Europe) and Rio followed suit by heavily laying on an environmental propaganda theme. I thought it was more than a little hypocritical for a country that is known as the biggest destroyer of rain forest on Earth, and a city that is so polluted that many athletes are worried for their health, to be lecturing us about protecting the environment.

The events themselves are part of the problem. The Olympic organisers, not happy with hosting the world's biggest sporting event, seem intent on becoming the pinnacle event of all sports. Thus we see sports that have their own major international championship events, such as tennis, golf and soccer, being incorporated into an already crowded programme. The number of withdrawals of prominent players prior to the Olympics, and the lacklustre performance of some of the leading names in these sports, indicates that the players themselves do not regard the Olympics as the premier competition in their sport. If an Olympic gold medal doesn't mean as much as winning a grand slam, major championship or World Cup, why would you have those sports in the Olympics?

Finally, there was the media coverage. Here in New Zealand, pay TV operator Sky Television has the exclusive rights to screen the Rio Olympics. Sky has provided a minimal amount of coverage on its free-to-air channel, Prime, but that coverage is so appalling I have given up trying to watch it. A typical segment of the Olympics on Prime is 30 seconds of the sporting event followed by five minutes of interviews with the athletes, followed by four minutes of advertisements. Athletes are not the most interesting people when interviewed (they are clearly not selected for their eloquence) and subjecting us to much more of them yabbering to the camera than doing their running or swimming or riding is, for a sports lover, a mild form of torture. I can only imagine that it is a cunning strategy by Sky to get more subscribers for their subscription-based coverage.

I have paid so little attention to these Olympics as a result of all of the above that I couldn't tell you how many gold medals New Zealand has at this time, or who won them. And sadly, I don't care. Roll on the US Open Tennis Championship, a sporting event I can get excited about.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Another Good Man Falls to the Feminazis

So, another good man has fallen to the Feminazis. Kevin Roberts, the chairman of advertising company Saatchi and Saatchi, has been forced to resign for the terrible sin of saying that gender diversity was not a problem in his company (which, incidentally, has a 50/50 gender split) and that not all creative types, men or women, aspire to be chief executives. For these supposedly horrible, discriminatory views, he has been hounded out of his job.

This incident parallels that of scientist Sir Tim Hunt, who committed the equally terrible crime of telling a conference audience in Korea that he had a problem with women in the laboratory because he tended to fall in love with them and vice versa. The fact that Sir Tim in fact met his own wife in the laboratory, where they fell in love with each other, is all the proof that anyone would need that it was a personal joke that he was sharing with the audience, not a commentary on women scientists in general. Unfortunately none of this mattered to the Feminazis and Hunt's spineless employers who destroyed his career while he was on a flight back to the United Kingdom.

The obsession with achieving complete gender equality in the workplace is unfair to both women and men. The reports of large gaps between what men and women earn are very misleading, as this report by Pew Research states. The reality is that women on average are paid less than men for some quite legitimate reasons - they may work less hours than men, take more holidays, take significant breaks from their careers to have children, and aspire less to the most senior (and most stressful) jobs in an organisation. In other words, many women (and men) make lifestyle choices that compromise their earning ability.

The issue is illustrated well in grand slam tennis competitions, which now have equal prize money for men and women. But is that really fair? Men play for the best of five sets in grand slams whereas women play for best of three sets. This actually means that on average men are on the court for twice as long as women during a tournament. Men's games also get more spectators and television viewing audiences, and therefore earn more revenue for the tournament, so in relation to hours played and tournament revenue earned, the men are actually paid much less than the women.

I am a father of daughters and I want to see them get the best opportunities in life, but I think knee-capping men, and pushing women into roles they may not aspire to, is not the way to achieve that. As someone who has worked in senior management for a large multi-national company, I know that such roles are not for everyone. There are many capable women at the top levels of private and public sector organisations, but that does not mean that every female candidate is as capable to fill every role as every male candidate. Individuals should be promoted on their merits, not according to some ill-conceived quota that does not take into account the multitude of personal factors that determine each candidates suitability for the role.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Paying MPs less would improve their calibre

An unhealthy characteristic of many politicians today is that they have spent their entire lives in government. In the past a political career was something successful people embarked on later in life as a service to the community in which they had attained their wealth and position, and this model had the advantage of ensuring politicians had experience of the real world outside politics. I was reminded of this the other day when I read an article on the Stuff website reporting that veteran Member of Parliament Trevor Mallard has his eye on the position of Speaker of the House should his Labour Party be elected in next year's election.

Mallard is 62 years old and has been in politics all of his working life. He has been an MP for thirty years and prior to that was a Labour Party official, and he has never had any sort of career outside politics. I have nothing in particular against Mallard and he seems a decent fellow, but he is a good example of his type. Former prime minister Helen Clark is the same and is now attempting to cap off her career with the world's top bureaucratic sinecure, the job of Secretary-General of the United Nations.

The problem with this lack of real-world experience is that politicians come to believe that they have the capability of solving any problem better than people left to their own devices. They believe they are smarter than the rest of the population and that we all need their interference to be able to manage our lives. They think they can make better decisions than all of the rest of us and they arrogantly assume they have better judgement than the market - better than millions of people working in free association with each other to test ideas and to come up with ingenious solutions that no single person could conceive of on his or her own. Such delusions are unsurprising in people who have never had to work in a real job where their income depends on their ability to collaborate with others to produce something of real value to customers.

I think we need to return to the old model of drawing our parliamentary representatives from the ranks of the most successful in society and discouraging them from making long careers in politics. The obvious way to do this is to reduce or eliminate MP's remuneration. I would propose paying them only a small stipend, say around $20,000 per year plus expenses. That would ensure only those who genuinely wished to serve the country and who had a track record of success in other fields were likely to stand for election. It is probably the only job where paying the office-holder less would raise the calibre of the applicant.

The other change that would be needed to make this work is a significant reduction in the amount of time Parliament meets. I think Texas has a model for this - the Texan legislature meets for just 90 days every two years. Not only would this allow for MPs to continue to work in other jobs, it would have the benefit of considerably reducing the amount of legislation that Parliament could pass in the time available. It is no coincidence that Texas is also the most prosperous state in America.