Thursday, September 29, 2005

From the Archives #1: Terrorists Demand their Own State

[I'm a little bit swamped at the moment, so thought I'd recycle a few pieces from the archives that I came across recently]

Citing inalienable rights to independent nationhood, a diverse range of international terrorist groups are joining together to demand their own self-governing homeland, in which they can live and carry out terrorist activities free from persecution.

In a videotaped interview with Al-Jazeera TV, fugitive Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden railed against the treatment received by terrorists throughout the world. “For years we have been persecuted, harassed, and misrepresented. They say we are only interested in violence and do not have political aims. But terrorism too is a way of life, and we also need a place to call our own. Do you think we are so different from you? If you prick us do we not bleed?”

In recent times terrorists have been subjected to deportation, imprisonment and confiscation of funds, while many states now outlaw belonging to or supporting a terrorist group, measures which bin Laden calls “a clear violation of human rights”.

This situation has led terrorist thinkers to converge in proposing a radical solution – the establishment of a diverse, tolerant state for violent fanatics. “Everywhere we are marginalised and vilified” imprisoned Shining Path founder Abimael Guzman has said, “when all we want is to be left alone in peace to commit acts of terror”.

Sources report that opinion is divided on the structure of the proposed terrorist state. Some groups support a centralised parliament under the Westminster model governing the nation of Terrorististan, while others favour a federal system to be known as the United Rogue States of Terrorismia.

It is understood that a draft constitution is under development and will enshrine key rights including the right to bear arms of mass destruction, freedom of extremist dogma, freedom of hate-filled polemic and the right to inflict cruel and unusual punishments.

In a somewhat surprising move, the constitution is said to be a secular one, with a formal separation of church and state. “Obviously, I’d like to see Wahhabi Islam as the state religion” said bin Laden. But ultimately I recognise that my own form of faith, and my desire to impose its rigid strictures on others or destroy the infidel scum, are deeply personal matters. Other people should have the freedom to take their own totalitarian approach to fundamentalist worship as they see fit”.

A spokesperson for the Real IRA confirmed that they had entered into discussions with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups and supported the drive towards statehood. “To be sure, we don’t actually give a toss whether the four provinces of Ireland are united or not” he said. “We really just want to blow people up”.

These sentiments were echoed by Miami-exiled Cuban terrorist Orlando Bosch, who called himself part of “the terrorist diaspora” Other members of the coalition are understood to include Japanese death cult Aum Shinrikyo, former North Harbour loose forward Troy Flavell, and supporters of Millwall FC.

It is not yet clear which geographical location is favoured for the terrorist nation. Bin Laden was cagey when asked if he felt that terrorists had a spiritual homeland, saying only that it should have ‘a good outlook’ and ‘plenty of sun’. However, one veteran al-Qaeda operative was more forthcoming. “Ideally, we’d like somewhere nice, with a coastline, a Mediterranean climate and some decent mineral deposits” he said. “What I’d like most is to be able to retire quietly somewhere, tend a few olive trees, and maybe manufacture a little ricin”.

No specific threats have been made to back up the list of terrorist demands, which include a seat at the UN for their provisional government-in-exile. However, if progress is not made many groups are saying they will not rule out widespread, large scale hunger strikes. Bin Laden promised that they would not rest until the dream of an independent terrorist state becomes a reality. “Terrorists of the world unite!” he cried. “You have nothing to lose but your caves!”.


Monday, September 26, 2005

Germany 2006: Another Chance for Football?

Next month sees the crucial second-to-last round of games in the qualifying stages for next year's World Cup in Germany. It's going to be an exciting time, with the fate of many countries being decided, while others will be left with sudden-death playoffs.

The South American qualifying group is a mini World Cup all of its own. Each of the ten nations must play each other home and away, meaning an epic 18 games in total (in contrast, the European teams only play 10 or 11 games). There are no weak teams, and with the different national rivalries, each match is a big occasion.

Unfortunately for my personal sympathies, Peru is already out. Much like the country itself, Peru's football team is less than the sum of its parts. They have talented players but are plagued by a collective lack of confidence, puzzling tactics, failure to convert opportunites, and a tendency to leak soft goals. They find themselves 9th on the table, above only Bolivia.

Predictably, Argentina and Brazil are already through on 31 and 3o points. I'm picking, and even hoping, that 2006 may be Argentina's year. Forget the rather negative, cynical teams of the 80s, enlivened only by the genius of Diego Maradona. The current Argentina team play an attractive, attacking game based on the elaborate interweaving of individual skills.

In games between the sides Brazil has traditionally been the neutrals' favourite, but when the two teams met in the final of the Copa America in Peru last year everyone agreed that Argentina was much the better team. Brazil, lacking a couple of their stars, sat back all game and did little. They managed to equalise in the very last minute of both the first and second halves through pieces of individual brilliance, and nabbed a 2-2 draw, going on to win on penalties.

Third and fourth have also become reasonably clear, with Ecuador and Paraguay on 26 and 25 points. Paraguay are now making a habit of qualifying for World Cups, and would like to think of themselves as South America's "third force". Ecuador are also looking to make it their second in a row, but I don't have a lot of time for them. They play all their home games at altitude in Quito and have won almost all their points there--soundly defeating both Brazil and Argentina. On the road they have done virtually nothing.

My remaining sympathies are with Colombia, who will likely scrap it out with Chile and Uruguay for the fifth position. Football tournaments seem to follow me around (I was in France in '98 and Peru for the Copa America last year), and it turned out that my visit to the coffee-growing region of Colombia coincided with the South American under-21 championships there. Colombia beat all comers with compelling performances of outrageous skill and joie de vivre that were a pleasure to watch. If the inconsistent senior team could reproduce even a fraction of this style, you would certainly want to see them in Germany.

The fifth-placed South American team will play off against Australia for a spot at the World Cup. I think it would fantastic to see Australia make it, but if Colombia nab that fifth spot, my loyalties will be conflicted.

However, in terms of my adopted "home" teams, my remaining hopes are largely resting with Guatemala in the North American zone. Never having previously qualified for a World Cup, Guatemala had a great first phase to get through to the final qualifying group. The two giants in that group--Mexico and the USA--are already through on 19 points, and Costa Rica now look safe in third on 13. Guatemala is hanging on to fourth on 8 points, one ahead of Trinidad and Tobago. The prize would be a playoff against the fifth Asian team. Whoever eventually contests that playoff, and whatever the result, it's bound to produce a fairy story, since the Asian opponent will be either Uzbekistan or Bahrain.

The top four Asian teams go through automatically, and there are no suprises there--Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia have already qualified.

I don't know much at all about form in the African groups, but from the points tables it looks like South Africa might well miss out. It's also touch and go for Nigeria, while Ghana looks like it might finally make good on its reputation as a major African team by qualifying for Germany.

In Europe, the eight group winners plus two best second-placed teams go in automatically, while the other six second-placed teams play off for three final spots. Already-qualified teams are Germany (as hosts) and the Ukraine for the first time ever. My other perennial second favourite teams, Holland and Portugal, also look certain to go through, while Italy are pretty much there as well.

After looking like they would sleepwalk in, England somehow contrived to lose to Northern Ireland, and now need to win both their remaining home games against Poland and Austria to qualify automatically. Even if Poland is overtaken, it will qualify as one of the best second-placed teams. France has managed to convince Zinedine Zidane and other senior players to come back and now looks odds-on to take its group ahead of Switzerland. Spain is struggling in second behind Serbia and Montenegro and may be in for a playoff.

The Czech Republic is also looking good for a "best second-placed" spot behind Holland, while in the least inspiring group both Croatia and Sweden have a good chance. Significant teams likely to miss out altogether include Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, and one out of 2002 World Cup semi-finalist Turkey and Euro 2004 champion Greece. For those who believe in miracles, Scotland have made a late run--they are still fourth in Italy's group, but have a last couple of chances to pip Norway and Slovenia for a playoff spot.

Whoever makes it to Germany, I, and most other football fans, will be hoping for something special to give the international game back some of its spark and romance. The 2002 World Cup broke new cultural ground by being hosted in Korea and Japan, but the football was a little lacklustre, Brazil and Germany contesting the final virtually by default. It wasn't as dire as USA 1994, where Brazil took the title by beating Italy on penalties, but no player or team really set the world on fire.

After an exciting, goal-filled tournament in 2000, the European championships last year also failed to capture the imagination. Greece's performance in taking the title was heroic, but not exactly inspiring, based as it was on throwing everybody behind the ball but still managing to pinch one goal a game. Credit to them for doing it three matches in a row.

In the last couple of major tournaments, teams with a lot of players in the really big leagues (particularly those in England, Spain and Italy) have seemed tired, listless and unmotivated. With the big money now involved, club teams dominate schedules and loyalites, and the international scene has suffered.

Even at club level, all is not rosy. The Champions League was the inevitable result of the increasing popularity and professionalisation of football, and the money pouring in from cable TV. Big name teams like Manchester United, RealMadrid and AC Milan were able to assemble teams of stars, and agree to play each other more often than in the past.

This was always going to exacerbate the haves / have-nots divide, and mean the end of unknown teams like Nottingham Forest coming through to win the European Cup. But it was accepted as free-spirited capitalism, which gave people what they wanted to see. Harlem Globetrotters-style teams like Barcelona, with their attitude of "if you score four we'll score five", produced compelling sporting spectacles that were hard to argue with.

Now, however, capitalism is morphing into oligarchy. Nothing typifies this more than the rise of Chelsea. Under the ownership of Russian oil baron Roman Abramovich, Chelsea have given new definition to the concept of buying success. The approach has been simple--if someone's good, get them, and bugger the expense. When Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho steered Porto to the Champions League title he was brought to Chelsea and told to assemble the squad of his choosing. When Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard inspired his side to an improbable Champions League success last season, Chelsea immediately tried to buy him (though in this case, Gerrard decided to stay with Liverpool).

While other clubs have put together teams of internationals, Chelsea now has two such teams. Stars such as Dutch winger Arjen Robben or English midfielder Frank Lampard are supplemented with players of comparable quality in every single position--negating the need to muddle through injuries or get individuals to play a range of tactics. While they have not had Champions Leaue success yet, Chelsea last season won the English Premiership with a record points tally, and this season are ten points ahead after only seven games.

To the fustration at the numbing predictability of the premiership has been added fans' increasing disgust at the values emanating from the game. In the last couple of months the British media has looked wistfully at the drama, passion, skill and gentlemanly comportment of the Ashes cricket series. In constrast, footballers with their stratospheric salaries seem to only display petulance and greed, and practically to collude with the tabloid media (a la Martin Amis' hilarious scene in Yellow Dog) in generating stories of violence and misbehaviour.

So, everyone's hoping for a bit of drama, passion, and even some inspiration at Germany 2006 to kick some life back into the sport. I'm not holding my breath, but football has been written off before, only to renew itself, so who knows?

In the meantime, go Guatemala!

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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Kiwi Folly, or: Bash MMP

When I was trying to explain New Zealand's political system recently to an American colleague, I suugested that the two countries now both have a system of checks and balances on political power, but very different ways of achieving them.

The American split between the executive, legislative and judicial powers is relatively well-known, as is the ability of the President to veto a bill, or Congress to impeach the President.

To outsiders, the fact that there are only two effective political parties seems to place a major limitation on the range of democratic expression. But "Democrat" and "Republican" are really more like franchise badges than party political affiliations in the British/New Zealand sense. They provide a broad ideological tent for the franchisee, who then sets his or her own menu of regional perspectives and personal principles.

In the implementation of policies, development of legislation, or nomination of political appointees, coalitions of like-minded individuals from both parties will often be "mobilised" to support or oppose a particular approach.

If Democrats and Republicans have come to seem like different chips off the same monolith, this may well be due to the enormous amounts of money a candidate needs in order to even think about running for office. Many believe that campaign finance reform is an urgent priority for the American electoral system.

In New Zealand, a political party is more like a close-knit team, with party "whips" who ensure that parliamentary members are in line with party policy, except on a limited number of designated "conscience issues". If a member votes against their party this is a much bigger deal than in the U.S. , and party members are not supposed to criticize the party leader in public.

However, we do now have some checks and balances in the system. This has been achieved, thanks to the multi-member proportional (MMP) system, simply by increasing the number of parties. Any party which gets over 5% of the vote or wins an electoral seat gets representation in parliament. This ensures a greater spread of economic, social, and regional viewpoints, with the ability and incentive to form a new party if a significant perspective is not being adequately represented within the big tent of a larger party.

It also requires a more consensus-based, consultative approach by the executive. With it being virtually impossible for any party to win an absolute majority, the government is formed either by a coalition of parties or by a minority government which receives support on confidence issues by one or more other parties. As in the U.S. , different groupings will mobilise to support or oppose different actions.

On the whole, New Zealanders are happy with this approach, which really mimicks checks and balances rather than having formal, constitutionally-based balances in place.

Looking back, it's quite frightening to think that we once had *no* checks and balances. Up until 1996, when MMP came in, the government could do pretty much what it liked. If you think of us as a company, the government of the day was the board of directors and top-tier management rolled into one, with the shareholders having the chance to like it or lump it once every three years.

When the move to MMP was being debated, the main tactic of its opponents, apart from saying "Italy" every so often and shaking their heads, was to warn that governments would no longer be able to "get things done" if they were forced to form coalitions or compromise on policy. This line was strongly pushed by the Business Roundtable and authoritarian elements in both major parties.

In reply, the majority of New Zealanders nodded their heads furiously. "Exactly!" they said. "We want to stop you from getting things done ". After a decade of furious change rammed through with an attitude of "suck it up, we know what's good for you", the country was desperate to apply the brake and get a wider range of voices into power.

The routine comeback was that the pace of change was necessary because of the "urgent reform" that had to be carried out.

Yes, well urgent reform was needed in large part because the previous incumbent had been able to "get things done" his own way, unhindered, for the previous nine years. To extend the previous corporate metaphor, Muldoon had also made himself the nation's accountant, lawyer, and bank manager during his stay in power.

Now, after some initial teething problems, the proportional system has helped New Zealand move towards a more mature democracy. Never again will a small group of politicans be able to remake the country in the image of their textbook.

And it's become apparent that more genuine democracy is not just some airy-fairy ideal, but actually improves decision-making. Even former critics like ex-prime minister Mike Moore now admit that the need to allow more criticism and consultation has led to smarter, more creative policies. This is hardly rocket science--competing perspectives help knock out the blind spots you get when one individual or group is doing all the thinking. There's a reason why science and academia demands peer review.

A further point is that if you want to really get things done, you'll only really succeed by getting what us bureaucrats call "buy in" and this means getting consensus--it might seem a little more cumbersome in the short term, but is more efficient in the long run.

My memories of the late 80s and 90s are of powerlessness and frustration at the arrogance with which policies were delivered, many of them poorly thought through and with unforseen consequences. The country voting to introduce MMP remains the political highlight of my life.

In the most recent election, New Zealand has again given a strong, but nuanced message: "we'll have a bit less of that, and a bit more of that, thank you--but not too much". Amidst the general uncertainty about exactly what the next government will look like, there are mumblings from some quarters about an "indecisive result" (i.e. those quarters didn't win) and a "lack of mandate". But give us a break--we can wait and see how it goes. It's rather ironic that the big business representatives who are constantly telling us that we need "less government" are so worried about government being unable to do things.

More insidious is this opinion piece in The Australian, which takes the opportunity to sneer at the proportional system by misrepresenting it as arcane and confusing (tell that to the voters in Epsom and the Maori electorates) and making groundless predictions of "a long period of political instability". The article certainly doesn't leave any doubt about its ideological slant, with phrases such as "minority and radical voices", "radical separatism and political correctness" and"feel-good excuse for a foreign policy". I was actually quite taken aback reading this piece; its bully-pulpit rantings make the New Zealand papers look deep-thinking and progressive.

It's another example of Australian corporate media using New Zealand as a useful whipping post for when it feels like burying an idea promoted by local progressives. A similar approach has been taken to bashing the Kyoto protocol. They have a cunning, if rather transparent, tactic:

"The puzzle is less how Kiwis managed to get themselves lumbered with a mess like this than the fact that the minor parties in Australia seriously propose we should travel down a similar road. So here's an idea: let's not. "

The approach is to trade on the average Australian's slightly patronising attitude towards NZ. This allows the pundit to more freely ridicule the idea and put his or her compatriot off it. "Look what those Kiwis have gone and done now!" the line goes. "You know, our eccentric cousins who are overly fond of their sheep, think 25 degrees is a heatwave, and probably still get around in walk shorts and sandals? Well, now they've come up with an even fruitier scheme than before. What do you reckon they put in the water over there?".

Hopefully, Australian citizens are smart enough to see through that.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Would You Like Your Government Supersized?

In the midst of the dirty tricks and ugly slanging matches in the lead-up to the New Zealand election, the debate of the issues has actually reached a slightly higher standard than in the past. On TV, this has in part been due to the influence of John Campbell and TV3, who by treating the viewer with a modicum of intelligence has helped the channel make huge inroads into the urban, educated audience and forced complacent, lumbering TVNZ to up its game.

[Don't laugh], blogs have also had some impact. While they have only a limited direct audience, bloggers like Russell Brown, Frogblog (Green Party) and, National's David Farrar have hurried up the mainstream media a little by exposing contradictory statements, questioning assumptions, checking facts and uncovering sources.

But there's a highly annoying and recurring feature of the discussion that nobody has yet critiqued. This is the continued characterisation of social democractic parties as favouring "big government" and "more intervention", while conservative parties are said to support "smaller government" and "less intervention".

These phrases are rhetorical flourishes long employed by Republicans in the U.S. to skew arguments their way--if you're allowed to choose the language you've won half the battle. Yet here they've been repeatedly employed by commentators who at least purport to be giving a neutral description of policies. For example, a work colleague who was recently describing the various political parties to an American visitor, and who clearly thought he was doing so from an objective viewpoint, told her that "Labour favours big government". Amongst the media, even the mostly thoughtful Colin James in the Herald has used the same terminology.

"Big government" suggests something bloated and lumbering, conjuring up images of hordes of grey bureaucrats making everyone fill out forms. It also has sinister connotations of a multi-tentacled faceless entity intruding into people's lives. Likewise, "intervention" suggests meddling, interfering with the natural state of things.

"Less government and less intervention" meanwhile, sounds clean and crisp, with implications of freedom, fewer grey suits, and people getting on with their lives.

But what do these characterisations acutally mean, and are they at all accurate?

A literal interpretation of "big government" would seem to imply big-spending. This reflects the historical view that left-leaning governments are profligate in their social spending, while liberal or conservative governments balance the books. However, this distinction no longer seems to hold true. In New Zealand the social democratic Labour government has been a model of fiscal responsibility, while National promises to borrow more and erode the existing surplus. In the U.S., the Clinton years saw the building of a budget surplus which turned out to be an oasis between the ballooning deficits of the Reagan and George W Bush Republican administrations.

"Intervention" is an even more nebulous concept. American conservatives have spent many years railing against "government intervention", but it's not clear that they've been consistent about it. The same society which long resisted background checks for people attending gun shows swiftly moved to allow law enforcement agencies to secretly review library users' borrowing records1. And even most conservatives would be embarrassed by the question: if a government should ever "intervene", (i.e. act), should it prioritise intervening in another country by invading it, or intervening in a local disaster by providing medicine and water?

Taxation aside, it's left-leaning parties' social policies that attract the most flack from right-wingers who deride what they call "social engineering". But funnily enough, the policies of progressive administrations that have most raised the ire of conservatives have generally been about promoting less intervention in people's lives: de-criminalisation of prostitution, de-criminalization of cannabis, allowing gay couples to be formally recognised. It's a laughably perverse for people to claim, as some have, that "homosexuality has been forced on us" when the right they say they have lost is to direct their intolerance and sanction on others who are doing them no harm.

There is, in fact, a reasonably consistent distinction between the social democratic and conservative approaches as regards the role of government and the kinds of interventions each considers appropriate. But it's not at all the simplistic "less vs. more" difference with which we're usually presented.

Social democratic parties do tend to put more emphasis on government funding of health, education and social services. The wellbeing of society at large is considered to be a public venture, worthy of public investment. Progressive philosophies are underpinned by the belief that it's possible to actively reduce the inequality and unfairness of society.

Convservative parties are more prepared to tolerate structural inequalities. They emphasise the ability of individuals to overcome these barriers, and their right to be rewarded for doing so. To maintain order, however, they deploy the power of the state in a more punitive, deterring way. They promise to be "tough on crime" and bolster spending on the police and prisons.

They also spend more on defense. While progressives are more likely to be internationalists, conservatives have a more pessimistic view of human nature and believe that nation state is the broadest sphere in which the rule of law can be reasonably expected to operate. Beyond its borders, what matters is being powerful and having powerful friends.

The libertarian position which consistently rejects any kind of government involvement really only flourishes in liberal economics departments and Reason magazine. In New Zealand, the ACT party, which began as a libertarian Ayn Rand appreciation club, morphed within a few years into single mother-bashing puritans who thought we should spend more on defense. Don Brash started out as a socially liberal finance wonk who just wanted to lower taxes; now he finds himself reversing his position on civil unions, promising to "rebuild" the police and end parole, and becoming an unwitting poster boy for big religion.

Tthe United States is consistently held up as an example of limited government and free-spirited commerce. But if you look closely, you find a history of pretty big government. American enterprise has long been supported by systematic intervention of its government in other countries to ensure the availability of resources and the conditions for successful commerce2. Closer to home, the US imprisons and executes its citizens at a greater rate than other developed nations. Such government activities allow heavy subsidisation of less wealthy areas through the location of military bases and prisons.

And while social democratic attempts to introduce initiatives like universal health insurance have repeatedly met with stalwart opposition, there has been no such reluctance to unleash punitive measures against activities judged destabilising to the social order. Eric Schlosser's excellent book Reefer Madness provides some illuminating case studies of the enormous resources deployed by government against individuals best described as entrepreneurial capitalists, operating in industries (e.g. marijuana, pornography) in which they have caused no direct harm3.

So it turns out that "intervention" by "big government" can take different forms. Within limits, I favour the social democratic approach, which is not only kinder, but shows good evidence of being more efficient. Ronald Reagan said that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem". If he were talking about the wastage and violence of the "War on Drugs", which after many years even the British police agree has been an abysmal failure, I would be inclined to agree.

1. Post 9/11, though the provisions of the Patriot Act

2. Not necessarily a criticism. Such interventions have ranged from the generous and visionary (e.g the Marshall Plan) to the foolhardy (the creation of Al-Qaeda in 1980s Afghanistan) to the simply criminal (e.g. CIA plot to assassinate Salvador Allende).

3. Here is another good example. Look for the sly pun in the last sentence.

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Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Daily Minion Presents: Policies 2005

In the lead-up to the New Zealand election, most attention has been focused on the tax reforms proposed by the two major parties. But what are some of the other, less well-known policies of the election frontrunners?


Climate Change: will pull out of Kyoto until better scientific evidence that Earth is a “globe” surrounded by an “atmosphere”

Social Policy: will establish Ministry of Mainstream Affairs, to address disadvantages for normal New Zealanders

Resource Management Act: to be renamed Resource Extraction Act

Foreign Affairs: to cut bureaucracy, foreign policy will be outsourced to the kind folk at the US State Department, who have offered to provide the service at a bargain rate.

Education Curriculum: history classes will no longer teach the Treaty of Waitangi or other outdated material.


Economic Development: will support the development of a "knowledge economy" by saying at least 12 positive things per annum about science and research

Defence: Phil Goff will be deployed in the South Pacific to pre-emptively lecture possible security threats.

Secondary Education: NCEA will be reformed and turned into an acronym that everyone can pronounce

Race Relations: will commit to remaining at least 10% less racist than National.

Constitutional Reform: it is inevitable that the outdated monarchy eventually be replaced by a People's Republic headed by a popular, competent president.


Economy: will steer New Zealand towards a modern, industrial hemp-based economy

Genetic Engineering: will commit to keeping Rod Donald in the lab.

Foreign policy: will only engage with ethically acceptable nations. Norway to become New Zealand’s major trading partner.

Health: many health problems can be prevented by regular exercise and a wholesome, hemp-based diet.

Defence: there are great opportunities to develop our own tanks and planes from hemp.

New Zealand First

Veterans Affairs: Veterans will be given a "Gold Card" allowing them free health care, priority for social services, and the right to annex rural properties.

Immigration: immigration from Asia will be restricted and linked to the industry needs of selected Courtenay Place restaurants.

Social Policy: unemployed people will be required to design new, productivity-boosting technologies, if they want to keep receiving their benefit.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Disaster Deja Vu

Seems like I'm condemned to view the world through the prism of Hollywood blockbusters. When 9/11 happened, my first reaction was a horrible feeling that someone had snuck in and sabotaged the plot of a gung-ho Bruce Willis flick.

Later, when everyone was appalled that Palestinians on the Gaza Strip were cheering at footage of the twin towers being hit, I felt a guilty familiarity and wondered why no one seemed to understand. Weren't we all overjoyed in Star Wars when they blew up the Death Star? Did we consider for a moment whether there were innocent people on board? No, we just rejoiced at the destruction of what the movie told us was the symbol of oppression (see this only half-humorous article on the Case for the Empire for an alternative view).

Watching the New Orleans floods, I haven't been able to get The Day After Tomorrow off my mind. This is a movie which commands too much space in my subconscious anyway, because I've seen it about five times. The first time was willingly; I went to the cinema in Arequipa when it first came out. After that, almost every long distance bus I caught in Peru seemed to have it as one of the on-board movies.

About the third time this happened, I managed to head if off before it got into the video player. "Please, please don't let it be El Día Después de Mañana!", I begged the bus attendant as she started to insert the tape. Startled by my vehemence, she stopped what she was doing, shrugged, and swapped the video for another one, which fortunately turned out to be something I hadn't seen.

The movie stars Dennis Quaid as a climate scientist who has developed alarming models suggesting that melting ice caps caused by global warming could totally blow the nothern hemisphere's climatic equilibrium and plunge the planet into a new ice age. After he gives a public presentation on his theories, he gets ticked off for scaremongering by the US Vice President (the spitting image of Dick Cheney) who tells him "the climate's not the only thing that might be unstable. This economy is pretty unstable too".

Quaid's right, of course, only instead of all this happening within his predicted fifty years, things start going haywire within five weeks. Sea temperatures in the North Atlantic plunge, a massive tornado devastates Los Angeles, and storms brewing over the Arctic start descending on America.

Every Hollywood movie has to involve a father who is overinvolved in his work and distant from his child and/or wife; he has to endure a crisis where he must rescue one or both of them in order to set his priorities straight. So they work this in by having Quaid's adolescent son stuck on a school trip in New York when the storm hits.

The city is overwhelmed by tidal waves; as a wall of water pours through Manhattan, Quaid's son and his friends are among those who seek shelter in the NY Public Library. Here is where the movie gestures feebly at the kind of issues which would be laid painfully bare in New Orleans. Among the people trying to get into the library is one (1) black homeless guy. He has a dog with him, and when he tries to take shelter someone tells him snootily "you can't bring that in here". Later, the homeless guy (he manages to sneak in the dog) distributes newspaper to everybody, explaining that it keeps you warm if you stuff it under your clothes.

There's a point being made here - something about the hubris of wealth and status and how it all counts for nothing when you're forced to face the elements. But it's all rather lame - there's no looting or real race or class tension, and everyone waits in an orderly fashion, politely sharing out the potato chips, while the rain turns to snow and ice.

Meanwhile, Quaid's spurned scientist has been made an advisor to the US government after they realised they were wrong (this would be kind of like UN weapons inspector Hans Blix being brought on board to help out with Iraq). We see mock CNN footage of refugees wading across the Rio Grande, while the reporter says "Thousands of people are trying to cross illegally into Mexico" (the cinema crowd in Peru chortled gleefully at this).

Quaid draws a line across a map of the United States starting from roughly Washington DC, and tells parody-Cheney that everyone to the south of the line must be evacuated. For those to the north, it's already too late. Cheney vacillates, until the parody-Bush president (who, weirdly, bears quite a physical resemblance to Al Gore) awakes from his slumbers and says "yeah, do it".

We later hear that they've sorted out an agreement for Mexico to take American citizens, in exchange for the cancellation of all Latin American debt (the Peruvian audience hooted with laughter). By the end of the film, the president's evacuating plane has been lost in the storm, and president-elect parody-Cheney gives an address from the American embassy in Mexico in which he admits his administration was arrogant and lacked foresight (as the Tui ad says...)

Meanwhile, the plot has got (even more) incredibly cheesy, as Quaid sleds off into the storm to rescue his son, who is fighting off wolves (escaped from the zoo) to get penicillin for his girlfriend's infected leg which she got saving a poor immigrant woman in the get the picture.

I did actually enjoy the movie--besides being feelgood fodder for us smug liberals, the disaster set pieces are mostly outstanding (who doesn't like seeing LA get smashed to bits yet again?), the science hovers just on the right side of total implausibility, and there's some original touches, like the astronauts watching the storm unfold from space.

But following the news from New Orleans, I cringed every time I was inadvaertently reminded of The Day After Tomorrow. It's strange; you almost feel like there's something karmic about the way the bad things from blockbusters come true, but with a nightmarish nastiness that punctures the flippancy of the film's treatment.

Part of it is that the stereotypes seem self-perpetuating--the warnings ignored, the head-in-the-sand government, the rule-obsessed dithering bureaucrats (in Bruce Willis films it's always the bureaucrats' fault). Partly the ludicrous way in which all this is smoothed over by the alpha male hero, who saves the day and reunites his family. And then of course in reality there is no such hero, and everyone is shocked that there is no happy ending.

It wasn't so long ago that Hollywood made movies like Chinatown, with heroes who faced a complex reality and real moral conflict. But nowadays any moral dilemmas are telegraphed and comic book-style ("hmmm, about time I turned to the Dark Side"). Obviously you can't actually blame the bread-and-circuses escapism of today's entertainment for things that go wrong in reality. But its constant diet lulls us into dull passivity that leaves us useless when the shit fits the fan, helplessly waiting for the good guys to show up and blaming everybody else when they don't.

I'm sure it's ludicrous to suggest that this attitude even infects people in positions of authority. But is it totally irrational to think that if our popular narratives were a little less mind-numbingly dumb and simplistic, people would be a little less surprised and a little more constructive when things go wrong?

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Saturday, September 03, 2005

After the Flood

Like many people, I've been staggered and upset by seeing the images of New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. People still trapped in the city and surrounded by flood waters are without food, water, and medicine, let alone sanitation. On TV3's news last night a British camera crew driving into the city were surrounded by a crowd shouting "help!" "help!" and people saying they had no water. A man waved around a three month-old baby yelling that it had no diapers or infant formula. The camera crew were threatened and eventually had to leave.

Another camera crew cruised in a boat through the flooded streets and came to a hospital surrounded by water. They spoke to a nurse who looked close to tears as she described how they had no support, communications, electricity or supplies. People were dying and therewas nothing they could do. The boat picked up a frail-looking man in a hospital gown floating in the water and returned him to the hospital from where they thought he had wandered off. It didn't look like he'd be much better off back in there.

Meanwhile, much of the media coverage has focussed on the looting and disorder in central New Orleans, and the first major federal contribution--four days after the end of the hurricane--was to send in National Guard troops armed with machine-guns. From the sounds of it they're badly needed, with armed gangs roaming the streets, snipers shooting at rescuers and rapes and beatings happening at the convention centre and Superdome where refugees are crowded.

It's a black irony that these are troops who have just returned from Iraq. It's a reminder that without the rule of law, security, food, water and electricity, living in a " democracy" is worth bugger-all. It doesn't matter where you are, civilization is a thin veneer which leaves us about four missed meals away from chaos.

But it's still disturbing to see guys carrying guns, who "know how to shoot, to kill, and surely will", as the advance guard of assistance. While some of the looting is crazed and criminal, it seems clear that most people are just trying to survive. As a television viewer, you feel that the narrative is somehow wrong. "This is the United States", you remind yourself. How can there be people who don't even have any water? Where are the large-scale airlifts of food, water and supplies, the reassuring teams of medics? Not everyone can be evacuated at once, but where are, I don't know, the packages being dropped in, like in Afghanistan? Come on, it's four days after the hurricane. You're left confused and appalled.

CNN's website has some quite good coverage and links--there's a brilliant interview with New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin bemoaning the lack of help, and a comparison of what authoritities say is happening with how people on the ground describe it.

Slate also has a good collection of comment, including a piece on how pretty much everybody still stuck in New Orleans is black and poor. There's also considerable discussion of the missed opportunities to reinforce New Orlean's defences and much lampooning of George Bush's comment that "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

When investigated afterwards, disasters tend to show up a trail of bungles, cut corners, lack of accountability and knocked-back attempts to do something. The weight of blame allocated isn't always entirely fair, since things look much clearer with 20/20 hindsight. In this case, there appears to be have been pretty close to 20/20 foresight, and the Army Corps of Engineers were denied badly needed funding to do work which might have made a difference.

But this still isn't the point. The point is, no matter how badly cocked-up or how inevitable the disaster, you have to get in there and help people affected by it. The other day Bush was on TV, grinning like an idiot (his minders had told him to "look relaxed"?) and saying, "now, I know people would like help to have arrived yesterday", as if such people were impatient children, instead of being infants and elderly dying though lack of clean water and sanitation. Yes, for f*cks sake! Yesterday would have been good; the day before yesterday even better. It's enough to shake your remaining faith in Western civilization.

I don't know how much difference it can make now, but the American Red Cross seems like a good place to make donations.

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