The biggest local story here in New Zealand over the last few days has been the passing of same-sex marriage legislation, making us the 13th country in the world, and the first in the Asia-Pacific region, to legalise same-sex marriage. Considering we have a conservative government this is quite an impressive achievement and shows what happens when MPs are allowed to vote based on their conscience instead of voting for what their party tells them to.
Surely all votes should work this way. Apart from the dictatorial NZ First party all the others have members who voted for the legislation even when you might not expect it (Act and United Future for example). You have to ask if these votes are “conscience votes”, does that mean that the others require some MPs to vote against their conscience? Is that really OK?
Anyway the vote was fairly comprehensive in the end – 77 for and 44 against – which is considerably better than the more common 61 to 60 votes we get when people vote based on their party’s orders rather than what they think is right.
Of course the more conservative (and nutty) parts of society are already predicting disaster just like they did when other controversial social laws were passed.
When homosexuality was made legal, when prostitution was made legal, and when the anti-smacking law was passed the more extreme conservatives predicted disaster but of course nothing happened.
Let’s look at some of the ignorant, bigoted comments about similar changes in the past.
When the homosexual law reform bill was passed in 1986 some politicians predicted that it would cause a decline in morality, that homosexuals would come to New Zealand in their thousands, and that the country would be a Mecca for homosexuality and sodomy. I see no signs that this has happened.
When the civil union legislation was passed the Destiny Church suggested that we should not forget the name of Lord God Almighty (what is that exactly?) and organised a march of 5000 people against it. They predicted legalised child sex and bigamy would be next. Again, I see no signs that this has happened.
When the prostitution law reform law (decriminalising prostitution) was passed in 2003 there were predictions it would lead to more prostitutes. A later review showed no signs that this has happened.
When the ani-smacking law was passed there were dire predictions that innocent people would be prosecuted for reasonable discipline of their children. Since 2007 there have been 8 prosecutions for smacking, and the police (hardly a source of liberal propaganda) say the guidelines are working fine. So yet again there are no signs that the bad predicted outcomes are real.
So what predictions are we getting this time?
Family First predicts marriage celebrants will be bullied into performing same-sex marriages against their will. This right is specifically protected in the law and who would want a ceremony to be performed by someone who doesn’t want to do it anyway? It’s just silly, bigoted nonsense.
The National Marriage Coalition says it will be an open door to group relationships and incest type marriages. This is the old slippery slope argument. Another good one is the prediction that people will be able to marry animals in the future. There is a general trend to liberalisation of laws and who knows, maybe one day group marriages will be OK, after all many respected characters in the Bible had multiple wives, so it must be OK!
The Catholic Bishop of Auckland tried really hard to sound reasonable and to not admit that his objections were based on the intolerant ideas promoted by his belief system. But you could see they were, and it was hard to listen to a member of the Catholic Church lecture the rest of us on the topic of sexual morality. Is it possible to think of anyone with less credibility on the subject?
He made a few vague references to it being a sad day for New Zealand, and to re-defining the meaning of marriage being bizarre, and not being sure what the implications might be for the future (presumably his god will take a terrible revenge on us after he has dealt with the other 12 countries who have already taken this step).
After all of this mindless drivel it was refreshing to hear from a supporter of the bill who treated the subject with intelligence and humour. He described how he had received messages from Christians threatening eternal torment in Hell. He replied that he had calculated the thermodynamics of burning in Hell and it would take only a few seconds for him to be consumed: a sacrifice he was prepared to risk! Ridicule of primitive superstition is great!
But the way so many believers react so badly in these situations is bizarre. They are always so intolerant and unforgiving. Didn’t they listen to what Jesus told them? As I always say: if you really want to see an example of true evil have a look at religion!
Many people ask me why I care. Well that’s the whole point, I shouldn’t. I’m not gay, and I don’t know any gay people who want to get married, so why should I care? It’s just a matter of fairness. The people who object to this law might find gay and lesbian lifestyles unpleasant, and it’s their choice to feel that way, but what real difference does it make to them if same-sex marriage is allowed or not?
Some people say it discredits the “real” meaning of marriage. I would say that there are plenty of heterosexual couples who have done a good job of that already. Celebrity marriages which last a few days, people who marry multiple times and split up seemingly at a whim, married couples where the relationship is maintained through violence and intimidation. What else could possibly make it worse than it already is?
Another argument is that marriage is primarily to produce children and gays can’t do that. Well neither can post-menopausal women or people with various medical disorders. Should that be a pre-requisite for being allowed to marry as well?
In reality there is no good reason not to allow same-sex marriage. There is really only one (bad) reason to reject it in the final analysis: that the objector is uncomfortable with same-sex relationships. Well they are a fact and it’s time to grow up and accept them even if you don’t like them. Progress is inevitable and by trying to halt it, especially by presenting dishonest objections which disguise your real opinions, you just look like a fool.
And just like with past changes of this sort, in a few years we will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.
If I get a bit bored and there’s nothing to watch on TV (that is, most of he time) I often go on a trolling expedition on YouTube. I like to find a controversial video and leave some comments there to deliberately aggravate my philosophical opponents, such as religious fundamentalists and political conservatives.
Some of the best places to find sources for these “debates” are YouTube videos involving Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. If you have read this blog in the past you will know I am a great fan of “the Hitch” and have commented on his vicious and unstoppable wit on many occasions (most recently in an entry titled “Thank You Hitch” from 2012-01-06 shortly after his death from cancer).
The latest video I watched was “Hitchens versus Hitchens” where Christopher Hitchens (aka “the Hitch” – there was only one *the* Hitch) debated his brother Peter Hitchens who is also a well-known essayist and commentator but with a very different perspective on politics and religion.
Initially I thought Peter Hitchens was a fairly intelligent, reasonable person but as the debate progressed he became more and more desperate to score any points and it became obvious that a lot of his opinions are in fact just as nutty as most other political and religious conservatives. For example, he denies global warming and supports intelligent design without having any apparent knowledge of either.
So it soon became obvious that this was yet another debate where the Hitch was giving his opposition a good old fashioned thrashing, maybe the best since another recent video I watched where Hitchens and Stephen Fry destroyed a Catholic bishop and conservative politician by swinging the vote from 678 for 1102 against, to 268 for 1876 against (they were debating against the proposition that the Catholic Church is a force for good – yeah I know – too easy!)
The Hitchens versus Hitchens debate included many topics, but the section on religion was the most interesting I think. The Hitch didn’t spend a lot of time on the idea of whether Christianity was true and whether there is any evidence supporting it (which is an interesting subject in itself but not one which either side was focussing on this time). Instead he concentrated on the philosophical aspects of belief, especially relating to morality.
This is a more interesting subject in many ways because really the truth of Christian belief and the evidence for God is fairly well settled (most Christian beliefs are myths and there is no evidence for a god) whereas the moral aspects of religion (especially Christianity) are a bit more open to debate.
So here are some of the Hitch’s points (along with my interpretation and commentary on them)…
He sees religion as a form of slavery or totalitarianism, and uses North Korea as a comparison. But religion is much worse because God knows more about you than any despot can ever know, and you cannot even escape his influence after death because that’s when he really gets judgmental!
I’m sure there are many moderate Christians who don’t see it this way, but by doing that they are rejecting the essential doctrine of their belief: that God knows all of your actions and thoughts, and judges you accordingly. Hitchens (and I) would suggest this whole idea is quite malicious.
Christianity claims Jesus was sent to save us. But from what? And he supposedly takes the blame for our sins, and we are all sinners and born into sin. Does this not sound like a form of mind control where the victims are told they are lacking in some way but if you just do what you are told everything will be OK? Obviously this is also hideously hurtful and manipulative.
Many believers think morality is impossible without a religious belief. Hitchens obviously rejects this whole notion. I would take it further and say the opposite: you can’t be moral if your source your morality from a religious belief. Why? Because morality cannot be just lifted from an old book written by a particular group of people with a particular personal perspective in the past, it has to be carefully considered and arrived at by the individual. And I know that not everyone will get to exactly the same place but most sane, sensible people do agree on what is moral to a remarkable degree.
Not every religious person just takes their entire morality from their holy book. Many pick and choose what to accept. But if they do that then surely they are rejecting one of the most important aspects of their belief system and are no longer getting their ultimate moral rules from their religion. Anyone who creates a personal morality by parroting something from an old book is lazy, ignorant and often immoral.
In the past religion was a best attempt at explaining the world and creating rules for living. It turns out that it wasn’t at all successful with the first aim and only slightly better with the second. We now have other tools to tackle these issues: science to explain the world, and philosophy to deal with morality and other less well defined issues.
It might be that these tools are in turn replaced with something even better in the future, but at the moment they are the best we have. Anyone who insists on continuing to use religion to explain the reality of the world (such as insisting that creationism is an explanation for life on Earth) or to provide moral answers (such as saying homosexuality is an abomination because the Bible says so) are being wilfully ignorant and usually bigoted as well.
Hitchens used to ask his opponents and audiences a question to make these points on morality a bit less abstract. He would ask people to name a good or moral statement or action which can only be made by those who believe in a god, then to name a stupid or evil action which only believers could make. Few people could come up with anything very convincing to answer the first question but everyone could immediately think of examples of the second.
As an example of a bad action which requires religious belief consider this obvious example: only people who think they will get a reward in the next life will sacrifice their lives by joining a crusade or becoming a suicide bomber. That’s not the sort of behaviour a non-believer is likely to indulge in.
But answers to the first challenge are a lot more difficult to find. A common one was exorcism. Only believers can perform this rite. But surely this cannot be counted as a good action, and the fact that some believers dared to even suggest the idea shows how out of touch they really are.
Another answer was a lot better though. One person suggested that great poetry and other art was created by believers. That is a good point. There is a lot of great art, music, architecture, and poetry which was created directly because of religious belief.
There is a counter to this argument though. A lot of great art hasn’t been inspired by religion too, and some which seems like it might be in fact wasn’t. For example, Verdi wrote his Requiem even though he was an atheist (or agnostic if you prefer that). At the very least you would have to say that people are inspired by many things, including religion, so if this is the only positive it hardly seems worth it!
The Hitch was a great debater and extremely knowledgable about most of his topic areas (he certainly knew his religion, history and politics but was weak on science and technology and sometimes didn’t respond to questions around areas such as cosmology and biology very well) but maybe his greatest advantage was just that he was right.
As I have said in the past to people who have complimented me on my debating skills: it’s a lot easier when the facts are on your side!
The way that different ideas become established at different times in history is interesting. It seems that often an idea reaches a point where it becomes inevitable and nothing can really stop it from taking over the mindset of the leaders and people of the time.
The original reason I cam up with this topic was the recent death of the ex-prime minister of the UK, Margaret Thatcher. She is well known, of course, for introducing a radical form of neo-liberal economics to the country and, depending on who you listen to, either saving it from inevitable decline or destroying a lot of the existing positive aspects of British society.
Thatcher was extraordinarily good at pushing through these “reforms” because she had a strong personality and – right or wrong – was single minded in achieving her aims. She is admired by many for her strength and that is fair enough. Whether the direction she took the country in was good or bad was much more open to question.
But it probably didn’t matter because, as I intimated in the opening to this entry, the neo-liberal revolution was probably inevitable and would have happened anyway. Thatcher was lucky because the UK entered a war with Argentina over the Falklands which gained her a lot of patriotic support, plus oil was discovered during her time in power giving her a financial bonus as well. Note that neither of these events could be attributed to her and were more a matter of luck than anything else.
But during roughly the same period of time similar policies were being pushed through in many other countries. Reagan was doing it in the US, and a bit later here in New Zealand we had one of the most radical and “pure” forms of neo-liberalism forced onto us by the 1984 Labour government (who were totally hijacked by a libertarian wing lead by Roger Douglas). Labour would not be traditionally associated with these types of policies but maybe this was an idea whose time had come, even here in distant New Zealand.
There is also the fact that after the governments who initially set up these changes were replaced with their opponents the policies continued without major changes. In the UK the conservatives were replaced by Tony Blair’s Labour which was intent on continuation of the new agenda. And here in New Zealand the opposite happened: the Labour Party was replaced by the conservative National Party and again things just continued on their course.
So even a complete change (theoretically at least) in political perspective didn’t change much. It really does seem that the idea was inevitable and couldn’t be stopped. I do have to say though, that just because an idea is inevitable doesn’t mean it’s right!
I basically reject neo-liberal economics, as will be obvious to anyone who reads this blog. I’m not much of a fan of extreme left-wing economic dogma either but I really think we have gone too far in the direction of classic free-market libertarian politics. And a correction back to more moderate economic policies does seem to be the new zeitgeist, at least I hope so.
By almost any standard the great libertarian experiment has failed.
Economic turmoil has been constant since the 1980s because banks and other private financial institutions have been given great freedom. They have taken advantage of that privilege for their own benefit but the vast majority of people have suffered as a result. The problems with financial institutions over the last few years are a clear result of the policies of the the 1970s and 1980s.
Whatever income equality previously existed has been totally destroyed by the reforms. In every country the rich are becoming overwhelmingly richer, and the poor are worse off in real terms in almost every case. I discussed this and showed how incredibly unbalanced wealth distribution in the US is in a blog entry called “When the Revolution Comes” on 13 March.
I haven’t looked at recent figures for other countries but I know that if you look at the numbers for New Zealand it soon becomes apparent that since the economic revolution here almost every indicator has become worse. Unemployment is greater, total foreign debt (including private debt) is greater, we have less democracy, we have less control of our own resources, we have more income inequality, and we have a lot less economic certainty.
So what has really been achieved? For the top 5% the revolution has been great. Big corporations and foreign banks can demand freedom from government intervention so they can do what they want (of course they don’t get total freedom but get a lot more than they should). But when things go wrong it’s time for government handouts they are the first in the queue.
And as I said in anther recent blog entry (“Personal Responsibility” on 4 April) the new aristocracy are given huge salaries and complete respect (and agan plenty of free handouts) even though their competence is highly debatable.
But if the revolution only favoured 5% of the population why do the other 95% continue to vote for these policies? Well in many cases their is really no alternative. Both major parties in the US are very pro-big business and very much accept the existing economic ideology. The same has been true in the UK and New Zealand where the traditionally left-wing Labour parties have embraced the new ideas as much as anyone.
But there is also the idea I started with. These ideas’ time had come and people were swept along on a tide of change without really understanding why. There are definite signs that this is finally starting to change. The “left” is in power in the US and demographics have weakened the Republican party there. The Tory government in the UK is unpopular. And even our current conservative government in New Zealand has backed away from the extreme policies of the past. Sure they still want to sell off assets but only 49% instead of the lot like they would have done in the past.
There are signs that the new zeitgeist is more moderate than that of the past. I just hope that it is real and can be as irresistible as the last one which has turned out so badly.
Every year, the online magazine Edge (allegedly the smartest website in the world) asks a series of “smart people” (scientists, technology experts, writers, etc) what we should be most afraid of, in an effort to establish what issues should cause the most concern. Their responses are interesting in some cases, but rather innocuous and superficial in many others, so let’s have a look at some of the answers.
Many of them sounded a little bit fatuous. In some cases they sounded like the same sort of things that your elderly parent or grandparent might mention. Obviously I found these very disappointing. Others were extremely thoughtful and presented intriguing ideas. I must admit I haven’t had time to read through the details of every idea so I apologise in advance if I have underestimated any of the ideas here. Anyway, here is a selected list of some of the answers (remember these are answers to the question “What should we be worried about?”)…
First there were the “clever” answers, like: “That we worry too much – Joel Gold, psychiatrist.” and “That this year’s Edge topic has been poorly chosen – Kai Krause, software pioneer”. Many people tried to “get cute” about the question and gave answers like this. This is pretty disappointing for a group which are supposed to be the smartest in the world. I doubt whether this is really the type of answer anyone would give after giving the idea any reasonable amount of consideration.
Then there were the “technophobic” answers, such as: “That the internet is ruining writing – David Gelernter, Yale computer scientist” and “That digital technologies are sapping our patience and changing our perception of time – Nicholas G. Carr, author” and “That we will spend too much time on social media – Marcel Kinsbourne, neurologist”. These all sound like people who just don’t get it, and they sound like similar warnings which have appeared in history every time a new technology appears. I think these are hardly worth commenting on.
On a similar theme there is: “Augmented reality – William Poundstone, journalist.” Really? That’s your biggest concern? Surely there are bigger issues than this to worry about. I’m not even sure which aspects of AR this person is specifically concerned about, although he talks about AR users being too easily distracted in his comments. That doesn’t sound all that bad to me.
And then there were the really general answers with no obvious meaning: “Humanity’s unmitigated arrogance. – Jessica L. Tracy, professor of psychology”. Is this true? Even if it is true what specific issues are the source of the concern? Apparently she thinks there is an increase in lying and cheating in various human domains. I really don’t see that and even if it was true I can’t see it being such a big concern.
There’s this one: “An underpopulation bomb – Kevin Kelly, editor-at-large, Wired.” What evidence is there that this is likely? Actually, what is an “underpopulation bomb” anyway? It seems that his main concern is an ageing population not being able to be supported by the smaller numbers of young people when the global population peak is passed and the population starts declining. I think long term forecasts like this are very doubtful but I also think we will need to redesign society to fit the new profile. It’s a concern but is it really the biggest problem we face?
This one could belong in the inane or bizarre category depending on your preference: “Men – Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist”. Interesting. Apparently she is suggesting that men are misunderstood and are actually far more sensitive and complex than the stereotypes tell us. Maybe she has a point to some extent, but I’m not sure how this can be seen as a major worry.
This one is enigmatic: “The coming fight between engineers and druids. – Paul Saffo, technology forecaster”. Here he is referring to the battle between those who favour sticking with the past because it was “good” (druids) and those who prefer to move ahead to something which is (supposedly) even better (engineers). So the idea is quite simple despite the interesting way of stating it. I think he does have a good point, especially when you look at the divisions between conservatives and liberals in countries like the US.
Here is one which I think is a genuine worry: “The diversion of intellectual effort from innovation to exploitation, the distraction of incessant warfare, rising fundamentalism may trigger a Dark Age – Frank Wilczek, MIT physicist”. This is starting to get into the area of genuine concern. More and more it seems that two big negative factors are holding back progress: the first is rampant capitalist environmental and social exploitation, and the second is increasingly desperate fundamentalist religion. Wilczek thinks the triumph of barbarism and religion, and rising fundamentalism has triggered a Dark Age before, and could do so again.
On a similar them is this: “The rise of anti-intellectualism and the end of progress. We’ve now, for the first time, got a single global civilisation. If it fails, we all fail together – Tim O’Reilly, CEO and founder of O’Reilly Media”. Again the theme of conservatism and backward ignorance standing in the way of progress. Some sections of society see scientific progress and liberalism as a threat rather than a way ahead. Look at the incredible stupidity of the far right in the US. This is a very concerning trend because as backward beliefs like religion become more marginalised they become more desperate to survive at any cost.
And again on that theme: “The growing gap between the scientific elite and the vast scientifically challenged majority – Leo M. Chalupa, ophthalmologist and neurobiologist” and “That the gap between news and understanding is widening. – Gavin Schmidt, NASA climatologist” When people don’t understand something they tend to reject it. Maybe that’s why there is so much science denial (for example, against global warming, evolution, and genetic modification) around the world today.
And partly for that reason we have this concern: “That Idiocracy is looming. – Douglas T. Kenrick, psychology professor”. Kenrick is concerned about populations of lower intelligence reproducing in greater numbers and pushing the average IQ down. It’s difficult to dispute the idea in general although it does sound rather elitist. Still, it’s the intellectual elite who have given everyone the advantages they have today, so this is a genuine problem.
And here’s the real problem with the world today in one sentence: “That smart people – like those who contribute to Edge – won’t do politics – Brian Eno, musician.” I would take this further and say smart people tend to stay out of many positions of power, not just politics. I also see few smart people in management and other areas which have greater influence. There really is a trend towards stupid, immoral, and ignorant people making a lot of the big decisions for everyone else.
So after looking through all the concerns expressed in this article I have to say that I think the biggest potential source of disaster is a new Dark Age brought on by a reaction against progress and rationality by those who have worldviews contrary to that supported by progressive liberals and rationalists.
As religion becomes more irrelevant we should expect those who still choose to accept it to employ increasingly extreme and dishonest measures to protect their dying worldview. This is most obvious in some western countries where fundamentalists are trying to sneak ridiculous nonsense like creationism into science classes, and in the fundamentalist Islamic world where violence is used in an attempt to stifle anything contrary to their backward ideas.
And conservatives of all sorts will continue to fight against progressive issues such as equality, free speech, diversity, and technological progress. There is no real justification in their attempts to halt these moves forward because the changes have no real direct effect on the detractors, but conservatives not only want to live in the past themselves, they want the rest of us to share their miserable and pathetic outlook as well.
Yes, these are real concerns. They are more harmful even than excessive use of Facebook!
There seems to be no end to the silly, frivolous things people today get upset and offended about. Surely there are serious issues which we should all be concerned about and wasting time on trivia just seems to be counter-productive. One of the more common trivial problems is that one group is “offended” by what another group or individual says.
Well OK, so they’re offended. So what? I would suggest two possible responses: first, show why the comment or action they are offended about is untrue or harmful in some way; or second, don’t get offended so easily. In other words: get over it!
There have been a few issues recently where people have become offended for various reasons and instead of reacting in one of the two way I mentioned above, they have chosen a third alternative: threaten and abuse the person who offended them. In other words, act in an even more offensive way than the original!
First, there is very odd case of St Matthews in the City church selling a billboard “skin” depicting a gay baby Jesus which has gained a lot of interest on the on-line auction site TradeMe. The billboard was used for publicity at Christmas and depicts a baby Jesus with a rainbow halo and the words “It’s Christmas. Time for Jesus to come out.”
Last time I heard the auction had reached $855 and had 29,000 views, although I can’t find it on the site now. The ad agency involved, “Einstein’s Hairdresser” (honestly, I couldn’t make this stuff up), added many humorous and frivolous comments in response to questions about the auction.
It all sounds like a bit of fun and some great free publicity for both the church and the advertising agency, but many people have taken it away too seriously and sent quite bitter and vitriolic comments to both the church (such as that they are surely going to Hell, which means nothing to an atheist like me but is presumably a bit disturbing to a believer) and to the comment system on TradeMe.
The same church has done other similar advertising stunts in the past, some of which have been quote amusing, so presumably the risk of eternal damnation hasn’t concerned them too much. One thing they will be happy about though is all the free media attention they have got as a result of all the complaints!
A second issue was possibly a but less frivolous. It involved the comments made by a visiting Danish far-right politician who called a powhiri (a traditional Maori “welcoming” ceremony) an “uncivilised ritual”. She was shocked to be welcomed by “dancing half-naked men” instead of with handshakes or salutes as she expected.
She received many emails criticising her and some advising her never to return to New Zealand. But why? She only expressed an opinion. The artistry, appropriateness, and sophistication of various social and cultural activities is surely a matter of opinion and why shouldn’t she express hers instead of (as many people do) being disgusted or amused at the spectacle and keeping it to herself.
Of course the freedom to criticise this sort of stuff should apply to all cultures. If anyone doesn’t like the Maori hongi (touching nose and forehead with the person you are greeting) for example they shouldn’t object to others rejecting a handshake. People should also consider whether it is really worth making a big point out of something which is generally fairly innocuous and should maybe just go along with the social norms.
But the main point here is that if someone does feel uncomfortable in participating in a foreign cultural activity they really should be able to say so. It’s not like the politician said “Maori are disgusting sub-humans and I don’t want to have anything to do with their customs” (that would be genuinely racist) it was just one rather intimidating ceremony which she didn’t enjoy. Fair enough, I wouldn’t either.
The final issue involves a comment so extreme and bizarre that it does start reaching the point where genuine offense might be reasonable. A city councillor from New Zealand city Palmerston North has suggested Maori women should be sterilised to prevent them smoking in front of their children. Wow. What a comment. What can you say about that?
For a start this is crazy stuff, and making any sort of comment which is so out of touch with reality should cause concern whether it has a cultural offence component or not. The problem is more that saying something like this in a public meeting is just bizarre rather than being racist or offensive in some other way.
The councillor has apologised unreservedly and said he only made the comment out of frustration because no other actions seem to have worked. He has said he instantly regretted making it. I guess it is possible to say things you regret later in those situations and maybe the apology should have marked the place where things should have ended.
But again people are taking great offence and demanding that he should retire from office. It seems to me that the councillor is the person to have really been insulted here – by himself! I really don’t think there is any need for further efforts to inflict more damage on him as a result of any real or contrived offence.
So my point here is really that people who make what could be seen as offensive comments tend to be offering an opinion which might be seen as wrong by many, but which they should still be able to make. If it is so wrong then it should be easy to show that error, but just demanding that these opinions are never made because certain other people find them offensive is just hiding the phenomenon.
And for those who make comments which really are edging towards being offensive, they tend to do themselves more harm than good. Is it not better to know what they are thinking rather than have them them secretly acting on their strange ideas? As far as I am concerned all but the most extreme opinions should be welcome. And the most important point is this: anyone who does say something which is totally outrageous should be prepared to be criticised themselves.
But to those who hear something they don’t like and just expect it to go away because they are offended I say: grow up, and get over it!
It often seems to me that the people who should accept the greatest responsibility and have the greatest accountability are those who actually accept the least. The people at the top of most hierarchies seem to be very good at accepting all the accolades when their organisation is successful but are far less visible and suddenly seem to have a lot less influence when things go wrong.
And when things are going well these same people happily accept huge bonuses even when the success has little to do with them, but I don’t see a lot of them insisting on lesser rewards when things go badly.
In my main job I am paid a salary so I don’t get bonuses for the good stuff or penalties when things don’t go so well (and they do occasionally) but I also do after hours consulting where I can basically set my own charges. I work in IT, so of course things do intermittently go wrong! Sometimes it’s my fault and sometimes it isn’t, but generally when I am fixing a problem I don’t charge the client extra for doing that (unless it was very clearly the client’s fault).
If that sort of system is good enough for me (and my income is fairly moderate, despite doing the extra work) why is it not good enough for people whose normal rate of pay is vastly greater than mine? Why don’t they fix their own errors at no charge?
If you live in New Zealand or know anything about current events here you might have guessed by now who I have in mind here. I’m talking about our old friend Don Elder, former CEO of Solid Energy. This highly paid business leader took a well performing state-owned company and completely destroyed it. Before the degree of his incompetence became widely known he resigned, but being one of the new elite with a huge sense of his own perceived value and self-importance he continued to accept his grossly inflated salary for “helping” the company out of its precarious financial position.
Any decent human being at this stage would have either said “no sorry, I’ve messed this up, I will leave but don’t give me any more payments for a job I’m clearly incapable of doing” or said “yes, I will help fix the problems I created but I insist you don’t pay me to fix something which shouldn’t have gone wrong in the first place”. It seems to be that being paid over a million dollars a year to destroy a company and then charging the same rate to try to fix it is a bit self-serving.
As I said above, I would never contemplate charging a client to fix a problem which I was responsible for in the first place. And if people are paid based on how responsible their job is you would expect someone with over ten times my salary to demonstrate ten times the degree of personal liability when things go wrong. But in the case of the corporate aristocracy apparently that isn’t the case. The extent of their feeling of personal entitlement is unbelievable!
But I shouldn’t just pick on poor old Don Elder, should I? What about all the other numerous examples of gross incompetence from the top echelons of management in New Zealand? What about the evil Dame Jenny Shipley’s hideous ineptitude in helping drive Mainzeal Construction into bankruptcy? Doesn’t she deserve some of the blame? Well she was being paid a lot of money while she was on the board. Again, does she accept the attendant responsibility or not? Well I think we all know the answer to that!
And do you want a further list of the new incompetent elite? How about these prominent people who have also presided over similar disasters (this list is from the New Zealand Herald): Wyatt Creech and John Luxton at Blue Chip; Sir Roger Douglas, Fran Wilde and Philip Burdon at Brierley Investments; Don Brash and John Banks at Huljich Wealth Management; Sir Douglas Graham and Bill Jeffries at Lombard; Sir William Birch at Viking Pacific; and Ruth Richardson at Dairy Brands and Syft Technologies.
Did you notice all the “Sirs” and “Dames” in this blog post? These really are the new aristocracy and their value to society is about equivalent to aristocracies everywhere: zero. But they are extremely skilled at acquiring undeserved honours like those. If the job losses and destruction of our economy wasn’t so serious the whole situation would be quite humorous. Sort of like a circus with these people the clowns!
It’s easy to rant about these people in a blog like this but surely it’s much harder to actually do what they’re doing, isn’t it? Actually, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. It seems to me that in most cases the failures were due to overly ambitious and poorly considered plans for expansion and forgetting about doing the job the company was supposed to be there to do. And it is all about the top management just walking away and moving on to the next unfortunate victim for their allegedly exceptional skills.
Everyone makes mistakes but these people are paid a lot not to make the same mistakes over and over again. And if they do make a mistake at least they could take a little bit of responsibility and do the right thing. But the “right thing” is about as far from the minds of senior management as anything can be. These people are the worst type of immoral, greedy, ignorant excuses for human beings on the face of the planet.
Even if they did work for free they would still be overpaid!
Yes, it’s Easter and who does care? Actually, despite the title, by the time I post this it won’t be Easter any longer, but give me a little bit of poetic license here, OK?
My point is that the primary meaning or Easter is supposed to be a religious one, marking the alleged crucifixion and alleged resurrection of Christ, and before that a pagan celebration of Spring (which explains many of the symbols of Easter, such as eggs and bunnies) but all that now seems lost and it has reverted to what all holidays have become: some time off work with some sort of commercial angle overlaid.
I agree that if you look you can find a few of the religious elements still there, for example some members of certain churches re-enact Christ dragging his cross to the place of the crucifixion. Naturally, I don’t take this seriously (see later) but it is an interesting ritual which I think adds a certain amount of cultural colour to what is otherwise just another long weekend.
Apart from some photos of that event in the local newspaper, a couple of days with most shops closed, and a slight change in programming on the radio station I usually listen to, you would barely know Easter had any significance, in a similar way to Christmas as I have mentioned in previous blog entries.
But I will ignore the modern interpretation of the Eater season and move on to critique the original Christian story associated with it. Did the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ even happen, does the story even make any sense, and should we care?
Well for a start I have to say that I remain skeptical even about the existence of Jesus. I think the most likely truth is that the stories we know about him originated from a real person, or several people, but they have been grossly exaggerated and enhanced in the re-telling. I also think there is a fair chance the stories are essentially entirely fictitious but I have moved more towards the “fiction based on fact” hypothesis recently.
Why am I skeptical of the whole thing? The only extensive stories about Jesus come from the gospels and various other religious writing, such as the letters of Paul. Oddly many Christians don’t realise that the four canonical gospels of the Bible were chosen essentially randomly from a much greater number, some of which are barely recognisable as the same story. There is even extensive variation amongst the four which survived. For example the “guiding star” story only appears in 1 (Matthew) out of 4 of them. Either 3 didn’t think it was important enough (really?) or Matthew just made the whole thing up!
Actually, that’s another point I need to make. No one knows who wrote the gospels, so Matthew didn’t actually write Matthew. No one seems to know who did or when. But we do know that they were all written many years after the events they allegedly describe and were unlikely to have been written by witnesses (if the events happened at all).
There are mentions of Jesus outside the Biblical writings (Josephus, Tacitus, etc) but they are all very weak and the passage which might be seen as most convincing (from Josephus) is generally regarded as a fake added by later Christians. If the story was so great and made such an impact then why did they feel the need to do this?
So the descriptions we do have are of a religious nature so are hardly going to be accurate. They were often written by unknown authors at unknown times. They copied off each other and (in theory) off currently unknown other documents. They were written by people who never met Jesus (believe it or not, Paul never met him). The evidence outside of the Christian writers (Josephus, etc) is second and third hand, written years after the alleged events, and very weak in every case. And finally important events which could be used to confirm the stories (the star, the eclipse, the dead rising from their graves) are never mentioned anywhere else.
When you think about it the whole story really sucks. You would have to be crazy to believe it! And yes, I know that many historical figures have very little good evidence supporting their existence, but when there are obvious exaggerations in stories about other figures we are at least very skeptical about them which is all I am suggesting should be the case here as well.
But let’s forget all of those points and accept the story at face value. The essential message of Christianity is that Jesus was sent to save us and died to achieve that purpose. Not only that, but many people believe Jesus was God – maybe a sort of avatar (they are common in other religions). Does this make sense?
The story is essentially this: God created humans as sinners and knew they would sin (he is supposed to be omniscient) then sent a version of himself so that he could die to save humans from sin (didn’t he try that previously with the Flood?) which he himself created (he created us in his image). And things are exactly the same before and after this event (there was crime, violence, disease, and early death both before and after Jesus). Huh? This is supposed to make sense how exactly?
Christianity is very good at using fear and guilt as tools of oppression. People are supposed to accept Jesus or they will go to Hell. And just in case that threat doesn’t work they should accept him through guilt because he died for our sins. The whole thing is totally absurd and anyone who really believes this crap is bonkers!
Maybe a person roughly recognisable as Jesus really existed, and maybe he was crucified. But we don’t owe him anything. Many people were crucified at that time and we have forgotten all of them. Most likely the whole story is entirely fictitious of a greatly embellished version of a real story. Either way, who really cares?
Apparently I’m a racist, at least according to some people. Why? Because I question the wisdom of giving some groups (let’s be specific: Maori, the original inhabitats of New Zealand) extra privileges based on their race, and because I dare to criticise some religions (again let’s be clear: I’m talking about Muslims) for their poor behaviour. By the way, I know race is a vague concept with little scientific validity, but we all know what these “racial” groups are – even if their origin is cultural more than biological – so the whole issue is still valid.
It seems strange to me that saying that certain racial (and cultural) groups shouldn’t be given special privileges is racist when the definition seems to suggest the exact opposite. Here’s the definition: “having or showing the belief that a particular race is superior to another”. I would have thought that if you think one group deserves extra privileges then you are strongly suggesting they are superior in some way, and of you suggest a group needs extra help you are suggesting they are inferior. Either way, those opinons (totally contrary to mine) seem racist.
Compare that with my view that every race should be treated the same and race based privileges and policies should be avoided. Surely it is my critics who are the racists, isn’t it?
A similar argument applies to my criticism of religion, because some religions are associated with certain racial groups. So my negative comments about religion are also sometimes criticised as being racist. But I criticise people based on many criteria: their politics, their philosophical perspectives, their moral standards, but never their race. And it seems fair to criticise them based on their damaging belief in superstition as well. If I don’t I’m effective giving that particular group (which might be associated with a racial group) a free pass. Isn’t that more racist than treating everyone equally?
I realise that the argument I am making is not a new one. I also realise that some people who actually are a bit racist use it, including some fairly extreme right wingers who are my usual opponents in political discussion. But in this blog I like to express my opinion clearly and directly, and if it fits with a particular ideology or not doesn’t really matter. It’s the logic and truth of the points which are important.
I think that is one of the reasons some people find my attitude in this area so disconcerting: I have traditional left wing views in other areas but this is seen as more reminiscent of the right. Generally the left are very politically correct around the subject so it seems more significant when I don’t follow the usual pattern. Of course, I have always said I reject these labels and if I did need to use a label I would see myself more as a rationalist rather than a leftist.
There is a current political event which has lead to this particular subject. It is the appointment of a new Race Relations Commissioner, Susan Devoy. Her opinions on the subject have caused a lot of consternation to many people and her apparent lack of relevant knowledge is also a concern.
Here’s what she said about Waitangi Day which is (in theory) our national day: “Waitangi has been hijacked and if it can never be really seen as a day of national celebration then perhaps the time has come to choose another true New Zealand day. … A recent poll showed more than 70 per cent of New Zealanders were in favour of a new holiday. This would leave Waitangi Day to be the day that recognises the importance of Maori, but the door open for a day that we don’t feel ashamed to be a New Zealander…”
I agree. I feel no connection with Waitangi Day at all and, according to many polls, neither do the majority of other New Zealanders. Waitangi Day has really turned into “Maori Day” which is fine for those who are interested in Maori culture and history (and a lot of that alleged history is very doubtful). But I have no interest in that area at all. Maori culture can be OK in small doses (some of the legends are quite cool) but in general I find it boring.
Many people would see that last statement as racist, but is it? Should I pretend to be interested in something just to be politically correct? I don’t think so. There are many other subjects and cultures I am also not that interested in but that doesn’t mean I think they are inferior, I’m simply just not interested!
Race relations in New Zealand is in a fairly healthy state but I think that is despite the modern trend of forcing people to participate in Maori culture rather than because of it. I have absolutely no problem with Maori culture being part of our society as long as people with no interest in it aren’t forced to participate. That really does create resentment.
The other thing that causes a lot of negativity is the seemingly constant hand-outs to Maori groups for some real and some imagined grievances. People quite rightly get annoyed when one group is given extra privileges (and money) for highly doubtful reasons. If you really want different groups to get on then treat them all fairly. That’s how to get real racial harmony.
So Susan Devoy might or might not be a wise choice for this role but in some ways it might be quite a good thing that we have someone who (at least in the past) has been prepared to stand up for the majority view. Maybe, just maybe, we might make some real progress towards equality and harmony now instead of the false situation we have now where resentment and indignation seem to be barely held in check.
Tax is a difficult and controversial subject. Most people don’t like paying it but everyone (whether they accept it or not) depends on services which tax pays for. Of course the best individual strategy would be to pay no tax yourself and yet make use of the benefits of the tax other people pay.
If you were the type of person or organisation who follows the simple commercial imperative of maximising profits (using whatever justification you favour: giving investors a fair return, making the economy in general more vigorous, providing employment, of whatever other half truth is currently in fashion) then paying as little tax as possible is not just a good idea, it should be your duty.
In fact Google recently described their avoidance of paying billions in tax as “just being good at capitalism”. Well yes, I guess it is. But is capitalism itself a good thing? Clearly if making use of your position of power to make minimal contribution to society while relying on those with almost no wealth to make up for your refusal to participate is seen as good then the process itself must be bad. Yes, pure capitalism is undoubtedly bad.
Leaders in large corporations almost have to be greedy and self-serving to even be in that position so we really can’t really act surprised when they engage in all of these dirty tricks to avoid their fair obligations to the society they exploit. But the rest of us who are paying for what is effectively corporate welfare don’t have to like it, and we should act accordingly. But apparently we generally don’t.
Governments are to blame in the end, of course. I know that whatever laws are put in place there is usually some smart corporate lawyer or accountant with no morals who will find a way around them, but that doesn’t mean the governments shouldn’t at least try.
Let me give some examples of the outrageous dishonesty big business gets away with around the world and here in New Zealand.
Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men, pays an effective tax rate of 0.06% on his total income. He can do that because his accountants make it look like he earns a lot less than he really does and it is all (as far as I know) legal. Ironically he is the same person who says he isn’t taxed enough and thinks the rich should be taxed more. Well if he really thinks that why does he put so much effort into avoiding paying it?
My favourite company (based on their products, not their business practices), Apple, are well know for the dirty tricks they use. Some sources credit them with inventing the “Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich” which apparently describes the practice of routing profits through Irish subsidiaries, then to the Netherlands, and finally to a Caribbean tax haven. After selling over half a billion dollars worth of products in New Zealand last year they paid 0.4% tax. Yes I know that is sales, not profit, but we all know what large profit margins Apple works on. Maybe they should hire Buffett’s accountants, then they might get away with paying even less!
I’ve already mentioned the contempt Google displayed in their answer to the accusations of tax avoidance there. Clearly their motto of “don’t be evil” has well and truly been forgotten.
The examples above are just that: examples, because I’m sure that every successful company and every hugely wealthy individual pays very little tax – it’s just part of the way they operate. After all capitalism is driven by greed so there should be no surprise that those who rise to the top are generally greedy. OK, fair enough, but if that’s the case then we need strong government regulation to control these people and extract a fair contribution from them.
But that doesn’t seem to be what most governments are doing. Here in New Zealand we are short of funding for many worthwhile projects. What is a major reason for this? Well the tax cuts for the rich which have resulted in a loss of $2 billion per year might have been a contributing factor I would guess.
You might think that increasing taxes on those who can easily afford them might be a reasonable strategy but not for our government. No, they want to tax paper boys instead. My son delivers papers and has recently been taxed on his income which is probably about as much per year as many of the rich, who pay almost no tax, make in an hour. And my daughter does two part time jobs but is being charged secondary tax on one of them. And for that matter, why do I pay tax at a rate of 500 times more than Warren Buffett?
The whole thing is just cheap and nasty. What possible motivation can there be for such despicable policies apart from a dogmatic view that giving the rich more freedom helps the economy (if you believe that you really are out of touch with reality, all it does if give them the freedom to move their undeserved wealth out of the country). Or maybe it’s a bit more cynical than that. Big business funds right wing parties, so I guess there should be no surprise when they get the rewards they paid for.
It’s not just the current New Zealand government who are totally lacking in any moral character and are ethically bankrupt, it’s the western world in general. So I don’t what this rant to be construed as a criticism of the Nats in particular, although they are undoubtedly amongst the worst practitioners.
Again I have to wonder how they ever win an election. I guess it must reflect rather badly on the Labour opposition who really do seem to be rather politically incompetent. That’s democracy for you: do you want incompetence or immorality? Tough choice!
In general tolerance is a good thing. I know I have ranted on many occasions against various groups in society in this blog but in general I am not absolutist about it.
For example, I think that big business is extremely dangerous but I still want corporations to exist, just with tight controls on the excesses of their behaviour. Without big corporations we wouldn’t have many of the valuable products and services we depend on. However they do have too much freedom and influence in politics, none of them pay their fair share of tax, and they should be forced to follow environmental and social objectives as well as the financial ones.
And I find the ignorance and arrogance of many religious people almost unbelievable, but I don’t want to eradicate religion. That’s because it is socially valuable to some people, it has many interesting stories and customs, and it is an alternative world view from mine and I celebrate diversity rather than trying to eliminate it. I do however want religion controlled. Creationists have no right to have their beliefs taught in a science class for example, and I reserve the right to debate and ridicule anyone who believes in nonsense.
That’s my customary introduction, so what is the actual rant… I mean topic of discussion… going to be today? It’s about when there is too much tolerance.
In the past I have defended Islam against many of its attackers. A rather nutty right-wing friend of mine sends out a lot of anti-Islam material and I often reply pointing out that it is usually inaccurate and exaggerated. That is still true, but taking the opposite view – that Islam is basically reasonable and benign – is not correct either.
One of my many sources of news and information is the BBC world service. In a recent podcast they reported on several issues affecting the world and a pattern I immediately noticed was the negative effects of religion, and Islam in particular.
The first item was from Iraq. It reported that religiously motivated violence there in recent days resulted in the deaths of at least 50 innocent people after bomb attacks. While the death rate is well below its peak in the year 2006 it is still running at about 300 per month.
There is a political element to this clearly but fundamentally this is a religious problem, and it’s not even Islam against another religion, it is one sect of Islam against another! Shiite neighbourhoods of Baghdad, especially places where innocent people meet such as bus stations and restaurants, are being targeted by Sunni radicals. How can anyone really claim this is a religion of peace?
I do need to point out here that the most significant contributor to the current political instability in Iraq is the American invasion of 10 years ago and that was partly motivated by ridiculous Christian religious beliefs of the president at the time. I also have to point out that the Muslim versus Muslim violence in Iraq has parallels with the Christian versus Christian violence in Ireland not that long ago. So Christians shouldn’t feel to smug when they see Muslims acting this way.
The second story was about sectarian violence in Pakistan. In this case it was Muslims murdering members of a slightly different sect to their own again but here they have gone one step further and are terrorising Christians as well. A crowd of Muslims rioted and destroyed 100 homes in a Christian area because of some perceived insult to their beliefs.
But these devoutly religious people don’t stop there. They also do targeted killings of high profile people who belong to a different branch of Islam. A Shiite eye surgeon and his 11 year old son were shot and killed. I guess that’s just what the extremists’ faith told them they should do. Praise be to Allah!
This extreme behaviour in Pakistan is being more tolerated by moderate believers so in many ways it is them who are to blame. Anyone who is a Muslim and doesn’t accept part of the blame for the actions of the more extreme elements in their religion is just denying the facts. It’s the religion itself which is to blame. It is fundamentally intolerant. Anyone who denies this should be asked “what is the official Islamic punishment for apostasy?” (in case you don’t know, it’s death).
The saddest thing I heard was the tortured question of a relative of one of the victims when he asked “can God accept that?” Even after everything going so wrong and there being zero sign of help from his imagined deity he still believes. Well if faith is all about killing people who just happen to have a slightly different interpretation of an idiotic belief than you, and then wondering why your god didn’t help you, then you can keep it. Give me rationality over faith any day!