Archive for April, 2015

What Did They Fight For?

April 29, 2015 Leave a comment

One of the basic reasons for engaging in war is often stated to be protection for freedom of speech. If that is true then we should find it very ironic and perhaps hypocritical when people want to deny the right to that freedom when our engagement in wars is involved. I am of course referring to the recent case in Australia where sports reporter Scott McIntyre was fired after making some rather critical tweets regarding Australia’s war efforts on the 100 year anniversary of the World War 1 actions commemorated by ANZAC day.

Before I go any further I should comment on the actual content of the tweets…

First he said that he found the “cultification” (which I’m not sure is really a word but clearly means turning something into a cult) of the “imperialist invasion” of a foreign nation (Turkey) that Australia had no quarrel with is contrary to our moral standards.

Well he has a point there, although the action was against an ally of a much worse aggressor (Germany) so it is debatable whether Australia had a fair reason to invade or not. Also calling the commemorations on ANZAC day a cult is a bit of an exaggeration. There are some elements there (repetition of key phrases such as “lest we forget”, formal ceremonies, failure to accept criticism) but there are a lot of elements of cults missing too.

Next he wondered if the “poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers pause today to consider the horror that all mankind suffered.”

This is deliberately insulting obviously, but let’s move on to the key point about consideration of the bigger picture of suffering on all sides. In my experience that does happen. The Turks have been portrayed by many not so much as an enemy but more as fellow victims and several quite touching stories of friendship have emerged. Also the horror of war in general is a common theme but there is also an element glorifying some of the events. So the tweet is probably poorly considered but it is still a fair question.

The next tweet caused the most consternation, and rightly so: “Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan.”

I believe there were some atrocities committed by Australian troops in World War I and those should not be ignored, but this tweet is a gross exaggeration and simplification of the truth. It’s also rather confused historically speaking. So the point could be made but I think it could have been made in a more accurate, rational way (although he was restricted by the limitations of Twitter, of course).

Finally there were two tweets relating to the nuclear attacks on Japan: “Not forgetting that the largest single-day terrorist attacks in history were committed by this nation & their allies in Hiroshima & Nagasaki” and “Innocent children, on the way to school, murdered. Their shadows seared into the concrete of Hiroshima.”

Those attacks were carried out by America and as far as I am aware Australia had very little to do with them, so this is getting a bit off topic. There is a very good case to be made that the nuclear bombing of Japan was the greatest war crime ever, but an equally good case could be made to say that they shortened the war and saved many lives too. Either way they didn’t have a lot to do with the ANZACs although in the greater theme of war in general they are relevant.

So those are the tweets which causes the controversy. In summary I would say that they all make some reasonable points which should be discussed but that they are undoubtedly exaggerated, not necessarily completely factually accurate, and poorly worded.

But assuming we disagree with him what is the appropriate response? Well the worst possible response is what we got: a grossly inflated sense of insult, an insistence for the discussion to be shut down, and a demand for the person to be fired even though the tweets had no relevance to his job. All that does is make me feel like he might be right and people are trying to hide the facts.

Would a more sensible approach not be to point out where he is wrong (assuming he is), to offer a more balanced perspective, or maybe to say “these are all points we can discuss but now is not the time” (I don’t necessarily agree that this is not the time but a case could be made that it is).

And finally the fact that his employer fired him as a result of this public and political pressure is a very poor precedent to set. If I was him I would be taking legal action against my employer because forcing their own political opinions, or worse – taking action just to avoid unreasonable criticism – is just morally reprehensible. Of course, that is standard behaviour for many employers – don’t get me started on the BBC and Jeremy Clarkson again!

As far as I know the comments were made in his own time and on his own Twitter account (if I am wrong about this it weakens my point but I still think firing him was wrong) so what right does his employer have for censoring him like that? Absolutely none! As I said at the beginning of this post, that is the sort of behaviour our brave soldiers were defending. If this deliberate suppression of fair debate is where we are at now you have to wonder this: what did they fight for?


Pick Your Poison

April 28, 2015 Leave a comment

There are many different political and economic positions which various people take. Some emphasise the need to give private companies more power and freedom (such as libertarianism) while others advocate greater government control, possibly with the claim that that is better for the majority (like socialism). The problem with every political philosophy is that they grant power (either explicitly or as an indirect consequence) to particular groups in society which inevitably negatively affects others.

And even extreme libertarians (who are virtually anarchists) indirectly grant power to one group while reducing freedom for the majority. In a state with no laws the rules are imposed by anyone who can force his will on others. It might be someone with a lot of money, or who has military strength, and it will often be far worse than limitations imposed by an actual government.

I’m no great fan of rules, that should be obvious from what I have said in many bog posts in the past, but I don’t think political dogmas which purportedly reduce the official rules are the answer.

Libertarians want to eliminate rules which limit the activities of business but where does this lead? To zero-hour contracts (where employees are guaranteed no work but have to be on notice to work at any time), to the environment we all share being polluted and degraded by the activities of irresponsible businesses, to corporations running private security forces, espionage programs, and worse.

In the end libertarianism doesn’t lead to more freedom – except for a tiny fraction of the population who can take personal advantage of the situation – it leads to a lot less.

On the other hand we all know that socialism taken to the extreme is perhaps even worse where an overbearing government stifles freedom as much or more than the corporate world could.

I do have to say at this point that both of these scenarios are the result of the extreme implementations of these ideologies. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with the more mild forms of either left or right wong political theories and there are plenty of nations where social democracy and/or laissez faire economics have worked reasonably well. New Zealand would be one example.

So what’s my point? Well first, the phrase “reasonably well” above is one clue. We have done OK but things could be so much better. My second point is that gaining a certain level of success through a moderate form of a policy doesn’t mean that a more extreme form will make things better.

So, pick your poison. Choose whatever political course you think might help but be aware that taking any course to an extreme, and applying it in every situation without any real thought, will probably not achieve what you expect. I just wish our politicians would forget about their built-in biases and make decisions based on the facts of each individual situation as it arises but unfortunately there’s very little sign of that happening.

What Have We Learned?

April 25, 2015 Leave a comment

Today is ANZAC Day. If you are from outside our region I should explain that this day commemorates the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ exploits in WW1, and more generally remembers the sacrifices made by all of our armed forces. This year was the 100 year anniversary of the disastrous ANZAC landings in Gallipoli during WW1 and there was a greater than usual participation in the annual ceremonies.

So, are there any lessons that we can take from what happened 100 years ago? The general message I get is the utter meaninglessness of the actions, and the ineptitude shown during the events at Gallipoli.

There had been good advice that the attack would not succeed, there were numerous battles within the campaign that were utterly pointless and close to certain suicide for the attackers. The British commanders were both incompetent and neglectful regarding the casualties they inflicted on the New Zealand and Australian troops under their command. And the political and religious propaganda used to support what was basically a poorly considered attack on another country was quite contemptible.

I’m not criticising our soldiers or even most of the New Zealand commanders. I am criticising those further up the hierarchy who sacrificed other people’s lives so easily. And I am criticising the politics that lead to the First World War even starting.

So we got involved in a war which was really nothing to do with us purely to support another country which we saw as being our leader in some way. Does this sound vaguely similar to more recent events? How about New Zealand sending troops to the Middle East to support a conflict which our American allies caused in the area? Have we learned anything at all from history?

I do have to say that I am not totally convinced that military action isn’t necessary in some cases but I am persuaded by some of the arguments of the pacifist commentators I have seen. In many cases real change is achieved through non-military means. After all, the greatest change in modern times – the demise of the Soviet Union – was not primarily affected by military action.

And I don’t think Islamic extremism is going to be stopped by military action either. In fact every military campaign in the Middle East seems to make things worse rather than better. Many people say that the rise of ISIS is a direct consequence of earlier American military action in the area. As long as militant Islam is engaged by western military power the problem is likely to get worse rather than better. As happened in the Soviet Union, change has to happen from within.

The New Zealand troops in World War 1 were expecting to fight the Germans, not the Turks. They were expecting to repel aggressive attacks into other countries, not attack an army defending its own land. They were expecting to have the moral, political, and religious high ground, not be a force wondering which side was really in the right. They were expecting to be lead by people with the greatest skills and with real consideration for avoiding unnecessary casualties, instead of leaders who treated them like cannon fodder.

And they were expecting to make a difference, which ironically they did by failing. But did it make enough difference? How many similar conflicts have we been dragged into since then by our powerful allies? World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East. Will it never end? What have we learned?

The BS Brigade

April 19, 2015 Leave a comment

There has been a bit of discussion recently about the decision made by the Australian government to cut benefits to parents who don’t vaccinate their children. Of course any sensible person would agree that, except for those with extremely rare medical conditions, every child should be vaccinated. The Australian ruling also gives a dispensation for religious beliefs but I would not agree with that, of course.

The bigger question might be this though: is it OK for a government to use that sort of coercion to force people into doing something that they might genuinely believe is a bad thing (even if they are wrong)?

The general consensus here seems to be that it would be a far too draconian rule for us here in New Zealand because we are not yet at anywhere near the same level of fascism that the Australian government is – they are surely one of the worst that Australia has ever had – even John Key looks pretty good in comparison!

So if that isn’t an option is there a better way to persuade people to do the right thing? Well I’ve been thinking about this and I think I have a cunning plan, a plan so cunning that if you put a tail on it you’d call it a weasel (I had to use that once in a blog entry, I promise I won’t ever do it again).

So my plan is to establish a group, or a force if you prefer, to help people who believe bullshit, and when I say help I mean help in the sense that the police often help (interpret that as you wish).

This group would constantly be on the alert for people who believe in bullshit such as global warming deniers, creationists, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, fluoridation opponents, homeopaths, alternative medicine followers, and of course vaccine deniers.

When one of these misfits was detected the BS Brigade would visit and point out how wrong they were. And because we know that not everyone responds to reason a certain amount of physical persuasion would be allowable, you know just a light thrashing or maybe a tasering in extreme cases – something similar to the more mild end of police tactics.

I’m sure at this point you can see what a great idea this is, but there is the old problem of funding. Well that’s just another one of the impressive benefits of my scheme: it would easily fund itself through reduced costs to the health system not needing to treat unvaccinated people who catch measles or other preventable diseases.

There is an apparently never-ending variety of different forms of bullshit which could be corrected so the BS Brigade would never run out of work. In the unlikely event that all the anti-vaccination crowd were “processed” it could start on homeopathy or some other similar nonsense, for example.

There are two other small issues which need to dealt with. The first is who determines what is BS and what isn’t? Well the obvious answer is that I could make that decision, but it would not be difficult to establish a consensus amongst scientific experts if a more democratic process was seen as necessary.

Finally, all of this would require some coordination and we would probably need to establish a ministry to oversee the complex processes. So we would need a minister of bullshit. I can’t see any major issue there because we already have plenty of politicians in our current government with great experience dealing with that every time they talk to the prime minister!

Who Polices the Police?

April 15, 2015 Leave a comment

In this blog I have made several negative comments going back many years about the New Zealand police. I should also say that I have generally accepted that in most cases the police do an adequate job, and often have to do difficult work which I would never want to do myself, but that is no excuse for unacceptable levels of poor performance or any systematic problems which I believe really do exist.

Recently politcal commentator and academic Bryce Edwards has made similar comments to these and has received some criticism as a result. Is that fair? Well obviously I don’t think so because he has been saying very similar things to me (it just took him a bit longer to get started on the subject) but I guess we should expect that when a well known public figure takes this sort of stand against a powerful organisation he will get a reaction.

So to get on to some specifics…

After Edwards’ article criticising police performance the police commissioner disagreed and said he should get out from behind his desk and see first hand the work the police do every day.

What an fatuous response. I couldn’t help but notice that he didn’t address any of the issues raised. I also though it was ironic that the commissioner, who I suspect spends most of his life behind a desk, criticised Edwards for the same thing.

But I have noticed increasing levels of propaganda from the police over the last few years. This of course fits in with the attitude of other large organisations (including the government) who seem to think they can avoid criticism by indulging in self-righteous, humorous, or irrelevant sideshows instead of really answering the hard questions.

There have been many high profile failures of police over the years – cases involving Mark Lundy, Teina Pora, David Bain, and Arthur Allan Thomas being the most obvious – and I’m sure these represent just the tiniest fraction of the total because we never hear about most of them. But is the problem incompetence or corruption?

Bryce Edwards says it’s corruption but not in the sense of police getting bribes or anything similar. It’s corruption through misuse of power and I think that he has a good point.

But the title of this blog post is “Who Polices the Police?” so let’s get back to that. We do have the (so-called) Independent Police Conduct Authority but that name is a bit of a joke and many people see it as being anything but independent because many of its staff are ex-police. Did anyone (apart from those who don’t want the police controlled) really think this was a good idea?

Here’s a quote I found describing this organisation: “The worst thing we can do is to continue to pretend the IPCA is somehow independent, somehow useful, somehow holds police to account and somehow reports faithfully and honestly to the public. It does none of these things. We may as well be rid of this misleading and useless appendage.”

Exactly. We need an organisation that can do the job it is there for, and one which looks at complaints realistically and doesn’t bias the outcome of investigations before they even start. The IPCA being so useless is worse than not having it at all because now the police can quote the outcome of its investigations and say they have been cleared. It’s totally ridiculous.

The police – more than any other large organisations with an important role in society – need to be controlled carefully. At the moment there is little control and the police are going feral. If we’re not careful we could end up with a bunch of armed thugs and killers like the American police where intimidation, brutality, and murder is an almost daily occurence.

Whatever your perspective I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect the senior police management to answer reasonable accusations fairly and without resorting to cheap stunts like demanding their critics join them on the beat. If they can’t come up with a better defence than that then maybe things really have got worse than we thought.

And since the IPCA don’t do much, who else is going to police the police?

Easter Suckers

April 6, 2015 Leave a comment

I have a little cartoon depicting a person who might be meant to resemble the traditional appearance of Jesus (which is far from his actual, most likely appearance, assuming he even existed) saying “there’s a sucker born again every minute.” Of course, this is an allusion to the classic phrase attributed to American showman, P. T. Barnum.

I should make one comment before I continue with the main point of this blog post: according to Wikipedia the phrase was “most likely spoken by David Hannum, in criticism of both P. T. Barnum … and his customers. The phrase is often credited to Barnum himself. It means: many people are gullible, and we can expect this to continue.” I always assumed the phrase was from Barnum himself referring to his customers so I have learnt something new already.

But I should get back to the main subject here. The phrase “born again” is often used by Christian nutters to refer to some revolution in their life after conversion to whatever (especially Evangelical) sect of Christianity they have currently got involved with. So the cartoon is suggesting that anyone who believes this is a sucker. it’s hard to disagree.

We have just completed Easter, perhaps the most important event in the Christian calendar, so this blog post is a comment on that. We all know that Easter is just another pagan celebration (like Christmas) hijacked by Christianity and that most of the symbolism of the event (eggs, bunnies, etc) has nothing to do with Christianity but I’ll let that pass this time and move on.

The purported reason for Easter is the alleged crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ so let’s have a look at the authenticity of this event which is so central to Christian mythology and substance. Well to summarise, it’s bullshit. Thank you, that is the end of this post.

But seriously, I need to provide some detail…

What evidence do we have of any of the events of Jesus’ life, including the great supernatural ones, like his resurrection? Well, basically none, if you really want to know. Here’s some of the reasons I can make this claim…

1. Absolutely no one who would have witnessed the events bothered to record them. And I agree that records weren’t as good at the time and could have been lost but is this a credible excuse? I don’t think so. Note that the gospels were written by unknown people many years after the events they describe, and people like Paul never met Jesus (not to mention the fact that many of the writings attributed to him have now been shown to be from other unidentified authors).

2. The stories are conflicting and significant details in one are entirely missing from others. For example, only the Gospel of Matthew mentions the Star of Bethlehem. Not only is it not mentioned in any other Biblical story but it isn’t mentioned anywhere else either. Why invent a story like that? And since it almost certainly was invented what else might also be fiction?

There’s another example related to Easter too. Three of the four canonical gospels mention a darkness just after the crucifixion (“From noon on, darkness came over the whole land [or earth] until three in the afternoon”). But John doesn’t bother to mention it and neither does anyone else. Maybe they didn’t notice? And there is a similar problem with the rather silly story about the dead rising. This obviously didn’t happen because no one else mentions it. It’s pure fiction.

3. The stories we have today are just a small selection chosen by a committee hundreds of years after the events supposedly happened. Other gospels have completely different stories from the four in the canonical gospels most people know about. What makes these four so special? Well they suited the purposes of the early church, I guess.

4. The events which would reasonably be expected to be recorded (whether they had supernatural significance or not) weren’t. It is fair to expect that one crucifixion might not have been recorded by the Romans (even though they were good record keepers) or the records might have been lost. But the big events which everyone must have been aware of – the star, the darkness, the dead rising – would surely have been written about so many times that records would have survived. But we have nothing.

Clearly the whole Jesus story is largely fiction. I probably wouldn’t go so far as to say that there was no person that the stories are based on, but there is no resemblance of any of the supernatural mythology (including the resurrection story) to reality. It is so unsupported that you really do have to be a sucker to take it seriously. But many people do, I guess because there’s a sucker born again every minute!