• Defending Privilege

    “Business as usual” is always the catch-cry of those who are happy with the way things are. “Let’s not change anything” makes sense to those who are doing well and see no reason to run any risks in case that might disturb their care-free existence.

    That is precisely why the right-wing party in Britain calls itself the Conservatives – they have plenty to conserve and they don’t want anyone rocking the boat – especially if it’s a luxury yacht. The corollary is that they have little interest in, or sympathy for, those whose vessels are a little less seaworthy.

    The preservation of the status quo and resistance to change are the hallmarks of those who are fearful that their privileged status might be challenged – and, if it is challenged, they will respond with any weapon they can lay their hands on.

    The usual response is to assert that the privilege or advantage they enjoy has been earned and is a just reward for their superior abilities and efforts; it has not, they say, been gained at the expense of others, so any attempt to redress the imbalance between them and those others would not only be misplaced but unfair.

    The difficulty with this line of argument is that we know that privilege breeds privilege – and inequality. We know that it is not just a slogan but an economic fact. Research by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz shows conclusively that one’s best chance of becoming well-off is to be born to rich parents.

    He also shows that we can choose, as a society, whether or not to tolerate a high degree of inequality. If we allow our politics to be dominated by defenders of the status quo (or, in other words, by “conservatives”) we will end up with a society in which privilege is endemic and entrenched and feeds on itself.

    It will also be a society that functions less well, that is riven by discontent and division, and that fails to use its resources (particularly human resources) fully and efficiently.

    The inefficient use of human resources in such a society arises in two ways and for two reasons. First, if privilege is the determining factor, then incompetent people will be promoted, by virtue of privilege, to positions for which they are not fitted – and our economic leaders will make a worse job of making important decisions that affect all of us.

    Secondly, if privilege is allowed free rein, then able people, with plenty to offer, will be held back and denied opportunities so that the rest of us are denied the full benefits of what they can contribute.

    If, however, we are disturbed by a growing disparity between the well-being of some parts of society and others, we might prefer political leaders who seek change and try to find better and fairer ways of cutting the cake – and making the cake bigger as well.

    Change will alway be uncomfortable for those for whom the status quo is acceptable and desirable. They will always reach for arguments that those seeking change are on the wrong track, or that the change is misconceived or won’t or can’t work, or that, even if it is brought about, it will produce outcomes that are not those intended.

    Those who see change as threatening their privilege will, in other words, always seek to defend that privilege, usually by attacking those who seek change – what else do you expect them to do?

    So, the next time you read or hear someone resisting change, pause to question their motives. Are they really opposed to change in general, and across the board, or are they really just defending privilege?

    And you should really be on your guard if you are told that those who are less privileged have missed out because they are lazy or greedy and can’t be bothered to get up in the morning – or that the fat cats got that way because of their inborn qualities and by thinking of others and working hard.

    Another tell-tale sign is when it is not change itself but those proposing change – change in the general interest and not for personal gain – who are attacked, for facing up to difficulties inevitably encountered in bringing that change about; the message seems to be that if change can’t be achieved painlessly or smoothly it should not be attempted.

    No one pretends that change is painless or that remedying past deficiencies does not carry a cost. But we should always be on our guard against those who, as a matter of course, attack proposed change on the ground that it is misconceived and that disturbing the status quo should always, and as a matter of principle, be resisted.

    Change can only be resisted by those who are satisfied that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds – and guess who thinks like that?

    Bryan Gould
    15 May 2019

  • Is Donald Trump Really A Deal-Maker?

    As Donald Trump surveys the current state of his relationships with China, Iran and North Korea, with all of whom he has recently engaged in a somewhat confrontational way, even someone as resistant to self-doubt as the US President might conclude that his supposed expertise in doing deals might leave something to be desired.

    His imposition of tariffs on Chinese imports seems to have back-fired as American business (and the world economy) begin to count the cost; his tearing up of the deal with Iran to the effect that sanctions would be lifted in return for their renunciation of any ambitions to develop nuclear weapons has likewise led to a sharp increase in tension in the Middle East; and his much-touted agreement with North Korea has been met by a resumption of the testing of missiles with nuclear capability by Kim Jong Un.

    Someone with a little more self-knowledge than Donald Trump might be given pause for at least a moment by these responses to his efforts at what might laughingly be called diplomacy. It is clear that the author of The Art of the Deal has much to learn about international diplomacy – that the tactics of threat and bluster and waiting to see who blinks first may or may not work in private business but have a poor record in the sphere of international relations.

    Even in private business, there must be major question marks over such high-risk tactics, if the story told by his tax returns over more than a decade is to be believed. Those tax returns show that, rather than the successful businessman he claims to be, he actually lost more than a billion dollars over the period (with the convenient result that he paid no tax).

    It is not just the obvious damage that has been inflicted on the American economy and on wider American interests that must be entered into the balance sheet in evaluating Trump’s initiatives in international relations. What must also be taken into account are the lost opportunities, flowing from Trump’s refusal to accept a leadership (or any) role on issues like climate change and even on specific issues like requiring the social media companies to take a more responsible approach to the publication of hate speech. And that is to say nothing of his bewildering apparent subservience to Putin’s Russia and his readiness to alienate his Nato allies.

    It is one thing to take chances with one’s own money – as the record shows that Trump is more than prepared to do. It is quite another knowingly to take risks with the nation’s interests. His willingness to do so is persuasive evidence that it is not the nation’s interests that are his prime concern.

    Rather, it is his chances of re-election that are top of his agenda. He seems to calculate that if he can posture as an American hero – Captain America, no less – the voters of “his base” will applaud and flock to his banner. He must also calculate that, provided he can dominate the message they receive, “his base” will not bother to worry about the true cost to American interests of his diplomatic failures.

    As for world peace and stability, these are even further down the list of priorities – if they feature at all. Trump’s focus is entirely on issues much closer to home.

    Bryan Gould
    14 May 2019

  • Sharing With Our Feathered Friends

    My wife grew up in suburban London – not an environment that was conducive, one might think, to developing an interest in wild life. But her father was a bird lover and he helped her, too, to develop a love for the birds that inhabited their garden.

    When we moved (in my case, back) to New Zealand, it took her a little time to adjust to the absence of the robins and blue tits and other birds that were familiar inhabitants of an English garden. But, over time, she developed an equal interest in New Zealand bird life – and she taught me, too, to appreciate those wonderful creatures.

    I was led into this train of thought as, sitting on our deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean one morning, we watched the welcome swallows wheeling and dipping and soaring as they criss-crossed the sky in front of us – and I began to think about the important part that our birds play in our enjoyment of life in the natural world.

    We are truly fortunate in the variety of native birds which share our garden with us. We have come to know the majestic kereru as they strip the kowhai trees of their young leaves, and the ever-active tuis as they splash in our bird bath. And a walk around our property would not be complete without the accompaniment of the fantails, joining us – not for the pleasure of our company – but in the hope that we will disturb some of the insects on which they feed. And what a pleasure it is to catch a flash of iridescent blue as a kingfisher takes off from our ngaio tree.

    That is not to say that we are bereft of English imports. We enjoy the songs of the thrushes and blackbirds and chaffinches, and we are never far from a cheeky sparrow – though we are not impressed by one of the unlovelier of the sparrow’s habits – the way in which, having chased down a cicada and taken it to ground, their first move is to rip off its wings so that they can eat it at leisure.

    There are other foreigners – like the quails and pheasants and peacocks – that offer us the assurance that, in an emergency, we would not go hungry. Yet other imports, like magpies and mynahs, are less welcome; they seem to see it as their duty to challenge the tuis for pre-eminence – but, thankfully, the tuis seem able to hold their own – and then there are the harrier hawks, constantly wheeling high above us in the hope of detecting an unprotected quail chick.

    We love the smaller birds too – the wax-eyes who see it as a challenge to beat us to the ripening figs on our fig tree, and the little grey warblers whose cheerful trilling lifts our hearts, and the yellowhammers who search our lawn for insects, but who are often outnumbered by twenty or thirty goldfinches engaged in a similar pursuit.

    We have sometimes been blessed with the visits of less common birds. We enjoyed, for a time, nightly visits from a morepork (ruru) that would park itself, as dusk gathered, in the lower branches of our ngaio and venture out on little sorties in search of unwary insects.

    And we have even had a solitary visit from a falcon, resting no doubt from its supersonic exertions. Sadly, we were also favoured with a visit from a shining cuckoo which managed to knock itself out by flying into one of our windows, but which then was able to come to, and fly off, having allowed us to inspect the intricate patterns of its plumage and its elegant long tail.

    And all the time, the ancient pohutukawa tree behind us is alive with twittering and bird movement; it is like a village, complete in itself. It reminds us that there is another world beyond our own – that we are privileged to share our habitat with other creatures who have an equal claim to its riches.

    And, as we celebrated this month International DawnChorus Day, we reflected that this is a pleasure that is not delivered to us via a screen but is a slice of real life. Little wonder that British scientists have found that listening to birdsong brings us great psychological benefits.

    Bryan Gould
    4 May 2019

  • A New Crime of Ecocide

    Two developments over the past week or so demonstrate how serious is the existential crisis we now face, in terms of the damage we are doing to our planet, and how far we are from facing up to our responsibilities.

    First, was the UN report on the millions of plant and animal species that have been, or are about to be, lost for good as a consequence of human activity over the greater part of the earth’s surface.

    And secondly, and disappointingly, was the government’s publication of its environmental targets, which fell far short of anything, especially with reference to methane emissions, that could legitimately be described as effectively grappling with the issues that inevitably arise in the wake of the human-led degradation of our planet.

    None of this should come as any surprise. Wherever one looks, there is unmistakeable evidence of a “business as usual” response to the alarm bells that are now ringing insistently. There seems to be a deliberate attempt to downplay the urgency of the situation, exacerbated in our case by a typically Kiwi “she’ll be right” attitude.

    Yet, wherever one looks, the evidence of growing crisis cannot be ignored. In terms of climate change, there seems little understanding of how close we are to a “tipping point” – and that’s assuming that it hasn’t already been reached – a “tipping point” that arises as the great polar ice caps melt away. The danger is not just the consequent rise in sea level that threatens the survival of coastal and island communities around the world; it is, rather, that the loss of the ice caps will generate a huge change in the various balancing factors – in terms of ocean currents and temperatures – that have maintained the climatic stability we have enjoyed until recently.

    And then there are the continuing projects to destroy vast areas of natural habitat, and to replace it with commercial crops. Again, the threat, from such as the palm oil industry, is not just to the survival of creatures (like orang-utangs) whose homes are being destroyed, but also to the natural balance that is needed to maintain the conditions for human survival.

    Depressingly, one must then add to this catalogue of impending disaster, the cavalier attitude that we humans continue to demonstrate on issues that reduce the chances of survival of species that are already threatened. By continuing to use fishing methods that predictably mean the persistent depredation of marine mammals, such as various species of dolphins, the trawler industry demonstrates how little we care about such “trivial” issues and how much priority we give to our own (supposedly more important?) short-term search for profit.

    The common characteristic of these attitudes is that everything pales into insignificance when measured against the commercial exploitation of the world’s natural resources and creatures. If, as I suspect is the case, the general response to this phenomenon – even from the perpetrators – is a shrug of the shoulders and the question “what else do you expect”, then it shows how much we depend on government to intervene in what is otherwise the over-riding pursuit of profit by private commercial interests.

    If, however, governments demonstrate (as our own government seems to have done) their unwillingness to act decisively and their impotence in facing down, in the interests of the planet’s survival, the business lobby, where else are we to go?

    If big international corporations have enough muscle to whip governments into line (as the fossil fuel industry has seemingly done with Trump’s administration in the US), what other remedy or discipline is available to ordinary citizens so as to ensure that proper responsibility for the earth’s survival is recognised?

    A clear answer to that question is being offered by a campaigning British lawyer. Polly Higgins has launched a campaign to create a new international crime; following the precedent of the emergence of genocide as a crime that could be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court, she proposes a new crime of “ecocide” – that is, the crime of acting in such a way as to destroy the world’s ecology and natural balance.

    Her proposal would make the “rapers and pillagers” criminally liable for the harm they do to the rest of us and would create a legal duty of care to protect the environment.

    Her argument is that governments have demonstrated their impotence in the face of the large-scale rape and pillage of our natural environment; so why not, she asks, pray in aid the provisions of international law. Why shouldn’t ordinary citizens, alarmed for example by the large-scale destruction of areas of rain forest by commercial interests, be able to launch a prosecution against the perpetrators that would mean that they could be found guilty of a crime against humanity – just as they would do if they were responsible for a murderous attack on a particular group of people?

    Her campaign is gathering momentum, although she herself has suffered a setback, having been diagnosed with cancer. She is confident, however, that her campaign will survive her, and will eventually succeed. She has set up a group called the Earth Protectors to carry on her work. We must hope that she is right. As a former teacher of international law, I can only applaud. Our children need some protection against the destruction of their future.

    Bryan Gould

    10 May 2019

  • Can Joe Biden Pull It Off?

    The announcement by former Vice-President Joe Biden of his campaign for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential election will – for those with long memories – bring back recollections of a famous instance of plagiarism which had repercussions on both sides of the Atlantic.

    In 1987, the British Labour Party was led by my old friend and colleague, Neil Kinnock. The voters’ reaction to Kinnock was at best mixed, but no one could doubt, as befitted his Welsh origins, his oratorical gifts; at his best, he was the finest and most effective platform speaker in the country.

    He made a particularly moving speech at the Welsh Labour Party’s Annual Conference in that year. Why, he asked, am I the first Kinnock in a thousand years to go to university? And why, pointing to his wife, Glenys, is Glenys the first woman in her family to go to university? Is it because, he asked rhetorically, all the earlier members of our families were thick?

    He went on to make the argument that social discrimination and economic inequality were the factors that had held their families back and to advance the case for making sure that those factors were counteracted by political action.

    The speech was widely commended and evidently did not pass unnoticed on the other side of the Atlantic. Joe Biden, then the promising young Senator from Delaware, announced later in that same year, that he would seek the Democratic nomination for the forthcoming presidential election. He made an effective speech in which he asked the same rhetorical questions as Kinnock had used – even to the extent of pointing to his wife, as Kinnock had done, and asking the same question about her.

    When sharp-eyed and sharp-eared commentators detected the plagiarism, Biden’s campaign was holed below the water line. His career eventually recovered and he duly became a well-regarded Vice-President to Barrack Obama – and the episode stimulated a friendship between Biden and Kinnock which led to Kinnock being invited to Biden’s inauguration, when Biden welcomed him jokingly as “my speech-writer”.

    Joe Biden is today recognised as one of the most popular, experienced and able Democrats, and reports have it that his candidature would be greatly feared by Donald Trump. That is not to say that his campaign has got off to a winning start; it has instead been dogged by allegations from a number of women of inappropriate touching, though nothing in the same league as Trump’s self-confessed (and notoriously boastful) groping.

    For those who look to 2020 as offering a new start for a USA that has lost its way, the Biden candidature nevertheless looks promising. He has made a strong start in identifying the 2020 campaign as a battle for “the soul of America”.

    We must hope that, in modern America politics, the revelation or recollection that a candidate is possessed of the odd human foible will not be a fatal handicap. The calamity into which a Trump presidency has plunged the country is so all-embracing that almost any escape route must be given constructive consideration.

    If, as Trump’s own assessment seems to suggest, Biden has the beating of Trump in 2020, then we must hope that Biden can again overcome setbacks and can win the battle for a more generous and inclusive America, an America that again can play a full and constructive part in resolving issues, like climate change, that matter to the world as a whole, and one that is led by someone who deserves the respect of those who are asked for their votes.

    We have surely had our fill of someone who lies and blusters as a matter of course, who entirely lacks a moral compass and any sense of social justice, and who deliberately exacerbates the fault lines of ethnicity and religion that threaten to disfigure and disable the world’s greatest and most closely scrutinised democracy.

    Someone with Biden’s record – not perfect and humanly fallible – may be just the kind of candidate who can remind the American people that politics is best conducted by those who are real people and not just constructs of reality television shows. I hope he has some great speeches left in him and does not need help from unwitting “speech-writers” – however good they may be.

    Bryan Gould
    28 April 2019