The morality of poverty and the poverty of morality

Poverty of Morals

We are moral animals.

But, so far as I can judge, in politics today our moral instincts are operating in a way that generates the worst moral outcomes.

Metiria Turei’s recent confession (a moral notion) at the launch of the Green Party’s welfare policy – and the reactions to it, culminating in her excluding herself from a Ministerial position in any Labour-Green post-election cabinet –  provides a revealing example of the operation of our ‘moral sense’ in politics and in society.

Putting aside the political fate of Metiria Turei, what it shows is that there is a moral poverty in New Zealand – especially when it comes to poverty.

And that particular type of moral poverty has leached into the heart of political calculations – even, it seems, on the left of New Zealand politics. Continue reading

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Who’s afraid of ‘radical’ politics?

The Radical Label

As the 2017 election approaches the question has been asked of ‘the left’ in New Zealand – Is it time to ‘go radical‘?

It’s a question especially relevant to the Labour Party given recent polling.

But it’s almost exactly the wrong question to ask; and for a very simple reason – successful radicalism is not radical.

At least, it’s not radical for ordinary people  But, almost invariably, what is not radical for ordinary people needs to be depicted as radical by elites.

But why? Continue reading

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Is that all there is?

Apparently, McDonald’s hamburgers are the result of the best technology that food and taste engineers can provide.

All ingredients and processing events are managed to within an inch – maybe less – of their lives. The consumable item is the culmination of precision engineering in pursuit of that ever so elusive optimal appetitive experience – the one that feels so good just before and then, again, just after the first mouthful gets bathed in saliva. Best of all, the taste experience then sits, psychologically, at the tip of your expectant tongue the next time you feel hungry.

Or, alternatively, there’s the perfect scriptwriting and dramatic engineering that goes into the blob-out ‘box set’ – ideal for that ‘Saturday night in’. Cosy, reassuring with just enough stimulation to absorb you like a paper towel soaking up the week’s spills from your mind and heart.

But then there’s that moment when the burger is finished, and the box-set is finally watched through its seemingly endless episodes.

It’s then that you have a moment sitting, feeling a little empty and with one short phrase waiting to be thought – ‘Is that all there is?’

That’s the feeling now, at the end of the Key years. Continue reading

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Into the dark: Clinton vs Trump – A Black and White decision?

We live in ‘interesting times’ – as the mythical ‘Chinese curse’ understatedly put it.

It’s almost unbearably ‘interesting. From environmental catastrophe gathering its inevitable head of steam to global ructions in the political world and outright wars in the geopolitical world there’s more than enough interest to go around.

But it’s more than interesting.

It also has a feeling of entering into the dark. In more ways than one. Continue reading

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Of bewildered herds

The oldest war in history is that between the people and those who have hoarded power to themselves.

Predictably – perhaps inevitably – the latter eventually gain a sense of entitlement to the power they have hoarded.

In days gone by that entitlement was expressed through bloody purges and oppression.

In modern ‘liberal democracies’ the chosen weapons of the eternal duel are a bit different, more refined, more ‘cultured’, and near-invisible to the casual observer.

Mostly they involve a crafted mix of strategic shenanigans within arcane organisational processes; domination of media ‘narratives’ through careful fertilising of connections between political and media elites; the channeling of more and more money to buy PR firms’ ‘advice’ and – always – the attempted coordination and stage-managing of unfolding public events presented, of course, as if they were mere ‘natural human phenomena’ generated from the unpredictable hurly-burly of political theatre and the foibles of individual personalities.

But as already mentioned, whatever the weapons or tactics used by those with power, what they fear most is the only opposition that has any chance of wresting power back from them: The people en masse; the ‘bewildered herd’ run amok.

But when you start looking for bewildered herds they pop up all over the place. Continue reading

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A brief reflection on conspiracies

John Key has responded to Hager’s claims saying: “So Nicky Hager says we’re a tax haven, well with the greatest respect, Nicky Hager is a left-wing conspiracy theorist.”

Newstalk ZB, 9 May, 2016

“Last time he came out with all this stuff,” Key said of Nicky Hager, one journalist involved in today’s story, “he was categorically wrong, he’ll be wrong this time as well…My very strong advice to New Zealanders is discount massively everything you hear from Nicky Hager.”

Newstalk ZB, 12 March, 2015

“If you like, my absence can be spun as part of the conspiracy story that Hager has put together,” he [Cameron Slater] says.

The Prime Minister tonight issued a response to the book, saying, “This is a cynically timed attack book from a well-known left-wing conspiracy theorist. It makes all sorts of unfounded allegations and voters will see it for what it is.”

News hub, 13 August, 2014

Are the Panama Papers revelations just another output from ‘left wing conspiracy theorists’ as our Prime Minister appears to believe?

He’s believed it before – and in relation to the same journalist – in 2014 over the book ‘Dirty Politics’ (also believed by Cameron Slater) and, by implication, in 2015 over revelations about the GCSB activities.

Of course, two of those stories involved more investigative journalists than just Nicky Hager. Presumably, then, left-wing conspiracy theorists have themselves been plotting their own conspiracy – in the mind of our Prime Minister, at least.

It seems the feverish mind of a ‘left wing conspiracy theorist’ – like rust – never sleeps.

Alternatively, such ‘feverishness’ might actually be a good thing. Here’s Wendell Phillips in an address to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on 28 January, 1852:

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. The living sap of today outgrows the dead rind of yesterday. The hand entrusted with power becomes, either form [sic] human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”

So one person’s annoying ‘conspiracy theorist’ may simply be another person’s eternally vigilant protector of liberty.

I guess it all comes down to which side of the power equation you sit (or, perhaps, ‘would like to sit’).

Conspiracies, of course, tend to happen in secret and are undertaken by those seeking to establish or extend their power, often against the public interest. As Adam Smith put it in Wealth of Nations:

“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

The Wealth Of Nations, Book I, Chapter X, para. 82.

Or, he might have added, ‘some contrivance to avoid tax’.


If Hager and the ICIJ are to be dismissed as ‘left wing conspiracy theorists’ engaged in their own conspiracy – in this instance, somehow to harm the ‘wealthy-but-innocent’ – then that conspiracy is nothing other than the open conspiracy of shedding light on the shadowy complexity of our murky, modern world and its elites.

It’s an ‘open conspiracy’ by virtue of its deep roots in the Enlightenment and is nothing other than the free, open and democratic ‘conspiracy’ of the many against the powerful few.

It’s a conspiracy we should all join.

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In memoriam: The ties that ‘bind’

A Brief Reflection

When it comes to ANZAC Day I’m always in a bind.

The deaths, the maimings and the huge disruptions to ordinary people’s lives should never be forgotten; but to ‘honour’ that suffering in ways that, ultimately, may help to justify that same suffering is deeply abhorrent to me.

For this reason I probably never feel as morally uncomfortable as I do on ANZAC Day. Continue reading

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While we’re talking about flags …

Here’s a few interesting bits of vexillology and imperialist sentiment that I came across when researching the previous two posts.

The detailed mix of the issues of flag similarity and representations of relationships to imperialism and colonialism just gets more and more complicated.

I thought you might be interested … Continue reading

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False flag logic – Part II: ‘Out, damned Jack!’

Flag it?

Flag it?

Out, damned spot! Out, I say!—One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do ’t.

Lady MacBeth in ‘MacBeth’ (Act 5, Scene 1) – William Shakespeare

One of the main arguments put forward in favour of a flag change for New Zealand is that it represents an opportunity to ditch the presence of the Union Jack on the flag.

That presence – for many people – represents a symbol of New Zealand’s continuing inability to stand proud, on its own two feet (i.e., have its own version of nationalism rather than a borrowed one). Relatedly, for some sub-set of those people it represents a  tacit ‘bending of the knee’ to an old, and now defunct, colonial power and an implicit endorsement of colonialism itself, including its undeniable brutality and injustice.

The most disturbing connotation is the second.

Like Lady MacBeth’s obsessive hand washing aimed at removing the bloody mark of murder on her hand the Union Jack – for some in the flag change camp – represents an indelible bloodstain on New Zealand’s flag that needs to be scrubbed clean from our national symbology at any cost.

There are, then, two threads to the argument for the Union Jack’s removal from the flag: (1) The need to create an independent identity and (2) the moral obligation to remove any tacit reminders of, or approval for, colonialism and empire.

As I said at the end of Part I of this post, serious stuff.

Those threads are related and each individual who opposes the presence of the Union Jack on the flag no doubt combines them in different ways. Together they make probably the most powerful argument for change.

I’ll take each thread in turn.
Continue reading

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False flag logic – Part I: ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi Oi!’

The Logic of Flags (Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Source:

The Logic of Flags
(Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Source:

It looks like there’ll be no change to the New Zealand flag as a result of the current flag referendum.

There’s any number of reasons why that’s so. It may be that the strongest reason turns out to be the unfortunately designed alternative flag. Who knows?

But what of the arguments for changing the flag? Is their logic strong? Do they make sense?

That is, irrespective of the fact that we seem likely to reject the change, if we were straightforward, rational beings should we actually vote to change the flag?

I don’t think so.

At least not on the two main arguments offered so far. Continue reading

Posted in Democracy, Maori, Military, National Identity, New Zealand Politics | 2 Comments