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.

Posted in Democracy, Economics, Freedom, International Politics, New Zealand Politics | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

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

Posted in Democracy, Freedom, Military, National Identity, New Zealand Politics | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

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

Posted in Democracy, Maori, National Identity, New Zealand Politics, Political Psychology | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

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

Posted in Democracy, Media, Military, National Identity, New Zealand Politics, Political Psychology | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

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

The Logic of Flags (Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALeviathan_by_Thomas_Hobbes.jpg)

The Logic of Flags
(Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALeviathan_by_Thomas_Hobbes.jpg)

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

Ten years of stress in New Zealand: Update

Update: Looking at this visualisation from p. 2 of the latest Canterbury Wellbeing Index, it seems that it is accepted that ‘High Stress’ has indeed gone up in New Zealand – and more so in Canterbury – between 2008-2010 and 2014-2015. So I guess that settles that.

Screen Shot 2016-02-20 at 4.34.48 PM

It shows – at about ‘8 o’clock’ – that ‘High Stress’ has increased over that time period in New Zealand as a whole and more so in Canterbury.

Posted in Earthquakes, Human Wellbeing, New Zealand Politics | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ten years of stress in New Zealand

The 5th anniversary of Canterbury’s devastating earthquake on 22nd February, 2011 is looming.

A recent after-shock of 5.7 magnitude quake has provided added stress to an already stressed population.

There have been recent reports of increased suicides and suicide-related calls, depression and anxiety in Christchurch since the earthquakes (e.g., in 2012in 2015).

Most recently, there’s been controversy over claimed funding cuts for mental health services in Christchurch.

In that context, wouldn’t it be great to have some insight into levels of stress in Christchurch, in Canterbury and even in New Zealand?

Well, oddly enough, we do.

Or maybe we don’t. Continue reading

Posted in Earthquakes, Human Wellbeing, New Zealand Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the very idea of ISIS – Part II

In the first part of this post I argued that beliefs held by individuals are not a good basis on which to analyse geopolitical events. Both beliefs and their associated collective-level behaviours are the result of other forces operating in the environment within which individuals act. I conclude the argument by asking what ISIS is for.

If an idea has a use that serves an important purpose for a large group of people it is unlikely to be easily ‘defeated’ (whatever that means).

Nevertheless, it seems that even U.S. Generals think they are fighting an idea when they are bombing ISIS positions. Continue reading

Posted in Human Nature, International Politics, Media, Military, Philosophy, Political Psychology | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

On the very idea of ISIS – Part I

The very idea of wanting to explain a practice–for example, the killing of the priest-king–seems wrong to me. All that Frazer does is to make them plausible to people who think as he does. It is very remarkable that in the final analysis all these practices are presented as, so to speak, pieces of stupidity.

But it will never be plausible to say that mankind does all that out of sheer stupidity.

When, for example, he explains to us that the king must be killed in his prime, because the savages believe that otherwise his soul would not be kept fresh, all one can say is: where that practice and these views occur together, the practice does not spring from the view, but they are both just there.

-Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough’

When it comes to chickens and eggs there’s probably no more politically revealing conundrum than the question of which comes first – the idea or the brute facts of the world?

To take one example, it’s been at the heart of the last couple of decades of debate (in ‘the West’) over ‘radical Islam’ and has come to its recent head in explanations of the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

I was reminded of this debate when I heard Graeme Wood – “a contributing editor for The Atlantic magazine and a Edward R Murrow Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in the US” – being interviewed on the Sunday Programme on National Radio (11 October, 2015).

The interview concerned an article Wood had written some months before – “What ISIS really want” – which at the time gained brief social media fame.

Sounds like a promising title.

And, certainly, both the article and interview were interesting enough – but mostly for what they reveal about the kinds of explanations of geopolitical events that many in ‘the West’ seem to find appealing.

But both the article and interview struck me as being almost completely beside the point when it came to understanding the emergence and appeal of ISIS.

(That item was followed up just last Sunday on the same programme by a similarly worrying ‘analysis’ of geopolitical conflict – this time by cognitive neuroscientist Emile Bruneau from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)

But, first, back to the conundrum.

Put starkly:

Is ISIS mostly a product of Islamic/jihadist ideas or of the brute geopolitical, economic and historical ‘facts of the matter’ in the Middle East?

How this question is answered will – or should – frame responses to ISIS.

And I think the answer is obvious.

Continue reading

Posted in Human Nature, International Politics, Military, Philosophy, Political Psychology | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

When is bias no longer bias? When it’s everything.

A biased game?

A biased game?

Is Mike Hosking politically biased?

I think the answer is ‘yes’.

Is our media politically biased?

I think the answer is also  ‘yes’.

Is our society politically biased?

That’s not quite so easy to answer. But for a more worrying reason than many critics of media bias might think. Continue reading

Posted in Democracy, Economics, Free Market, Human Nature, Media, New Zealand Politics, Political Psychology | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments