Sunday, March 26, 2017

Neoliberal Paradise

As I tramp through the valleys and the volcanoes of En Zed
I take a look at the parties and realize there's no "Left"
'Cause I've been splittin my vote for so long that
Even the Greens think that I'm just their own
But I ain't never skipped an election you know that
Me be treated like the base, you know that's unheard of
You better watch how you messagin, and where you campaignin
Or you and your Greenies might be fourth termed
I really hate to trip but I gotta vote
As they croak I see myself in the polls so close
I'm the kinda G they wanna see take a hike
With my brown face and womaning in broad daylight

We been spending most our lives living in the neoliberal paradise
We been spending most their lives living in the free market paradise
We keep spending most our lives living in the capitalist paradise
We keep spending most our lives living in the corporate paradise

They got a housing crisis, they got me facing
I can't live a millenial life, I was raised by austerity
So I gotta be down with the fiscal responsibility
Too much student loans got me chasing dolla bills
I'm a educated fool with justice on my mind
Got my facts in my hand and twittering in my eye
I'm a hoped out graduate, being nothin but a barista
And my homies wanna get a payment down so they want our avocado
Tax cuts aint nothing but a budget away
They're living a lie, surveil and spy what can I say
I'm thirty three never will I live to see 64
The way supa's going I don't know

Tell me why do we refuse to see
That the ones hurt are our fellow kee-wee
They been spending most their lives living in the neoliberal paradise
They been spending most their lives living in the mouldy paradise
We keep spending most our lives living in the dirty river paradise
We keep spending most our lives living in the homeless paradise

Gower and the Henry, Hosking and the Gower
Election after election, year after year
Everybody's running, but half of them ain't listening
What's going on in the 9th floor, we can't be politicking
They say I've got to wait my turn but nobody's here to stitch me
If they can't fund it, how can they fix me
I guess they can't
I guess they won't
I guess they front
That's why our economy is forever stuck

They been spending most their lives living in the neoliberal paradise
They been spending most their lives living in the prison paradise
We keep spending most our lives living in the poverty paradise
We keep spending most our lives living in the crusher's paradise

Tell me why do we refuse to see
That the ones we hurt are our fellow kee-wee
Tell me why do we refuse to see
That the ones we hurt are our fellow kee-wee

Saturday, April 9, 2016

A note on the Panama Papers

Mossack Fonseca is apparently the fourth biggest provider of offshore services. Which means there are 3 others that are bigger and probably handle even more high profiled folks. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who those people might be. Folks at the highest level of economic and political power don’t get to those places without gaming the system. There are plenty of people who “work hard” but those people will never be part of this club. If the Panama Papers account for $32 trillion (!!!), what do you think the 3 others account for?

It isn’t by accident that 85 people own the wealth of half the world’s population. It is by design. It is through laws passed by those who apparently represent us that allow people to get away with this kind of robbery. There might be outrage that this is robbery via tax avoidance. We might think we are being deprived of essential services from the government because of their actions but it actually goes deeper than that. The artificially set minimum wage, the artificial fight for health benefits, the artificial fight for better wages for our teachers and our nurses – this is all created by this incredible wealth horde. It turns out that not only can some corporations and individuals afford to pay a living wage, they can afford much more than that.

Perhaps the minimum wage (everywhere) should be pegged to profits of a corporation so we do not harm small business because right now these corporations are taking advantage of these arbitrary laws to massively redistribute wealth from the middle class to the rich. This is not – annual income of $250,000 rich, this is mega rich. Effectively most of the world is in slavery – forced to work for low wages, no benefits, no holidays, no education because apparently companies cannot afford to pay them.

Don’t forget that by spending up to 90% of our income on goods and services, we are enabling these people to hoard incredible amounts of wealth. Those born into this wealth will never have to work as hard as we do and we will forever be chastised for not working hard enough and for being jealous and envious.

The Global Financial Crisis was and is continued to be used as a crutch to deprive us from access to education, health services, a fairer justice system, housing for the poor, mental health services, wages for teachers and nurses, action on climate change, prevention of environmental degradation, services for people with disabilities and chronic illness, science and technology research, arts and culture funding, dangerous working conditions all around the world, paid leave for parents, holidays for workers – the list goes on! “Austerity!” they say. What an incredible lie it all is.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

On the public's enemies: the Labour Party and TPP protesters

When we look to a change in government, we might look to Labour. They are currently the major party of the opposition and despite their less than impressive polling numbers, the next left wing government will most likely be led by them. Last month's shenanigans from certain MPs on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) left many of us fairly disappointed. However, given Labour’s history with free trade agreements (FTAs) and their position on FTAs generally, I am not surprised that some their more conservative MPs like Phil Goff feel they have to break away from the party position and support the TPP. David Shearer’s position is somewhat more curious; Phil Goff is running to be mayor of Auckland but it is not clear if Shearer’s position is formed by conversations with his constituents or if it's just a personal opinion. 

There is a possibility that the TPP would have looked different if negotiated under a Labour government. That is extremely speculative given Mike Moore (ex-Labour Prime Minister) has been NZ Ambassador to the US for much of the time this was negotiated. So the question remains – is the Labour opposition to TPP an opposition to National only? Or is it true opposition to the actual TPP agreement? Because if they are opposing the TPP just to oppose National, then it makes sense that that position is a lot harder for many MPs to swallow.

If this is a question about wider discipline issues in the caucus, how would we react if the party had decided to support the TPP and some MPs broke ranks to oppose? Would we be more forgiving? Arguably, a collective party position is more favourable within the MMP context rather than individual positions on major policy matters similar to what we see in the US Congress. The rampant individualism in the House and Senate is tiring, counter-productive, and leads to unstable policies. Individual positions on conscience issues is understandable – although even that sometimes seems odd because what constitutes conscience is very arbitrary. From an electoral perspective, a party position is very important because it is the party vote that ultimately determines the make-up of Parliament. The factional and often confusing position on the TPP by Labour MPs is ultimately a disservice to the public. Labour’s official line at this point seems to be that they will oppose but will accept it once it goes through Parliament. Given that National has the numbers to pass the related legislation, their 'opposition' is not material. What is needed is a clear set of reasons why this is a bad deal and those reasons need to be reiterated enthusiastically and constantly by every MP. So that the public can be informed.

Why does Labour need to inform the public? 

Auckland TPP Protest,
photo via Mohammed Hassan on Twitter
Today, there is a column about the protesters and how they didn’t really know what they were protesting. Heather du Plessis-Allen seems annoyed that protesters disrupted traffic and finds the democratic right to protest "infuriating". As Luke Tipoki pointed out on twitter in this thread – when the Springbok Tour was being protested, did the tactics distract from the issue or raise awareness? Are more people in New Zealand suddenly wondering what the TPP is really about after this weekend? If TPP protestors don’t know much about the TPP – whose fault is it and why isn’t that a red flag for our democracy and our democratic processes?

Auckland TPP Protest
Photo via Will Taylor
 Iris Riddell on Twitter
A major trade agreement has been signed and most people don’t know anything about it because it was negotiated and agreed to in secret with very little consultation with the public. This should be concerning. Obviously the details of negotiations are secret but changes to major policy direction should have had public input. In a healthy democracy, we should have had a public debate on the pros and cons of the broad policy changes in in areas like healthcare, intellectual property, and agriculture. There has been so no sit down in-depth interview with John Key or Tim Groser where a trade/economy/finance reporter has grilled them on the finer aspect of the agreement. They have no problems putting protesters on the spot but they have yet to put our Prime Minister and our Minister of Trade in a primetime slot where they answers the questions on why we should embrace this agreement. The protesters on the other hand are folks who have not been consulted with, who didn’t get to see the deal until after it was agreed to, and who are not trade expert. This imbalance of power is not acknowledged or taken into account in the reporting.

When the Prime Minister dismisses protesters as "rent-a-mob", the media faithfully publishes his allegations without any investigation into if this is actually a practice. Is every single person here "rented"? How much are they paying these protesters? Who exactly is bankrolling this? Or do they have a legitimate grievance in that they do not know anything about this trade agreement and therefore, cannot support something they do not know anything about. That they would prefer the government to wait until they do is not a hard ask. Again, it is a preposterous allegation to suggest that these people are rented but the Prime Minister's allegations seldom are challenged. Where the media should be holding the government (those in power) to account, they seem more inclined to hold the opposition (slightly less powerful) and the public (basically powerless) to account. The contempt showed towards protesters is surprising. We accept when the Prime Minister says he doesn't have the information on hand and therefore cannot answer a technical question but we are punish the general public if they do not know the intricacies of a major trade agreement. 

By all accounts, the gains from the TPP are miniscule even from MFAT's own analysis. The effect on healthcare, particularly drug prices is yet to be seen but a  number of healthcare and doctors organizations already oppose the TPP, which definitely casts a dark shadow on the legitimacy of the benefits. Protection of the Treaty of Waitangi is considered weak by legal experts. Consultation with Maori have been non-existent. In fact, John Key basically blatantly lied to the media about consultation and faced no consequences as a result. Consultation after finalizing a deal is not good faith consultation by any account. Yet, while protesters get denigrated in newspaper columns and on tv, the PM essentially lies about consultation, refuses to front up to Maori, and blames the public for being ignorant about a secret deal and there are no consequences for him. The cognitive dissonance from all parties is fairly astounding. 

MFAT has taken to justifying this agreement by saying: 
"Beyond the economic modelling, we know that free trade agreements help New Zealand exporters, because they have told us so."
Instead of doing independent analysis which is what we would expect a neutral government department to do, they are relying on businesses to direct this trade agreement which is a matter of public policy. Interestingly, they also say: 
"A recently released study estimates that gains for New Zealand from a free trade agreement with the current 11 TPP economies could be as high as 1.4 percent of our gross domestic product, or US$2.9 billion."
This is new. When the TPP was initially signed, MFAT said gains would be 0.9% and even the 1.4% is not definitive. But, that has mysteriously disappeared from their website, only a screenshot was captured: 

Source: MFAT website August 2, 2015. This no longer exists on their website. 

The current laughable rationale is that somehow the Labour Party and protesters are our enemies because they don't have a consistent position or they are ignorant. It will be years before it is fully implemented and any harm will be incremental. It will be even slower than death by a thousand cuts. Unfortunately we, the public, are not getting consistent and reliable information from anyone. Not from our news organizations, not from the Opposition, and definitely not from the Government. We are completely on our own in this and we have to educate each other because we essentially don’t have anyone looking out for us. The current Parliamentary process of ratifying trade agreements is not going to provide an avenue for change but there might be some opportunity for us to learn more about the agreements. However, only a handful of people follow what happens in the debating chamber so it’ll be up to those to get the word out. And even that will ultimately be futile. 

I end this with the following Tweet. This is what people expect protesters to be experts on: 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Nu Zilund Day should get in the sea.

As many of you know, I did not have the privilege of growing up in Aotearoa New Zealand. My parents are from Bangladesh and a few years after I was born in Christchurch, they had to move back. And then they move to America and I had to find my way back to Aotearoa New Zealand as an adult. As a result, I’ve never been a super nationalistic or patriotic person. Having grown up and lived in 3 countries, I never know who to swear my allegiance to. I’ll admit that I knew very little about Māori culture when I moved back to New Zealand at 18. I took Treaty of Waitangi Law as an elective paper at Law School and that was the first time I started to understand the legal status of the Treaty and the legal rights of our indigenous population. During my brief stint at OTS in 2013, I learnt a lot about Māoridom including the more horrifying parts of our history from negotiations meetings. But I am still learning.

Thanksgiving in America is one of my favorite holidays. I love it mostly because of the abundance of food but also because it is secular and so it feels like everyone can take part in this celebration. But one thing that is completely missing from the American Thanksgiving celebration is Native Americans. It is as if they never even existed. The extent to which Native American rights have been abused, the extent to which they are treated as second class citizens, the extent to which they are an invisible people is astounding.  When children dress up every year as pilgrims and Native Americans to re-enact the ‘first Thanksgiving’ in schools all over America, they ignore history. Many are beginning to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day as an alternative to Columbus Day but this is not widely known let alone accepted. Native Americans are basically rarely in the public discourse and it is bizarre the way history is so easily forgotten by an entire nation.

America has managed to put aside all the negative feelings that one should associate with how they have treated their indigenous population not just in the past but in modern history. There are a lot of people that believe that it would be better if Waitangi Day was akin to Thanksgiving or Fourth of July as our national holiday. We could call it 'New Zealand Day' and forget all our problems. Many are disappointed by what happens at Waitangi especially what is directed at politicians. But I am not. Many would like to see that holiday turned into a civilised family gathering and a celebration of our nationhood. I don't think that we are there yet. Not until we accept Māori culture as part of our national identity. And it cannot be just limited to the Haka at All Blacks games. 

I like that politicians have to confront the pain that is in our society, the wounds that have not healed. I like that we as a nation are forced to watch the anger on the 6’ o clock news and know that we cannot just shove our people behind a day at the beach and a bbq with the family. I like that it forces us to ask questions about whether we are divided as a nation and how we can work to bridge that gap. At least I hope it does. The Māori Party was formed because Māori had a voice. A voice they used to stand up to legislation that would take away their rights. The fact that America’s indigenous population don’t have a meaningful voice should not be something we as a nation aspire to achieve. Perhaps we can ensure better means of dialogue on the day. Perhaps the dialogue shouldn't be limited to just one day. And yes, it would be nice if Waitangi Day was a family holiday of celebration and maybe one day it will be but we don’t deserve that day today.

I am not an expert on the Treaty nor am I in any position to speak for Māori, but it does seem to me that lack of consultation, which is a major obligation, is causing a lot of grief for the government. From the flag change process to the TPP trade deal, the government hasn’t consulted with Māori in a satisfactory manner. This week’s protests and the controversy around the PM’s yearly visit to the Te Tii Marae tells me that Māori do not see their “seat at the table” via the Māori Party as meaningful enough partnership.

I see the desire for politicians to put this behind them but we are still in process of settling historical grievances. We are still continuing to deal with Treaty breaches. We don’t get to sweep this under the rug because we haven’t actually dealt with this in any meaningful way. Only Pākehā privilege allows people to disregard history because it is not “fun”. Only cognitive dissonance allows white folks to talk about immigrant assimilation while completely forgetting that they never assimilated or integrated. They merely destroyed, denigrated, and built an entire society on the backs of death and on stolen land.

Maybe it is because of that or maybe it is because I view the Treaty as a legal and political document that is the basis for the foundation and continuation of our nation. TMaybe it is because I spent a lot of time my time looking at the impact of our justice and welfare system on Māori. Maybe it is because I’m a minority and I’m forced occupy many uncomfortable spaces. But I do not find what happens on Waitangi Day uncomfortable or upsetting. There can be no partnership without dialogue and there can be no dialogue without marginalized folks having the opportunity to protest those in power. We live at a time when Pākehā actively refuse to learn the official language, learn about the culture, learn about the history, learn about the constant and enduring effects of colonialism.

We are not ready for festive celebrations. We have very little to celebrate.

[Please note: I posted a version of this in a previous blog a couple of years ago but sadly the issues remain the same]

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Diary of NZ's Child Poverty Crisis

This post will serve as a rolling post where I aggregate stories about child poverty to show how incredibly harmful our economic policies are. 

15 April 2016: Inequality and education

According to a new UNICEF report released, "New Zealand is in the bottom third for inequalities in education". While this government continues to keep saying they cannot measure poverty, the rest of the world is condemning us for being at the bottom of the heap.

The framing of child poverty is about failed parents and adults. Yet, child poverty has an impact on education and health thus condemning this kids to a lifetime of poverty. And these very same kids will be chastised as adults for being poor even though that is effectively the life sentencing we are giving them.

Universal Basic Income is something that has been discussed recently which may go some way to addressing child poverty but solving income inequality on its own is not enough. Poverty is a multi-pronged policy failure and unless it is considered in the context of government services, wealth inequality, labour rights, taxation of corporate profits, concentrated inherited wealth, and our values, we cannot solve this grave economic problem. 

16 February 2016: Child poverty and government inaction 

Today the Children's Commissioner and the Salvation Army have had exposed how lack of government action has lead to a worsening situation.

"Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills has described the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill as a wasted opportunity which will not improve the often-appalling conditions in which children live."

This government has a habit of implementing policies that are not designed to be effective and then blaming 'government' as the reason why they were not effective. This then serves as an excuse for privatization or complete inaction. Add to this, now they are are being accused of cooking the numbers to make them look good. Somehow I'm not surprised that Government agencies might be creating fake targets to give the appearance of "success" since this Government brought in their Better Public Service targets.

These targets are meaningless without a whole of government approach to meeting the needs of our society. If agencies are more worried about looking good to the government of the day, they are not going to be spending time coming up with policy solutions to solve the problems that the public faces. The government's own Ministerial Committee on Poverty continues to achieve nothing.

This is an appalling statistic and our entire nation should hang its head in shame. Housing should be a key social policy and a key priority for this government if they want to actually tackle child poverty. Unfortunately I don't think tackling child poverty is the legacy John Key is after.

11 February 2016: Child poverty and education 

According to the OECD:

Poor children in New Zealand are more than six times more likely to do badly at maths than well-off children, a new report from the OECD says.

This was reported by RNZ 2 days ago. Last year when he was questioned about uni students in hardship he said - "They can get a student loan with no interest, they can get a student allowance they never have to repay. There's lots of entitlements that they get that better-off kids don't get."

Labour has announced a policy of free tertiary education which has the potential to help many in hardship but if childhood poverty and hardship prevents kids from getting a solid education, university will be very challenging and unproductive. We would be basically setting up these kids to fail.

While the National Party is seen as good economic managers in the short term, this spells disaster for the future on New Zealand. We have a situation where 1 in 3 Kiwi kids are growing up in poverty. A third of an entire generation of children are going to enter the workforce at some stage in the future with inadequate skills. The fact that National are putting winning elections ahead of their responsibility to govern is predictable. No amount of trade agreements will solve the hole that child poverty will leave in our future books.

20 December 2015: NZ's looming economic crisis - child poverty 

Today we have a story on RNZ headlined: “Child poverty 'moral crisis' for New Zealand”. While the headline focuses on 'moral crisis', the person they were quoting - Dame Diane Robertson, who is the outgoing head of the Auckland City Mission, said: "It's an economic crisis, it's a social crisis and it's a moral crisis."

It is an economic crisis.

In 2008, academics writing in the Journal of Children and Poverty[i] said, “apart from considerations of equity and justice, it may be in the nation’s material self-interest to reduce poverty.” My perception of the issue is that the moral argument is failing. There seems to be very little appetite for equity and justice for roughly 50% of the voting public. And this is reflected in what we believe are the “real issues”. Personally, I do not think National voters or even right wing voters are ‘evil’ and I think that they do care about child poverty. But their preferred solution is not working. We know it is not working because their preferred government has been in power and child poverty is rising.

Prime Minister John Key tried to deflect the issue by linking child poverty to drug use. It is clever but if it indeed is drug use (which it is not), then it is also a government failure in its inability to treat addiction as a public health issue. In fact, this government implemented a drug testing policy for beneficiaries which has largely been a failure. There were 47 positives from about 30,000 tests - a huge waste of resources on an ideologically bigoted witch-hunt. Despite the deflection, the facts provided by his own Children’s Commissioner is that children are living hardship whether their parents are on the benefit or in work.

The facts are that working parents are not making enough and their children are in poverty. This is a travesty. To add to all of that, 31,000 people had their benefits cut because of not disclosing foreign trips in the last financial year. No doubt there were children living in those households. National raised benefits by $25/week and then dropped 31,000 people (!) from it. It seems that the attack on beneficiaries is slightly more sophisticated now compared to the 90s. Their social and economic policy is such a massive failure that it does not matter whether people are on the benefit or working.

No matter how anyone looks at it, 300,000+ children living in poverty is disastrous for our economy. And so I am going to subvert the spirit of Christmas and say that this economic failure is going to personally disastrous for me. I am going to be selfish. Child poverty is not in my 'material self-interest'. After the current home-owning wealthy baby-boomers are long gone, I will be in my 60s and these kids are going to be in their peak working age. The statistical association between them and their likelihood of having lower earnings, being less productive, being more likely to commit crime, and having poor health is high. That is a fact. Not only will they not be contributing to my society, I will be bearing the economic cost in the form of rising public health costs and an expensive justice system.

If we are in fact going to be discussing morality, I would rather my tax dollars go towards the well-being of a child rather than housing an adult in prison. A latter position is unarguably immoral. Letting ideology get in the way of dealing with child poverty because one might have to be slightly socialist in the short term seems like a small price to pay. Yet I do not feel that argument has been made by the Opposition at all. A larger participating workforce can only be good for our economy. It means more goods and services being bought (yay Capitalism!). 

Child poverty is an economic issue and as such it is an economic failure. According to the Children’s Commissioner, child poverty costs us somewhere around $8 billion a year[ii]. To be absolutely precise, this is an economic management failure. Whether RNZ wants to call the government out via their headline is an editorial decision and the motivations behind their headline choice is not known to me. Perhaps in the spirit of Christmas it makes more sense to appeal to our moral obligations. But plainly put, this is an economic management failure. And as such, I will put the blame squarely at this Government’s feet.

National has been far more successful in its messaging on almost all of the issues. Our political discourse is now much more cynical. We look at how something (whether policy or action) will play with the public rather than the merits of that something. And if that really is the case, I think it is time we start talking about child poverty in economic terms rather than moral terms. Because I think this government has lost its moral compass and as such cannot provide leadership on that. And in the absence of leadership, I do not think appealing to moral conscious is working. I do not know if it is the GFC or years of neo-liberal economic policy that has hardened us, but I feel our empathy levels are very much exaggerated. Yes, during times of national crisis we are really good at coming together but that is not just a Kiwi thing. That is a human thing. All countries do it. Underlying our sporadic empathy burst however, is a lot of apathy, distrust of poor people, bigotry, and selfishness. But if I am wrong, how is 300,000 children in poverty not a national crisis? How is fixing it not our #1 priority? How can we be so heartless?

Merry Christmas and thanks for reading.

[i] Harry J. Holzer, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach , Greg J. Duncan, and Jens Ludwig, “The economic costs of childhood poverty in the United States” Journal of Children and Poverty Vol. 14, No. 1, March 2008, 41-61
[ii] Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty (Office of Children’s Commissioner), “Solutions Child Poverty in New Zealand: Evidence for Action”, December 2012 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

You don't actually want peace.

I’m not a religious scholar but it is always laughable to me when people say Islamic texts are inherently violent. Without examining the context within which they were written, pretty much all religious texts can be interpreted negatively. And they are. Islam is about 600 years newer than Christianity and if one thinks back to Christianity in the 1400s, one can easily find out how violent Christianity was capable of. It takes a long time for any kind of religious reformation to happen and it never stops.

I don’t think the Bible itself has changed too much but the way it is interpreted is markedly different now from even 100 years ago. And in fact, reformation in Christianity still continues. The Pope himself seems to be ushering in a new brand of Catholicism. People have a problem with Sunni and Shia divisions, yet everyone seems to accept the 10+ different brands of Christianity that have developed over time and block out the clashes between Catholics and Protestants. Even now, even in America – in the so called land of the free, Christian groups want to stop progress. They would take away women’s right to choose and LGBTQIA people’s right to even exist.

I myself grew up in a fairly progressive but devout household. My maternal grandfather was an Islamic scholar and taught me to read the Quran. My paternal grandfather built a Mosque and Madrasa right in front of our family home in Bangladesh. But growing up, none of the women in my family wore a burka or even a hijab (my dad is one of 9 siblings and my mum is one of 6, so no shortage of women in the family). But this has changed in the last decade. A lot of my cousins and primary school friends have started to wear the hijab and it has become sort of a cross between fashion statement and distinguishing socio-economic factor. Wealthier folks tend to be embracing this new “religion as a fashion statement” movement.

Many in western countries seem to think that Islam needs reformation. They are not incorrect but my observation is that Islam was already on the path to reform well before the western world took any notice. People think Islam needs reformation because of terrorism, whereas Muslims like myself think terrorism is what’s stopping actual reformation.

The victims of Islamic terrorism are overwhelmingly Muslim. The countries that are root cause of this problem are tied to the United States and Europe. When I look at pictures of Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan in the 70s and how progressive women’s clothing was and compare them to the situation now it becomes very obvious to me that Islam was already being practiced in conjunction with progressivism but it was halted. War and political unrest fueled by US and UK involvement has not only prevented reformation, it has taken it backwards. In the absence of personal security, people turn to their faith and anyone who can promise them security. People are afraid and most importantly terrorists and their ideology have a lot of power - the combination has proven to be lethal to all who are involved. 

Progressive Muslims are not backed by anyone. Feminists, academics, and scholars are working independently to try to affect change with no help and constant threats. Think about the regimes that US and UK support, think about the amount of war that is waged on innocent civilians, think about how Muslims are treated in the Western world. All of this contributes to the hostility we see all around the world. I have no problems reconciling my feminist values with my faith but that seems to be incredulous to everyone because the only interpretation of Islam anyone ever talks about is politicized Islam in the context of terrorism and violence.

There is no doubt that Islam needs to be separated from the state’s business. But this is challenging. Just look at Christianity in American politics. There is no doubt that women’s voices have to be included in this reform. There is no doubt that barbaric acts should be denounced whether they are in the name of religion or notions of freedom and security. Our collective humanity cannot justify torture for the security of wealthy white people while denouncing beheadings. We cannot claim that Islam condones oppression of women when domestic violence and our rape culture continues to oppress women in our own society. New Zealand is not an Islamic country, so then why are women oppressed here?

Eradication of Islam will not eradicate terrorism. We need to fundamentally re-think our foreign and military policy, our allies, and who we fund in order to eradicate terrorism. Self-determination, implementation of universal human rights, democracy in the form people’s ability to participate in free elections, economic security, and freedom from war is the antidote to terrorism and a progressive Islam. 

People ask for liberal voices in Islam. Well I am here but nobody actually wants to listen to me or those who are like me. White men in power and hawks who control the military agenda don't actually want to listen to us. They would rather put terrorists on a pedestal on our behalf and listen to their rhetoric. Fox News would laugh at us. Illegitimate "leaders of Islam" would put fatwas on us. 

All the while Rome burns.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

On Twitter, free speech, and activism.

A couple of days ago I pointed out Whale Oil’s post on ISIS and Palestinians and his call to kill all Muslims on Twitter. Giving oxygen to Whale Oil’s hateful rhetoric is obviously counterproductive and many people responded to me by saying it is best to ignore. And perhaps they are right. As a Kiwi Muslim, while it is hard for me to stomach it, I have enough experience with bigotry to know that these views are prevalent and accepted in NZ and there’s not much I can do about it by drawing more attention. However, WO (Whale Oil) has a close and personal relationship with our Prime Minister and several other National MPs including Judith Collins who has referred to him as a close friend. It is troubling to me that our nation’s lawmakers and leaders are so comfortable associating with a deeply troubled and bigoted man and that it is accepted as normal. What I presume John Key and others would say is that he is entitled to his view but that shouldn’t stop their friendship. Fair enough. I myself might be knowingly or unknowingly “friends” with people who have questionable positions but I certainly would not take political advice for them. And if I was a in a political position, I would not be texting them regularly and then deleting those texts. That is what troubles me. And that is why I tweeted that.

Following my tweets, some people tried to defend his post by saying that it was not about Muslims but about ISIS and Palestine and that I was trying to limit his free speech. Let’s make one thing clear, I have absolutely no power to limit his speech. I only have the power to criticize and that is my right. Some did try to point to legislation that could be used to stop him and were quickly corrected on the limits of the law. It shouldn’t be shocking to people, that a call to kill entire groups of people was upsetting to some folks and made them want to put a stop to it. Bigotry induced desires to KILL entire groups of people should make everyone upset. Because that post wasn’t *just* about ISIS and Palestine.

At one point a person tried to tag WO into my tweets, which I found highly offensive and frankly scary. I think one of the problems with Twitter is the misguided belief that it is an equal playing field for all voices. It absolutely is not. There are many many documentations of transgender people, women, PwD (people with disability), and PoC (people of colour) facing violent and distressing threats on Twitter and other social media. These threats include murder, rape, assault, and extremely degrading language. This is taken lightly by many because it is not considered “actual harm”. As someone who has faced milder versions of this, I can assure you it is absolutely “actual harm”. I have been harassed on Twitter, Facebook, and via email. I am utterly helpless to stop this harassment as it continues to this day and it takes a horrifying emotional toll. People have told me to leave twitter and stop engaging. I see this as equivalent to being told to stop wearing short skirts in order to not be raped. Why should I have to stop using a public platform? And while people do condemn those who make these threats, they don’t seem to want to make stopping them a priority. They, however, have no problems using their time and energy to tell me to leave social media – literally one of the only mediums available to me to speak out.

I digress.

Under no circumstances should WO have been tagged into that conversation. He is a dangerous person who actively tries to destroy people by finding out personal information about them and using it against them. This is well documented. And even if one were to be unware of the history, my deliberate exclusion of his handle should have been enough of an indication that he should not be involved in that conversation. This person, I am told, now has deleted that tweet.

This leads me to a broader topic of New Zealand Twitter and particularly the recent vitriol against political twitter users by some journalists and political commentators. There is anecdotal evidence that the most politically engaged users of Twitter fall into the “left wing” category. This has not been empirically tested at all and is only based on follower counts and number of tweets. Any number of social media experts can explain that follower counts is not an indication of engagement. However, most people who comment on Twitter as supposed “outsiders” are actually completely ignorant of how social media reach works and its use as a tool. So they make broad assumptions and write “provocative stories” designed to dismiss and poke fun at Twitter. Bryce Edwards, a political science lecturer and popular commentator on NZ Herald and on TV has twice used my tweets in his columns to say that I had been “complaining”. And I’m not the only one that has been subject to his subtle denigration. 

I have written in the past with Matthew Beveridge on the use of Twitter as source of stories. “Twitter reaction” has become fodder for stories not just in New Zealand but all around the world. Twitter is often first to break on the ground news and every day citizens have now become “reporters”. My personal observation is that this has led to resentments among the more established commentators and reporters. Anyone can now call themselves a “commentator” and that makes some people extremely uncomfortable. For example, 10 years ago hardly anyone was questioning media narrative and coverage about transgender people even though they had been literally dying because of their gender identity. Now that marriage equality is becoming a ‘settled matter’ in the developed western world, other LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual) issues are starting to take prominence. Many people who fall in this category have been told to wait for their turn and they are now taking their turn and refusing to wait. Unsurprisingly this makes those who are in positions of power, those who have benefited for oppressing these groups, extremely uncomfortable.

Allies are forming. Intersectional feminism is gaining confidence. And one of the most important tools they/we have is social media. The biggest benefit of social media is our ability to form social movements and groups without the need to be in the same place physically. This means that lack of funds to travel, lack of time to invest is no longer a big barrier to engagement. One can have a full time job and still participate and submit a counterpoint publicly. And when large groups of people are mobilizing to educate and disrupt the narrative enough to the point that mainstream media is taking notice and having to report on it, it is very problematic for those in power. Calls for more PoC, women, LGBTQIA, PwD representation are only going to get louder and proportional representation is only bad news for one specific group – white CIS heterosexual able bodied males. 

If we were to have a hierarchy of privilege, there is absolutely no question that they are the most powerful in the New Zealand governance. Whether it is Cabinet, House of Representatives, board rooms, Chief Executives, media, business, they are the ones in power.  And so it is no surprise that this group has the biggest problem with alternative voices on Twitter. That is not to say they are the only culprits by no means at all. But they are undoubtedly the majority. As for why, my explanation is that if it isn’t motivated by explicit hate and bigotry, is it absolutely motivated by fear, fear of diluted power. One of the Fairfax journalist who is particularly peeved has been Tweeting non-stop about this:

What’s particularly hilarious is that gossip is not even limited to Twitter. In my experience, everyone gossips – yes, including men. The fact that people are forming social groups on Twitter and that it leads to the occasional gossip should not be surprising or of any concern to him. I have no doubt people say things about me behind my back – I tweet a lot of ridiculous things. If people want to gossip, they can. People gossip about people in real life so why should social media be any different? What is interesting here is the use of the word “toxic” and “cleanse”. He obviously wants to get a reaction out of some people because those words are deliberate. I don’t know if he did or not but it is highly disturbing to see someone who has access to one of the most powerful communication platforms in New Zealand – Fairfax – try to shut down opinions of the general public on Twitter.

On Twitter!

Twitter, which has been declared a left wing echo chamber, apparently needs cleaning out because the conversation is not to his liking. How ironic and how pitiful. Schrodinger’s Twitter has managed to be utterly pointless and all powerful all at the same time depending on whether they have a story they need to write and they can’t think of a topic. The discomfort that he is feeling isn’t limited to him.

White feminists are being forced to think about other kinds of misogyny and while there is some resistance, there is a lot of positive collaboration happening. I am hopeful. As a PoC feminist, I think allies are important. And there are a good number of cis white heterosexual men on Twitter and in life are helpful allies. But the sheer number of people from this group who don’t want to listen, change ingrained behaviours that are proven harmful, and make room for alternate viewpoints that challenge the status quo is apparent.

I was not always this person. When I was 15, I firmly believed being gay was wrong. I had been raised to believe that and in fact I had such a sheltered life that I didn’t even know gay people existed before I was 15. Obviously that changed and when I made the effort to think about it on a logical and rational level, I was forced to abandon my utterly bigoted beliefs. When I try to think about this change, I don’t recall feeling personally attacked when people tried to explain to me why my beliefs were misguided. Instead of questioning the people and their experiences, I questioned my religion and my faith. If my faith could not accommodate accepting people as they want to be, as who they are, with all the equal rights and freedoms that I had, then I had to rethink my own worldview. But most people don’t want to do the same because faith is seen as irreproachable and the absolute truth despite the fact that there are thousands of religions in the world with different interpretations of God. And those who are not guided by faith are guided by some other ingrained value that they are unwilling to question. In the end it is all the same.

I am not going to lie, there were a couple of extremely uncomfortable years as I tried to reconcile the accepted bigoted beliefs that were prevalent in my faith and my rational conclusions of the world. And I think my views are still being challenged. Twitter is the first place I learned about non-binary folks. After being raised and having lived in a society that are so rigidly divided by genders with particular gender norms ingrained into my brain, getting out of that viewpoint took some thought. There were times I may have said things that were probably not the right things to say and there were times I assumed gender identity of people that was not right. I was wrong. There is no way around it. And I’m still learning. I go about my fairly comfortable life, working, Tweeting, instagramming lunch like very other millennial and sometimes someone writes a post on chronic illness/pain or struggle with depression/anxiety and I am forced to think about how privileged I am – this is a good thing. This forces me to think about the kind of changes I want to see in our society to ease the suffering. As a student of public policy, it forces me to think about people I wouldn’t think to think about first. Social media gives me the chance to testify and amplify. I can share my experiences and challenges of trying to be seen as an equal member of the society and I can amplify the voices who are facing other kinds of experiences and challenges. And then, there was also this: 

What he fails to understand is perfectly summed up by his colleague at NZ Herald:

Social media is not an absolute safe place but it is a great place to bring and challenge voices. The idea that nobody can be corrected or that groups shouldn’t create rules or conventions to make it safe and minimize the risk, is ludicrous and in no way is "bullying". We are not going to be tagging in dangerous people into our conversations just because we are talking about them. We are going to point out when some speech is offensive and dangerous. What we do will make certain privileged groups uncomfortable. Change has never been comfortable. So no, you can’t ‘cleanse Twitter’. And no, ‘Twitter’ isn’t toxic, denigration of marginalized groups for speaking out is. Here’s the thing – if you don’t like it, you are more than welcome to show yourself out. They will no doubt continue to put you on TV and radio and print your columns and people who look like you and represent your interests will continue to run this country. The rest of us don't have that luxury.