The new gold rush…. housing in the 21st Century?

A hundred or so years ago the discovery of gold somewhere in the ‘new’ world triggered a new disease of the mind.  Thousands of men (and some women) left where ever they were and raced off to join in a frantic search for gold.  The gold seekers often risked everything – including their lives in the search for gold.  Over the 19th Century major gold rushes took place across the world in Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States.  In each place, the gold frenzy lasted a few years or maybe more and then faded away.  Once the gold ran out or better prospects were found elsewhere, the settlements or towns built for the gold miners were abandoned, leaving little to show for the wealth that had been found in that location. 

The state of mind that drove the gold rush was called gold fever.  Aptly named, the main symptom seemed to be lack of reason or, at least, a rational ability to assess risk. While the economics of supply and demand could explain, at least in part, the price of gold, economics do not explain a gold rush.  The madness of crowds, the spell of tulip bulbs, is also part of the story.  It is madness, reminiscent of gold fever, which also fuels the current housing crisis and helps explain why increasing supply won’t end the crisis.

Usually the housing crisis is defined in terms of supply and demand;  too little housing and too many people wanting to buy.  While there may be a short fall in the overall numbers of houses, many New Zealanders own two or more dwellings.  Some are holiday homes and others are rentals bought to ensure retirement income.  The kind of house and where it is located are key indicators of social identity and status.  Housing is perhaps the clearest indicator of wealth – the line between the rich and the poor.  The rich have good housing, while the poor struggle to find a place to live.  So the housing crisis can also be defined in terms of equality.  As the price of houses have risen over the past few decades, as an increasing number of New Zealanders have realized that they cannot afford to buy a house,  more also have also accepted that they will never be financially secure.  The fear of missing out is for a house and a community in which one belonged by right of ownership. 

So no surprise that the current housing crisis is also a political issue.  The major parties acknowledge the need to do something but it is unclear as to what they believe is needed besides building more houses.  Labour is credited with the historic provision of social housing, but both National and Labour were heavily involved in running the economy, including the housing market, until the late 1980’s.  In the 1990’s New Zealand embraced neo liberalism, with privatization, free trade and globalization, but with seemingly little immediate effect on housing.  The 1990’s and 2000’s saw, however, constantly and often rapidly rising house prices.  Following their election in 2008, National continued with reliance on the market and the private sector to provide housing.  Houses were built, but not at the rate needed to cope with increasing demand, especially for affordable housing.  After the global economic crisis house prices continued to rise and while increasingly unaffordable for those seeking to enter the market, those who already owned one or more houses were feeling better off.  With the election of a Labour government in 2017, the market approach was replaced by a government driven process.  Still, the rate of building did not increase to a rate necessary to meet demand.  In their second term, even with supply chain issues caused by the pandemic, Labour again committed itself to increasing the rate of house building.  Despite the prediction that the pandemic would cause prices to fall especially given the suspension of immigration,  prices rose even more rapidly.  And the numbers of those seeking housing seemed to grow even more.  National, now in opposition, accepted that government had a role in providing housing and argued that Labour’s failure to build more houses was due to incompetence.  For observers, it was unclear that National likely would have had much more success in building houses.  Regardless, the political consensus seemed to be that the housing crisis was one of supply and would be resolved once there were enough houses to meet demand.

From the perspective of the home buyer, the housing crisis is a problem of supply.  From 2003 to 2020 New Zealand’s population grew from 4 million to 5 million people.  With such an increase in population, pressures on housing were to be expected.  The question becomes why didn’t housing construction increase to meet the demand?  There is a lot of controversy and unanswered questions regarding what is seen as a supply side failure.  The high costs of construction and the slow pace of building in New Zealand are well reported.  Some argue that the construction industry as a whole failed and needs reform.  The lack of competition, supply chain issues, and inefficient building methods were all seen as part of the problem.  New Zealand’s distance from major markets and small size makes construction materials more expensive, but wood, which New Zealand produces, is also expensive.  And then there is ‘red tape’. Developers have long complained that regulations, in particular those of the Resource Management Act (the RMA) drive up costs and cause lengthy delays.  Environmentalists reply that the regulations including those under the RMA are intended to protect the environment and delay is often necessary to ensure appropriate and sustainable development.  Also the experience of de-regulation in the 1990’s which contributed to a massively expensive leaky homes debacle still haunts the housing sector.  Yet others blame disruptions caused by the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes.  And then there are the questions surrounding the collapse of several large construction companies – what went wrong there?  There are also questions about a skills shortage – from engineers and building estimators to tradespeople – many argue that there are not enough skilled people available to do the work.  New Zealand’s continued reliance on skilled immigrants, some argue, reflect the lack of investment in education and training locally. 

The supply of houses is clearly a problem, but a focus on supply ignores questions about the demand, in particular the question as to whether it is possible to meet the demand.  New Zealand housing crisis is part of a global phenomenon.  There is a global demand for investment opportunities and houses are good investments.  Locally the family home has long been recognized as an important asset.  Buying a house was often the biggest and most important investment an ordinary person would make in their lifetime.  Up until the 1990’s the expectation was that young people seeking ‘to settle down and have a family’ would buy a house based on their future earnings.  They would get a mortgage payable over 25 to 30 years secured by whatever equity they had in the house and based on their earning capacity.  Banks were keen to lend money but there were limits and in particular the amount which could be borrowed was determined by the purchaser’s income.  An affordable house was one where the price was around three times the annual income of the purchaser.  The expectation that the house would be paid for by the time the purchasers retired and they could then live out their years debt free. 

In the 1990’s this link between local wages and house prices was strained as the average price of houses rose above the three times average income.  Even two income households were being priced out of the market.  Affordability became an issue as fewer and fewer houses met the criteria as determined by local wages.  Locals, who were not already ‘on the property ladder’, found it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to borrow enough money to buy a house.  And demand was not tempered by increasing prices.  The questions became: Who was buying?  Who could afford to pay the prices being asked?

Location location location.  Apparently that is the answer real estate agents offer to any question about housing and demand.  At one level this suggests that the desirability of a house as a place to live (i.e. the number of bedrooms etc) is less important that where the house is located (i.e. proximity to good schools and transportation etc).  But this also refers to the city and the country in which the house is found.  Countries with stable governments, reliable legal systems, good schools and hospitals and so on are better places to buy if one is looking for a safe place to live and to invest.  William E. Rees in his 1998 essay, “Why the Housing Crisis is Really About Globalization”, writes:

The rise to dominance of industrial capitalism in the 19th century had the effect of separating domestic economies and governance from the communities they had evolved to serve. People no longer live in economies that reflect local conditions and serve basic needs, but must now adapt their lives and communities to global economic realities and the rule of capital. With globalization, workers in Canada and other “advanced” economies have had to compete with impoverished foreign workers for their jobs; they are now being forced to compete with wealthy foreign elites for their housing. The evolving global equilibrium is further bad news for average Canadians. … For one thing, it implies that external demand is likely to keep up with any reasonable increase in local supply. [Accessed April 9, 2021

As the pandemic revealed, it is not just ‘foreigners’ who have contribute to the globalized demand, as expat Kiwis returning home with their savings were willing and able to pay a global price for a house.  The issue is that once demand moves beyond the local, the affordability worsens. 

Increasing the supply of housing obviously meets the need for residents to have a place to live.  The problem is that while there may be a finite demand for places to live, there may be no limit for the need for profitable investments.  The two are linked as a profitable investment is likely to be a good place to live; though it is not clear that the reverse is true – that a good investment is always a good place to live.  Do the qualities which make the house a home matter for the investor?  In a rising housing market do good neighbours or even tenants matter when the point is capital gain?  The other, and perhaps more serious problem with allowing housing to be dealt with as any other kind of capital investment, is related to irrational demand.  At what point is the demand for housing infected by gold fever.  Over the past twenty years, the housing markets in some major cities have been labelled as bubbles from time to time with seemingly little long term effect on prices.  Astoundingly higher and higher prices are justified each year the market keeps on going up.  Gold fever as much as a need for a place to live is fuelling the market.  And this means that the supply side drive is not simply about homing more people, it is about continuing the gold rush.

The solution to the housing crisis, begins with seeing the crisis as a problem of local supply and global demand.  If the underlying problem is rooted in the globalization of demand, increasing supply will not solve the problem.  Measures such as improving locals’ ability to compete by offering grants and loans and by restricting non-residents ability to invest in housing help them compete with global investors, but the solution requires measures which removes the gold found in local housing.  This demand must be quelled.  The solution requires more than limiting immigration, more than capital gains tax, allowing housing on farmland and so on.  It requires extracting New Zealand housing from the global economy of desire. 

Most countries have their own rules and customs which shape their housing.  Property laws differ a lot from place to place.  Some states value sovereign control of land and prohibit foreign ownership.  Others may restrict the buying and selling of housing in other ways.  In Australia and New Zealand non-residents were limited to buying newly built houses. Apparently in Sweden regulations prohibit most people from making a profit on the sale of housing and limit the use of housing for rental income.  In Canada any profit on the sale of a house, other than the family home, is subject to capital gains or income tax.  In some Canadian provinces other measures such as an empty home tax and speculation tax have also been introduced to discourage non-resident investment in housing.  And while these taxes reportedly raise a significant amount of money, house prices continue to rise. 

The gold rush ends when the gold runs out.  To break the housing fever, it is necessary to limit the profit found in housing.  Somehow people need to be convinced that the idea that the family home is also a gold mine is delusional.  Locals who wish to purchase a place to live, need to understand that there are no guarantees that prices will continue to rise.  Speculative booms end when prices stop going up and start going down.  No one knows if this will happen to housing market.  Still, if global demand was to cease, the current market could collapse and then housing would be revealed for the pyramid scam that some argue it is.  The human and financial pain inflicted by a sudden collapse would be considerable. If housing is indeed a bubble, a better solution is to let the air out of it slowly.  The government needs to undertake steps it can to end the frenzy if only to protect new buyers from potential disaster if the bubble was to burst.  Any measures which limit profiteering should be tried.  But if the short term concern is to deal with the housing bubble, the long term solution is to restructure housing.

As the gold is the land, it may be necessary to regulate ownership of land.  At first glance, regulating ownership of land in New Zealand seems unthinkable.  But ownership is already regulated.  There are already many restrictions on land in terms of its use.  People may think that owning a house makes them a king or queen in their own castle but that is simply not the case.  Prohibiting profit from the sale of land used for housing takes much of the potential for speculation out of the sale.  Requiring land used for housing to be held communally and would remove investor flexibility.  Another scheme could involve the government at a state or municipal level building housing to meet different needs and income levels, but the houses would be owned by the community and rented to local residents.  The rent could be determined on the basis of the income of the tenants, but an important aspect of this state run scheme is that tenants would acquire rights of use depending on the length of tenancy, especially security of tenure, and at retirement age it would be possible to allow the tenant to live rent free – as if they had paid a mortgage.  With imagination and commitment, a number of different models of housing can be developed.  Housing, bought sold or rented, without the spectre of debt or profit is possible.  The gold rush can be ended. 

Quick fixes, capital gains or speculation taxes and restrictions on ownership through nationality or residency have not ended the gold rush in places where they have been tried.   Extracting housing from the global investment program requires serious commitment to changing the way in which housing is provided to people who simply want a place to live.  What is needed are alternative housing models which provide people the security in housing that they seek in home ownership – but without the gold mine.  A community riven with income inequality and plagued with homelessness is not what most people want for their home.  Playing the game by trying to increase housing supply without changing the model, feeds the fever and is unlikely to end the gold rush. 

The Blind leading the blind…

Imagining Homer and his guide – 1874

Thinking about truth and why so many people seem to believe Trump lead me to re-read Information Ages:  Niteracy, numeracy, and the Computer Revolution by Michael Hobart and Zachary Schiffman.  It is a treatise about information. Hobart and Schiffman believe that there is no “no overarching definition of information serves for all time” but at the same time they insist that information did not always exist.  Information is a product of literacy.  They write:

Information derives from the twofold process of abstraction involving the related movements of “drawing away from” and “taking out of.”  When he draws away from the flow of experience in a consistent manner, the record keeper will come to realize that he expresses the phenomenon of sixty sheep verbally in two words – a noun and an adjective, a name and a number.  This point marks the threshold of writing, and once crossed, the mind begins to reflect on its own products, to mediate experience with mental objects. (at page 38)

The first age of information began with the invention of writing. It is hard, perhaps impossible for us to truly understand the world which existed before writing – the world of orality. For those with an oral frame of mind, speech was continuous with the flow of experience. In the pre-literate pre-informational world, the knower was not distinct from the known.  Mental objects did not mediate between the thinker and reality. What was spoken was experienced without being formed as a quality outside of the experience itself.  Much of what we know of oral traditions is gleaned from the study of the great epics. The epics, such as those attributed to the blind poet Homer, transmitted as songs and stories were part of an oral tradition. They were part of a flow of experience, until they were written down.  And only then did these stories become information.

Hobart and Schiffman argue that the ancient Greeks had geographical and historical knowledge about their lands, oceans, and ancestors, but this knowledge did not “constituted a stable, isolable body of information”  and thus was not information as we know it (at page 29).  They write:

The Greeks knew of Thrace because they sailed there; but were they to have stopped, they would have soon forgotten its existence.  What we call historical information had an existence even more transitory.  Living amid the architectural ruins of the Mycenaean predecessors, the Greeks eventually attributed such massive buildings and walls to a race of Cyclopes.  (at page 29). 

The Homeric epics were themselves an activity – a commemorative activity.  The authors write:

Each epic consists of a sequence of scenes or situations that serve to map the actions of the narrative.  These scenes are linked together by aural cues – spoken words and phrases that are remembered like visual images because they form certain types of patterns.  Memory in an oral culture thus involves the recollection of abstracted patterns, both visual and aural, not words.  (at page 25)

The discussion of the nature of orality in the Ages of Information provides the basis for a discussion of information – its changing nature and significance in human activity.  The authors’ basic idea is that while information is hard to define, it is sufficiently well formed to be traced through three distinctive information ages, the classical, modern and contemporary. Information in the classical age was produced by a process of identification and classification.  The organizing principle and objective was wisdom.  In the modern age, the metaphor shifted from that of a list to that of a map and the motivation became knowledge – modern scholars explored the world in order to discover the laws of nature which, they believed, could then be reduced to mathematical formula.  These formulas would provide knowledge as the ultimate information.  

The metaphor of the contemporary age is less clear, but Hobart and Schiffman suggest, it involves the qualities of power and play.  (Play they define following Johan Huizinga Homo Ludens  as a voluntary rule based activity.  Another story also very interesting)  In this contemporary age of information, the seriousness and purpose displayed in the classical and modern ages are replaced by superficiality and seeming lack of purpose.  Information appears in techniques, procedures, and rules necessary for the immediate game.  The activity is not governed by wisdom or undertaken in the pursuit of knowledge.  In the contemporary age information is shaped by activity undertaken for the sake of the activity. In this age there is a loss of faith in both wisdom or knowledge.    Wisdom seems personal and knowledge contextual, open to interpretation and critique.  Certainty is seen as momentary agreement amongst players. 

In the twenty years since Hobart and Schiffman wrote their book, information itself is increasingly at play.  Facts are no longer distinguished from opinion and truth, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder.  The question then is whether information which is no longer stable can be imbued with a quality of being right or wrong, true or false. And if it cannot be fixed, is it still information. Perhaps a world of alternative facts is a post informational world. Or perhaps, the absence of information indicates a turn to a pseudo orality where remembering and forgetting define what is real.

Trump’s talent lies with his command of American – the spoken, not written, form of the language.   His talents are oral. At one level, the MAGA rallies resemble church revival meetings with the call “crooked Hilary” is met with the reply of “lock her up”.  At another they can be seen as entertainment. Trump performs as the epic singer or story teller.  Emotion is more important than reason, but emotions are reasoned through Trump’s heroic stories.  Remembering grievances and planning revenge. Trump is not trying to inform or persuade his accolytes.  Who cares about policy?  Who cares that the speeches themselves may be incoherent.  The performance may be theatrical, but it is more than entertainment. It is participatory, fun and empowering. In each telling of the tale, a new version of the Trumpian epic emerges fueled by the passion of the crowd. Success is defined by the participation of the crowd, not the critical reception of the speech. 

It may help that Trump is, for most intents and purposes, illiterate.  Tony Schwartz, who ‘helped’ write the Art of the Deal commented that Trump didn’t read much, certainly not books.  Mary Trump in her book, Too Much and Never Enough noted that Trump had once hired someone write an entrance exam for him.  During his time in the Oval Office Trump became famous for insisting on short briefing documents.  It was reported that some aides were concerned that he seemed unable or unwilling to read.  He excelled in his Twitter commentary, but not because of his command of written English.  In his speeches Trump was not encumbered by the norms of rhetoric. Still he communicated well.  Those who chose to listen seemed to understand what he was trying to say.  It may well be that this success involved a guileless grasp of the tools and traditions of orality – the norms of communication in the pre literate world. 

Of course, it might just be that the seeming lack of literacy in Trump’s political performance was due to ignorance or anti intellectualism.  He related well to his followers because they shared his disinterest in information, whether it be true or false, and his love of the tall tale.

Whatever the reason, be it orality or ignorance, for the literate and well informed, Trump’s appeal remains hard to fathom.

The Big Lie Part 3

Dear Leader…

The question many observers of the US election ask is why do so many people support former President Trump. Why do they continue to think that the election was stolen?

From the former President’s perspective, the election was close. All Trump needed was 40 or so thousand votes spread around a few of select states.  As these states were controlled by Republicans (as the Governor or state assembly was Republican) was it too much to ask that the votes he needed be found. As he told the official from the state of Georgia “Recalculate”.  It was so close – why couldn’t they help just a bit? And besides, how could he have lost when he was so popular?

Despite Mr. Trump’s self belief, the problem for him was that there was no evidence of voter fraud or manipulation even to the extent of 40,000 votes. There was no evidence of election irregularities, let alone massive vote rigging.  Over 60 judges, some Trump appointees, threw out legal challenges to the election results for want of any proof of electoral misdeeds.  What the facts did support was his election loss. Millions more Americans voted for Biden than for Trump – not that this matters in the US Presidential election.  Biden also received more votes in places that mattered – in states like Pennsylvania, Arizons, Wisconsin and Georgia.   Biden won the Electoral College vote and the Presidency.  Biden won.

Ironically, at least for Republicans, the dearth of voter fraud was a consequence of years of attempts at what Democrats call voter suppression.  In the US each of the 50 state governments have their own rules when it comes to elections and voting. State officials in a number of what have become Republican states have worked hard for years to make their voting systems fraud proof. A number of such measures have assisted the Republican cause by making it harder for poor and, in particular poor people of colour, to vote.  The Secretary of State in Georgia, who Trump asked to find more votes, had said that he had wanted Trump to win.  What he didn’t say was that Republicans had done all that they could do to help, but it still wasn’t enough.  Some observers have suggested that Biden’s winning margin would have been higher but for voter suppression.  At the same time, all the rules meant that it was then much harder to challenge the vote.  At the same time the attempts at voter suppression arguably motivated Democrats to get out the vote despite the challenges, while making Republicans complacent. 

Trump for months before the elections claimed that the only way he would lose was if the vote was rigged.   After the election he continued to dispute the results.  He said that he would never concede and he hasn’t.  The fact that millions more people voted for Biden than for Trump.  Even with the strange electoral college process, there can be no doubt as to Biden’s victory.  Biden received more votes in states where it mattered.  In the absence of evidence of any irregularities or worse, voter fraud, Biden’s victory is indisputable. 

Trump has said that he would never concede and he hasn’t. Millions of Americans continue to believe he is the victim of a terrible injustice.  Thousands went to Washington to advance his cause.  His supporters attempted to prevent the certification of electoral college votes by occupying the Capitol (the building housing the House of Assembly and Senate).  Their anger at election fraud directed at the so-called traitors who accepted the election results exploded into a mob.  Screaming to hang Pence and bashing doors and windows to enter forbidden buildings overwhelming security.  And then, at Trump’s request, they left. Such violence by self proclaimed patriots done in the name of protecting America  was  incomprehensible to almost everyone watching from a distance.  These strange folks with their MAGA hats, bizarre outfits and Confederate flags were convinced that they had to fight to protect their way of life. Millions of Americans believe in the new Big Lie.

Millions more people voted for Biden than for Trump. Even with the bizarre electoral college process, there can be no doubt as to Biden’s victory. Biden received more votes in states where it mattered for the electoral college vote. In the absence of evidence of any irregularities Biden’s victory is indisputable.

Without Trump, it is unlikely that the election result would have resulted in armed insurrection.  Sure many people would not have accepted the results as true, but Trump made it real. 

The passions felt by partisans in an election campaign run deep.  Victory is sweet and defeat bitter.  Campaign workers spend long days, weeks, months, even years, believing that they can win.  And when their candidate doesn’t win, especially in a close election which matters, the loss hurts.   The hurt is personal and often financial.  Those on the losing side may find it tough to get another job.  Even for those whose participation amounted to attending rallies, buying swag and even donating money, faith in one’s candidate can run deep.  Being told when faced with crushing defeat, that victory had been stolen comes as a welcomed relief.  Trump’s Big Lie worked because his supporters wanted to believe.  But Trump was no Lenin.  He did not have a realistic plan for taking over government.  He had no Trotsky and, more seriously, no military support.  The Big Lie was not believed by the right people or perhaps enough of the right people. 

So why? Why do so many people believe so strongly in something for which there is no evidence? There is Trump. He stands in front of the crowd and tells them that they were robbed. He assures them that they are not crazy or misinformed. They believe him when he says that the supporters of the Democrats, not them or their friends, those believe the Fake News, are the crazies. They believe him when he feeds their belief that immigrants, people of colour, Muslims, Jews and maybe even Catholics, are destroying the American way of life. Trump feeds his supporters faith, especially the Q-Anon supporters, that they and they alone know the truth about America. And unless they fight for that truth, America will be lost. But still. How can anyone believe anything Trump says? And will they continue to believe as the memories of his Presidency fades.

The Big Lie Part 2

The American Dream

I think this is a fact, which it serves no purpose to deny, but, whether it is a fact or not, this is what the black populations of the world, including black Americans, really believe. The word “independence” in Africa and the word “integration” here are almost equally meaningless; that is, Europe has not yet left Africa, and black men here are not yet free. And both of these last statements are undeniable facts, related facts, containing the gravest implications for us all. The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.

I think this is a fact, which it serves no purpose to deny, but, whether it is a fact or not, this is what the black populations of the world, including black Americans, really believe. The word “independence” in Africa and the word “integration” here are almost equally meaningless; that is, Europe has not yet left Africa, and black men here are not yet free. And both of these last statements are undeniable facts, related facts, containing the gravest implications for us all. The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.

This has everything to do, of course, with the nature of that dream and with the fact that we Americans, of whatever color, do not dare examine it and are far from having made it a reality. There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves. People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal (equal, after all, to what and to whom?) but they love the idea of being superior. And this human truth has an especially grinding force here, where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to land their feet on the shifting sands of status. (Consider the history of labor in a country in which, spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for the hand of the boss’s daughter.) Furthermore, I have met only a very few people—and most of these were not Americans—who had any real desire to be free. Freedom is hard to bear. It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation. We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels. Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster.

James Baldwin, “Letter from a Region in My Mind” from a 1962 essay “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” November 10, 1962

The American dream, in theory, is defined by ideals of democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity and equality set out in the Declaration of Independence. In practice, this dream is of freedom from social or governmental constraint. It is a freedom best enjoyed by the individual. Central to the faith is the sense that all individuals have equal opportunity – everyone has a chance to get rich. Those who succeed in making money, the more the better, deserve nor only their money but respect for living the dream. In this dream, success and with it upward mobility, is achieved through hard work. The United States is believed to be a society with few barriers. Anyone, if they want, can better themselves. Regardless of social class or circumstances of birth everyone can enjoy success and prosperity – a better and richer life for themselves and their children. The Dream only requires that one accept that just as success is due to one’s own efforts, so is failure. The poor are responsible for their own fate. The individual, not the community matters.

As Baldwin noted, for many Americans the dream should be understood as a nightmare. Its promise is but pretense. Still, many Americans cannot see the damage done by their unquestioning faith in this American Dream. The claim of equality – excluding women, people of colour, and First Nations – was always obviously hollow. The steadfast belief in the United States as a land of equal opportunity always ignored the obvious and ever present chasm between the the rich and the poor.

Believe. Many believe, profoundly, that America is the dream. It is who they are. It is deep in the culture. There are so many books, plays and songs written about the American Dream. It is hard to see the dream as a lie – delusion perhaps? The sting is that it seems so true: anyone can be anything they want to be… but there are so few winners and so many losers. The fever may never break but when it does, who knows what might replace it.

Truth (and Big Lies)

Reality? The Manukau Harbour

The big lie. The big steal. For months now I have been down the rabbit hole of US politics.

I have always been a student of the US. From my childhood home just 12 miles from the border I have watched that place with horror and amazement for all my life. In 2019 while visiting a friend I watched MSNBC, a US tv ‘all news all the time’ channel for the first time. The invention of the 24 / 7 news services (CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC) in the early years of the new millenium changed the news and arguably politics. With a form of sport casting breathless presentation of events the viewer becomes involved in the struggle. At times merely watching is exhausting. The talking heads look good, sound good and, if I am on the right station, explain why I am so caught up in the story. They explain but cannot tell me how the story will end. So I have to keep tuning in. I have faith that they will let me know the outcome (whatever that might be) as soon as they can but in the meantime they are standing by to update me.

And over the last few months with Trump messing up the usual story, anticipation was almost unbearable – waiting for November 3 was like waiting for Christmas. But then that wasn’t the end of the story. Because of the BIG LIE. Trump refused to accept defeat. And so the story kept on going. With all of his tweeting, the tension kept building. Like the big guy said – January 6 – it will be wild. And it was!!!

At least Lewis Carroll didn’t pretend that Alice’s adventures were true. The Big Lie is true in the sense that it is true that it is a lie and that it is big in that it is not an easy statement about reality to believe. The Big Lie, by definition, is not true. It neither corresponds nor reflects reality. The Big Lie is not, however, simply an untruth. It is a social phenomena of incredible power.

The phrase, the Big Lie, is attributed to Adolf Hitler “to describe the use of a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously” []. Hitler’s fabricated reality was based on antisemetic tropes. According to Hitler’s Big Lie, Germany was not defeated in WWI but rather was forced or persuaded to surrender by powerful Jews who were conspiring to destroy the German people. Feeding on existing antisemitism and extraordinary economic hardship, this Big Lie festered for ten to fifteen years, gained political traction amongst 30 to 40% of Germans and exploded into the Third Reich’s murderous regime of extermination. Like the ancient Blood Libel [], Hitler’s claims were ridiculous fantasy. It is not clear whether he even believed them to be true. The point though was that enough Germans believed and used this belief to justify murdering millions of people. Like the Salem witch trials hundreds of years earlier, fantastical stories built on lies fed mass hysteria and the unspeakable cruelty of the mob. What is true is that Big Lies can destroy many lives – the lives of those who believe as well as the lives of those targeted by falsehoods. Truth matters.

There are many big lies – some like smoking tobacco is good for your health – have been debunked by science but others – like the unregulated market provides economic efficiency – are harder to dispute. To a certain extent the problems are metaphysical – what is reality? How do we know what we know? And what are the limits to knowledge. Philosophy, ontology, epistemology and even religion enter the mix. So it goes – those interested in the issues keep talking while everyone else believes what their friends and families seem to believe. Fantasy, delusion, and ignorance shape politics.

The Big Lie in US politics is, of course, Trump’s victory. The election was stolen. There was fraud on a massive scale. And so on.

While it is not hard to find folks who believe that US politics are corrupt. Money buys power. No questions. But the election in 2020 seems to have been one of the better run affairs in many years. No evidence of election irregularities, let alone massive vote rigging, was presented to the American people.  Over 60 judges, some Trump appointees, threw out legal challenges to the election results for want of any proof of electoral misdeeds.  Most observers agree that the official result reflects the will of the majority of voters. Millions more Americans voted for Biden than for Trump – not that this matters in the US Presidential election – but it does support his legitimacy.  Biden also received more votes in places that mattered – in swing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Georgia.   Biden won the Electoral College vote and the Presidency.  The truth is Biden won.

The Big lie is that Trump was robbed. The problem the US has right now is that the truth must win out. For if the Big Lie is allowed to fester – it will continue to justify many evil deeds.

More thinking on Truth??


The movie as metaphor for conventional reality given by Joseph Goldstein is troublesome for a number of reasons.  First, it is too simple.  A movie is so easily seen understood as make believe.    Second, the effort require for movies is to believe what is seen and heard as real, not the other way around.  In watching a movie, most people willingly suspend belief.  But to appreciate conventional wisdom, much effort is required to understand that what we see and hear in daily life might well be an illusion.  The idea of conventional truth is that it encompasses what we believe is true about our lives.  The idea is that with meditation and investigation we may be able to see much of our views of the world as delusion.  

And then, I have no difficulty in accepting that truth might exist – that there is something called reality, which exists in unique and absolute terms.  I just have difficulty accepting that humans might ever be able to know this reality.  When I was about 8 or 9 years old I realized that I would never be able to know what another person was thinking – so how now do I accept the words of a dying man as proof of anything, let alone an ultimate reality.  

So then I got out some more books.  Simon Blackburn’s book entitled Truth. A guideis very interesting. In the Introduction he sets up the discussion as a ‘fight’ (war, conflict) between Absolutists and Relativists.  He refers to GK Chesterton’s remark that the problem with people who lose belief in God is not that they end up believing nothing but that they will believe in anything.  He also notes that David Hume wrote that mistakes in religion were dangerous whereas generally speaking mistakes in philosophy were merely ridiculous.   Blackburn disagrees with Hume describing the issue as philosophical one about the “sources of reason and the control of belief by fact’.  He continues:

“It is an epistemological use … about which methods of inquiry and which claims to authority and knowledge we should endorse’…”

“The implications of relativism, and the flashpoints that concern us today, may be new but the war between those who locate themselves as something like ’relativists’ and those who sound more like ‘absolutists’ is not.  We know that it raged a long time ago, when Socrates confronted by the sophists in Athens of the fifth century BC.  It was probably old then, but that encounter will form one point of entry.”

“What, then is the conflict about?  When we are absolutists we stand on truth.  We like plain unvarnished objective fact, and we like it open, transparent, and unfiltered.  We may not like it everywhere, so we may feel like confining truth to some area: scientific truth or moral truth, for example.  But somewhere absolute truth can be found.  And as well as truth, absolutists cherish its handmaidens:  reason, which enable us to find it or certify it, and objectivity, which is the cardinal virtue of reasoning.”

“Relativists mock these ideals.  They see nothing anywhere that is plain, unvarnished, objective, open, transparent or unfiltered.  They debunk and deny.  They see everywhere what the philosopher William James called the trail of the human serpent.  They insists upon the universal presence of happenstance, brute contingencies of nature or culture or language or experience, that shape the way we see things. Nietzsche said “There are no facts, only interpretations’.  That will do as a relativist slogan … ” Blackburn Truth at page xv

This duality allows for statements such as “Absolutism gives us security and self assurance; the relativist sees dangerous unthinking innocence and complacency”.  Absolutists suffer from what James described as ‘religious ambition’.  They seek something ‘haughty, remote, august, exalted’ whether as a ‘religion’ of some deity or ideology of the Market, Science and so on. Relativist recoil from conviction and embrace Toleration but for Blackburn the toleration of the relativist goes beyond respecting the opinions of others to a sense that one has no right to disapprove of what anyone says.  Relativists disrupt the symmetries reason and knowledge, objectivity and truth.But then Blackburn introduces the skeptic. While the skeptic is often associated with the relativist, for Blackburn there is a significant difference.  The skeptic believes in the existence of truth but is disinclined to believe that humans are capable of obtaining (possessing) such truth. For the skeptic, the truth is precious – priceless. For the relativist the truth (your truth, my truth, any truth) is essentially worthless – too cheap to care about.

Thoughts on Truth?


First: quotes from Joseph Goldstein One Dharma

“Four basic principles, or understandings lie at the heart of One Dharma:  first, that philosophical concepts are only descriptions of experience, and not the experience itself; second, that mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom weave together as essential strands of a nonsectarian path of practice; third, that what is called in Buddhism “the two truths” – the relative and ultimate perspective of reality – together provide a framework for holding divergent points of view; and, last, that the mind of nongrasping is the essential unifying experience of freedom.” Goldstein One Dharmaat page 5.  

“As a way of understanding these two truths, think for a moment of being in a movie theatre, completely engrossed in the story on the screen.  We may feel happy or sad, excited or terrified, all depending on the movie being shown.  Now imagine looking up at the beam of light that is passing through the film creates all these images on the screen. As we sit in the darkened theatre and see that light above us, we realize that there is nothing really happening on the screen at all, except for a play of light and color.  And yet, when we are absorbed in the story it feels very real.  On the relative level, we live and act and relate as individuals, one with another, with all our personal stories and histories. On the ultimate level, there’s no “self”, no “I”, no one there at all.  It’s all a play of momentary, changing elements.  Moreover, what happens even to our perception of light when there’s no screen, no dust particles in the air, no place for it to land? “

“One of the most illuminating stories illustrating the relative and ultimate is told about the death of His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa …  In the last days of his illness, surrounded by his students and disciples who were saddened and concerned about the imminent death of their great teacher, he turned to them and said, “Don’t worry, nothing happens.”

“This is quite an amazing understanding:  on one level the body is sick and dying, and on another, nothing happens.  The union of these two truths, the relative and the ultimate, is the great mystery of our lives.”   Goldstein.” One Dharmaat page 105-106

Over the years I have often listened to teachers answer difficult questions about ‘no self’ (and emptiness) with the ‘two truths’ explanation.   It always rankled.  While I was prepared to accept that there were some things I didn’t understand, I found it unsatisfying.  I remember when I first started work for External Affairs being often told that I didn’t understand because I was ‘I had not been there or done that’.  I felt that if someone couldn’t offer a better answer than ‘wait and you will someday see’, then they likely didn’t really understand themselves.    

In the example of the two truths offered by Goldstein as the experience of watching a movie, I understood that the issue was one of perception (a mental factor arising after contact and feeling).   This suggested to me that ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ lay beyond ‘normal’ perception, but the idea could also be that it was just experience, not some ‘ultimate reality’.  He also had noted as the first principle of One Dharma that “philosophical concepts are only descriptions of experience, and not the experience itself.”

Still there is this word ‘truth’.  Truth is as Stephen Batchelor has pointed out an important concept in western philosophy. And I had spent years trying to understand the great philosophers.  By using this word, truth, especially with respect to the explanation of understanding the world, Buddhism seemed to enter the world of metaphysics – ontology, epistemology and the rest – a concern with what is real and how do we know what we know?  

In the story of His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa’s death, Goldstein seemed at first reading to take the ‘two truths’ into what Arthur J. Lovejoy labeled in The Great Chain of Beingat page 11 “metaphysical pathos”.  This Lovejoy wrote was exemplified 

“… in any description of the nature or things, in any characterization of the world to which one belongs, in terms which, like the words of a poem, awaken through their associations, and a sort of empathy which they engender, a congenial mood or tone of feeling on the part of the philosopher or his readers … Now of metaphysical pathos, there are a good many kinds; and people differ in their degree of susceptibility to any one kind.  There is, in the first place, the pathos of sheer obscurity, the loveliness of the incomprehensible …  The reader doesn’t know exactly what they mean, but they have all the more on that account an air of sublimity; an agreeable feeling of awe and exaltation comes over him as he contemplates thoughts of so immeasurable profundity … Akin to this is the pathos of the esoteric.  How exciting and how welcome in the sense of initiation into hidden mysteries!  And how effectively certain philosophers – notably Schelling and Hegel …- satisfied the human craving for this experience, by representing the central insight of their philosophy as a thing to be reached, not through a consecutive progress of thought guided by the ordinary logic available to every man, but through a sudden leap whereby one rises to a plane of insight wholly different in its principles from the level of mere understanding.”  (at page 12)

Lovejoy describes as a variant of metaphysical pathos, the ‘eternalistic pathos’ defined as the “aesthetic pleasure which the bare abstract idea of immutability give us…”  

The great mystery of life is death.  When life ends, what happens is called death, but nothing besides this label is truly understood.  Traditionally, death and life after death was the reserve of religion – of gods and, for Christians, God.  His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa died, as did Jesus, passing beyond life into this great silence leaving behind a body and hope, it seems for believers, for eternal life. 

In his opening Dharma talk on the Satipatthana sutta, Goldstein commented that as a young man, before encountering Buddhism, he had studied philosophy.  He said that it was only when he began to study Buddhism that he realized that part of his disquiet with western philosophy was that it offered little by way of practical insights into life.  In his brief comment, he didn’t mention what kind of philosophy he studied or how deeply he looked into it, but point was that Buddhism was taught as a practice.  In this sense, until we stumble onto things like the “two truths’, most western philosophy and Buddhism seem quite different.  Buddhism as it is taught is more like psychology or, even, cognitive behaviour therapy.    Western philosophy may be misguided (or wrong), but it has always been about trying to understand this life.  The focus of Western philosophy was on ‘truth’ and ‘reality’.  Christian faith was deeply challenged by the horrendous cruelty of the religious wars and many thoughtful men (and women although there is little record of their thoughts) struggled to find refuge – a foundation for their lives other than God.   As the Enlightenment unfolded, belief in God faded.  Many scholars were likely surprised that they no longer believed in God, in a society in which such beliefs were ‘natural’ and ‘true’.   Scholars worried about a notion of truth, which required belief.   How could one know God?  And if God was unknowable, how was knowledge of anything possible?  It is not surprising that David Hume with his claim that there was no rational basis for morality woke Emmanuel Kant from his dogmatic slumbers.   And the repercussions of such thinking continue today – for example in ideas about the Rule of Law or the theory of rights.  

The theory of “two truths” echo Kant’s argument that reality is constituted by phenomena, the appearance of things, which constitute our experience, and noumena, things, which are the things in themselves and lie beyond our ability to experience directly.  Thinking of this I return to Lovejoy who writes:

“Now a formulated doctrine is sometimes a relatively inert thing.  The conclusions reached by a process of thought is also not infrequently the conclusion of the process of thought.  The more significant factor in the matter may be, not the dogma which certain persons proclaim – be that single or manifold in is meaning – but the motives or reasons which have led them to it.  And motives and reasons partly identical may contribute to the production of diverse conclusions, and the same substantive conclusions may, at different periods or in different minds, be generated by entirely distinct logical or other motives.”

The idea that reality is comprised of phenomena, which can be experienced, and nouema, which cannot be, is similar to the idea that truth is conventional, reflecting experience, and ultimate, being reality.   The motives or reasons for proposing such ideas are different.  Kant was interested in providing a description, and to a certain extent a defense, of human ability to understand, even know, through reason, if not God, then reality. Goldstein was offering a summary of what he had had been told and, I imagine, found useful about Buddhist dogma. He may have felt no need, and perhaps no interest, to examining the idea of two truths more critically.   However, I wonder if he had been aware of the intellectual history of ‘truth’, if he would have offered a better explanation of the doctrine in a book intended for western readers.  Perhaps the doctrine, as suggested by the cinema example, is meant to provide students with an explanation of experience, rather than of ultimate reality – intended as a pedagogic device rather than an ontological statement.

The doctrine, as a basic tenant of Buddhism, seems to impose a burden of on followers to believe, although what one is being asked to accept as a matter of faith is unclear.  On the one hand, one might be accepting the truth of the doctrine of ‘no self’ or ‘emptiness’?  On the other, one may be accepting as truth any statements of the Enlightened? And I am uncertain as to why it is necessary as part of one’s practice to accept anything.  It may be more useful simply to be mindful.  Faith is necessary, but belief that there is some “ultimate truth” available to the Enlightened seems as Lovejoy might describe it as an “eternalistic pathos”

Second, quotes from Stephen Batchelor After Buddhism

“The Dharma may have started out as a twofold ground and a fourfold task, but Buddhism ended up with two truths and four noble truths.  You will not find any reference in authoritative sources on Buddhism to either a “twofold ground” or a “fourfold task”.  These are examples of ideas that either failed to take off or were forgotten, suppressed, marginalized or lost.  Sometime in the centuries after Gotama’s death, Buddhism seems to have taken a metaphysical turn.  By adopting a language of truth, Buddhists move from an engaged agency with the world to the theorizing stance of a detached subject contemplating epistemic objects. Rather than consider injunctions to guide their ethical actions, they adopted the truth of propositions to support their beliefs. They shifted, seemingly en masse with little if any resistance from prescription to description, from pragmatism to ontology, from scepticism to dogmatism.”  Batchelor, After Buddhismat page 116.

“… A statement is “true” because it corresponds with the “truth”, and the person who makes such utterances is said to be “truthful”. “

“Such a correspondence theory of truth came to be taken for granted in Buddhist philosophical thought, much as it has been in most Western philosophy. …  One of the dangers … in such a view is that it easily gets elevated into a basis for certainties about what constitutes “the Truth”. It becomes… “the shorthand for something like ‘a natural terminus to inquiry, a way things really are, and that understanding what that way is will tell us what to do with ourselves.” … Truth thus assumes qualities of ultimacy and finality, which turn it into a rhetorical weapon in the armory of religious, political, and scientific fundamentalists alike.” (at page 118)

“As the concept of truth metamorphosed from a virtue into a synonym for reality, it exerted a deep and lasting influence on how Buddhism came to understand the nature and purpose of their practice.” (at page 120)

““Craving is the origin of suffering’ is a metaphysical dogma no different in kind to “God created heaven and earth.”  It claims to state a fundamental truth about the source of all experience, a truth that is impossible to verify or to falsify.  As Buddhism became an Indian religion, this dogma became one of its fundamental tenents. “

“… the doctrine of two truth:  ultimate truth (paramattha sacca; Sanskrit:  paramartha satya) and conventional truth (sammuti sacca; Sanskrit: samvrti satya).  The germ of this idea may have originated in the Buddha’s vision of twofold ground, that is, conditioned arising and nirvana.  … Simply stated, the two truth doctrine is a way of distinguishing between the conventional truths of everyday life that we need in order to function as social and moral agents and the ultimate truth.  By gaining direct non conceptual insight of the latter we achieve the liberating knowledge that frees us from suffering and rebirth.  There are different Buddhists interpretations as to what constitutes the higher or ultimate truth, but for the Madhyamaka school … the term refers exclusively to the emptiness of inherent existence. Such emptiness is constantly and irreducibly true; everything in one’s experience is at best only conventionally true.” (at page 130)

“… “Ultimate truth” becomes a signifier of what really is, whereas “conventional truth” signifies merely what people agree upon as true and useful.” (at page 131)

“… Part of the appeal of the two truths theory is that it seems to make life so much more straightforward and clear-cut.  The “enlightened” can now be understood as those who have gained a direct understanding of ultimate truth, whereas the “unenlightened” are those who remained mired in the ambiguous truths of custom and convention. When phrased in this way, the achievement of enlightenment become the private affair of a person who has gained a privileged mystical cognition of the Truth with a capital T.”

I spent many years studying after graduating from high school.  Fifteen years – a BA (Political Science), an LLB (or JD), LLM, and then a PhD.   I also worked between each degree and so was in my late 40’s when I received my PhD. I was introduced to Buddhism in my 20’s but did not begin to practice until my early 40’s.  When I read the credentials of Buddhist teachers such as Joseph Goldstein and Stephen Batchelor, the comparing mind arose.  And I envied their years as Buddhist monks. What did I gain through my years of study?  – certainly not enlightenment, but a sense that I understood the magic and mystery of this life and this understanding, I feel, enhances rather than detracts from my practice. 

Not infrequently “Buddhist” teachers would suggest that it was necessary to think less, to move from the head to the body, and so on.  For me, so often lost in my head, this was helpful in developing mindfulness and concentration.  I constantly work on it.   At the same time, I feel that the mind, the intellect, is at the heart of the process. To breath and to know that one is breathing – to train the mind and, maybe to understand the mind, is the point. Non-reactivity is a process of the mind. Thinking is an amazing, and, at times, joyous, quality of life.  However, this does not mean that there is a mind and body split.  For me, we honour the mind, even as we learn how to think critically.  As Batchelor notes “The quality of your ‘doubt’ – of the questions you ask – is directly correlated to the quality of your insight” (at page 10).  

I rebel against the anti intellectualism implicit in the dogma of the two truths. Why two truths?  Why not none or many?  The disregard for Western philosophy also bothers me.  If Buddhism is to move to the ‘west’, it will have to engage with Western thought, and yes, western concepts of truth.  For such ideas about ‘truth’, the impossibility or the immutability of truth, is part of this world.

And then, truth

The Buddhist doctrine of “two truths” may be lost in translation.  In English – “truth” is reality.  It is possible, if not likely, that it is not intended that this “truth” is not what was intended in the original Pali (or whatever other language spoken by the Buddha).  In the critique of modern philosophy, with pragmatism and then the ‘post modern’, the coupling of truth and reality has, it seems, been loosened. In science, with Kuhn and Popper, even scientific facts were gradually recognized as ‘true’ because they were found true in the particular context or paradigm in which they were true.  As Batchelor noted, quoting Gianni Vatimo, “We don’t reach agreement when we have discovered the truth, we say we have discovered the truth when we reach agreement.” The problem is, again as Batchelor notes, is the “so embedded is this usage of “truth” in our language that we generally fail to remark upon it.” (all at page 119).

Goldstein’s explanation of conventional truth suggests that while using the word “truth”, he is not intending for the word to be an accurate representation of the reality but rather an example of ‘experience’ and how easily experience may be misapprehended.  The movie is experienced as real until it is examined and seen as simply the play of light on a screen.  His discussion of the death of His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa as an example of the union of conventional and ultimate truths is more difficult to interpret. How are two truths ‘united’?   If an understanding of the play of light of the screen is ‘ultimate truth’ in the sense that it is reality and the experience of the movie as ‘real’ is conventional, where does unity lie?  Can there a union between the conventional truth that the reality is the movie and the ultimate truth that it is not? Perhaps what is meant by ‘ultimate truth’ is it is the experience of the world as related by those who have “done what is needed to be done”.  Their understanding of the world and their ability to describe and explain this understanding – to teach others how to follow the path – is ‘ultimate reality’. This suggests that in this sense of the word, there are not only two truths, but many.  They may all be ‘true’ in the sense that they represent some aspect of reality or reality itself, which in turn suggests that some may be more real that others.  

What is important is to accept that the elephant has many parts – and it is important not to cling any understanding as ‘this is’ or ‘this is not’.   However, it is a matter of right view, not no view. The elephant does exist.  There is gravity and things fall down.   I feel that the radical idea of the Buddha was not that there was no truth or two truths or many truths, but that in order to live without suffering we needed to learn, through practice, to experience the world for ourselves without preconception (need the name of sutta here).  

So the “Truth” of emptiness / no self

Watching the cat, I cannot help but think, she knows that she exists.  From the way she eats the cat treats, it seem clear that she find the treats pleasant.  When she sees the neighbour’s cat, she knows that this cat exists and, as she races out to run her off, it seems clear that she finds this cat unpleasant.  At the same time, I suspect that this cat does not know that she is Charlie (short for Charlotte).  Nor does she care that the other cat is Esme, that she is ‘owned’ by Sammy and that Esme lives down the street.  

While I have a ways to go, I am beginning to understand ‘no self’ and ‘emptiness’.  It is not simply an intellectual exercise – although I have thought a lot about it.  For ‘my’ whole life, I have accepted that “I” existed.  And as long as I can remember, I have been ‘me’. Over the years, my body and my thoughts have changed – everything has changed except, the thought that “I am still here”.  I would constantly find myself asking myself when meditating ‘who is watching’?  And then – it came to me that the watcher was ‘me’ but this ‘me’ was simply a thought.  It is no more than a pulse of energy in my head – gone as quickly as it comes.  I had been looking for something only to realize that it didn’t exist.  The thought arose from somewhere deep in myself that this “I” was nothing but in that thought, there was the realization that this “I” was everything.  I could only laugh.  It seemed so true – and liberating.  

True. But maybe not…  this “I” keeps looking and asking questions.  

News flash Thursday November 18, 2018

NZ Police advise that they do not work underground.

The story about the police refusing to working underground misses the point. 

First, the police are publicly funded and responsible for the investigation of crimes.  Should they be able to ignore a suspicious death which happened underground?  Should criminals now see the underground as a rule free place?  

Second, what was the role of the police during the Royal Commission of Inquiry?  Did they refuse at that time to ‘go underground’ thereby thwarting any serious investigation into the cause of disaster?  Criminal responsibility for the deaths of 29 men was impossible to establish without forensic evidence.  What role did the police play at that time in allowing the guilty to get off?  And then what about product liability or professional negligence?  Without scene investigation, there was no evidence as to whether the manufacturers of the ventilation system or those who designed the mine were or were not negligent in their work.  

And then, lastly what about the Royal Commission?  Around 20 million dollars were spent.  The documents gathered by this expensive venture remain embargoed for 30 to 100 years.  The heralded report resulted in a revamp of health and safety rules but failed utterly in determining why the mine blew up.   What was the role of the NZ Police in that fiasco?

Death of the party…

(Written January 2019)

The NDP was described recently as a complicated party(Ken Boon is the president of the Peace Valley Landowner Association and a director of the Peace Valley Environment Association quoted in an article in the Tyee:

No.  Once upon a time the NDP was a complicated party.  But that was a while ago.  It was a time when people joined the party because they believed in social progress. Many saw themselves as part of one or several movements – the union movement, the women’s movement or the environmental movement.  The struggle both within and without the party was to create and maintain a coalition of people who wanted to build,  in the words of Tommy Douglas, “a new Jerusalem”.    This was not easy because there were so many different and passionate views.  These were views of and from the left – socialist, not corporate – divergent on many issues but sharing a faith that good government served the interests of all of members of society, not just the rich, and anyone who believed in the possibility of a just and fair community (ie one which respected the rights of all people etc and the environment) were welcome to join.

The NDP was a coalition.  As successor to the Canadian Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the NDP retained in parts of Canada a Christian (largely United Church of Canada) hue.  In the formation of the NDP, the priorites of the union movement were welded onto the CCF platform of equality for women and Christian regard for the poor and sick. The leadership of the CCF had always included women and Tommy Douglas as leader of the CCF had been instrumental in estblishing the single payer health scheme in Canada.  In 1970 Douglas and other members of the NDP voted again the imposition of the War Measures Act.  The NDP were long anti-war and the  party’s opposition to Canada’s membership of NORAD and NATO were long standing.  Members of the NDP even referred to themselves as socialists.

During the 1980’s the NDP lost several key provincial elections.  It became clear that BC would not escape the neo Liberal political tide. Elected after 16 years in opposition, the NDP government during the 1990’s struggled to prove that it was not a revolutionary or even radical party of change – but rather it was a competent manager of the economy as it was.  Big projects were out and good government was in.  But the standard for ‘good government’ was the economy – competence was measured by the business community. Carried by the neo Liberal economic tide and a deep desire for public approval (good polling data), the NDP moved to the centre of the political spectrum.  Unfortunately for the party, the business community (ie the right wing) were never going to vote for them and by leaving the aspirations of supporters at the door, the party destroyed its base.  Defeated in 2000,  took ten years to rebuild.  The election in 2013, like the election in 1983, was another turning point.  By 2017 the NDP had re-invigorated its base, energized the young and was ready to govern.

Sadly, it is now clear that the NDP had lied repeatedly during the last election.  With hindsight the lies seem so obvious, but the party argues that they were not lies, but  policy.   Party policy was open to interpretation.  Set out in a context of the NDP as the historic party – the party of the working class, the party of social justice and environmental action – supporters were willing to accept vague statements on key issues such as Site C, as commitments.  And some, like me, simply believed that an NDP would do the right thing.  We might not be able to rely on the party technocrats, but surely we could rely on the promises of our elected members.  How could such good people be part of a government which approved Site C and the Liberal LNG nightmare?   And why wouldn’t a government elected with the support of the union movement refuse to advance worker’s rights or reform the WCB.  Surely a government of the left would support electoral reform, address serious issues of fee for service in the health program and of access to justice.  But no.

Relying on reputation, a grand coalition of left wing movements, the NDP managed to get elected, albeit with support from the Greens.  The subsequent approval of Site C, the endorsement of the LNG program, the failure to campaign for electoral reform, the refusal to address issues at the WCB – all indicate that the platform was misleading.  The NDP could have simply stated  – “We will do what the Liberals are doing, but we will be nicer.  And if we can, we may even address some social issues.”

The result – the government is a bit nicer, although as time goes on people will forget how mean the Liberals were and begin to complain about the NDP as well.  The government may be less corrupt – issues with money laundering and casinos are being addressed.  Schools seem to have more teachers and so on.  But again, the objective is good government as defined and determined by the business community.  No structural or systemic reform which might displease the capitalist class are going to be risked.

The NDP was complicated once but now it is quite simple – do whatever is necessary to win the next election.  Betray your supporters, if necessary, because if you want to win, you need not just supporters but right wing people as well.   The problem for the party is that having betrayed so many of their supporters one time too many – they have destroyed the party.   The proud and noisy coalition of the left has died.

For me, it is sad – all that passion and work, for what?  Most people don’t care.  But they won’t know what they have lost because they have no idea that this New Jeruselum was once possible.


The Harvey Weinstein Story – starring every woman

Soon it will be gone.  Another story, maybe a war or forest fire will grab the front pages.

Still, as Polly Toynbee and so many other women have pointed out, Weinstein is just another guy who finally got taken down. She wrote, “I guess that this week all women my age have been mentally re-running the bum-pinching, grabbing, intimidating humiliations from men in power of our youth.”  Susan Moore added, “The experience of sexual harassment is not a one-off; it is ongoing – as I wrote last week. It’s the backdrop to many women’s lives. We are numbed by it because to think about it all the time would immobilise us.”  And Zoe Williams linked the story to Brexit, Trump and misogyny.    Of course, men piled on.  No one, save maybe Woody Allen, tried to defend the guy in any way shape or form.

Given that so many women have for so long suffered harassment, in all of its forms and severity, the questions which should be asked are  “Why Weinstein?”  and “Why now?”  What did he do that a guy like Trump didn’t do? Did he annoy some drug dealer or other powerful guy?  Or was it political, his financial support of the Democrats or women’s projects lead to his outing?  Or maybe it was personal?  He felt badly and tried to excuse his behaviour when confronted etc.  Certainly Trump didn’t seem to suffer any embarrassment from being shown to be a sexual predator.

The term sexual harassment is a bit distracting as the activity is more about power than sex.  Sex does often come into it – but most of the time it is about men using their power to abuse women in any way they can.  Sex makes the stories titillating but women usually look bad (cheap, stupid, naive, or worse) in  such tales.  So talking about sexual harassment without talking about power, who has it and how they use it, is fun, but not helpful.

The problem is misogyny. While there are many more women in the public realm than there were 40 years ago, the equality of women with men remains an idea which is not universally accepted.  Many people believe, perhaps unconsciously, that females are, quite simply, an inferior lesser form of human being to males. And it is a matter of belief.  The equality between any two people, whether male or female, cannot ever be ‘scientifically proven’.  And men still ‘run’ the world. Most countries are ruled by men, most armies are staffed by men, and nearly all sports are dominated by men – some men run and jump faster and further than any women. And most corporations are ruled by men and for men.  Very few CEOs are women.  The wage gap may be narrowing but that may be more about male workers being paid less, than female workers being paid more.  The brutal reality is that in the world as it is, women are not the equal of men.  Equal treatment is even seen at times as pandering to political interests.  Even in the west,  demand for equal respect is often belittled, labeled political correctness  Many, including many women, believe that men are more capable than women and the desire to treat women as equals is like being nice – not necessary when the going gets tough.  Putting down women is ingrained in our culture…  just look at honourifics – an honoured man is a Knight and a woman a Dame; a university degree is a ‘bachelor’ not a ‘mistriess’.   It is an insult to ’throw like a girl’ and so on….

It helps to listen to women talk publicly about their experiences with men because the stories reveal the insidious and ubiquitous quality of misogyny.  But to say that anything will change is to ask a lot.  Things can change but it would require men to publicly call out other men for their bad behaviour. And maybe this is what happened to Harvey Weinstein.  Did he make the mistake of harassing the daughter, wife or mother of someone even more powerful than he, who wasn’t prepared to accept his behaviour?   Or did he call the bluff of someone trying to black mail him?   Or was the male journalist who broke the story better than female journalist who tried to write about the guy a few years earlier?

Writing this reminds me of an email I sent to a journalist who was defending two male colleagues who had been fired for inappropriate comments to a young girl – on air. The two journalist were both well known left wing political commentators who were discussing the “Roast Buster’s Affair” – a tale of young men getting younger girls drunk in order to have sex and to take and post photos of the event on line.

November 2013 – outdated views?

To quote – “Against the rage of that pernicious culture’s opponents “the finer points of freedom” didn’t stand a chance. Willie and JT may be proud (some would say arrogant) men with an outdated and utterly insufficient grasp of the meaning and pain of Rape (and of how very easy it is to rekindle that pain through insensitivity and doubt) but they did not deserve what happened to them. There are better ways to correct ignorance; other ways to humble pride.” – Article by Chris Trotter published in the Daily Blog.  See more at:

What harm did these men suffer?  They lost a platform for their views – a radio show on which their ignorance could be made public and where, if not corrected, would help shape public opinion.  What harm did the young woman suffer?  Perhaps none as she didn’t have a public platform and her views were simply fodder or background noise against which the wit and wisdom of JT and Willey could be revealed.

These men were not jailed or stoned for their views.  In some places in this world women who are raped are jailed and stoned.

I suppose it is radical to suggest that women do not have equal voice in this society.   I condemn myself as a ‘feminist” when I ask when will the finer points of the freedom men enjoy be shared by women?  You could point to Helen Clark and say, “See.  Women are equal.”  Sure elite women seem to survive even thrive.  But how deep or enduring is this “equality”?  How many women only radio talk shows do you know of?

Can one ask the tough questions and get genuine answers?  What do men believe about rape?  Women set the tone…  men simply follow?  Consent is circumstantial –  implied by context?   Or simply, that rape is complicated?   And Willie and JT are simply confused about the right words to use?

Perhaps the confusion arises because it is very hard for women to talk about rape even with other women – once the issue becomes their own experience.  I know.  But it is only my own experience, anecdotal, unscientific.  No reason for anyone to believe me.  So I too remain silent.

And then maybe women just need to harden up – be able, like JT and Wille, to see rape as a bit of mischief.

So you, as a good man,  have stood up for for the rights of other good men.  You have used your public platform to be kind to your friends.  Good men do that – they stand by their mates.  Women see it all the time, even when the good mates have done something dodgy…

I accept that you believe that these men deserve better.  But I remember your column about Helen Clark in 2008.  You mourned the fact that the ‘lads’  had won.  And so, I ask you – is it any surprise that one of the lads so keen to see her go was JT?  She was after all a “front bump”… and while he may no longer refer to women publicly as front bumps, I am not sure that his views on women have changed.

You think that he should continue to be given a public platform – to say exactly what?