Monday, May 4, 2015

What is this thing called DYSTOPIA then? My thoughts on it...

I'm currently Writer in Residence at Waikato University and have been asked to do a lecture or two. One of the courses looks specifically at dystopias and I thought I would post the lecture I gave here for those interested.
I’m primarily a writer of novels, currently working on my tenth. My background is as a teacher, although I have worked as a researcher for other writers, a tutor in novel writing (my current job) and for four years worked as a non fiction resource writer for an organisation called the Global Education Centre, tasked with the grand mission statement of ‘Change for a just world.’ Sadly now disestablished with the election of the National Government, during those four years I researched in-depth, and wrote about, all the world’s most pressing global issues, with a particular eye to the human rights impacts and frameworks, social justice issues, and an examination of who holds the power and how that power is being used.

These topic included the politics and effects of climate change, colonisation, illegal trafficking of people, animals and drugs, violence against women, monetary systems, non-violent resistance, refugee issues, corporations, pharmaceutical companies, the music of resistance, cultural identity, racism …. You name it! It also involved presenting possible actions that could be taken by individuals  to improve these situations. It was the perfect job for me – I am, by nature, a wholly political person, and I have strongly held beliefs about the need for greater transparency, compassion and generosity in all human dealings.
Eight of my novels to date have been for a crossover YA/adult audience – I like to target YA readers because I feel so strongly about these political, emotional and social justice/human rights issues that I use my writing as an opportunity to open dialogue with young people about the issues raised in them.

Four of these novels have been called ‘dystopian’, although to my mind I was writing what is called ‘speculative’ fiction – in other words, taking a set of issues/factors and projecting the possible consequences of such actions and ideologies to their most extreme possible conclusions, in order to investigate the consequences and complexities that arise.
Three of these novels form my Blood of the Lamb trilogy (you can see the dedicated page on this website here), set in the Pacific several generations in the future after an apocalyptic event that, although only briefly touched on in the books, is the result of a catastrophic event triggered by extreme solar flares – which, apparently, would have a similar effect to nuclear bombs going off all over the world. All communication systems down; oil pipes exploding; massive climate and magnetic driven storms; dangerously high levels of solar radiation; crop, animal and fish stocks destroyed, mutated and so damaged as to render them useless. Billions would be blinded, injured, frazzled or die. This is not just summonsed up out of my imagination – this scenario is the result of careful in-depth research, much of it from NASA.

Why is it so important, and so common, for some kind of apocalyptic event to have either occurred before the start of a dystopian fiction, or to work as the inciting incident of one? I can’t speak for others, but, in my case it provided me with the opportunity to create a world free of technology, isolated from other influences, in an alternative story world where several variables have arisen that produce a very specific set of circumstances which I, as the evil master-manipulator of the story, can now use to my advantage! I suspect this is case for most writers who take this tack. It is a bit like Darwin’s finches, in that if isolated from all other members of the species, in a distinct set of circumstances, unique conditions arise that impact on the inhabitants.
So what is the story of this particular dystopian world, and what lies behind its creation? Here are the book blurbs to give you a little idea of what can be found in each book.
Book One: The Crossing The people of Onewere, a small island in the Pacific, know that they are special - chosen to survive the deadly event that consumed the Earth. Now, from the rotting cruise ship Star of the Sea, the elite control the population - manipulating old texts to set themselves up as living 'gods'. But what the people of Onewere don't know is this: the leaders will stop at nothing to meet their own blood-thirsty needs…

When Maryam crosses from child to woman, she must leave everything she has ever known and make a crossing of another kind. But life inside the ship is not as she had dreamed, and she is faced with the unthinkable: obey the leaders and very likely die, or turn her back on every belief she once held dear.
Book Two: Into the Wilderness Maryam, Ruth and Joseph have fled Onewere, reluctantly taking Joseph's troublesome cousin, Lazarus, as well. They arrive at their destination, Marawa Island, filled with hope for rescue and reprieve. But at first glance the island appears to be solely populated by birds... Perhaps the Apostle's dire warnings about the fall-out of the Tribulation were true after all.
Book Three: Resurrection Maryam fights for her life, freedom and love in this thrilling finale to the Blood of the Lamb series. When Maryam arrives back at OnewÄ“re and tries to loosen the Apostles’ religious stranglehold by sharing the miraculous remedy for Te Matee Iai, she finds herself captured once again — prey to the Apostles’ deadly game. Somehow Maryam must get the islanders to listen to her plea that they start thinking for themselves — hoping to stir the independence in their hearts, even as she finds herself on the brink of death...
Stories as big and structurally complex as a trilogy rarely arrive fully formed! In my case there were four distinct prompts, and once I had identified that I wanted to use them for a book, it took some time for the story to emerge from the disparate parts. And by time I mean years! From first thinking of the initial prompt to writing the first book was probably three or four years.
The first of these prompts related to my work life. I’ve spent a number of years working as a mentor for the Whitireia writing programme, and one of the students I worked with for two years was a man in his late 60s called Luke, who was a charming indigenous Fijian, sadly now dead. He was writing a very strange, supposedly non-fiction account of a Fijian man called Apolosi Nawai, who Luke (and many others) believed was the Christ reborn – and his book included such details as Apolosi's ability to travel around on a beam of light, and Luke’s (supposed) first hand account of going to Heaven and also his retelling (within this weird context) of God’s making of the world and human beings. He was absolutely genuine in his beliefs (and quietly confident that as I read his book I would be converted! I was not!)

My research on his behalf confirmed that Apolosi Nawai was, indeed, a real person (long dead, although Luke believed he had been resurrected), and that he had been a thorn in the side of the colonial government during the local uprisings in the 1930s around the sugar plantations in Fiji. Nawai was arrested and detained on a prison island under the “Dissaffected Natives Act” twice, the second time dying there. He seems to have created the myth around himself. As well as being a local hero for the indigenous workers (and a bit of a rat-bag from all accounts!), it was he who first claimed he was the Christ reborn – and I was later to visit Fiji and talk to others who confirmed that Luke was not alone in his belief in Nawai’s supernatural powers and status.
So, this was my first introduction to what is commonly known as a cargo cult. According to Professor Ton Otto, “cargo cults are marked by a number of common characteristics, including a "myth-dream" that is a synthesis of indigenous and foreign elements; the expectation of help from the ancestors; charismatic leaders; and lastly, belief in the appearance of an abundance of goods.” In other words, they ‘often develop during a combination of crises. Under conditions of social stress, such a movement may form under the leadership of a charismatic figure. This leader may have a "vision" (or "myth-dream") of the future, often linked to an ancestral efficacy ("mana") thought to be recoverable by a return to traditional morality. This leader may characterize the present state (often imposed by colonial capitalist regimes) as a dismantling of the old social order, meaning that social hierarchy and ego boundaries have been broken down.' [1] The John Frumm cult, on Tanna Island in Vanuatu is one such an example. It’s a fascinating subject.

I’m sure, knowing this, you can see the connections between the nature of cargo cults and the background world of my story. What really fascinated me was how someone of good intellect could fall so deeply for a premise which to me, anyway, seemed totally unbelievable. And, as a writer, it is often from some question I have posed to myself (i.e. how can someone really believe this?!) that a story idea forms.

Related to this was the second strand of influence into the story idea, and that is about the nature of belief itself. I was not raised in a religious environment and, apart from a 6 month dabble about the age of 10, I have never really ‘got’ religion. (I hope I don’t offend anyone by stating this – just trying to tell you the truth.) I have a dear friend who told me that when she decided to take Jesus into her heart, she made the decision that if she was going to believe that part, she had to believe it all. Therefore she was rejecting the theory of evolution in favour of the Bible version. I just don’t get this. Yet I can see how faith has helped many people I know cope with horrendous difficulties in their lives and I have no issue with that – whatever helps us get through the hard times can’t be a bad thing.

And it seems that we, as human beings, have some kind of innate wiring that prompts us to look for bigger meaning and to believe in some kind of ‘supernatural’ entity – whether the God of the mainstream religions, or the God of cargo cults, or new age spirituality, or the pagan gods of Europe, the culturally indigenous gods, Gaia, aliens, lizard men posing as our world’s most powerful leaders… Why is it we need this, and what does it say about us? I find such questions fascinating, and wanted to explore them within the context of this story.

And, then, of course, there is the history of the various religions, and the evil, the control, and wealth accumulation that has been perpetrated in religion's name. I see this as hypocritical at best, and criminal at worst. This has more to do with the STRUCTURES built around of religion – a particular religion as corporate entity if you will, and not the essential nature of faith. I wanted to also tie the themes to the on-going atrocities we currently see being committed in the name of ‘religion’ – this dreadful them vs us, Muslim vs Christian, Jew vs Gentile vs Palestinian mentality, on and on… each side claiming the moral high ground and manipulating their core religious texts to serve their needs. Hence my Apostles of the Lamb were born.

There were two other disparate ideas that built on this – and this one is really random, so bear with me! I’m a vegetarian – I made a decision a long time ago that I would never eat what I wasn’t prepared to kill with my bare hands (reason being I think we need to be cognoscente of all our decisions, not hide behind the sanitised glad-wrapped meat packs in the supermarket, for instance.) This leaves me pretty much unable to eat any flesh (although I do eat fish at a pinch, coz I reckon if I was really desperate I could probably stretch to this – and I mean REALLY desperate – I catch bloody flies and release them I’m such a wimp!)

So here’s what I was thinking one day … I think it’s a strange thing how perfectly decent people can raise an animal from birth, nurture it and make sure it gets the best possible start in life, and then kill it and eat it. I figured that if I switched this around, and said that, okay, I’ve got these two gorgeous kids, I’ve nurtured them and made sure they get the best possible start in life – and now I’m going to kill and eat them … I don’t think that would go down so well. And then I thought, isn’t it also strange that we feel no guilt about stealing the milk from another mother’s breast – okay, so she’s a cow or goat or sheep or llama (whatever!) but it’s still essentially what we’re doing – and, again, how would you feel if you’d just had your baby, and I pop in twice a day and steal its milk from your breasts to put into my cup of tea? I know, I’m strange – I’m sure you’re starting to realise this by now! Anyway, THAT got me thinking about blood, and how we also essentially milk people of blood – our vital life source. And what if this ‘milking’ of blood was used to keep alive one privileged group at the expense of another… and so here we have the breeder/bleeder theme of the trilogy. Not so crazy actually, when you look at the current illegal trafficking of human organs and other body parts.

Issues around power and control form the final thread. This is a theme that came up EVERY time I wrote a resource for the GEC. In every situation where there is unjustness or conflict, there is an imbalance of power and control – and over time those who are oppressed often so absorb the powerful's spin on this, that they become, essentially, brainwashed and willing victims, their identities and self-esteem (and hope) so repressed that they feel too disempowered to fight. It’s like battered wife syndrome on a larger scale.
I think, again, the extremes of religious fundamentalism give us some fairly scary examples of this – but also consider racial oppression, gender oppression, political oppression, economic oppression, cultural oppression… in every case the oppressors rewrite history to justify their actions and their means. (As an aside, don't think that kind of historical retelling doesn't happen here. On Waitangi Day our PM declared we had a 'peaceful' colonisation of Maori here - total tosh.)
So this focus on issues of power and control underpins the core themes of the trilogy (and, actually, everything I write) – and in the trilogy in particular, issues around oppression of women, of faithful populations, of indigenous people, of refugees. And in the second and third books, I used as my template the treatment of refugees held on Nauru – one of our closest and most current examples of blatant racism and power and control gone berserk.
The thing about so called dystopian or speculative or science fiction, or fantasy (or whatever you want to call it) is – I think -  that, no matter how far-fetched the scenario, the core issues are solidly grounded on what’s really going on, or has gone on in the past, or is the terrifying extension of what is going on now. None of the issues I wrote about in the trilogy are so fictional that they’ve never occurred – not even the blood stealing of the Chosen sisters – who, I didn’t find out until I’d finished the books, mirror almost exactly a practice from Mayan culture.

My starting point of my book The Nature Of Ash, a speculative political thriller, also described a dystopian, was my utter disgust and concern about the secret negotiations of the Trans Pacific Partnership and the serious loss of sovereignty we will suffer if it is signed. It’s a truly evil threat to life as we currently know it – and I wish I was exaggerating. I married this together with the situation that we (i.e. NZ) are increasingly finding ourselves in (and, actually, even more so since I wrote the book) – and that’s becoming stuck between the power and resource needs of two competing superpowers – the US and China, leading to NZers becoming disenfranchised from the land and becoming dispensable job fodder for overseas super-corporations.
I contacted Dr Paul Buchannan (who, for those of you who don’t know, is a former intelligence and defence policy analyst and consultant to US government security agencies, who specializes in matters of comparative and international politics and security.) I said, look I’ve writing this book, and have come up with this slightly weird scenario, and I need an inciting incident that isn’t too farfetched and gave him my possible ideas. He came back to me and said that it wasn’t far-fetched – in fact is eminently possible, and he suggested the opening scenario, which he believes is a distinct possibly, which opens us up to having a proxy war between the US and China fought over the top of us, here on NZ soil. Sounds pretty damn dystopian – but this is a possible future – a speculated possible future – and one that is not without significance evidence of a lean in that direction.
It’s a book about empowerment – about the need for ordinary people to stand up for truth and justice and human rights. About raising our voices and speaking out (and, incidentally, it's also about our attitudes to disability, with a significant character who has Down Syndrome.) In fact, I’m now considering a sequel, because this whole issue of mass surveillance, and our government’s ability to tell brazen-faced lies and get away with it, while stifling all dissenting voices, is something that I feel I can’t ignore, and is a natural extension of this particular story.   (that’s now in the line, after the one I’m working on now.)

To me, dystopias are always about the characters fighting their very worst fears – whether disease, war, oppression, climate, violence, lack of resources, reality shows gone mad, or themselves – and the threat revolves around who or what is holding all the power – and how they are wielding it. They’re usually about a character fighting to regain some of that power, or to find the inner power to fight back. And they are mostly always political – because, in fact, EVERYTHING IS POLITICAL! How we structure our systems and lives is political, how we behave towards each other and other groups is defined by politics. The art of politics is all about control, regulation and manipulation of human behaviour and resources.
Dystopia allows a writer to take a consequence to its most extreme possible conclusion – in the Blood of the Lamb trilogy, for instance, it’s about what happens when a group of vulnerable people are confronted by complete catastrophe and then manipulated by a more powerful elite. In The Nature of Ash it’s about what happens if we keep going down this disastrous ideological track. As a writer, I don’t necessarily want you to agree with me (though, of course I'd like it!), but I sure as hell want you to think about the issues and to question your information sources, basic knowledge and core principles.  And as I said earlier, that’s my core reason for writing to a YA audience – it’s got a good crossover readership and allows me the opportunity to go into schools and start having some of these discussions. I encourage them to ask some simple questions to unravel situations, for instance: Who is holding the power here? How are they wielding it? Is it fair?

My twitter account describes me as ‘trying to save the world one book at a time’ – and while is a bit of a joke, it’s also deadly serious. I have kids and now a grandson – and I am deeply concerned for the world they’re inheriting. I consider it my responsibility to engage in the political discourse, in order to attempt to bring us back into a more healthy, sustainable and equitable balance.

But there is, also, often a more positive side of dystopias (well, certainly for YA books), and that’s about empowerment, invoking stories of bravery, of standing up against the odds and fighting for the kinds of values that we hold up as the most valuable to a society. It allows us to face our deepest fears (often reflecting our projected fears for the future) as a REHEARSAL – engaging emotionally as a reader to imagine how WE would react in this given situation, what would be OUR bottom lines, OUR goals, OUR weakness and strengths. And, sometimes, it is the only safe way to speak about a situation… fiction allows us disguise the real beneath a mask – and if you are living in a society where it is not safe to speak out on political issues (or sexual issues or gender or anything that is deemed as controversial to that group at that time) then this thin veneer of ‘fiction’ enables people to have a voice and a coded conversation.
It’s also true, with YA dystopian fiction, that there’s an element of Gothic teenage angst at play as well! These kinds of stories appeal to the darkness of the teenage mind – a darkness created from the realisation that not all is perfect, when the blinkers of childhood are removed and we’re suddenly faced with this incredibly complex scary world and now expected to be part of it. And I’m not sure that this is particularly different for an adult audience – I think the same fears and desires for reassurance are at play.

(When I gave this lecture I was asked if I thought dystopias should end on a note of 'hope'. I've thought about this since then, and I think for me - apart from the fact that I think for a YA audience we have some responsibility to take the psychological care of our readers into account and leave them in a safe space - I realised afterwards that I always write in some form of hope at the end of my novels, not so much for any moral or social reason, but because I also write for myself - and I find the world worrying enough and have to actively search out hope so I don't sink into despair! Therefore I end on hope in order to buoy myself as much as anyone!)

I truly do believe that fiction is one of the most powerful art forms, for it has the ability to tap right into the middle of our hearts and minds, creating a world that our imagination fleshes out with all our own unique subconscious references and motifs. It can create empathy, place us at the heart of a drama, help us understand ourselves. I was raised by very socially conscious parents – and one of the most significant things they did for me as a child was to provide lots and lots and lots of books, of all sorts, from a very early age.
I come with the Dr Seuss stamp of social conscience – Horton the elephant telling me ‘a person’s a person no matter how small’, Yertle the turtle treading on all his fellow turtles to reach the top only to come a cropper, the star-bellied Sneeches teaching me about racism and fear of difference – and as I got older, George Orwell’s 1984 had a huge impact on me, as did his Animal Farm. I read science fiction such as the deep politics of Frank Herbert’s Dune world, Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant attacks on war, weaponry and hypocrisy, Graham Green’s jabs at religion, All Quiet on the Western Front, Erewhon, To Kill a Mockingbird, In Cold Blood … and later Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors, all books that stare into the face of human darkness and frailty and question our ethical core.
I think these are important types of books to make accessible – and I think any dystopia that brings this kind of critical examination of our world is performing a vital role. Vampires and Zombies? Neh, not so much.



[1] Worley, Peter

Monday, April 27, 2015

Links to latest posts elsewhere!

As I've been working away getting a start on my new book, I've written a couple of posts for other blogs - so here are the links for those interested.

Ponytails, minimisation and male privilege  over at The Standard


Not Peace But War for 34 Countries  - a post about the Disneyfication of Anzac Day over at
Kapiti Independent News

That's all folks!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A calculated feeding of the beast within

(I'm having a technologically challenged day - forgive the weird html stuff - no time or skill to sort right now!)
There was a piece written in The Guardian last year by Paul Verhaeghe about the way that Neoliberalism has shaped current behaviours, titled Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us. It touched on something I have been thinking a lot about lately: how the social democracy of my youth has so radically collapsed into our current culture of individualism, privatisation and personal greed.

Now hold on! Don’t get uppity at my use of the word ‘social’ (as in ‘socialism.’) For the record, I’m not a Socialist, Communist, Marxist or Anything-else-ist (not even, as one commenter on my post The Hypocrisy of Hate claimed, ‘Hard Right’, whatever the hell that is supposed to mean!) I’m merely using the word as a signifier for the kind of Keynesian-style economic policies that enabled the building of state houses and other communally beneficial assets, free and universal multi-tiered education and healthcare, affordable utilities, supporting local businesses and industry, full employment – in fact, the kind of supportive social environment that we used to hold up as a marker of ‘civilisation’ (i.e. a society’s ability to care for its most vulnerable.)

Whoa again! I’m certainly not saying that it was perfect! In fact, it was structurally racist and unfair for Maori and for other so-called ‘minority’ groups. Still is. But what it underlined and encouraged, I believe, in most ordinary people, was a belief that we were all in this together, and that we should place people’s needs and human rights at the centre of our decision making. We grew up believing everyone had a right to share the riches of the country: to own a home, to go to school with food in our bellies and shoes on our feet. In fact, we prided ourselves for this, even if the reality didn’t always live up to the hype. But underlying it all was an ethos of generosity and compassion. Of community. Of general goodwill.

These were the values I was raised with, as I’m sure were most of you. We were taught to share. Taught to tell the truth. To help the needy. That worker’s rights deserved protecting. That our environment was precious. That war was destructive and hideous; never to be repeated. Taught that those whom we democratically elected were there to act on our behalf for the greater good. (Ah, the good old 1960s, all that love and peace!)

Now fast-forward through the upheaval of the 1980s, to the current cultural climate we are living with today. Verhaeghe’s thesis is that the kinds of behaviour privileged in “meritocratic neoliberalism favours certain personality traits and penalises others.”  

“There are certain ideal characteristics needed to make a career today. The first is articulateness, the aim being to win over as many people as possible. Contact can be superficial, but since this applies to most human interaction nowadays, this won’t really be noticed.

It’s important to be able to talk up your own capacities as much as you can – you know a lot of people, you’ve got plenty of experience under your belt and you recently completed a major project. Later, people will find out that this was mostly hot air, but the fact that they were initially fooled is down to another personality trait: you can lie convincingly and feel little guilt. That’s why you never take responsibility for your own behaviour.

On top of all this, you are flexible and impulsive, always on the lookout for new stimuli and challenges. In practice, this leads to risky behaviour, but never mind, it won’t be you who has to pick up the pieces[1]. The source of inspiration for this list? The psychopathy checklist by Robert Hare, the best-known specialist on psychopathy today. “

Okay, let’s deal straight away with the first obvious distracting argument that might erupt: namely, that NZ under our current government cannot be labelled as ‘neoliberal’.  Bryce Edwards quoted several refutations of this recently in his excellent summary of the ludicrous response to Eleanor Catton’s comments (The Politics of Eleanor Catton and Public Debate) However, in general terms I think it’s fair to say that we have moved from a more Keynesian-style ‘cradle to grave’ approach to what the British Dictionary describes as: neoliberalism: a modern politico-economic theory favouring free trade, privatization, minimal government intervention in business, reduced public expenditure on social services, etc.  (If you don’t like this definition try: Investopedia for a more business-minded approach or Corpwatch for a more left-leaning view or our own Chris Trotter giving it a more feminist spin or good old democratic Wikipedia!)

We saw the first real shifts, of course, during the Labour Govt’s dramatic U-turn in the 1980s, under arch-ACTor Roger Douglas. And by the early 1990s we were hearing social policy referred to deridingly as the ‘nanny state,’ despite the fact that governments have always been in the business of legislating around ‘best’ behaviour ( voting equity, 5 o’clock closing, milk in schools, swimming pools in schools to promote water safety[2], domestic purposes benefit[3] , recognising and criminalising rape in marriage, free vaccinations etc etc.) – and, despite the fact that this current National Government (many of whom who used the accusation of the ‘nanny state’ as a major weapon against the Clark Govt) continues to legislate similarly socially-engineered policies, such as pegging certain behaviours to welfare benefits, the banning of party pills and synthetic cannabis, adjustments to blood/alcohol limits, new work and safety measures etc. yet fails to see the irony (or hypocrisy) in this at all.

While we have seen some gains at the edges of social policy (think: the miraculous vanishing acts of hospital waiting lists before each election) the overall well-being of the majority in the country has taken a slide, despite the claims that a free and open market will benefit us all by ‘trickling down.’. A fascinating paper on the history of Social Policy (Social Policy History: Forty Years on, Forty Years Back,[4] concludes:

“The needs of families with children are treated residually, particularly if they are dependent on the state. It is not a coincidence that a high proportion of these families are socially, economically at the margins and Maori or Pasifica. A much higher level of inequality has not only become politically acceptable, attempts to close social and economic gaps pose clear political risks to government.”

In Bryce Edward’s article, economist Brian Easton argues that he doesn’t think “we have a 'neoliberal' government . . .  In fact this government is  . . . a business-oriented one. Business took on a neoliberal stance in the Rogernomic unwinding of the economic regime which Muldoon represented. But they don't any longer. Rather they actively use the government to pursue their interests. The Sky City deal was not neoliberal.' ” Eh?

Certainly, I don’t think it’s as simple as that.  As Verhaeghe points out, with regards to business focused governments such as National, their main preoccupations are always going to be how to “extract more profit from the situation than your competition.” It’s an attitude. A value. A belief in profit above all else.

National knows it daren’t cut funding for social or artistic supports completely (its parsimonious and reluctant handouts the main argument flaunted by those who insist that the Nats are not ideologically driven by neo-liberal theory – see David Farrar’s piece in The Herald .) They know the outcry would be deafening. Instead, they chip away at it through sleight of hand . . . a tweak of the criteria here, a ‘consolidation’ of resources there. Like death from a thousand tiny cuts they undermine the support systems and push the load over to the already cash-strapped community providers, shifting the blame when these structures become so undermined they eventually fail.  With all the slickness of Marine Le Pen’s PR campaign in France to rehabilitate Fascism, they present a sympathetic shark smile, distributing a few stale lollies to the masses while they knife us in the back.

I admit upfront I’m not an economic expert or a social policy analyst[5], but as a writer it’s my job to closely observe what is going on around me and to hone in on the complexities and vagaries of human behaviour.  This is where my observations and thoughts begin to resonate with the underlying theme of Verhaeghe’s article.  What I see is a growing lack of empathy, a rise in bullying behaviour, not only in a work context, but also in the population at large – and, as recent times have shown us, against those with the audacity to dare speak out.  There’s been a steady creep in our values – in the kind of behaviours and endeavours we celebrate in our role models. Yes, of course, we’ve always been swayed by the flash of money, no doubt of that. But it now seems that the cut-throat accumulation of wealth is hailed as the apex of human endeavour – the highest possible attainable attribute – and that end goal somehow forgives the abysmally self-interested behaviour deployed in order to attain it. As Verhaeghe points out:

 “Bullying used to be confined to schools; now it is a common feature of the workplace. This is a typical symptom of the impotent venting their frustration on the weak – in psychology it’s known as displaced aggression. There is a buried sense of fear, ranging from performance anxiety to a broader social fear of the threatening other . . .

Constant evaluations at work cause a decline in autonomy and a growing dependence on external, often shifting, norms. This results in what the sociologist Richard Sennett has aptly described as the “infantilisation of the workers”. Adults display childish outbursts of temper and are jealous about trivialities (“She got a new office chair and I didn’t”), tell white lies, resort to deceit, delight in the downfall of others and cherish petty feelings of revenge. This is the consequence of a system that prevents people from thinking independently and that fails to treat employees as adults.

Our society constantly proclaims that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough, all the while reinforcing privilege and putting increasing pressure on its overstretched and exhausted citizens. An increasing number of people fail, feeling humiliated, guilty and ashamed. We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited. Furthermore, those who fail are deemed to be losers or scroungers, taking advantage of our social security system.

A neoliberal meritocracy would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual and authorities should give people as much freedom as possible to achieve this goal. For those who believe in the fairytale of unrestricted choice, self-government and self-management are the pre-eminent political messages, especially if they appear to promise freedom. Along with the idea of the perfectible individual, the freedom we perceive ourselves as having in the west is the greatest untruth of this day and age.

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman neatly summarised the paradox of our era as: “Never have we been so free. Never have we felt so powerless.” “

It is this sense of powerless, I think, which now manifests itself as mouth-frothing anger; the kind of anger that fuels groups of young people to chant out “fuck John Key” and send many of us to Twitter and other social media, needing to gnash our teeth. What they see is their future being stolen away: housing, education, employment, hope . . . and beneath it all a steady eroding of people’s self-respect, because the culture that has been fostered by neo-liberal ideology is to blame the victim, to despise anyone who does not fit the narrow ‘business’ focussed criteria of a self-made man.

 “Our presumed freedom is tied to one central condition: we must be successful – that is, “make” something of ourselves.” 

There’s a reason that we’ve heard John Key tell his state-house-to-millionaire fairy-tale ad nauseum (especially around election times.) It is part of the common myth fabricated by the rich; the carrot on the stick that serves to keep the workers questing for the riches of the kings. But the rules of this mythic world are very one-dimensional. Money equals power, full-bloody-stop.

Where is the place of arts in all this? It’s hard to believe that a Prime Minster who refers to our very own Booker Prize winner as ‘a fictional writer’ cares much about the arts or intellectual debate, or sees any valid reason for their pursuit at all (in fact, you’d  be excused for thinking Key was channelling that spoonerising genius George W Bush.) Yet the irony, and the deep frustration, is that it is often only through the pursuit and practice of arts that we know so much about previous centuries and generations – often one of the only ways – learning from the art and literature left behind. 

But there’s no place for arts or intellectuals in this neo-liberal Utopia, it gives rise to too many awkward  questions, worships at the shrine of higher values that makes profit for profit’s sake seem greedy, selfish, even (quelle horreur) small. Instead, the masses are encouraged to fill their heads with trivia, feed the beasts inside ourselves. Look at the average programming on free to air TV: out with any commentary or documentary exploration, in with crime shows (murder, blood, betrayal  and mayhem), bullying reality shows, pre-fabricated celebrities. Mean, ugly, dark, dark, dark. It suits those at the top to keep us distracted by dreams of short-lived notoriety and easy gains. It suits them even better to keep us in a trumped-up perpetual state of fear.

This is what I see as I look around each day. This is what Verhaeghe sees. Not that human beings are incapable of living peaceful, supportive communal lives (I hate the cynicism of nay-sayers who claim we can’t rise above our animal instincts), but that through cynical manipulation we are encouraged to live shallowly, selfishly, devoid of compassion for our neighbours and suspicious of everyone else.

“There are constant laments about the so-called loss of norms and values in our culture. Yet our norms and values make up an integral and essential part of our identity. So they cannot be lost, only changed. And that is precisely what has happened: a changed economy reflects changed ethics and brings about changed identity. The current economic system is bringing out the worst in us.”

Whew ! Amen.

[1] Remind you of anyone? That fellow with the mansion in Hawaii perhaps?
[2] As an aside, what a shame government has seen fit to close so many of these down as a cost saving measure, while our drowning rates are now reaching epidemic proportions
[3] one of the most important breakthroughs for NZ women EVER
[4] presented by  Massey University’s Michael Belgrade at the  “Affording our Future” Conference, Wellington, 10-11 December 2012
[5] Here you go, trolls, the perfect quote to jump upon!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Hypocrisy of Hate

(NB: I wrote this originally for The Standard)

Last night I sat down to watch the TV news. First up was an horrific item about the slaughtering of over 2000 innocents in Nigeria by BokoHaram.  The reporting of it lasted approximately 1 minute, with no commentary other than the item itself. Next up came the coverage about the ‘terrorist’ attacks in France, the news item lasting a good 10 minutes, with numerous external commentators putting in their two cents worth about the senseless shooting of 17 people.

Now, I don’t want to down play how awful the attacks in Paris were, but I do think that the coverage of these two tragedies says a lot about the huge divides between the peoples of the world. We seem unable to view our fellow human beings without categorising them and ranking them in importance. 

For a start, coverage of disasters in Africa (and other developing countries/continents) are always covered with less naval gazing and hand wringing than in Western (read ‘predominantly white’) countries (think Ebola, which only got coverage because the West were scared it would spread) – so there’s a racial/cultural element at play in where we are supposed to place our sympathies and loyalties – playing to the tribalism of our natures. Then there is the economic/‘developed’ divide, again always framed by our politicians and mainstream media as a ‘them/us’ issue. There’s also the male/female dichotomy – a divide that is always a subset of every other issue. And, lastly, of course, is the religious divide – where fundamentalists on both sides have drawn boundary lines around their beliefs and are willing to police these boundaries with militant fanaticism. 

On a smaller scale, we also have the divide between the so-called Right and Left (often merely fancy-dress terms for the Haves and Nots, either economically or in terms of wielding power.) Nowhere is this more evident than the Twitterverse, where bile is distilled into 140 characters and spewed across the ‘opposition’ like lethal poisoned darts. Comments on blogs offer another fertile outlet for articulating this putrid bile. We even enshrine it into our political system, by allowing those who govern us to play an adult version of school-boy bullying in Parliament’s debating chamber.
What sits beneath all this posturing and divisiveness is an unhealthy appetite for hate, fed by fear of the ‘other’. And ignorance. And a determination by those who hold the power not to let it go. Oh, we can dress it up – say that it’s an issue of free speech or freedom of expression – but the truth is that acts which incite the silo-isation of certain members of a community are bred in the cesspool of suspicion and selfishness.

Let’s look at the Paris attacks as an example. Of course I don’t think people should be slayed for drawing a cartoon – but (and I feel defensive just writing this!) what did those cartoons really set out to achieve, other than a one-fingered salute to another’s dearly-held beliefs? If you know a certain group in a society has very strict rules around the depiction of their deity, and that any breaking of these is considered the very worst of offences, why would you do it? To what end? To prove that you are somehow above this kind of tribal law? To make some statement about cultural superiority? To show up hypocrisy? To lampoon faith just because you can?  

I once spent a very disturbing two and a half hours at the Jewish Museum in Vienna (the birthplace of my half-Jewish father) studying an exhibition of the Nazi propaganda used against the Jews in the 1930s and 40s. Cartoons and other gross caricatures made up the bulk of the attack. The images made me feel physically sick, not so much because I related to them as a person of Jewish ancestry (although it gave me much to think about on a personal level), but because the hate that spewed out of them was so visceral and ugly it was hard to believe that anyone could have looked upon them and not been appalled. But as politicians the world over have discovered, the first step towards the annihilation of another group is to demonise them, in order to absolve oneself of guilt. There’s none so overtly righteous as those who have climbed to their dominant position on the bleeding backs of others.

This righteousness is particularly galling, especially given the tensions of our current political times, when East vs West has morphed into Islam vs Christianity. In our predominantly pro-Christian/Jewish discourse, the Islamic fundamentalists are evil incarnate, with no right to be pushing their agendas onto other people. I agree with this, in as much as I agree that no one has the right to push their religious agenda onto anyone else. And herein lies the dilemma, for Christian fundamentalism has colonised and slaughtered on an equally ugly scale across the centuries and is, today, as outrageous in its rhetoric as the Islamic propagandists – and with equally repressive and controlling outcomes.

Look, for example, at the current Republican push in the US to eliminate Planned Parenthood funding permanently from the US health system, desiring to end (in the words of a recent petition attempting to stop it) ‘vital services for the 5 million women and men nationwide who depend on public family planning providers every year. Birth control. Cancer screening. STD testing. Prenatal care. GONE. It's especially heinous considering Planned Parenthood health centres are often the last resort for women seeking healthcare in low-income communities.’ [1]

Of course, a huge part of it is a push by the Christian anti-abortion lobby ( see New CongressionalBill Would De-Fund Planned Parenthood Abortion Business ) – a moral stance that forgets Christian doctrine is about one’s personal relationship with Jesus/God, one’s own conscience, and each person should have the right to choose their own path and make their own decisions, based on their own relationship with their religious beliefs and personal code of ethics. The fact that the US prides itself on the freedoms enshrined in their Constitution (and that the GOP harp on about this in relation to such issues as bearing arms, freedom of speech etc.) makes those who would withhold the right of women to choose their own reproductive behaviour hypocritical to the extreme.

I put it to you that if this had been reported as a proposal mooted by the Taliban, for instance, it would be viewed as the dangerous repression of women’s reproductive rights (and human rights) that it really is. But because it’s framed within the context of a supposed ‘civilised’ Christian country, it is somehow seen by huge swathes of the population (in the US at least) as acceptable – and desirable.
This is, of course, led by the Christian Right, who have worked tirelessly in the last few decades to increase their power and leverage in the US policy-making process. If you don’t believe me, watch the terrifying documentary “Jesus Camp for some of the more extreme ‘highlights’). Here you will see motivational pastors asking hyped up kids if they are ‘willing to give up their lives for Jesus” (much hand waving and hysterical crying), “we’re going to break the power of your enemies in government”, “we can’t sit back and accept corrupt govt; I believe God wants to put godly righteous people in government”, “take these prophesises and do what the apostle Paul said and make war with them” … 

The hysterical and carefully orchestrated scenes depicted in this documentary are no different from the clips of gun waving Islamic militants we are subjected to day after day on TV news programmes. But where we condemn the latter (and it fills us with fear) we either condone or ignore (albeit perhaps in a perplexed way) the same fanaticism in our own tribes. And where it causes real outbreaks of violence (it’s impossible not to mention Israel’s persecution of the Palestinian people here) we still don’t speak up against it very loudly if the perpetrators are seen to be on our ‘side’.

What I particularly hate is how this divisive thinking and fanatical propaganda has entered our local discourse as well. Our own government is using the rhetoric of ‘terrorism’ to legislate against our freedoms and democracy, and the same process of demonisation is at work, for they know (as Hitler so successfully demonstrated) that a society in fear of ‘enemies’ and imminent attack is a much more compliant population. They rush us towards conflict to brown-nose our allies, claiming it is for our own protection, when the very act makes it far more dangerous for us!

It feels like we’re slowly, mutely, marching towards a state of never-ending war. You’d think that with all the WW1 commemorations going on at the moment it would make us more vigilant about our freedom and security, not sleep-walking towards another Holy Crusade (in the name of the God of Money and Father of Fossil Fuels), seduced by slick liars and the gods of commercialism and greed. 

What is really frightening is that those at the top know, cynically, how good war is for business and bottom lines. Yes, the general populations will suffer most hideously, but businesses will prosper. The weapons industry is estimated at over 1.5 trillion US dollars annually worldwide (2.7% of World GDP)[2], then there are chemicals, uniforms, food, infrastructure… on and on. And, wouldn’t you know it? The world’s ten largest arms industry companies are all either US or European[3]. War is propping up their economies. War is their bread and butter. Their default mode.

With our Prime Minster, the (un)Honourable John Key, noted as saying after the Paris attacks that “[t]he targeting of journalists going about their daily work is an attack on the fourth estate and the democratic principles of freedom of speech and expression, which must be strongly condemned” (see the excellent John Key on Media Freedom) one would hope that he would champion the rights of people to express their concerns over Government moves to restrict our freedoms and privacy, and our involvement in overseas Crusades… (sorry, had to take a break here to recover from cynical laughing) … but it is now increasingly dangerous for ordinary citizens to speak out against those at the top. 

Deployment of internet trolls, designed to intimidate those who are vocal against such hypocrisies, is now deemed acceptable (‘Oh, everyone does it’), and the name-calling, mud-slinging, vitriolic slurs and abuse dealt out is the very kind of dehumanising behaviour that lies at the basis of all our troubles – the alienation of those who are suppressed by the moneyed power elite. This kind of behaviour is like the drip that, if ignored, turns into a tsunami of hate. The poison that kills over time. The wilful twisting of reality that turns ordinary people into the kind who will hand their neighbours over to the Brownshirts. 

That our leaders condone this casual hatred is distressing and worrying indeed. True leaders, visionary leaders (who care more about the people they are representing than their own bottom lines and power), rule through modelling ‘right’ behaviour. If we are now seeing a rise in hate speech, demonising of dissenters and outsiders, silo-isation and disengagement from serious political and ethical debate, then look first to the people who are at the top. They are our role models. They are the people gutting independent commentary. They are the ones undermining our democracy, and turning off whole younger generations to political engagement via their cynicism and ugly attack politics. We deserve better.