Monday, March 23, 2015

Tuol Sleng shows how dangerous Western lefties can be

I am in Cambodia and today I went to Tuol Sleng, the former Khmer Rouge prison known as S-21, which is now a museum to the genocide committed by Pol Pot and his henchmen during their reign of terror in this country from 1975 to 1979. Tuol Sleng was the site of the torture and death of around 20,000 people considered to be enemies of the Khmer Rouge regime, including children and babies. It was one of 150 such prisons across Cambodia where, together with various rural work sites, an estimated 2 million Cambodians were killed by their Marxist government.

Tuol Sleng is a strange place. It was originally a high school and its origins are still evident. Tiny cells that are barely large enough to stand up in are partitioned in what were once classrooms. Some of the iron-framed beds that prisoners were shackled to are still in place, together with the iron shackles. There are cabinets full of skulls and a bin full of (what I realised were) human rib bones. Entire walls are given over to photos of prisoners, as the Khmer Rouge, in common with the Nazis and other genocidal regimes, were meticulous in documenting their victims. It is, as Hannah Arendt so aptly put it, the banality of the evil that is so astounding.

The most revealing part of my visit to Tuol Sleng, however, was the exhibit about the Western sympathisers who promoted the denial of the genocide not only during the Khmer Rouge's four years in power but for years afterwards. The most notorious of these sympathisers was a group of Swedish left-wing politicians who visited Cambodia in April 1978. Despite the fact that reports had been surfacing of the genocide since the Khmer Rouge had sezied power in 1975, the Swedish delegation produced a laudatory, white-washing report of Pol Pot's Cambodia. The delegates admitted that they knew the cities had been cleared out (the Khmer Rouge evacuated the entire population of Phnom Penh and sent them to the countryside to work as slave labour the day after they gained power) but they hailed this as a geat egalitarian experiment. Gunnar Bergstrom, the only member of the delegation to since express regret about the propaganda victory, said they did not realise that all of that huge exodus were being starved, tortured, executed or just worked to death. 

In New Zealand we had our own versions of Gunnar Bergstrom. Keith Locke, who later became a Green Party Member of Parliament, was known to be a supporter of the Khmer Rouge. Personally, I find it difficult to accept that a supporter of one of the most evil regimes in recent history could go on to find respectability as a New Zealand MP.

You might say that everyone has the right to change their political views. However, I think we need to consider the harm these supporters of the Khmer Rouge did. Their denial of the genocide in Cambodia probably allowed the regime to survive a lot longer than it should have. In fact, the Khmer Rouge were still recognized as the legitimate government of Cambodia long after the Vietnamese had invaded and put an end to this most vicious political cult. It wasn't until 1993 that Cambodia's United Nations seat was removed from the so-called Cambodian government-in-exile (that included the Khmer Rouge) and given to the successor Kingdom of Cambodia. It was people like Gunnar Bergstrom and Keith Locke who were instrumental in maintaining support for the Khmer Rouge, even after its fall from power and the reliable documentation of its horrors. These people almost certainly prolonged the life of the regime and therefore were in some small way responsible for many deaths (although, in fairness to Keith Locke, he claims he reversed his support for the regime after the extent of its horrors became known).

This is the biggest issue I have with the political left-wing in the West - that they are allowed to get away with supporting all manner of horrors, up to including full-blown genocide, if it is done in the name of their Marxist ideals. When the full extent of the horrors is revealed, they inevitably say they didn't know what the regime in question was was really up to and, anyway, it was a perversion of true Marxism. But I contend that Marxism is, by its very nature, genocidal and I don't believe anyone who truly understands Marxism as a philosophy could disagree with this. Marx himself made no bones about the fact that he expected a whole lot of killing when his philosophy was applied in practice.

There is a double standard in respect of political respectability. Left-wingers are forgiven their earlier political excesses to an extent that those on the right are never allowed. I cannot imagine a former Nazi sympathiser being allowed to take a seat in the New Zealand Parliament. Those who support genocidal regimes should be held accountable for their support, whatever their political hue.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Traffic Reflects the Nation

In my last post about my travels in Vietnam, I mentioned the traffic in this populous Southeast Asian nation. It got me thinking further on the subject and I believe that the behaviour of motorists, and of governments' attempts to control them, provides a useful reflection of the nature of a society.

The Vietnamese, as I mentioned, have achieved a state of almost perfect anarchy on their roads. They have few traffic lights and those they do have are largely ignored. Drivers also ignore the centre line, using the opposing lane whenever they feel the need to pass another vehicle, irrespective of whether there is on-coming traffic and assuming the vehicles on the other side of the road will move onto the shoulder to avoid a head-on collision. Motorbikes often travel completely on the wrong side of the road, edging along on the far edge past the opposing traffic. The sidewalks are not the exclusive preserve of pedestrians, with motorbikes and scooters also using the footpath to avoid the traffic on the road. And yet, somehow it all works. In two weeks in Vietnam we have yet to see a serious accident. In fact, we've see only a couple of minor scrapes, seemingly with no injuries. The traffic is constantly on the move, unhindered by the innumerable traffic lights that plague all Western cities, and there is more courtesy than I've ever seen on the roads back home.

Where are the traffic police in all this mayhem, you might ask? Well, their presence is obvious and they appear to be as numerous as in most Western nations, and in one respect at least, they mirror the main role of our own traffic police - collecting money. They only difference is, in Vietnam the money comes from instant fines collected as cash and it goes straight into the pockets of the policemen themselves. The locals joke (bitterly) about the typical policeman who has grown fat in a country of thin people.

In New Zealand our policemen are, for the most part, uncorrupt. But they are incredibly paternalistic and petty. Last Christmas, they attempted to introduce a zero tolerance for speeding, writing tickets for as little as one kilometre per hour over the speed limit. The normally submissive New Zealand public, which has sat idly by while the police have introduced thousands of speed cameras and breath-testing blitzes that stop ten of thousands of drivers with no reasonable cause (and usually with negligible results), finally stood up and objected to this increasing criminalisation of innocent people. Of course it is a nonsense to have less than a one km/hour speed tolerance as most motor vehicle speedometers are only accurate to within 2 - 3 km/hour. Eventually the police leadership backed down and restored a 5 km/hour tolerance.

It was great to see the New Zealand public showing the authorities we aren't as craven as we've appeared to be in recent years. We pride ourselves on having a can-do, individualistic streak, but that aspect of our character is all too rare these days. We have watched our civil liberties be eroded to the point where the government interferes in so many petty and unnecessary ways, not trusting us to take personal responsibility to go about any part of our business and personal lives freely and safely.

Aside from the corrupt policemen, Vietnam's traffic is an example of how freely-interacting individuals can form self-organising systems - in other words, it's like capitalism applied to the roads. Like the economy, the more governments try to impose order and controls, the worse the roading system seems to work. Let people organise themselves and you get optimal perforance and outcomes. Strange but true.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Communist Vietnam is more capitalist that the West

I am on holiday in Vietnam and yesterday went to Ho Chi Minh's tomb in Hanoi. The Vietnamese Communist regime has developed all the trappings of a Leninist persnality cult around their former leader, right down to his carefully preserved corpse on display in a glass sarcophagus in a monolithic tomb. But it is apparent that Ho Chi Minh was a modest man. Near to the tomb and the immense French-colonial Presidential Palace that his Party cadres wanted him to occupy, is Ho Chi Minh's house, a modest bungalow on stilts in the style of traditional houses of the Vietnamese Northwest. The house suggests a self-effacing man who wanted none of the trappings of leadership.

Today, Vietnam is like a mini-China. Still ruled by a Communist Party that does not tolerate direct political challenge, nevertheless it is in practice a booming, dynamic place that in many ways seems more free than New Zealand. It is in everything but name a capitalist society, where most urban people run small businesses and rural people private farms, and the state interferes little with their lives. There is no free health or education, other than for the families of Party apparatchiks and former soldiers, and no welfare system. Indeed, if the anarchy of the traffic on the streets of Hanoi is anything to go by, the Vietnamese state seems to consider its citizens are perfectly capable of managing their own lives and ordering their affairs with little help from the government.

Whenever I visit a place like Vietnam, it becomes apparent that the future belongs to the people in such booming, unconstrained economies. In the West, we have become profligate and coddled by our governments, with the result that are increasingly unable to compete. It started with manufacturing, initally of unsophisticated product such as toys and clothing, and more recently of electronics and other high-technology goods. In places like India and the Phillipines, they have moved on and now lead the world in services such as call centres and software development. The West still leads in the development of intellectual property-based services such as design and entertainment, but there is no reason to doubt the Chinese and Indians, and eventually, the Vietnamese, will crack those industries too.

It is ironic that we in the West like to style ourselves capitalist societies. There is no doubt that Communist Vietnam is more capitalist in pretty much every way than any Western economy. Perhaps the only advantage we have is our lack of corruption and our rule of law, but it is no coincidence that these are the areas to which Chinese president Xi Jinping has turned his attention. It is apparent from the palatial houses and flash cars in the area of Hanoi where government officials tend to live that Vietnam also has a long way to go in this regard. But my guess is that, like China, this will become a necessary focus of the Vietnamese leadership as they strive to deliver economic growth and a standard of living to match our own. 

In the race to economic superiority, I know who I would put my money on.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Public Sector Millionaires

"Life is a long succession of vested interests, though we are inclined to see everyone’s but our own," says Theodore Dalrymple in this article in which he points out that senior public servants these days are often millionaires. The difference between public service millionaires and most others is that the public servants tend to deny that they are acting entirely in their own interests, preferring to delude themselves and others that they are pursuing their careers solely for the benefit of society.

Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand where I live, now has the highest household income (at nearly $100,000) and GDP per capita ($58,000) in New Zealand. It is no coincidence that it is where most of the public servants live. I have written before about how I have noticed the decline of Wellington's private sector economic base over the past couple of decades. Suburbs that used to be filled with factories and distribution companies are now empty of all commercial activities except for 'large box' retailers and recreational businesses that serve the prosperous bureaucrats that remain.

And prosperous they most certainly are. At the highest executive levels, public servants may still earn less than those in the private sector but across the board the relationship between salaries in the public and private sectors is significantly reversed. A divisional manager in a government department with a few dozen staff is likely to receive an annual salary of $150,000 to $200,000, whereas if you take an equivalent role in the private sector - say, a manager of a regional factory for a national manufacturing company with a similar number of staff - the role would be lucky to earn $100,000 and more likely about $70,000 to $80,000. And I know who would have the most risk and stress in their job - the factory manager, who undoubtedly is continually fighting for the factory's survival against international competition.

Many public servants appear to have no idea how the tax revenues that pay for their positions are generated. That is because many of them have never had a job where they have had to pay their own salary out of the margin from selling the products and services they produce. They have no idea about the economic value that must be created to generate the profits on which the taxes are levied that pay their salaries. They don't have to compete for customers - the people public servants love to call 'customers' are not customers at all, but rather members of the public who are forced to deal with them. They have no appreciation of the plight of the business owners who, if they have a bad month of sales, aren't able to draw any income out of their businesses at all, or who have to borrow to pay provisional and terminal taxes because their revenues have dropped after one good year.

It is no surprise that public servants almost universally have left-wing political views - after all, turkeys do not vote for an early Christmas. They regard the economy as just one big money-go-round, a zero-sum game in which they are entitled to grab what they think is their fair share. Public servants invariably regard themselves as empathetic types, bestowing their largesse with other people's money on those they regard as the deserving in society, and yet in their well-off Wellington suburbs they are often as isolated from the deprived in our society as anyone. And they have no empathy at all for those in the private sector struggling on much lower incomes than themselves.

When I was growing up, our rich neighbours were those with their own businesses. Today they are public servants, and I think that is an indictment on our our society and a sign of our ultimate economic decline.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A spoilt, petty, self-pitying, meddling plonker for a king.

Prince Charles wants to be an activist king, claims a new book, Charles: The Heart of a King by Catherine Mayer. The book describes an intemperate fool whose court is so dysfunctional and riven with petty rivalries that the author compares it to Henry VIII's as described in the Hilary Mantel book Wolf Hall. 

Charles is strongly partisan in his political views and has meddled in public issues as broad as British architecture and climate change. The fact that he knows little about the topics he pronounces on does not seem to deter him. It is obvious that he has little understanding of the modern constitutional role of the monarch, which his mother has defined and so ably maintained for six decades. That role is primarily one of political neutrality. The monarch is meant to sit above the hurly-burly of political debate and only act on the advice of her ministers in whom Parliament has confidence.

I've made no secret in previous posts that I am a republican. It galls me that the role of New Zealand's head of state is handed down as an inheritance in a family that lives on the other side of the world. However, I do appreciate the superb job that Queen Elizabeth II has done in the role. She is a constant in an ever-changing world and undoubtedly a factor in maintaining the peaceful, stable, relatively prosperous, democratic nation that is New Zealand. You get the impression that she never says or does anything that is not carefully considered. 

Charles could not be more different in style to his mother and just as Queen Elizabeth has been a force for stability in her realm, Charles's ill-considered, confrontational meddling will be very destabilising. The only positive thing that is likely to come out of his reign is the end of the monarchy itself. Kevin Maguire, associate editor of the Daily Mirror summed him up beautifully as "Spoilt, petty, self-pitying, meddling and a plonker – Prince Charles is a gift … for republicans.”

Charles is an idiot, but for a republican like me, he might prove to be a useful idiot.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Eleanor Catton's views are tediously predictable

There has been a great deal of comment here in New Zealand about Mann-Booker Prize-winning author Eleanor Catton's comments to an Indian literary festival. No country likes its prominent citizens being disloyal and New Zealanders seem to be particularly sensitive about this sort of thing. Personally, I think it is a bit of a storm in teacup and I have to say I agree with some of her comments, particularly the bit about the strange belief New Zealanders had (at least up until recent years) that their writers were less great than writers from Britain and America. I suppose the only part of her comments that is disappointing to me is her statement about the current middle-of-the-road John Key-led government being "neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture."

Anyone who regularly reads my blog will know that I am no fan or defender of the Key Government and it is not that Catton is criticising the government that disappoints me. It is rather that her left-wing views are so damned predictable. Writers, actors, musicians and others in the so-called creative sector are tediously conformist in their politics and, in my view, invariably hypocritical and disingenuous. I can only interpret Catton's comment about the government not caring about culture as meaning it does not care enough about her cultural output to bestow large sums of money on her personally.

Actually, there are a few exceptions to the tedious political conformity of the entertainment sector and one that comes to mind is British singer Adele. Her comments several years ago on high taxes and the National Health Service were a breath of fresh air. Likewise, James Blunt's recent response to a senior British Labour MP's comments about Blunt's 'privileged background' were brilliantly apt. I am sure there are many more singers, writers and actors who don't share the left-wing faith of many of their peers. It is a pity more of them don't have the courage to say come out publicly and say so. Certainly, there is nothing brave in Eleanor Catton spouting her entirely predictable, run-of-the-mill, bien pensant views.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Welcome to Reality, Lefties

I've been slow to start my blog posts for 2015, in part because I have been enjoying a wonderful New Zealand summer holiday with a large number of international family and friends, and partly because I felt that any further comment on the only topic worth writing about - the Islamic terror attacks in Paris - was redundant in view of the screeds that have been written on that subject already. But over the weekend a second, less dramatic but not unrelated international news report got me thinking. That second event was the massive drop in the value of the Euro against the Swiss Franc, occasioned by the decision of the Swiss central bank to stop propping up the Euro through massive buying of the common currency. Now what, you might wonder, do these two events have in common? The answer is that they are both massive reality checks for, and repudiation of, the conventional left-wing viewpoint of world affairs.

For years the political left-wing has been promoting the idea of cultural relativism, that is the view that there is social, scientific, economic or moral equivalence between all cultures. This view says that Western, liberal, democratic, capitalist societies are not in any way better than the most primitive, brutal and oppressive societies. Alongside cultural relativism, the left-wing also favours the notion of group identity, that is that we should not be judged as individuals but rather as a member of a culture, be it race, sex, religion or whatever group they (i.e. those doing the judging) choose to identify us with. Identity politics demarcates us into favoured and unfavoured groups, usually determined by our supposed victimhood. Therefore, African-Americans are favoured because they were once slaves and are still arguably the subject of some discrimination, while European-Americans are unfavoured because they aren't identified as victims (various European genocides notwithstanding). Likewise, women are good, men bad; gays are good, 'straights' bad; and, in the latest cause du jour, Muslims are good, Christians bad.

I'm sure you can already see a contradiction between these two ideas that are held as articles of faith by the left-wing. If there is equivalence between all cultures then how can it make sense to judge people on the basis of their culture?

The shootings in Paris, as dreadful as they were, couldn't have presented the contradictions of left-wing dogma better than if they had been staged to do so. In the Charlie Hebdo shootings, a group of left-wing journalists (the high priests of their social justice religion) were shot for exercising their right to satirize Islam. Cultural relativism came face-to-face with identity group politics and it was amusing (no, actually appalling) watching the contortions of politicians such as Barack Obama and Francois Hollande as they tried to steer a line between condemning the attacks whilst avoiding assigning any blame to the religion with which the perpetrators identified. If there was any doubt about the explicit aims of those responsible, it was removed in the second attack on a Jewish grocery store, a shocking in-your-face repudiation of all the weasel words about the Charlie Hebdo attack that had issued from Western politicians.

Which brings me to the collapse of the value of the Euro against the Swiss Franc. The political left-wing and economists who sympathise with their aims believe in the boundless benevolent power of the state when it comes to economic matters. They believe they can magic money out of thin air, so long as that money is used for government spending that is directed towards 'worthy' consumption. Of course, history teaches us that states cannot just print money without it eventually debasing the value of the currency (i.e. causing inflation). The European Union and the United States have both been making new money in huge quantities to fund their profligate spending. They have got away with it to date because, like the emperor's minions, everyone has turned a blind eye to their monetary nakedness. In the case of the Europeans, the Swiss had agreed to support this economic farce by pretending the Euro continued to maintain its value against their franc. What the Swiss National Bank did last week was to abandon the pretence and the Euro went down by more than 30% in a day. The Swiss did what they did for a very obvious reason - they couldn't afford to keep buying Euros to maintain its value (Switzerland's reserves of Euros amounted to the equivalent of 70% of its GDP prior to the fall). What has just happened to the Euro is a demonstration of what is going to happen to the US Dollar once the world realises that its value is also built on pretence.

Maggie Thatcher is credited with saying that the facts of life are conservative. What she meant is that that sooner or later reality destroys left-wing illusions. You can't pretend every culture is equal and then be surprised when one of those cultures throws out the rule book and destroys everything that you value like free speech. And you can't be surprised when you magic billions of dollars out of thin air and then your currency collapses in value. Welcome to reality, lefties.