Thursday, May 29, 2014

UKIP challenges cosy centre-left-right political establishment

This week saw the UK Independence Party (UKIP) defy predictions and the serried ranks of its opponents to win the largest share of the UK vote for the European Parliament. In doing so, UKIP had to overcome an unholy alliance of all other political parties and every mainstream media outlet that rallied against it. During the election campaign UKIP candidates and supporters were repeatedly slandered but it was to little effect as more than four million voters cast votes for the party portrayed as comprising so many looneys and racists. UKIP support has been built on disaffection with Britain's membership of the European Community and admiration for the no-holds-barred style of its leader, Nigel Farage. Its policies, far from being lunatic fringe, are now being firmly embraced by the other political parties.

The closest equivalent to UKIP in New Zealand is New Zealand First, which, like UKIP, is anti-immigration and built around an almost cultish devotion to its leader, Winston Peters. I think what makes UKIP and New Zealand First appealing to a small but significant segment of the population is that they both defy the traditional stereotyping of the left-right spectrum. Both parties derive their support as much from 'working class' and Labour Party supporters as from the well-heeled and Conservative/National Party supporters. What I enjoy about UKIP's success is that it sends a strong message to the political class that the traditional assumptions about what constitutes a Labour or Conservative voter are no longer valid.

Recently a friend of mine called me a 'libertarian conservative' and I pointed out to him that the term is an oxymoron. The current political system in most Western nations is heavily statist and crony-capitalist and no one would seriously describe it as libertarian. Conservatism, by definition, is about supporting the status quo. Really, I am a radical. I want to see radical change to our political and economic systems and I find that often I have more in common with radicals of the left than conservatives of the centre-right.  I believe there is a significant and growing segment of the population in most Western nations who believe as I do - people who want both social and economic freedom, who distrust state intrusion into their lives in both work and personal arenas.

I wouldn't describe UKIP as libertarian but it is certainly more radical than either Labour or the Conservatives and any party that seeks to overturn the cosy centre-left-right arrangement that passes for political pluralism in most Western nations has some appeal to me.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Michelle Obama's Pathetic Hashtag Photo Won't Help Kidnap Victims

My teenaged daughter has been invited to attend a protest march against the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by Islamist militant group Boko Haram. The name Boko Haram means 'non-Muslim teaching is evil' and the group believes that Islam forbids the education of women entirely, which is why it targets girls in Nigerian state schools as kidnap victims (although the group's willingness to sell the girls into slavery suggests a more mercenary motive).

The protest will take place at Parliament Buildings in Wellington and has been organised by fellow pupils at her inner city girls school. To her credit, my daughter has decided not to join the protest, not because she doesn't care about the fate of the kidnapped girls - on the contrary, she is very upset by the matter - but because she realises the futility of protesting in New Zealand about the actions of terrorists half the world away. What these protestors want to achieve is unclear, unlike the aims of the kidnappers.

But as futile as the actions of these protestors are, they don't compare to the pathetic frivolousness of Michelle Obama's hashtag photo opportunity shown below. The US president's wife insults the victims of this horrible religious violence precisely because she is one of the few people in the world who has the ability to influence the outcome of this event.

There are only a handful of countries capable of rendering assistance to the kidnap victims. The United States, obviously, is one of these, but don't hold your breath waiting for President Obama to act. The President has shown himself to be a moral weakling where foreign policy is concerned. In Benghazi, he wasn't willing even to go to the aid of his own consular officials when the embassy there was attacked by an Al Qaeda militia on September 11, 2012. His so-called 'red-line' on the use of chemical weapons in Syria has counted for nothing, and his bluster on Ukraine is rightly treated as irrelevant by Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.

The first United States president to take his country to war against an external enemy was Thomas Jefferson, and the enemy in that case was Islamic pirates on the Barbary Coast who were kidnapping and enslaving American sailors. There is much that Jefferson would not admire today about the republic he helped establish but I think the thing he would least admire is the current president's lack of moral courage on matters of foreign policy. President Obama should be guided by the example of America's third president and take the fight to these Islamic extremists, wherever they are hiding, and his wife should drop the social media frivolity and urge her husband to grow a backbone.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Big Data, Big Brother and Donald Sterling

This week I read an article about a Princeton sociology professor, Janet Vertesi, who tried to hide the fact that she was pregnant from those who use 'big data', which sounds really scary but is really just a silly neologism for an old concept - trawling databases to find correlations that are useful to marketing people, researchers, intelligence agencies and the like. This woman seemed to be most concerned about marketers targeting her with product offers, but that is not something that particularly worries me. The worst that can result from receiving emails or telephone calls from people trying to sell you things is that you buy something.

The real concern is not big data but Big Brother, such as when Vertesi's husband tried to buy $500 worth of Amazon gift vouchers on her behalf and was told the transaction would be reported to the authorities. I am aware that in New Zealand any financial transaction of more than $10,000 is required to be reported to government under the AML-CFT (Anti-Money Laundering - Counter-Financing of Terrorism) laws and I understand this is the same in most Western countries, but obviously in America the threshold is now so low it covers transactions that are the equivalent of a modestly-priced suit of clothing or a good restaurant dinner.

Why would the government be interested in such trivial transactions? In this case it was clearly the anonymity of the transaction that led to the government's interest. The purpose of AML-CFT laws, as the name suggests, is terrorism and money laundering, but as we know from the recent revelations of the likes of Edward Snowden the US Government has used the powers it has garnered under anti-terrorism laws for all manner of purposes. Initially the expanded purview of such laws was serious crime such as drug trafficking, but ultimately governments cannot resist using such powers for any purpose they deem fit. In the case of Kim Dotcom, we saw the full power of New Zealand's state security apparatus including our GCSB spy agency used in a case of alleged copyright infringement.

Another interesting case this week was that of Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. Sterling came to our attention because his mistress released private communications in which Sterling objected to her bringing black men to Clippers' games. Clearly Sterling is a racist and, by all accounts, a sterling asshole, but as Mark Steyn points out in his blog, as bad as the comments Sterling made were, what the National Basketball Association has done to him is worse. Sterling made the comments in private and the NBA (which has fined him $2.5m and banned him from attending his own team's games for life) should have no interest in the matter. Neither should the media, especially the New Zealand media (many of which ran the story as their lead).

In the novel 1984, Winston Smith discovered that there is no freedom without privacy. If you cannot express your thoughts even to those whom you most trust without fear that you will be subject to a public witchhunt, or make a small, innocent purchase without inviting the surveillance of the authorities, then you don't have the freedom to think at all. And everything follows from that.