Tuesday, July 17, 2018

"Better abortion laws" - but for whom?

Last Saturday I heard Noelle McCarthy, filling in for Kim Hill on her Saturday morning radio show, interview the American abortion careerist Dr Patricia Lohr, who runs Britain’s Pregnancy Advisory Service. (Actually, judging by the interview, that’s a misnomer: if they were honest, they would call it the Abortion Advisory Service, or perhaps the Pregnancy Termination Service).

It was less an interview than an empathising session, since McCarthy and Lohr were clearly of one mind, whether welcoming the “inspirational” result of the recent Irish referendum on abortion or lamenting the obstacles women wanting an abortion are still said to face because …. well, actually, because society views the termination of a life, even in the womb, as a pretty serious matter, although anyone hoping this “interview” might explore some of the profound moral questions around abortion would have been sorely disappointed.  McCarthy and Lohr gave the impression the only moral right in play here is women’s right to have a pregnancy terminated without delay and preferably with no questions asked. I’m surprised no one has proposed drive-in abortion clinics; 10 minutes, no waiting. Perhaps they have.

What struck me most while listening to McCarthy and Lohr is that in a 28-minute discussion about abortion, they somehow managed to avoid a single reference to the word “baby” or even “foetus”. The abortion debate has evidently been so totally captured by feminist ideology, and so successfully framed as solely an issue of women’s rights, that the unborn baby is not only not at the centre of the procedure, but has been erased from the picture altogether. How convenient. Excluding the baby from the conversation neatly gets around messy questions about the morality of extinguishing a human life.

The closest Lohr got to mentioning babies was when she spoke of women “passing the pregnancy” (I think she meant "getting rid of the baby") at home. This is another euphemism that neatly dehumanises the foetus - anything to avoid acknowledging the awkward truth and ease the conscience of those carrying out the procedure.

If you check out the Radio New Zealand website, you’ll see the interview is headlined “Better abortion laws”. But better for whom? Certainly not the unborn child.

Friday, July 13, 2018

"I'm all for free speech, but not right now"

The left is performing all sorts of elaborate intellectual contortions to justify the banning of Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux. Simon Wilson, who naturally leans sharply to the left, has made a sincere attempt in the New Zealand Herald today to write a balanced analysis of the issue, and he nearly pulls it off. But his ideological convictions ultimately come through and sadly it becomes just another apologia of the “I’m all for free speech, but …” variety.

He gives himself away early in the piece with his casual use of the loaded term “white supremacists” to describe Southern and Molyneux and by dismissively referring to the Free Speech Coalition as an “outfit”. I note that Simon apparently doesn’t view the NZ Federation of Islam Associations as just an “outfit”, with all that word’s negative connotations.

He drags a few red herrings across the reader’s path: flaming crosses on the lawn, that sort of stuff. There are ample remedies under existing law for people who directly threaten harm or violence, so I’m not sure whether that type of emotive imagery gets us any further. 

There is also scope under the Human Rights Act for prosecution of anyone who is found to have incited hostility or ill-will against people on the ground of colour or race. But there has only ever been one such case in New Zealand and the courts quite rightly set the bar quite high for successful prosecution, recognising that freedom of expression is a fundamental pillar of democracy. I make an attempt to explore these issues in a piece about hate speech that will appear in next week’s Listener.

Simon also implies that the Canadians will “stir up hatred”. But how can he know that? And how much respect does he have for his fellow New Zealanders if he doesn’t believe (just as Goff obviously doesn’t believe) that we are perfectly capable of resisting attempts to “stir up hatred”, if indeed that’s what Southern and Molyneux intend to do?

Simon quite rightly says free speech is not absolute and that the argument is about where to draw the line. Precisely. I sharply disagree with him about where that line should be drawn, and so do many, many New Zealanders: not white supremacist New Zealanders, nor racist New Zealanders, nor Islamophobic New Zealanders, but New Zealanders who worry that free speech is under concerted attack, and who believe they’re mature enough to hear Southern and Molyneux for themselves and make up their own minds about whether they are hateful white supremacists.

What strikes me, reading Simon’s rather confused piece, is that he’s trying desperately hard to convince himself that the right of free speech can justifiably be suspended in this instance. He says repeatedly that free speech is meaningless if it doesn’t encompass the right to express views that some people find offensive, but then seems to argue that it would probably be best if we didn’t hear Southern and Molyneux because they express views that he and others, um, find offensive.

But to give him credit, he gets it right at the end. After wandering all over the shop, he says: “If they [Southern and Molyneux] do come, maybe they present an opportunity: we can whack these horrible people with some free speech of our own.”

Isn’t that pretty much what free-speech advocates have been saying? The contest of ideas is what democracy is built on. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I can do no better than quote Milton yet again: “Let truth and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”  

I tell you, it's a minefield out there

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, July 12.)

We lead sheltered lives out here in the provinces. Until recently, for example, I’d never heard of a terf.

You hadn’t either? Allow me to explain. A terf is a trans-exclusionary radical feminist.We have TVNZ’s excellent Q+A programme to thank for bringing us up to speed with this latest acronym from the culture wars.

Q+A ran a fascinating item two Sundays ago about a trans-gender person from Wellington who identifies as a woman but was denied membership of a women-only gym because the gym insisted on proof  of gender re-assignment surgery.

According to Q+A, gym staff were subsequently abused online and in person, presumably by supporters of the trans-gender cause. I felt sorry for the trans person at the centre of the debate, who clearly didn’t relish being implicated in such unpleasantness.

The bigger picture here is that society is suddenly expected to remould itself to accommodate gender variations that were unheard of a few years ago. In the process, a schism has opened up between trans-gender people and orthodox feminists. This is what happens when society gets fragmented and polarised by identity politics.

We got advance warning of this three years ago when the doughty feminist warrior Germaine Greer caused an uproar by asserting that trans people were only pretend women. Since then, hostilities have escalated.

In Britain, militant trans activists and terfs have angrily confronted each over a proposed law change that would allow people to “self-identify” their gender.

Trans people assert that if you regard yourself as a certain gender, regardless of the bits you were born with, that’s it; end of story. The trans activists don’t even like hearing reference to vaginas, because that excludes “women” who don’t have them.

The terfs, meanwhile, are determined to protect the notion of womanhood because they see it as underpinning all that feminists stand for. They are also a bit iffy, perhaps understandably, about sharing women-only spaces with people who may be biologically male.

It’s a deliciously exquisite socio-cultural-ideological war. If you wanted to be mischievous you could characterise it as a contest over which faction considers itself the more grievously discriminated against. But that would be flippant, and flippancy is not permitted in the gender wars.

National Party leader Simon Bridges learned this to his cost when he allowed himself to be lured into a trap during a chat on Radio Hauraki, which specialises in blokey flippancy,about whether Jacinda Ardern’s baby should be regarded as gender-fluid.

Predictably, Bridges was savaged in social media for playing along with the joke. Humour, traditionally a safety valve for easing social tensions, is suddenly verboten.

Fragile sensibilities are waiting to be bruised everywhere you turn. Just by placing inverted commas around that word “women” earlier in this column, and thereby highlighting the rather ambiguous status of some people who use that term to describe themselves, I risk being branded as transphobic.

You can add this hyperbolic word to the ever-growing list of pejorative terms – homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, racist, misogynistic – that are used to disparage anyone who isn’t nimble-footed enough to keep up with the constantly shifting battle lines in the culture wars.

I tell you, it’s a minefield out there. Decline to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple because same-sex marriage is against your beliefs, as the woman owner of a bakery in Warkworth did recently, and no matter how painfully polite your refusal, you’ll be pilloried on social media.

Let me make a wild guess here and speculate that many of the people who burned with rage over the baker’s refusal of service to the lesbian couple would have deliriously applauded the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia for humiliating Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, by asking her to leave on a recent Friday night.

Am I missing something, or are there two different rules in play here?

Fortunately, out here in the provinces, we’re largely oblivious to the myriad anxieties and resentments that seem to beset politically aware Wellington. Most of the people I meet strike me as being inexplicably content with life in one the world’s most liberal and tolerant democracies. The preoccupation with perceived injustices seems very much an inner-city metropolitan phenomenon.

We can’t help but be aware of them, of course. Day after day, the media bombard us with laments from a plethora of advocacy groups listing the innumerable ways in which society is failing to satisfy the needs of disadvantaged minorities. New categories of human rights pop up overnight like mushrooms.

But the urban social justice crusaders will just have to be patient and give us provincial yokels time. When age-old certainties are being constantly subverted and the ideological ground keeps shifting under us like tectonic plates, it can be hard to keep up.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The grievance that keeps on giving

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and Stuff.co.nz, July 11.)

Israel recently celebrated its 70th birthday – no mean feat when nearly everyone around you wants to wipe you off the map.

From the very start, Israel’s existence has been threatened by the hostile Arab states that surrounded it. But somehow this tiny country, less than half the size of Canterbury, has survived.

Along the way Israel has negotiated peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan – proof that ancient enmities can be overcome where there’s a will. But its relations with other Arab states have, if anything, become more bitter over time.

And it’s no longer just the Arab world that Israel is up against. At the United Nations, Israel is routinely treated as a pariah state. Blatant anti-Semitism is condoned and even encouraged by some Western political leaders.

To our shame, New Zealand has fallen into line with the anti-Israel bloc. Last year, we supported 16 of the 19 UN resolutions that condemned the Jewish state.

This is perplexing, because according to the international Democracy Index compiled by the British magazine The Economist, Israel remains the only democracy in the Middle East.

The same UN is often strangely silent when it comes to atrocities perpetrated by Arabs, but that’s international diplomacy for you. Diplomats, including our own, do whatever political self-interest dictates.

Admittedly, Israel hasn’t always made it easy to be its friend. The provocative habit of building Jewish settlements in occupied territories claimed by Palestinians has been a consistent impediment in efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

And Israel has done some terrible things – probably never more so than when its army turned a blind eye to the Sabra and Shatila massacres carried out by Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies after the Israeli Army invaded southern Lebanon in 1982.

Then there’s Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. He’s not an easy man to like.  Yet Netanyahu, for all his flaws, is arguably a man for his times, because he’s tough and uncompromising. And presumably, Israeli voters have decided that tough and uncompromising are the qualities they need in an unremittingly hostile world. You can see why.

Therein lies the tragedy of Israel and Palestine. Too often, the agenda is dictated by hard-liners. Whenever there’s a glimmer of hope for peace, it seems to be extinguished by the actions of intransigent extremists with no interest in compromise.

Some of these are on the Israeli side. Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish nationalist who opposed the Oslo peace accord that Rabin had signed. The year before, another Jewish extremist massacred 29 Palestinians.

But these were isolated incidents. Any dispassionate assessment of the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations shows that it’s most often the Palestinians who seem determined to sabotage attempts at reconciliation.

Take the most recent flare-up. We’re told it was Arab anger at Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital that triggered Palestinian protests, resulting in the deaths of 60 people.

But just this once, Trump may have got it right. Jerusalem is central to Jewish history and culture. It’s mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible and the Torah, but not once in the Quran.

You can safely assume, then, that much of the Arab outrage over Trump’s action was confected. Any excuse to nurture a fresh grievance and stir up international sympathy.

That’s something the terrorist organisations Hamas and Hezbollah are very good at. There’s always a receptive audience of Western apologists for Arab terrorism, ready to demand punitive action against Israel for having the temerity to defend itself.

Western observers wrung their hands over the recent suffering in Gaza, but it could have been halted in the blink of an eye. All it took was for the Hamas fanatics to stop firing rockets and mortar bombs across the border, or digging tunnels underneath it, with the intention of killing Israeli citizens.

All it took was for Palestinian parents to say no, we will not allow our children to do Hamas’s dirty work by being used as human shields and placing themselves in danger by hurling missiles at Israeli border guards. Simple, really.

But the tragic truth is that it suits the wider Arab world to have Palestinians confined in their wretched Gaza ghetto and locked into their victim mindset. It’s the grievance that keeps on giving. They seem determined to remain prisoners of their history.

Western politicians bang on about the two-state solution, but there can be no such solution as a long as key player like Hamas vows never to recognise Israel.

And all this because a few million people, having survived unimaginable horror in Europe, sought to create a sanctuary in their ancestral desert homeland. For all the Israelis’ faults, I have no trouble deciding whose side I’m on.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The money has been raised and the judicial challenge will proceed

More breaking news from the Free Speech Coalition:

In less than 24 hours, the Free Speech Coalition has reached its $50,000 fundraising goal and will be engaging lawyers to bring judicial proceedings against Auckland Council for its ban on Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux at Council-owned venues.

Chris Trotter, who is supporting the Coalition, says, "Thank you to every New Zealander who has dug deep to support such an important cause."

“We had hoped to raise this money by 5pm Friday. However, within the first day of this campaign we have been completely swamped by people pledging money to the cause – from $5 to $5,000.”

Melissa Derby, another supporter of the Coalition, says, “We look forward to setting a strong legal precedent that shows the use of publicly-owned venue cannot be dictated by the political whims of those in power.”

“For us this is not about helping these particular speakers, but in defending the rights of all New Zealanders to express and hear controversial views.”

All those who believe in free speech owe a debt of gratitude to Jordan Williams and everyone else who worked to get this campaign up and running so quickly - especially Chris Trotter, who courageously went out on a limb and risked a backlash from fellow leftists (some of whom, to their credit, share Chris's principled commitment to freedom of expression).

Incidentally, the coalition is still accepting donations at nz.free.speech.coalition@gmail.com. You can be confident the money will be put to good use.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Free speech coalition to seek judicial review of Goff speaking ban

Breaking news. A crowd-funding campaign has been launched to challenge Auckland mayor Phil Goff’s ban on Canadian "alt-right" commentators Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux. It aims to raise $50,000 toward the cost of an urgent judicial review.

I support this campaign and urge others to do so too. I’m delighted to see that veteran socialist Chris Trotter is on board – one of the few people on the Left who obviously recognises this is an issue that transcends ideological differences and is courageous enough to put his weight behind it. Good on him.

The Free Speech Coalition’s website is here: https://freespeechcoalition.nz/

Southern and Molyneux: my response to Kimbo

I wrote the following in response to comments from Kimbo, but because those comments appeared under different posts I’m consolidating my responses into one and publishing it separately.

Kimbo, to take your points one by one:

You say I’ve avoided your primary point that protecting free speech doesn’t oblige a public official to provide a platform for it. But I tried to answer that by pointing out that Auckland Council initially gave permission for the venue to be used, as you’d expect it to. After all, what reason did the council have for not allowing it? But then Goff interposed himself and effectively over-ruled his officials. At that point, because he reversed a decision already (and I presume lawfully) made, it became an act of political censorship.

But the far bigger point is that I don’t believe the people of Auckland elected Goff so that he could decide what opinions they were allowed to hear, or to protect them from what he suspects might be harmful ideas. That is not, and never was, part of his remit. He has grossly and arrogantly overstepped his authority on the pretext that he doesn’t want Southern and Molyneux “stirring up religious or ethnic tensions”. But New Zealanders have long shown themselves to be admirably resistant to attempts to stir up religious and ethnic tensions. This isn’t the Balkans, for heaven’s sake, or even Northern Ireland. We quite rightly expect people coming here from strife-torn countries to leave their ethnic and religious tensions in the arrivals lounge, and they almost invariably do. Big Brother Goff’s bogus concern for public wellbeing is a smokescreen. Underneath that bland, smiling facade beats the heart of an old-fashioned socialist controller.

Next, you seem to be saying that because people can hear Southern and Molyneux on You Tube, there’s no need for them to come here in person. What an extraordinary argument. Southern and Molyneux can stay safely quarantined in Canada and talk to us from there. Problem solved! This is tantamount to using the digital revolution as justification for limiting freedom of movement as well as the right to speak.

You seem to be suggesting that as long as information is available in one form, it’s okay for people to be denied access to it in others. Has the novel proposition occurred to you that in an open and free society, people should be left to choose for themselves how and where they receive their ideas? That idea might strike you as quaint, but our parliamentarians obviously go along with it. Section 14 of our Bill of Rights Act 1990 says this: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information  and opinions of any kind in any form” (my italics).

Perhaps you should read it sometime. So should Phil Goff. Oh, wait – he was in Parliament when it was passed. Perhaps he’s forgotten.

One other point. In your reply to another commenter, David, you suggest that Goff is acting in the interests of the Auckland Muslim community. But since when did New Zealand grant protection to one religion that it doesn’t confer on others? Christianity has been fair game for mockery and insult in this country for almost as long as I can remember. Christians just hunker down and get on with it.

The freedom to hold religions – all religions – up to critical scrutiny goes with the territory in New Zealand. I would hope that most New Zealand Muslims, having presumably come here because New Zealand’s freedom and tolerance appeals to them, would understand and respect that. By making special exceptions for them, Goff risks creating the very tensions and resentments that he sanctimoniously claims he wants to prevent.

Oh, and by the way, Kimbo (or “Unknown” as the case may be): if I’m going to continue engaging with you on this blog, I think you owe it to me as a courtesy to identify yourself rather than sheltering behind pseudonyms. You know who I am, and I expect you to return the favour.