Activists seek comfort blanket of catastrophic electoral strategies

Gosh. It's almost as if NZ Labour is getting  post defeat analysis after all. Not via the Gould review, let alone the insights of a deluded Twitterati. No, I'm talking about the many and varied writings about what happened at the last UK election, much of it outstanding. When I have some time, I'll assemble a collection of the best analysis from the UK. In the meantime, see if you can find a single word in this that doesn't apply as much to NZ Labour as it does to the intended target:


Telegaffe's Disdain in Mindless Blair Pursuit

The attacks on Tony Blair's post-number-10 career in the UK press are as groan-inducingly dull as they are relentless. 

The right-wing Telegraph is the worst culprit, dedicating considerable reporting resources to the Bring-Down-Blair beat. They certainly spend more time worrying about the former PM than they do about the countries with which they claim he is in nefarious cahoots.

Check out the caption in this photo featured in today's hatchet job (to which I am pointedly not linking). 


Maggie Barry's Cat Plan and Constitutional Government


Pandering to an SPCA audience, Conservation Minister Maggie Barry floated the possibility the government may restrict the number of cats per New Zealand household. 

No doubt this pleased the crowd who love cats but worry about the effects of too many of them. 

John Key piped up to pooh-pooh the idea, probably regretting he ever took the advice of whomever it was that told him gardening show hosts make great politicians.

Key’s comments no doubt pleased cat ladies and cat gents who own many cats and would see Barry’s proposed feline limits as an egregious threat to their way of life. 

Meanwhile, Gareth Morgan, whose role in NZ public life is a complete mystery to me,  advocates the idea of restricting cats per household to zero. 

Perhaps if there was an opinion poll, 70 percent of New Zealanders would support Barry’s idea. Equally possibly, 80 percent may oppose it. I have no idea, nor do I have an opinion on the subject. I am cat-ambivalent. 

What concerns me is this: why on earth does a NZ government have the power to tell its citizen how many cats they can own?

These debates happen all the time in NZ. Let’s ban this, or restrict that – often in response to some moral panic brought on by the confluence of more than one newspaper article on a given subject.

Our unwritten constitution often seem to offer carte blanche to governments to regulate, ban, restrict or make compulsory anything they like, apparently on a whim.

Kiwis love to bash the U.S.; mock its gun culture, for example, and the extremes of its politics. All valid.  But, living there for several years, I came to respect the limited nature of constitutional government – and the fact that, at state and federal level, there are courts whose job it is to determine where governments have committed overreach. Cat fanciers in America would have a regulation such as that proposed by Barry struck down in minutes. In fact, no government would even propose it, knowing that it couldn’t pass constitutional muster. 

I’m far less interested in restricting the number of cats than I am in exploring the limits on governments telling us what to do and how to live our lives.  

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea at the Heart of the NZ Labour Gould Review

Someone leaked the Gould review to Patrick Gower. Could anything have been more safely predicted?  Seriously, why keep these things under wraps? They invariably get out, and become far greater stories because the word "leaked" is attached.  

The Gould Review was a carnival of navel gazing. A joke. 

Media attention has focussed, predictably, on disunity blah blah.  A complete sideshow. Cunliffe suffered no more caucus dissension than most other leaders in opposition, and significantly less than David Shearer who was shafted up hill and down dale. The bullshit about the Anyone But Cunliffe faction has never been properly refuted, ironically because its alleged members are too loyal to defend themselves. "Unity above all" is a catch-cry of the despotic. Anyway, I won't win that argument.

However, the leaked review contains a glistening turd, namely the proposed Vetting Committee for the Labour list. Here it is without embellishment:

One of the most criticised aspects of the last election was the process for selection of list candidates. The existing arrangements cannot be justified in terms of democratic practice or effective outcomes.
First, any Party members who get the support of 10 financial members of the Party should be able to nominate for consideration for a list position.
Second, nomination should be initially vetted by a central Vetting Committee appointed by the NZ Council. The Vetting Committee should consist of three experienced Party members who are not current members of the NZ Council or a Member of Parliament. The role of the Vetting Committee is to verify that the nominee qualifies under the rules, and to select 60 nominees for referral to the Moderating Committee that will allocate the place on the list to the nominees. All electorate candidates should also nominate for the list to ensure that candidates campaign for both the electorate and the Party. It was apparent in the last election that some electorate candidates did not campaign for the Party vote. The Vetting Committee should be aware of and give consideration to the Constitutional obligation for the Party list to reflect the diversity in the community, in particular gender, race and the regions.

This is an atrocious idea. Because of its first past the post voting rules, Labour's governing body is already a mono-factional behemouth incapable of promoting anyone but their own.  Adding an additional committee made up of handpicked members, unelected and unaccountable to party members, to vet poential candidates is not only needlessly bureaucratic; it is flagrantly undemocratic. 

Who would the NZ Council appoint to such a Vetting Committee other than people who agree with them?  How does that solve anything? How does it not simply entrench the problem that the party elites are determined to shrink the talent pool to include only people they would be happy to invite around for dinner?

The solution to a lack of internal democracy is not to create an undemocratic entity that takes even more power away from party members. 

In the pantheon of bad ideas, this one deserve high billing. 

Depression is not really like herpes

I admire NZ comedian Mike King a great deal for his work breaking down the stigma associated with mental illness. Drawing on their own experiences, King and rugby great Sir John Kirwan have done more than anyone in New Zealand to spread awareness of mental health and to encourage taciturn Kiwis to seek help. Bravo. 

Mike King and I engaged on a Twitter today as you can see below:

There were a few follow up tweets where King got a tad defensive, but that's not important. What matters, I think, is that the notion that depression is a lifelong affliction – "once you've got it, you've got it for life" – is misleading and unhelpful. 

Some people suffer depression over the long-term, including me. But it is not accurate to say "once you've got it, you've got it for life" . Many people experience a single depressive episode over a lifetime. Take this widely-cited research from 2007 funded by the National Institutes of Health which estimated that 70 percent of subjects reporting depression only endure one or two episodes. Recurrent, long-term depression is not uncommon by any means, but nor is it inevitable. It doesn't seem in the public interest, let alone the interests of someone who might take it to mean a lifetime of suffering awaits them, to claim otherwise. 

Doing Africa

This post from Lynn Forester de Rothschild defending the work of Clinton Foundation is remarkable for one thing: in describing at length a recent trip to Africa she undertook with Bill Clinton, de Rothschild never once mentions where in Africa. The article even includes a series of photographs with detailed captions — but, again, not a single placename beyond simply "Africa". Not even West, East, Central or sub-Saharan.  De Rothschild mentions she visited 11 projects run by the Clinton Foundation over two weeks — all marvelous and inspiring — but we are never told whether they are in Liberia or Botswana, Burundi or Ethiopia, Mali or Chad. It's enough to know they are in Africa, apparently. 

So very strange, and strangely revealing. The entire continent is presented as a monolithic repository of Caucasian largesse; a gigantic backdrop for ostentatious do-gooding.   

The title of the post is "Back From Africa with Eyes Wide Open" which is ironic since the author must have had her eyes firmly closed while she was there.  

 (If you can't quite grasp what's wrong with the article, replace "Africa" with "Europe" and read it again). 


Roy Morgan, Andrew Little and Labour's Next Move

Much wailing and gnashing of teeth has followed the release of the latest Roy Morgan poll that places National at 54 percent and Labour at a woeful 25.5. Noting that the poll was in the field before the well-received budget, and prior to Labor leader Andrew Little's unforced superannuation gaffe, pundits are aghast. I am not.  

Anyone who thought Andrew Little was the answer to Labour's problems had rocks in their head to start with. He has had every job there is in the labour movement, from Union boss to party president. Andrew Little is a well known figure in Labour circles and, even if the press gallery found him fresh and interesting for about ten minutes, he has always been a plodding performer of modest political skills. In order to believe Little is a breakthrough political talent, you would also have to believe he has spent the past two decades hiding his light under a bushel. No bushel, no light. It's why I didn't vote for him. 

But should Little be rolled if Labour's stocks remain this low? Well, yes, probably. For whom? Robertson? He's a smoother operator, but he's hardly made much of finance thus far, and he has this infuriating propensity for speaking in empty, inoffensive jargon. That said, almost every Labour MP who understands anything about politics supports him — although I worry this has more to do with his ability to rev up the troops at Question Time than win over actual voters in actual electorates. Robertson's caucus popularity shouldn't be discounted. 

Anyway, leader schmeader. The Labour party is broken. It needs a root and branch reinvention. Tim Barnett must go. Caucus non performers should be shown the door and replaced with authentic talent from outside the increasingly shallow pool.  The ridiculous, arse covering Gould review should be scrapped and Michael Cullen should be asked to conduct a serious examination. Internal democratic reforms should be implemented so as to open the organisation up to become bigger, more inclusive, dynamic and relevant. Something purpose built for the 21st century. 

Getting that done is more important — infinitely more important — than Little v Robertson, or Parker v Shearer. Hell, I would vote for Sue Moroney if I felt for a second she had what it took to set the village ablaze in order to save it. 


A bearable lightness of being

There's no precise term for the spaces between depressive episodes.  Remission or recovery won't do — both are weighed down by connotations of cancer and addiction.  

Most people are not depressed, or at least not often, so I guess we don't need a word to describe it. For the same reason, we don't have a term for not suffering from angina

When depression is our default setting — I've written before that, of late, I've been depressed roughly 80 percent of the time — it feels like a deficiency of language that there is no way to easily convey (I prove my point by scrambling for the words) that I am currently free from it. 

In any event, that is me right now. I am in a state of not-depression. A bearable lightness of being.

Not-depression manifests itself in occasional surges of mild giddiness that come with the realization that I do not feel dead inside. It reminds me of when I first wore prescription lenses, and the world came to life in technicolor glory all around me. Being fourteen and perpetually hungry, I went straight to McDonalds and ordered items from the menu I had no idea existed.  Delighted, yes, but also resentful I had been missing out all this time.

After twelve months of sloth and weight gain, I started a fitness regimen. Enlisting a personal trainer, I have been working out, outside in Hoi An's oppressive heat, every day but Sunday. It leaves me shattered. But I will not surrender this not-depression, not without a fight: getting and staying fit, losing weight and feeling healthy — without these, relapse is inevitable, probably soon. 

Coming out from a depression, I find myself relearning how to deal with people. The phone will ring and it takes several seconds before I register that it's okay to pick it up. "You are not terrified of this phone," I tell myself, "so answer the bloody thing". I rediscover the pleasures of conversation, reminding myself to ask questions, maintain eye contact and smile until it comes naturally.  Sometimes, laughter happens.  A day or two back, I shouted and waved at someone across a busy street. Can you imagine? 

For now at least, negativity and self-loathing have lost their power to overwhelm and paralyze. Why these thoughts, previously so powerful, orbit but fail to land is beyond my comprehension.  But I am grateful for it. 




To the very ignorant, the slightly less ignorant can appear wise.

Paul Giamatti in San Andreas

Paul Giamatti in San Andreas

One thing I've learned over the years is that the closer one is to given subject matter, the more inadequate the reporting on that subject appears to be. 

Journalism, as we know, usually fails the test of time — the first draft of history is typically very rough indeed. But we are oblivious to this because most stories involve subjects about which our knowledge is (often a lot) less than the person who wrote it.  To the very ignorant, the slightly less ignorant can appear wise. 

One example that comes to mind is that of Max Fisher, a well respected writer at Vox, formerly of the Washington Post.  Fisher is prolific and his beat, especially at the Post, seemed to cover every corner of the globe. Even today I read most of what Fisher writes, and some of it seems very good.  I say "seems" because I recall Fisher's attempts to write about the Great Lakes region of Africa when I lived and worked in Rwanda. His stories about the so-called M23 group operating in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo at the time, and Rwanda's alleged support thereof, were  short of historical and political context and, in many cases, just plain wrong. At the time, when I was intimately involved in the issue, it struck me that it would be far preferable for Western audiences to read nothing at all than Fisher's accounts.  Now, I don't blame Max Fisher, but his employer: The Washington Post had no business giving the task of reporting on such a complex story to somebody without considerable expertise and first-hand knowledge.  By doing so, Fisher had no choice but to engage in CTRL-V reportage: cutting and pasting from other news reports along with UN and NGO press releases to compile his stories.

Of course, the only reason I knew Fisher's reporting was so bad was that I happened to know the beat better than him. With respect to almost everything else he writes, I cannot claim such an advantage – and those other stories come off swimmingly. This means one of two things:

    • Max Fisher writes well-informed and properly contextualised stories, except when the subject happens to be Great Lakes Region; or
    • All of Fisher's work shares similar shortcomings to his Great Lakes reporting, but I am too ignorant to notice.  

    This sounds like I am piling on Max Fisher. I am not. He is intelligent and hard-working and, with command of his subject, an excellent journalist. It bears repeating: the fault for his flawed, often erroneous EDRC reporting lay clearly with the Washington Post. And it's not as if Fisher was the only Western journo to misreport the story: Reuters and AFP were consistently worse than Fisher, and both had stringers based in the region. Wire services, especially Reuters in my experience, are almost entirely dependent on the well-funded comms shops inside institutions like the UN as well as Big NGOs. 

    Any person who has been interviewed by a reporter will know that they invariably get things wrong. When I forayed into the media as a teenage city councillor and shameless publicity ho in the late eighties, I was blown away by how the journalist invariably got some detail wrong, failed to convey the key points, or placed a quote out of context. Until that time, I had taken as given that news reports were accurate representations of events and perspectives. The inevitable errors in reporting about my precocious antics struck me at first as personally insulting, but soon I realized this was not the case. They were neither specific to me nor malicious in intent, but merely the product of carelessness or corner-cutting by time pressed journalists. 

    The correlation between proximity to subject matter and perceived accuracy is not restricted to journalism. Whenever fictional politicians give speeches in movies or on TV, they sound forced and implausible to me because I've written many actual speeches for real politicians. By contrast, as a random example, on the trailer for the upcoming earthquake flick, San Andreas, Paul Giamatti oozes authority as a seismologist but I'm sure his hysterical utterances cause real world seismologists to roll their eyes, if not shake their fists. (Not that I'm comparing my cobbled-together sham of a career to seismology, but you get the drift). 

    What's my point? Well, nothing that you probably don't already know. "Don't believe everything you read" is decent advice that could only be improved by replacing 'everything' with 'anything'. 



    Memo to Self: Don't Get into Twitter Fights

    Touch wood, since I stopped drinking eight years ago, I haven't yet relapsed.  But I imagine the feelings of shame and remorse that would follow such a bender are not dissimilar to how I feel moments after I exit a Twitter fight with someone. I really wish I wouldn't do it – and, to be fair, it's a rare occurrence. Social media scraps unleash parts of my personality that I am mostly able to keep under control. It's an ugly version of me who takes over the keyboard, and it gives me insight into the psychopathology of Internet trolls. 

    The latest one involved this guy who posted something about an article I wrote. He did the usual – took stuff out of context, conjured straw man arguments, failed to engage with the substance of what I said, etc. – and I sent him a single tweet in the heat of my objection: fairly bloody dishonest, I said. (I'm not providing the links to any of this because it's not important: the substantive part of the disagreement related to how Labour in New Zealand arranges internal ballots – I support proportionality, he doesn't. BFD, amirite?).

    He responded in own defence, to which (sensibly, I thought)  I replied that I didn't want to get into a pissing contest; he prodded me some more, said I was "running away". I should've just sat in the Lotus position and said "yeah, I'm running away. Ommm" – but, no, my stupid male ego got pricked, and off I went. What followed was an extended back and forth of exactly the kind I wanted to avoid – and yet it was at least equally my fault since I tweeted of my offense when I read his blog post when I could've just shut my stupid mouth.  

    Once you start a war of words on Twitter, it's hard to stop. He flung the whole lot at me – taunts, petty insults (including the classic "Yawn") imputations of motive, you get the picture. By now, my social media monster had taken over and was dishing it out, too. 

    Ugh. How unattractive. 

    Must not do that again.  

    Essay: Islamophobia in Me

    The repudiation of bigotry in the same breath as its rabid espousal — “ I’m not racist, but…” — is a mainstay of human discourse.  “No one could call me antisemitic,” George Orwell quoted a ‘middle-class woman’  saying in 1945,  "but I do think the way these Jews behave is too absolutely stinking.” In his essay,  Antisemitism in Britain, Orwell notes that the tendency to consider ourselves immune makes it harder to grasp prejudice: 

    “Since I know that antisemitism is irrational,” [the intellectual] argues, “it follows that I do not share it.” He thus fails to start his investigation in the one place where he could get hold of some reliable evidence — that is, in his own mind. 

    Orwell’s essay prompted me to consider whether my exasperation with the term Islamophobia, and with its constant deployment by people who seem to want other people to shut up, has distracted me from examining whether or not hostility towards Islam and its adherents has infected me. Have I fallen into the  “I’m not a bigot but...” trap? Am I — a liberal, progressive, secular, humanist, card-carrying leftie — an Islamophobe

    First, my objections to the term itself. 

    ‘Islamophobia' seems to conflate two distinct concepts: the rejection, or criticism, of Islam as a religion; and animosity towards Muslims themselves. While Neo-Nazi thugs and god-fearing Christian ignoramuses probably hold both views at once, most people have no trouble grasping the distinction: we can reject Islam – in the same way I do all the Abrahamic faiths – without having the slightest problem with Muslim believers. In the same light, I consider Joseph Smith a stupendous fraud, and his made-up religion laughable, but I cannot think of a single Mormon whose company I didn’t enjoy. If there are adherents of Islam (or Mormonism, for that matter) who choose to take personal umbrage at my rejection of their belief system, it is a topsy-turvy moral universe that casts me, and not them, as the bigot of the piece. Iranian feminist and ex-Muslim activist Maryam Namazie  seems to have a point when she argues that accusations of Islamophobia often appear designed to “silence dissenters and defend Islamism as a defence of ‘Muslims’”. 

    The term ‘Islamophobia'  troubles me for yet another reason: because all criticism of Islam is construed as an attack on Muslims themselves, and because most Muslims are people of colour, critics are quickly deemed racist. This blurring of religious with ethnic identity is the elegant sophistry that bamboozles large sections of the Left because we live in a society, as John McWhorter  wrote in  The Daily Beast, “where racism is treated as morally equivalent to pedophilia”. By adopting an anti- Islamophobia posture (even if it entails finding excuses for, if not ignoring entirely, the subjugation of women and girls, the persecution of gays and lesbians, and the beheading of nonbelievers), self-identified progressives earn a double-whammy: they avoid dreaded accusations of racism, while accruing the prized right to make the accusation of others. 

    All that said, and for all I continue to find the term 'Islamophobia' jarring and imprecise, it shouldn’t prevent me from conducting an honest appraisal of my own prejudices.  

    To that end, this is the thought experiment I conducted. 

    Imagine a street in a Western city lined with places of worship representing every conceivable denomination.   Say I was to wander down this street, pausing outside every church, synagogue, shrine, temple and mosque as smatterings of the faithful gather to worship.   

    Now consider the fact I am gay, and imagine I am not undertaking this unlikely stroll alone — but arm in arm with my boyfriend (who does not exist, but hypothetically might).

    Here is my confession: in such a scenario, it is only at the Mosque, instinctively, irrationally perhaps, that I would fear for my safety — and these feelings would strike well before I could summon the intellectual wherewithal to berate myself for religious bigotry. However retrograde or hostile their respective teachings on human sexuality, a Catholic Church, a Jewish synagogue or a Buddhist temple would trigger no such response. I would more likely experience some amalgam of defiance, amusement and smug superiority.  I might even blow a facetious kiss — at least to the Catholics. 

    The best course of action might be to banish these visceral intuitions and adopt the more rational-seeming,  certainly politer, belief that the average Muslim is no more likely than people of other faiths to wish or inflict harm on me for my sexuality. And yet I cannot escape the feeling that Islam and its believers present the greater threat.  This is a discomfiting realisation for an otherwise fairly orthodox liberal. 

    Are there grounds for my phobia

    A University of Amsterdam  study found that  two thirds of the assailants in gay bashing cases in that city are Muslim immigrants, despite making up less than fifteen percent of the population. According to  Pew Research in 2013, only two percent of Pakistani Muslims, and three percent of supposedly moderate Indonesians, support gay rights. When Gallup surveyed 500 British Muslims in 2009, not a single respondent agreed that homosexuality is morally acceptable. Of the ten countries where, in 2015, being gay remains a crime punishable by death,  all are majority Muslim. ISIS fighters cite Sharia law before  hurling allegedly gay men off buildings and stoning them when they fail to die. Aside from images of Mohammed in  Charlie Hebdo, eleven of whose employees were slaughtered by Islamists in January, it was that of  a cartoonist and an Imam locked in a same sex embrace that most alarmed the faithful. 

    The preferred path for many on the Left is to look past such travesties and imbibe the dictum that “Islam is a religion of peace”; that atrocities against gays, women and non-believers are caused by geopolitics, socioeconomic deprivation and oil; that Islamist views, however vile to our tender ears, are sincerely held and “deserve respect”. Addressing the rising tide of Muslim violence in Europe, one American journalist and author, Sarah Wildman,  asked, “can’t economic disparity, lack of citizenship, astronomical unemployment, and public transportation that cuts them off at 8 p.m. from the cities they see, but don’t live in, make radical Islam attractive?” To Wildman’s credit, it demonstrates impressive dedication to the liberal cause, not to mention eye-popping rhetorical dexterity, to discern triggers for religious extremism in oppressive bus timetables. 

    The price of disavowing such arguments is to risk shaming as an ‘Islamophobe', a cultural imperialist and, god forbid, a neoconservative

    Guilty as charged, I guess — at least on the first count.

    It is true that I am fearful of what Islam’s true believers appear to have in mind for people like me; and, yes, I’m prepared to concede  if we’re going to insist on the word — that this qualifies as a kind of ‘Islamophobia'.

    What I cannot fathom is how turning a blind eye to atrocities against the very groups whose right to a dignified existence has been the abiding cause of the Left for centuries fits any conceivable definition of “progressive”.

    I'm not sure Sam Neill knows what 'terrorism' means

    Of course I love Sam Neill, the great New Zealand film actor. 

    But this tweet has me baffled:

    'Terrorist' is not a catch-all term for anyone who commits a heinous act of mass violence. It carries a specific meaning that relates to the motive behind the violence. 

    The Oxford English Dictionary defines a terrorist as:

    A person who uses violent and intimidating methods in the pursuit of political aims; esp. a member of a clandestine or expatriate organization aiming to coerce an established government by acts of violence against it or its subjects.

    Neill seems to think that the reason Germanwings co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, is not being called a terrorist is because he is European; and that the (alleged) presence of mental illness is considered an exculpatory factor for a European when it would not be for someone of another ethnicity.

    To the extent Neill is saying that many people might quickly deem this a terrorist act if the perpetrator were Muslim, whether or not the individual had a mental disorder, he has a valid point. (Although, we have very recent case in point, MH370, where early rumours of terrorism on the part of Muslim pilots and crew did not withstand the absence of evidence of political or religious motive).  Without any proof, people are wrong, and undeniably bigoted, to assume every crime committed by Muslim is terrorism – just as Neill is wrong, based on what we know so far, to call Lubitz a terrorist.

    I am not sure what Neill is really advocating here. Is he saying that, because some people – horrible white oppressors – are too quick to apply the term "terrorist" to Muslims, we should misattribute the term to non-Muslims as well?

    A better principle might be to use the word accurately in all instances.   



    Piers Morgan's alarmist nonsense contradicted by actual facts about the link between mental illness and violence

    I have never cared enough about Piers Morgan to have a strong opinion, but his Daily Mail story about the Germanwings tragedy indicates that the widely held "dickhead" thesis may have some validity. 

    He is stoking fear and misconceptions about mental illness. 

    A co-pilot with a lengthy history of depression, on medication for his illness, and ignoring a specific doctor’s sick note for the very day he was flying, was allowed to command a plane full of 149 people.

    For a start, what I believe we know at this point is that the co-pilot had severe depression six years ago. More information will come out, but this alone does not qualify as "a lengthy history of depression" – it is a single episode. As far as we know. 

    Secondly, do we know if the co-pilot was medicated for depression? Is Piers Morgan saying he should not have been medicated? Or that anyone with any history of depression, on anti-depressants or not, represents a clear risk to the flying public?

    Does Morgan know that the doctor's note related to a mental health issue?  No one else seems to have this information, including the New York Times whose fact-checking prowess is slightly greater than the former editor of a disgraced tabloid and ex-presenter of a failed talkshow.  This is what the NY Times reports:

    The Federal Aviation Office of Germany said on Friday that a medical certificate issued to Mr. Lubitz that allowed him to fly noted that he had a medical condition, although it did not specify whether it was related to a psychological issue.

    Furthermore, the Times reports that Lubitz had been twice for "diagnostic evaluation" at Dusseldorf University Hospital, in February and then in March, but that the hospital "but denied reports that the co-pilot had been treated for depression"

    So what do we actually know?

    Lubitz had a depressive episode six years ago for which he sought and received treatment; he has been evaluated twice for conditions other than depression in recent months; he had a doctor's note for the day of the flight, but we do not know whether that related to depression or any other mental health issue. 

    The most egregious aspect of Morgan's rant, of course, is the lazy, implicit assertion that Lubitz's depression, about which he asserts a great deal more that he could possibly know, somehow explains the heinous act of deliberately downing the plane and killing all onboard. 

    This is nonsense.

    Depression, even severe depression, on its own, does not predict acts of violence, let alone tragedies of this magnitude. 

    In 2009, researchers at the  School of Medicine, University of North Carolina, studied the role of mental illness in violence and reported:

    The findings challenge the perception some people have, and which you often see reflected in media coverage, that mental illness alone makes someone more dangerous. Our study shows that this perception is just not correct.

    The study finds that "only when a person has both mental illness and substance abuse at the same time does that person’s risk of future violence outweigh anyone else’s.” (There is no evidence, at least to date, to suggest substance abuse in the case of Lubitz).

    The study finds divorce a greater predictor of violence than mental illness – and, given that some reports estimate the divorce rates among airlines pilots as high as 75 percent, surely none of us should ever fly again. 

    After reviewing more than 34,000 cases, the UNC researchers found clear, empirical evidence to reject Piers Morgan-style claims. They concluded their report thus: 

    As severe mental illness itself was not shown to sequentially precede later violent acts, the findings challenge perceptions that severe mental illness is a foremost cause of violence in society at large. The data shows it is simplistic as well as inaccurate to say the cause of violence among mentally ill individuals is the mental illness itself; instead, the current study finds that mental illness is clearly relevant to violence risk but that its causal roles are complex, indirect, and embedded in a web of other (and arguably more) important individual and situational cofactors to consider.

    In simple terms, Lubitz may have suffered from depression when he set the plane to nosedive, but the suggestion of Piers Morgan (and others, sadly) that his depression means we somehow should have seen it coming – and that depressed people present a grave threat to us all – is simplistic, ignorant, rabble-rousing, scare-mongering, bullshit. 

    Gourevitch, somehow, as ever, finds words for impenetrable horror

    No-one captures the horror implicit in the revelations about the final minutes of Germanwings Flight 9525 better than Philip Gourevitch in the New Yorker today: 

    It’s all there in the sound of Lubitz breathing. The wind of life, the wind of death. That steady soughing tells us all that we know so far, and all that we don’t yet—and may never—know, about this atrocity, the deadliest aviation catastrophe in France in more than three decades. Just as the brevity of the flight, and the apparent spontaneity of the captain’s decision to leave the cockpit—to stretch a leg? or take a piss? or have a chat? We do not know know—tells us that Lubitz could not have planned before he flew that day to crash the plane that way; and just as the locking of the door, and the pushing of the button that brought the plane down, tell us that he acted consciously and deliberately, so Lubitz’s breathing, unbroken by any attempt at speech, tells us that he chose not to explain himself. He knew that he was on the record. What did he think he was doing? What came over him? What possessed him? And why?

    Another Round of Jazz Hands for Nick Cohen

    As the friend who directed me to the "jazz hands" story said in his email, laughing at student politicians is too easy. It's like shooting bloated, elderly fish in a pint-sized barrel. 

    What "jazz hands" story, you ask? Here it is in a nutshell-sized tweet. 

    Okay, yes – it's hilarious. It's 'PC gone mad' gone mad. 

    What's more, the broader context is worth a giggle as well.

    The conference remits include support for:

    • A universal, taxpayer funded income for everyone, roughly equating to £1,500 (or NZD$3,000) per month; and
    • The complete abolition of prisons

    As well as admonition for:

    • Gay white men who channel their "inner black women". 

    Yes, apparently gay white men are "the dominant demographic within the LGBT community" and it is therefore insulting and offensive for them to adopt mannerisms or language of people further up (or down?) the oppression matrix.  Now, I am not going to quibble about the first assertion – although it did occur to me that whoever thinks gay white men are dominant within the LGBT community must never have seen gay white men and gay white women in the same room – but this insistence on building pyramids of victimhood, with all the attendant finger pointing and identity shaming, seems self-defeating and absurd. 

    It's easy – yes, and fun – to mock these extreme examples of PC silliness, but these are the fruits of a deadly tree.  

    In yet another brilliant essay in defence of free speech, Nick Cohen attacks the "the tyrannical language of an illiberal intelligentsia so lost in complacency it thinks it no longer needs the rights it once championed". Writing in Standpoint Magazine, Cohen reminds us this culture of dissent crushing and oppressive righteousness is by no means limited to student politicians on an ideological bender. 

    Go into the modern university and you won’t hear much about Mill or Milton or the millions around the world who have had to learn the hard way why freedom of speech matters. Instead, you will be fed philosophers far less rigorous than [American legal philosopher Joel] Feinberg. The New Zealander Jeremy Waldron, an Oxford professor from the American university system, which churns out authoritarian philosophers the way Ford churns out cars, suggests speech that attacks the dignity of others should be banned. Stanley Fish of New York dispenses with any pretence that we should respect universal human rights, and descends into power-worship and thuggery. “The only way to fight hate speech is to recognise it as the speech of your enemy,” he says. “And what you do in response to the speech of your enemy is not prescribe a medication for it but attempt to stamp it out.”

    As with everything Cohen writes, every word in this essay is worth reading. In particular, I was struck by the clarity with which he defined the problem at the heart of regulating speech – and it's an argument I've never seen successfully rebutted:

    Few contemporary theorists grasp that people oppose censorship not because they respect the words of the speaker but because they fear the power of the censor. It is astonishing that professed liberals, of all people, could have torn up the old limits, when they couldn’t answer the obvious next question: who decides what is offensive? 

    As we go about scrubbing the world clean of offensive speech, who gets to decide what stays or goes? The National Union of Students? The mufti, priest or rabbi down the street? State-appointed censors? You? Me? As Cohen points out, when it comes to protecting the right to unpopular or controversial speech, majority sentiment is an atrocious guide: 

    If it is the representatives of a democracy, you have the tyranny of the majority to discriminate against “offensive” homosexuals, for instance. If it is a dictatorship, you have the whims of the ruling tyrant or party—which will inevitably find challenges to its rule and ideology offensive. If it is public or private institutions, they will decide that whistleblowers must be fired for damaging the bureaucracy, regardless of whether they told the truth in the public interest. If it is the military, they will suppress pictures of torture for fear of providing aid to the enemy. If it is the intelligence services they will say that leaks about illegal surveillance must be stopped because they might harm national security, just as pornography might harm women. Why should they have to prove it, when liberals have assured them that there is no need to demonstrate actual damage?

    Maybe what's acceptable speech or not should be determined by how offended the offended party feels:

    Perhaps the vehemence of the offence taken is the decisive factor. Maybe if the offended can prove that they are shocked beyond measure, they would provide legitimate grounds to censor. If so, we must give in to Islamists, who feel the hurt of blasphemy so keenly they will murder anyone they deem to have blasphemed. 

    As usual, Cohen is unsparing about the failure of many within the liberal-left to tackle Islamism:

    In the name of liberalism, they fail to fight a creed that is sexist, racist, homophobic and, in its extreme forms, genocidal and totalitarian. Their political correctness has turned their principles inside out, and led them to abandon their beliefs in female and homosexual equality.

     For his troubles, Cohen will endure the typical battery of personal attacks from the usual suspects, but his clear-eyed, common-sensical, authentically liberal, worldview will remain unchallenged on the substance.  

    "The Saudi Arabia of Milk"

    UPDATE: A friend on Twitter pointed out that the phrase appeared in  the Wall St. Journal in 2008.  Maybe the blogger should have credited them; maybe it's a coincidence; maybe it's a ubiquitous term that has escaped me until now. In any event, I still like! 

    Crooked Timber is a popular centre-left blog run by academics from the US, UK, Ireland and elsewhere. One of their contributors, Daniel, has written a long piece based on his travels around New Zealand (and, briefly, Australia). Unlike some of my compatriots, I am not prone to hyperventilating with excitement whenever I see a non-New Zealander mention the country – and there's nothing here that struck me as especially earth-shattering – but, if for nothing else, the author deserves the link for coming up with the phrase, "The Saudi Arabia of Milk". 

    Early Onset Hillary Fatigue

    In Business Spectator today, I discuss the latest Hillary scandals – and how they fill me with dread for what's to come. 

    With the exception of incumbents seeking reelection or sitting vice-presidents like Al Gore and George H.W. Bush, no candidate of either party in the modern era enters the election season with as firm a grip on their party’s nomination as Clinton. In 2008, it was hers to lose; this time, it's just hers.
    Is it just me, or is that an utterly exhausting prospect?
    Don't get me wrong: for all I that long for a Warren candidacy, if Hillary's the Democratic nominee, I want her to win. As a matter of fact, I would want her to win so thumpingly that the Democrats retake control of the Senate and capture the House of Representatives on her coattails (the latter's a long shot).
    Her Republican opponent next year -- possibly that other Bush, but more likely someone even less palatable like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker -- will scrap Obama's signature healthcare reforms, wind back progress on immigration and gay rights, and stack the Supreme Court, several of whose aging members will undoubtedly retire or otherwise move on during the term of the next President, with cranky right-wingers who will  inflict even greater long-term damage -- on civil, voting and abortion rights, campaign finance laws, environmental regulation, and in countless other insidious ways.
    And yet, for all the policy and political advantages of another Clinton in the White House, the return of Clintonism -- "I did not have two smartphones with that woman" -- fills me with foreboding.

    Obamacare, a public policy triumph, turns five

    Ezra Klein and his army of brainiacs over at Vox covers no subject more keenly or thoroughly than U.S. healthcare policy and politics.

     This is a fascinating piece on the gap between perception and reality when it comes to Obama's healthcare reforms, the Affordable Care Act. In many respects, the evidence is accruing to establish beyond doubt the reform's successes — not only by slashing the number of uninsured Americans, but also by helping constrain healthcare inflation, and thereby reducing the federal deficit. And yet, the unyielding and ferocious opposition of conservatives continue to infect public perception of Obamacare; as this chart shows, only five percent of Americans realise that government spending on healthcare has been less than projected since Obama signed the ACA in 2010, while 42 percent mistakenly believe the opposite.