Tuesday, December 22, 2020

On Damien Grant On Damien Grant On Covid-19, Hindsight, And Playing Russian Roulette With A Semi-Automatic Aimed At One's Own Foot

Like a diminishing quotient of New Zealanders, I have the occasional expectation of finding something enthusing and enlightening in my Sunday newspaper. I also expect there is Damien Grant. 

Sunday's Star Times was no exception, and his column therein makes for frankly bizarre reading. In it, he sets out at some length, and by his own admission, just how repeatedly wrong he was at seemingly every turn about Covid-19.  I give him credit for that, it's rarely an easy thing to do to admit to being even somewhat wrong. Let alone, as I say, about just about everything. 

Although what he THEN does, is spend the last few paragraphs attempting to justify how despite all that he had aforementioned ... he was not, in fact, wrong - but rather, everybody else (i.e. the no-doubt 'collectivist' Government of New Zealand and all in favour of Her) was instead. 

By this stage, I have basically come to the conclusion that Damien Grant is being a contrarian - particularly when he writes, although probably not just restricted to that sphere

I mean ... he's a libertarian, over the age of 15; who is working in an industry whose key characteristic is the ongoing failure of private individuals and capitalist enterprises. That is literally his bread and butter, and he somehow thinks "MORE OF THAT KIND OF THING!"

Oh wait, I think I just reasoned my way to why a liquidator might want MOAR CAPITALISM. Disregard that bit ..

Anyway, I can't fathom why on EARTH a man would write a column about "How I Was Consistently Wrong At Every Turn On Covid-19", specifically emphasize that he was opposing highly informed expert opinion that was correct , presumably partially because it was "collectivist" ...

And then conclude by saying that because of "fat tail risk" [effectively the risk of catastrophic negative consequences as the result of an (in)action], New Zealand shouldn't have done all the stuff that made us a success - 

i.e. should have acted as if Grant was right ... every single time ... particularly the times that contradicted the other times.

Now yes, sure, 'risk of really bad thing happening' is an acceptable thing to factor into calculations when it comes to what one intends to do facing a complex and changing situation.


But straight-up ... why is it that his definition of 'risk of things going VERY badly' is restricted to "the economy might do rather poorly", rather than "THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE MAY DIE".

The very linchpin of Grant's analysis - that one should not do the thing that might lead to Really Bad Thing Happening - ALSO militates that one should not do ... a rather large array of things other than what New Zealand did. [i.e. exactly what Sweden, the UK, USA, etc. etc. etc. decided to do instead, largely in evidently futile bids to stave off economic slowdowns]

Because it'd be WORSE.

The evidence from overseas is pretty clear about this: those countries that DID NOT engage in a proper lockdown and/or other rather serious measures [open question as to whether you count Taiwan as having 'serious measures' - although I suspect Grant wouldn't be keen on theirs..] ... have wound up with BOTH a) a public health crisis AND b) an economic injury of notable proportions .

Why? Turns out that even when you DON'T lockdown .. people don't go out and spend money so much , wind up taking time off work , and other things that aren't great for economy

So, again, what's the real 'fat tail(ed) risk" here ? That we wind up with both a) what Grant's concerned might have happened thanks to our successful pandemic response [i.e. economic impairment] AND b) what Grant hasn't considered [i.e. significant health impairment]

From where I'm sitting, Grant can go on about playing Russian Roulette all he likes - but NOT adopting the stratagem New Zealand did is tantamount to playing with a gun with five bullets , not one.

In fact, it's worse than that.

Going down Grant's "we shouldn't have done [whatever it is at any given stage of the pandemic]" approach ... we'd have been playing Russian Roulette with a semi-automatic instead of a revolver.

New Zealand, by contrast - by doing, it would appear, the literal opposite of what Grant thought was a good call at every step of the process up to and including 'Hindsight'

... instead chose to remove the firing pin.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

On National's Unsafe Attitude Towards Drug Testing

Earlier this week, the Government announced that it was going to pick up one of the loose threads from the previous Parliamentary term - and pass measures to allow the testing of drugs at music festivals and the like, so as to reduce the risk of ... well, serious harm occurring. 

It's a robust, evidence-supported policy that's utterly uncontroversial in other parts of the world (although not Australia) - and therefore, it's perhaps no surprise that the National Party remains bitterly opposed thereto. Because they assert that it "sends the wrong message". 

Which leads me to ponder whether the "right message" is young people dying or being injured in order to "scare the others straight". 

Last Term, it wasn't alone in this. New Zealand First also blocked the bill that'd been put forward - and so it was defeated. But with the makeup of the House having changed considerably since then, it's been brought back for another go. Where it shall pass.  

And predictably, the Nats are somewhat aggrieved about that. 

Partially, it's because the legislation has been brought forward under Urgency - with noted afficionado of Things Young People Like, Simeon Brown, taking issue with the Government's apparent "priorities" as a result. Which, on paper, might sound like a semi-reasonable objection ... up until you consider that it's already early December with the House rising for Summer very shortly, during which time no legislation is passed - and that most of the drug-taking at music festivals etc. tends to take place, likewise, over the Summer. 

Or, phrased another way - it actually makes sense to ensure that legislation that will be most relevant over the summer is in place before the summer. 

However, leaving aside the Parliamentary process side to things (and I'm sure we could find any number of .. curious things the Nats had used Urgency to pass, previously) - it's Simon Bridges who makes the most concise case for why the National Party remain resolutely opposed to seeing sense upon this matter.

Quoth Bridges: "National isn’t supporting the pill testing bill because it sends the wrong message on hard drugs to our young & it gives them a false sense of security. This law may result in more illicit drug use & more harm."

These claims are, substantively, incorrect. Evidence from overseas does NOT show a greater use of drugs as the result of pill testing. 

Indeed, it's not hard to see how the converse is often more likely to be true: after all, what's going to be more effective at getting somebody NOT to consume a pill they've bought. The 'just say no' message that's already evidently failed? Or pointing out that the pill in question tested positive for rat poison - or the delightfully sobriqueted "Dr Death" [less commonly, but more accurately known as 'para-Methoxyamphetamine']. 

Meanwhile, the "false sense of security" is that which recreational drug-users currently may enjoy - by telling themselves that whatever they've bought is, in fact, what they've been told it is. Pill testing can actually help to re-inject not a "false sense of security" ... but a "real sense of danger" - especially when, as is the case in some overseas jurisdictions, drug-harm information for various substances is also given out with the test results. 

Bridges' claim rests upon the reasoning that drug-testing may lead to an increase in drug-harm. It is difficult to see how such a claim can be supported, in light of the fact that drug-testing does not appear to lead to an increase in drug-taking - and also, as its actively intended purpose, keeps the more- and most-harmful drugs OUT of people's bodies in the first place. 

It's simple - if we genuinely want fewer people taking harmful drugs ... we should be making clear which ones the (more) harmful ones are. 

I do appreciate the argument that allowing drug-testing to go ahead may seem like it's providing some sort of moral stamp of validation to the otherwise-illicit conduct in question - but I don't really see it that way; certainly not much more than seat-belts in cars provide a moral stamp of validation for driving fast or drunk and getting into automobile accidents [and I was ... very surprised to find that these sorts of arguments were actually being made against seatbelts becoming mandatory, half a century ago].

The simple truth is that whatever one feels about the morality or the legitimacy of young people (and older people, for that matter), taking drugs at a festival - I don't think many would be prepared to agree that this is a crime that ought carry a potential death sentence to it. 

Even if some, apparently, do implicitly believe this to be the case. I can only presume that they don't say so openly and overtly out of a fear that it would "send the wrong message" to the electorate about their values in practice. 

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Why An Iranian Nuclear Scientist Was Really Just Assassinated

By now, news of the assassination of the project-head of Iran's nuclear weapons effort, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, has gone around the world. What is less clear, however, is the identity of the perpetrators - and why they would undertake such a move.

On the surface, both elements seem obvious - the Israelis have a clear motivation for wishing to stab at Iran's nuclear effort and some form for doing so in the past via targeted killings. Something that had also been done to other nations as and when convenient (including their rather inspired choice of hiring none other than Otto Skorzeny in return for a faked 'pardon' for his Nazi service, to get at German scientists working for Egypt in the 1960s).

And I do not disagree that Israel is the most likely suspect. Although their actual reasoning for a strike would be somewhat different than the intuitive suggestion that this is merely about attempting to frustrate Iran's nuclear capability development. And, further, that they are unlikely to be the sole conspirator (a contradiction in terms).

As ever, the timing of events is crucial. We are in the dying days of the Trump Administration. The Netanyahu-dominated government of Israel knows this - and knows that its much free-er hand in the Middle East thanks to a pliant and pliable President in Washington, is similarly likely to be facing impending restraint from the incoming Biden regime. After all, it was the Obama Administration in which Biden served who took the radically logical step to actually endeavour to negotiate (and successfully, it must be added) with Tehran rather than continuing to treat them fruitlessly as international pariahs.

Said Administration - the Obama one, I mean - had also pointedly opposed Israel's efforts at destabilizing the situation via ongoing covert escapades and assassinations. And while it could therefore be fairly suggested that the Israelis might have chosen to 'get while the getting was good', I think that there is something else going on here. Something that has both had a longer-term buildup to it; and which may very well have taken place in some form regardless of recent US political events.

We have recently seen Israel act with the Trump Administration and also off its own bat to shore up the 'Saudi-Israeliya' axis of allies amidst certain Arab states; moves and maneuvers that have enabled an 'above-ground' rapproachment between governments that had long been working together 'under the table', and opened the door to the greater provision of American military hardware to same. This was evidently a long-term project which had been designed to make the region (south of Iraq and Syria, at least) more 'resilient' against perceived Iranian influence - and hopefully help to prevent another Syria or another Yemen (where the Sunni-Saudi-Israeli alignment has either been stymied or is getting a severely bloody nose and looking bad whilst doing it, respectively).

We have also recently seen Trump bluster about starting a war with Iran - not only via his reckless attitude towards the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani towards the start of this year (which triggered a symbolically necessary Iranian reprisal strike), but also following the Election. And it is that last element which is key here.

Little more than a week after it became apparent that he had not (immediately) won, Trump conjured together his Vice President, Secretary of State, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defence Secretary, with a view towards exploring strike options against Iran. At the time, it seemed like a curious maneuver - one which might have presented a convenient sideshow spectacle as post-electoral shenanigans were engaged in back home, perhaps.

However, read in light of the above, this recent targeted killing of an Iranian nuclear official may suggest that instead of an overt and blustery 'symbolic' blow in the manner of the cruise missile strike against a Syrian airbase in 2017, the Trump Administration may have given the go-ahead to something different. And much more cunning.

You see, the net impact of this most recent assassination isn't really going to be much of a dent in the Iranian nuclear project. That's not what it was designed to do. Rather, it is all about the optics of the thing - it is a 'showy move' of a different, and a far more 'slow-burning' kind. It is about making it far more difficult for the incoming Biden Administration to actually resume nuclear rapprochement with Tehran. Both due to the lingering perception that the Americans may have been implicitly involved in giving the Israelis a green light for the killing, as well as the plausible retaliatory action that Iran may now engage in against whomever it is that they officially declare to have been responsible. The Trump Administration will likely double down upon the action - if not claiming credit for it, then claiming that it was a moral and just action to have occurred and offering their support to whomever it was that pulled the metaphorical trigger.

A much more tense situation between Iran and the West, between the countries on either side of the Persian Gulf, is exactly what the Israeli government dearly wishes. They have been quite dismayed at the manner in which the Trump Administration's singularly inept blustery-shouting-that-it-is-diplomacy have managed to push European Union countries to engage more positively with Iran. Provoking Iran into what can be sold as their 'lashing out' and bellicose shows of attempted strength that make for good propaganda for those endeavouring to cast the Iranians as frothing-at-the-mouth scary fundamentalist extremists, would be useful to them. And would also help to support the development of acceptance amidst various Arab populations for their governments' already-decided rapprochement with Israel. 'The Enemy Of My Enemy', and all that.

So, whether this was an Israeli operation or one that the Americans nudged into occurrence (perhaps this is a part of why Pompeo was in Jerusalem last week), I think that the outgoing Trump Administration will have some small cause for celebration this week. They have managed to secure something they have dearly desired - a likely frustration and hamstringing for the incoming Biden Administration's presumed intent to re-engage with Iran. And therefore, perhaps, Trump won't have to see if he can start an overt and conventional war with Iran between now and January in order to have a lasting 'strike from the grave' at his soon-to-be replacement's ambitions and Presidency.

As I say - this is cunning. It is slow burning. The only serious question is - just how much of the Middle East may yet burn as a result of it. Hopefully, the wisdom and restraint demonstrated by the Iranians when dealing with the deliberate provocations of the Americans shall once again come to the fore. During the January retaliation for the murder of Major General Soleimanei, it was noted that the missile-strike was very much a symbolic one - it satisfied in some limited sense, the visual requirement for Iranian retribution to be 'seen to be done', without actually causing sufficient damage nor casualties to the Americans to then militate a subsequent escalation from that quarter (no doubt to the great disappointment of some).

Perhaps there is room for some similarly line-walking careful placement of foot so as to avoid both accelerator and landmine over the next two months as we all collectively wait for the clock to run down on the Trump Administration. Careful, cautious, and perspicacious consideration from Iran, I mean. I don't think anybody else involved is nearly so keen to avoid dragging  the Americans into a pointless quagmire, including various of the (outgoing) Americans themselves. 

Thursday, November 26, 2020

In Riposte To A Journalist's Outrage At Sanskrit Being Uttered In Our Nation's Parliament


Late yesterday evening, I noticed something strange on Twitter. 'Sanskrit' was trending - in New Zealand. Finding this rather unexpected, yet pretty positive, I went to check out why. It turned out that one of Labour's newly minted MPs - Dr Gaurav Sharma - had taken his Oath of Allegiance in Sanskrit, and also in Te Reo Maori. 

I thought this was a nice development. An MP making tasteful nods to both his own heritage, and also to the Maori sphere that is an indigenous, endogenous fundament to New Zealand. A language that came here, and a language that's of here. Treaty partnership and all that. 

Unfortunately, that wasn't quite why 'Sanskrit' was being so avidly discussed here in New Zealand on Twitter. 

Rather, a Kiwi journalist by the name of Michael Field, whom I've never previously heard of ... had taken to the platform to express his outrage that this had occurred. And, in the process, kicked off a bit of an international contratemps as a result. 

What did he say? Why did he object to Sharma's making use of his ancestral tongue to swear the Oath required of a Parliamentarian? 

Because, in Field's own words ... Sanskrit is apparently "a language of religious oppression & caste superiority", and "[a] mark of Hindutva - mark of fundamentalism." He also apparently felt that this may have called into question "Labour's working class values" and posed a question of his own - whether Sharma was, in fact, "a token?" 

Field appeared to be having a pretty bad day, because in his haste he then managed to tag in  the wrong Gaurav whilst demanding an explanation from Gaurav Sharma - so there's a completely unrelated Gaurav in New Delhi at the moment with only a few hundred followers presumably wondering just what on earth is going on in Kiwiland that's got anything to do with him right now. 

But to return to Field's statements, before we explain what's really going on here .. his own explanation for being outraged by Sharma's Sanskrit oath goes like this:

In reply to a twitter account called 'Indians In New Zealand', Field said this:

"This is nothing to do with multiculturalism - this is Modi's caste politics straight and simple. Sadly NZ Labour seems to have forgotten their roots; caste has no place in NZ."

And in reply to another Kiwi who asked him if he was feeling alright given the outlandishness of his initial sentiments, he added:

"Having been frequently in area of India where Sanskrit & Brahmin politics are vivid & result in riots over being forced to speak another language, I was surprised to see a Labour MP heading down that route. And I am feeling fine"

So in essence, Field saw Sharma's invocation of Sanskrit as being the imposition of "a language of religious oppression & caste superiority", incipient religious "fundamentalism", the introduction of "caste" (somehow), and basically a beachhead for "Modi's [...] politics" in Aotearoa.

Which is rather odd, because to start from the back ... it implies that he thinks Sharma is attempting to act as a vector for a foreign political leader and party by swearing allegiance to the Queen of New Zealand

Now, to my mind there are two closely interrelated considerations here when it comes to unpacking what's happened in Field's head. A really complicated situation, no doubt. 

The first, is that he's effectively posited that Sharma acknowledging and making active use of his own heritage, somehow renders Sharma not only irreducibly Indian (or, in Field's own words, a "token") - but also an alien and incompatible element with New Zealand and our broader ethos as a result of that. He's suggested that it's "Labour's working class values" that Sharma is purportedly at odds with - which is further peculiar, because Labour stopped really being an overweeningly 'working class' party several decades ago. I must have missed Field taking issue with the vast majority of Labour's current Caucus on a similar basis. 

Perhaps he wasn't so worried about those other MPs because they spoke in English - which, as we all know, has not been a "language of [...] oppression" for some years now, unless spoken with an American accent. 

But the second element which must be considered is how Field has construed Hinduism and Indian cultural (in this case specifically linguistic) heritage. As something apparently intrinsically and irreducibly "oppressive", bound up with "fundamentalism" and a "superiority" agenda. 

In the wake of the Christchurch Mosque shootings last year, we had a prayer performed in our Parliament in Arabic. Was Field similarly aghast, declaring that Arabic and the Muslim faith which it is strongly associated with, to be a tongue and ethos of "oppression", "fundamentalism", and "superiority" ? I'd certainly hope not. 

So why us? [And I say 'us', because as both a devout Hindu, and internationally published authority in the field, I make literally daily use of Sanskrit for both religious purposes and in my work]

Well, I'd hazard that Mr Field has basically gleaned the vast sum of his views on our religion from a comparatively limited perspective. I'm not going to be so uncharitable as to suggest it's all from some shrill ultra-liberal 'awoken' types, as he does state that he's visited India at some point (although curiously, refused to say when repeatedly asked just where in India it was that he'd been  to where there were "riots" occurring in reaction to some purported enforcement of Sanskrit); but wherever he's gotten his (mis)information from, it's like some sort of bad fun-house mirror - everything's not only distorted, but actively the wrong way around. 

It may perhaps surprise Field to learn this, but Sanskrit is not some sort of "Modi" invention come up with in a bid to propel "caste politics" back in India (something that, if it were actually occurring, Modi would have to be spectacularly bad at - his own party's successful candidate for President of India, the currently serving Ram Nath Kovind is a Dalit, an Untouchable; whilst Modi himself is a Vaishya - a merchant. So much for Brahmin supremacy ... ).

Instead, Sanskrit is arguably the oldest continuously spoken language of mankind - still having more than ten thousand 'native' speakers today in India and finding active use across the world by Hindus for a liturgical language in a manner perhaps comparable to the use of Latin for the Catholics pre-Vatican II. 

Its roots run incredibly deeply, with the oldest attested  texts in this language dating back to roughly three and a half thousand years ago; and the leaves and branches of its tree spanning incredibly broadly - most of India, as well as large swathes of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and places even further afield speak languages that are ultimately descended from Sanskrit. Almost a billion people in the world today have this language as a rather integral part of their cultural an civilizational heritage even before the religious dimension is taken into consideration. 

That was a large part of why Sharma chose to make use of Sanskrit for his Oath - precisely because it was a way of acknowledging the broad (north) Indian spectrum of community. Not because Sanskrit is somehow exclusive to Brahmins (it isn't - as Sharma pointed out, when he'd gone to school it was a compulsory language for all students; presumably in much the same manner that Latin used to be at various secondary schools in the Anglosphere, including, as it happens, the one I went to even in the 21st century - one wonders whether taking the Oath in Latin (or, for that matter, any of the Latinate legal terms still made active use of therein) would trigger Field into a fit of apoplexy about the Government somehow becoming an apologist for the atrocities of the Roman Empire)

So how is it that we wound up with an incredibly ancient and broadly pervasive language being pidgeonholed into evidently near-exclusive (mis-)association with a relatively recent political phenomenon in contemporary India? 

To put it bluntly, I suspect that it is because for Field and others like him - all actual Hinduism, all actual Indian cultural heritage is hidden 'Hindutva' extremism. It's rather like how, in the 1950s in America, being cautiously in favour of a worker getting a fair day's pay for a fair day's work made one a dyed-(red-)in-the-wool "Communist" in the eyes of some people. Or how, for an ongoing period following 9/11, looking like you might be an Arab, a Muslim, on an international aircraft might lead to some irascible American having a panic about how you must be a terrorist.

Any number of Sikhs were physically attacked for exactly this reason over the same period by ordinary Americans who'd completely misunderstood something that was not theirs, was somewhat obscure to them, and which seemed like it might be a threat just going off what they'd seen on the news. 

People often work themselves up into a lather of a moral 'crusade' about perceived injustices meted out overseas, and then attempt to replicate the alleged 'restorative' action they think should have happened over there, in the comfort of their own back yard at home. Maybe it helps them to feel useful; maybe it's a cover for other impulses. 

Whatever it is, it's evidently lead Field to feel that the simple act of speaking Sanskrit is an incredibly 'problematic' war-cry for something that he profoundly disagrees with. 

And therein lies the trouble. Because for Field, I think that if we really drilled down into it, there are no overt expressions of Hinduism that he would think are not somehow "oppressive". He has not said this, of course, and perhaps he has not even given it much thought.

But if we are not allowed to speak nor otherwise make use of our ancient liturgical language because he is afraid of its connotation ... what exactly constitutes 'allowable' expressions of Hinduism for him? Shall he be banning my Mandir from having the fine Swastika-carved doors to the shrines, too, because of Nazi use of the symbol? When my research institute makes use of 'Arya' in its title and its motto ['Arya Akasha', and 'Krinvanto Vishvam Aryam', respectively] - is Field going to likewise declare that these are 'oppressive' due to a certain 20th century political phenomenon which was quite big on "Aryan" as a term? 

Ultimately, the question is quite a simple one. If he genuinely feels that even things which have no necessary connection to nor connotation of the very specific politics he claims to abhor, are somehow symbols and weaponized tools of same ... then does he actually have any mental distinction between 'Hindutva' and 'Hindu'. Or is every single one of the more than one hundred and twenty thousands of us here,  representing New Zealand's largest non-Christian community of faith, some sort of blatantly obvious Hindu extremist - to be hounded from public life and perhaps the country as well. 

I would dearly hope that Field was not in earnest with the clear and unctuous implications of his claims on Twitter yesterday. And that instead, it was the product of that accursed scourge of the Modern Age, ignorance combined with an over-enthusiastic desire to rush in and oppose some alleged social injustice one has read about occurring elsewhere in the world via social media. 

Except there are plenty of actual injustices occurring out there in the world - elsewhere in the world I mean - for Mr Field to concern himself with, without having to attempt to transplant and invent one right here to his own (political) back yard in our nation's Parliament. 

So, to recap: 

Gaurav Sharma MP taking his Oath of Affirmation in Sanskrit (and also Te Reo Maori) ... was not intended to signify what Michael Field thought it did. 

Indeed, it COULD not really signify what Field thought it did, for the many reasons (and more) aforementioned. (Including that Sanskrit is not and has not been for some time, the exclusive preserve of Brahmins - and is learned by many in India as part of standard school education; and that both the language and the religion are quite some orders of magnitude older and broader than one political current in present-day Indian politics; with the BJP (Modi's party), whatever one thinks of them, also not really being 'Brahmin supremacists'; meanwhile, Ambedkar, the incredibly prominent Independence era Indian politician who forsook his native Hinduism to become a Buddhist precisely because of his feelings about the caste system ... actually himself championed a push for Sanskrit as a national language for India)

There are no "riots" occurring in India due to an "oppressive" imposition of Sanskrit. (Although there ARE occasional flare-ups of animosity in the Dravidian-language dominated South about the perceived imposition of Hindi - which is ironic, because Field actually suggested Sharma should have used Hindi instead; notwithstanding that this is not actually Sharma's own native language, Pahari)

And whilst one could perhaps suggest that, as a doctor of medicine, Gaurav Sharma is not exactly 'working class' .. I'm not sure how Dr Sharma's inclusion in Labour's 2020 Caucus is a vitiation of that party's "roots", "working class" or otherwise. A phrase that I most certainly home Field was not using as a cover for "White/Anglo/Pakeha". 

Sanskrit is a truly beautiful language, and I say that as somebody who's spent much of the past half decade working with it near-daily. I truly do feel that our Parliament - The People's House, the House of Speech - has been enriched for its having been made active use of for this small-but-important ceremony occurrant therein. 

I also, as a Hindu New Zealander (although not an Indian), feel myself and my community somewhat more represented as the result of this, as well. It is a small thing, it is a symbolic thing - but in politics, that symbolism can mean everything. One that shows that Heritage, "roots", matters! And is valued by us as a nation. One that shows that, contra to what Field and his ilk may desire, we too have a place here. And that we are not going to be "oppressed" out or marginalized by somebody who would seemingly wish a restatement of Macaulayism (so named for its instigator - a British Lord who wanted to 'de-Sanskritize' India and replace this with English, in part as a way of striking against what he viewed as the "hideous, and grotesque, and ignoble" 'Brahminical religion', as he termed it).

On the plus side, this is the first time I think I've seen a New Zealand MP make reference to Proto-Indo-European - so there's that.

Although if one is eagerly anticipating Proto-Indo-European actually making an appearance in Parliament's debating chamber, for instance as part of an Oath of Affirmation ... you may be waiting some time. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

On Rational Economic Decision-Making In The Age Of Covid-19 Following Our Latest Community Transmission

Earlier this week, we had ourselves some chilling news. A new case of Covid-19 community transmission - without a clear link to a quarantine or isolation facility. Worse, it turned out that the worker in question had gone to work whilst infectious. 

Now, the natural impulse for much of humanity in such circumstances is to cast about to find somebody to blame. This is psychologically helpful (for us, at least) - as it means we feel like we're actively doing something. "We're Helping", indeed. Even if the tangible form that "help" may take looks occasionally like some form of online not-quite-lynch-mob. 

However, while there was some chagrin about the worker and their situation - that was as nothing compared to what's been unfolding in the direction of her employer. And perhaps understandably, again, so. 

After all, initial reports had said employer stating they were aware the worker was pending a Covid-19 test, the inference being they'd told them to come in anyway; with the most recent line that, and I quote: "Chen said Chinese people were very cautious and said she never expected a small cold would turn into Covid-19", not sounding too terribly much better. 

Yet while "blame" is psychologically cathartic - it's another word that is actually rather more useful (and even occasionally coterminous): "Explain". 

The thing we need to do now is to work out what went wrong, where, and how we prevent there from being yet another repeat in a week or a month or in the next crisis at some indeterminate point in the future. 

This isn't about the situation wherein the virus presumably breached quarantine or isolation to reach the worker. Other people are handling that. Top men

But rather - it's about the bit wherein a person, already infected, massively increases the ongoing community transmission risk ... by going to work, and interacting with other people, whilst awaiting a Covid-19 rest and result. 

Is that on them? I don't know how much agency they had in the situation. It is easy from an armchair to insist that somebody who feels even a bit sick (sick enough to go in for a Covid-19 test, definitely) to 'stay home, save lives'. It's a no-brainer in fact. Except in that actual situation itself ... things can suddenly start to look a bit murky. You may feel it's 'not that bad', or that it's unlikely you've got it (which, as I say, doesn't appear to be what's gone on here - it was serious enough to voluntarily opt for a test off her own initiative). More concerningly - while you might think you're in a risky situation, your employer may disagree. Occasionally rather strenuously. Potentially putting some pressure, perhaps even pseudo-legal pressure upon you to come in and fulfil your contractual obligations. 

That shouldn't happen. And "shouldn't happen" - especially come 2020 - appears to mean "does happen", with some depressing degree of frequency. 

Could the state do more to compel employers (and, for that matter, workers) to make good 'decisions' and stay home where there's even a semi-plausible likelihood of infection? Probably. Although as this case demonstrates - that's all hindsight (which is, as we all know, generally of far greater clarity and perspicacity than as the vantage-point things are happening). 'Support' rather than 'compel' is nicer language - and presumably more likely to be more sustainable in the long term (hence why our own Covid-19 relative success story has been based around 'taking the people with you' from the Government ... and the UK and much of the US and Europe are flailing due to population fatigue with being carried along in endless evidently iffily ineffectual measures). It would therefore be tempting to investigate whether subsidies for sudden Covid-19 related sick-days were sufficiently available/publicized in this case - although that doesn't actually help an employer immediately access a substitute worker to fill in for the one that's now housebound pending their test. 

However, one of the simplest things we can do, which is also one of the most dramatically efficacious interventions - is changing the way people think. Which does not necessarily require the expenditure of money in subsidies or law-changes so as to 'alter the playing-field' and condition what is plausible, let alone viable to do. 

Effectively, you're changing what it is that's 'rational' to do - either by changing the direct incentives (via economic or legal impetus), or by changing the perceptions of things (increasing knowledge, understanding). Both of these elements - 'rationality' and 'knowledge' - are cornerstones of how an idealized 'capitalism' is supposed to function. 

The current Covid-19 retail outlet controversy demonstrates that many of the actors in question do not possess this rationality; at least partially due to imperfect information and differing, questionable perceptions. 

Consider this: on the surface, from the employer's perspective, evidently it seems pretty rational to insist that a retail worker comes into work, even if they're sick, right?

Except we're in the midst of a global pandemic, there's been two community transmission cases in the past week happening literally just down the road, and if it does turn out that your retail worker whom you're requesting to come in has the virus ... you're quite likely to wind up "Mt Roskill Evangelical Church"'d or "Coldstore'd", and have a cluster named after your business.

Now, with rationality in mind ... that's something which most business-owners would probably prefer to avoid. Not all publicity, as they say, is good publicity.

But evidently, either these considerations weren't front-and-center for the management who requested the worker come in regardless of illness ... or they rationally decided that the risk of the illness actually being Covid-19 was sufficiently remote to just have her back in anyway rather than finding a replacement staffer for the day or closing up shop.  

Either way - it looks a bit irrational in retrospect. But, then, things viewed in hindsight almost invariably often do. Objects in the rear-view mirror are closer than they appear, however, so it's an act likely to have consequences going forward for everybody involved.

We can do various things to try and 'tip the scales' a bit - and make it more viable for an employer to make what is now, in retrospect, the right call: not calling in a worker awaiting a Covid-19 test, potentially closing up for the day if they can't run the shop without a single retail worker. These include those aforementioned subsidies - acting on the presumption that by eliminating the economic hit for making the 'virtuous' call, you encourage it to actually happen. It's an unfortunate side-point that some employers don't actually make their decisions based on such things (either the economics or 'virtue') and instead prefer to prioritize fixed and rigid projections of what employees 'should' behave like ... but more upon that some other time (it's partially why uneconomical self-service checkouts keep being rolled out to replace human staff at supermarkets even though they cost more and facilitate vastly greater losses through shoplifting - because for these sorts of employers, it's about power, not economics). 

But in the mean-time, and alongside all of that ... I think it's probably a great time to be reminding everybody - both employers and employees alike - that actions have consequences, even the unintended ones; that seemingly minor impositions can have major 'ripple effects' that splash-back. And that like it or not, we really are all in this together. 

In the Age of Covid-19 - We are ALL our Brother's Keeper, now. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Trump's Pinochet Moment ?

 Something which occurred to me in light of the American Presidential electoral results ... is that Trump is having a Pinochet moment. Now I *don't* mean that he's having dissidents thrown out of helicopters (much, I am sure, to the chagrin of some of his supporters at present). But rather - that what has happened this past week or so has been akin to the 1988 Chilean vote that was quite literally a referendum on Pinochet.

Now, that vote is interesting - because it seems that Pinochet thought he would win, fairly handily; and so did not take the ordinary steps afore its occurrence to suppress, marginalize, and otherwise constrain his opponents - nor to overtly 'rig' the vote so that he would win by default.

Instead, he basically allowed both sides (his own, and the 'No' campaign) to have something which, while it was not exactly a 'level' playing field for various reasons (including the rather ingenious use of 'false front' organizations to draw votes from the 'No' side into effective 'protest-vote' third options .. Shades of Kanye, perhaps?), was nevertheless the most 'open' arena which Chile had witnessed for his entire reign.

And was promptly surprised when a) the 'No' campaign turned out to be better at actually campaigning and producing decent campaign material than his own side ; b) that even after "all he had done for them", a majority of Chileans voted to reject him regardless.

Now, the parallels with Trump ought be obvious at this point. Insofar as Trump did not really 'rig' the election (it is an open question whether he actually could have; standard voter suppression etc. of course excepted) - but rather was genuinely surprised to find that a) his opponents actually *were* reasonably competent at campaigning and outreach (rather than 'Sleepy', one supposes); b) a majority of Americans actually weren't that keen on letting him have another four years in office despite "all he had done for them". [the fact that it's "all he had done *to* them" from the view of the Biden vote is, perhaps, not something he'd considered]

This is also - for now - why Trump has not been actively deserving of many of the tropes around playing 14th dimensional underwater strip billiards backgammon .. er .. chess, in pursuit of a clandestinely secured conspiratorial victory which ends democracy in America.

Because it's simply not true. If it WERE, he wouldn't have lost last week's election - likely either in popular vote terms or in tentative electoral college projections.

Instead, he was a man who had bought into his own self-proclaimed narrative - and took at face value (rather than mask value) what his own senses and ego were telling him when he found himself amidst stadia and airports filled with his own cheering supporters (ignoring the obvious 'selection bias' inherent in the fact these people had been bussed to the venue by his campaign after opting-in by already being well-disposed towards him). Namely, that this was America, and what America *overwhelmingly* wanted was more of him for another four years; not another guy in his 70s and a simultaneously ultra-hard-line police state but somehow California ultra-liberal former prosecutor.

Now, buying into your own narrative is a pretty dangerous thing to do in perilous circumstances - as it opens up the possibility that you basically stop engaging seriously with competing perspectives and perceived-unfavourable incoming data-streams. Which appears to be what Trump then did.

And to be fair, he may have had a bit of a point: the differential between Pro-Trump and Anti-Trump on Election Night has not been anywhere near as dire as some polling earlier appeared to predict.

However, none of this changes the fact that the result hasn't gone Trump's way - and he's now left scrambling to try and either make a dignified exit, or dig in for Home Alone: White House Edition.

Which, as far as he's concerned, may well prove to be an *entirely* false notion of choice.

I don't know if I place full credence in the material alleged in a recent Vanity Fair article, that Trump has reportedly declared he'll literally have to be dragged out kicking and screaming. But in a metaphorical sense - this seems somewhat apt. Various Republicans have, after all, recently started openly urging for states to intervene with their Electoral College delegations so as to provide Trump with the votes he needs there that he could not come up with on the ground; and the Court challenges against those votes in key battleground states are also gearing up apace.

The recent - as in, over the past 36 or so hours - spate of firings of civilian leadership and oversight personnel from the Department of Defence, Pentagon, and intelligence services in order to have them replaced by Trump loyalists, is also interesting for obvious reasons.

However, in the hopefully unlikely event that Trump *does* endeavour to more seriously pursue the Pinochet course of action in 1988 - that is to say, calls in various Generals and other such power-havers and asks for, in effect, the powers to ignore the election result ...

... the fate which befell Pinochet then may prove to be instructive: the Generals, even in a military junta, balked at the request and told Pinochet bluntly that his time was up.

Although this is 2020; and even though it would be intriguing to think that American spooks and soldiers had some sort of unflinching loyalty to constitutional governance and democratic norms ... well ... we'll just have to see what happens, won't we.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Trump's "Stab In The Back"


So here's what's going to happen. Assuming there's not some sudden eleventh hour reversal with the count ... the Trumps and the Trump wing of the Republican Party are going to find themselves escalatingly high-and-dry with regard to the rest of their own party.

We've already seen quite a bit of this with even some of the President's own previously pliant supporters refusing to echo his claims and stances over the past 36 hours - or outright distancing themselves therefrom.

Now, there are a few reasons for this, of course - including the fact that some of those rhetorical flourishes on the part of the President are rather ... fraught in their relationship with reality, during the high-sacred hallowed event of the American civic religion.

And also, I personally suspect, because various Republicans are in fact not entirely displeased with the way things have overarchingly turned out - more on that in a moment.

But what this is setting up is a "Stab In The Back" myth. Much like the one prevalent in Germany following World War One. Wherein regardless of what the facts of the matter may or may not have been upon the ground - a festering belief takes hold that it was the President's *own side* that let him down, rather than the President's demands being overtly unfeasible or even outright illegal.

As you can see, we are already beginning to see this - with the President's son expressing vocal frustration that the party is not seemingly doing its absolute utmost to stop counts, secure court challenges, start instructing Electoral College delegates, or whatever else it is he thinks they should be posturing towards.

And it is interesting to note that he's declared that the "voters" in question who'll "never forget" this - are "ours" [as in the Trump dynasty's, the Trump wing of the Republican Party's] ... which is probably not entirely incorrect.

This is also the reason why this is noteworthy rather than merely yet another flare-point of anger amidst the constellation of consternation emanating from the White House in recent days.

Because the Trump ethos really has won a place within the GOP over the past four years. And while some for-now supporters like Lindsey Graham may turn out to be able to 'revert' to their pre-Trump selves with approximately the same level of velocity and spinelessness with which they became pro-Trump allies earlier in this term - I suspect that for a surprising swathe of the Republican Party , we'll see the opposite.

A recognition that Trumpism actually DID 'deliver the goods' electorally - and that it should therefore be persisted with. Even enhanced and doubled-down upon, in more comprehensive, perhaps even overtly 'competent' fashion.

Except with various of these voices within the Republican Party noting that they have now potentially acquired Trumpism without Trump. Simultaneously that ethos' greatest strength and most notorious liability rolled into one.

For those sorts, this Election has delivered them almost everything on their wishlist. They've got a strong position in both the Senate and House of Representatives, they've already got three Supreme Court appointments to deliver a moral majority for their side upon that organ; and, as I have noted earlier, a lack of a Trump to periodically 'mess it all up' (from their perspective) for them via late-night social media shenaniganry etc. So they will indeed quite likely be less than entirely enthusiastic about helping to support the President to intervene his way into inauguration for a second term.

For others, of the more 'true believer' variety - there can be no Trumpism without Trump. And, in their again not entirely inaccurate belief, the Republican holding of the line in this Election would have been difficult if not outright implausible sans Trump's heavy hand upon the scale as well as the heart of the nation. They may perceive that either their principles or their political appeal may go out the window in his large-looming absence from their party or the presumptive national stage.

So where is all of this going?


Civil War.

Probably not in the conventional sense, for America itself.

But within the Republican Party. The battle over its soul which had been effectively forestalled via the triumphs and the whipping of the past four and a half years not only coming to a sudden flashpoint - but acquiring entirely new fissure-lines within it into the bargain.

The "Stab In The Back" narrative is going to take hold and drive a wave of insurgent anger both from an array of ordinary Republican voters and activists and even candidates or office-holders against the leadership. It may fizzle out within the span of a single congressional term - or it may produce a longer-lasting vituperative schism. It may even fuel, Tea Party style, a push for primary challenging and oustering of perceived 'Betrayers' that changes the shape of some Republican races and districts for years to come.

Or, I suppose, we may just see the whole thing go back to a soft simmer if something DOES change in the ongoing electoral count and recount results.

An additional possibility in the unlikely event of the latter - would be Trump and Sons back in the position of power and proceeding to weed out Republicans who had been perceived as disloyal.

Which could even lead to one of those 'realignments' of portions of American politics as some 'moderate' Republicans end up attempting to soft 'patch over' to a center spectrum aligned more with the Democratic Party.

But to return to the more likely set of scenarios - wherein Trump either continues to lose outright in the count of votes , or loses later in some legal challenge of his own devising - the anger against those perceived to have 'failed' him in each of the legislative and judicial branches (as well as in other supposed regime forces, such as Fox News - and seriously, the tweets this week about how Fox News was attempting to rig the election for Biden were ... wild) : this anger may lead to an increased appetite for absolutism on the part of his supporters.

A feeling that if the Republicans of Senate and House aren't going to 'do their bit' and fight tooth and claw for the Solar Presidency ['L'Etat, C'est Moi'] of Trump ; and if the Republicans' Supreme Court appointments refuse to show 'gratitude' to the man who put them there ... that both institutions are pointless and should be further undermined and constrained in the future.

Which does not, of course, mean that those demands could come to especially active fruition. Although it does speak to another of these 'fault-lines' that is in the process of being opened up within both the Republican Party and the broader right wing of the American electorate.

That between the people who - rightly or wrongly and sincerely or not - hold some degree of (at least public) reverence for what they perceive to be the principles (rather than the principality) of the American civic edifice; and those who are more keen only upon 'what those institutions can do for you', perfectly happy to burn parts of it completely to the ground if it is not 'doing for you' at that particular prominent moment of time.

In ordinary times, the latter would be something of a fringe position in terms of public presentation if not necessarily in practice.

Yet these are, as hardly needs to be said, not 'ordinary times'.

It is therefore not inconceivable that right-wing demands to hamstring the 'traitor' branches of government and their duly empowered/empaneled representatives thereupon - become a push to "reform" the system in a not entirely dissimilar manner to how the enthusiasm for Popular Vote and proportionality rather than the Electoral College has become a Cause Celebre in various more progressive enclaves over there.

Either way , it would appear that the upcoming spinoff show for 2020 - Republican Party 2021 - is going to have quite the chaotic new season.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Why Fox News And Right Wing Brits Are Scrambling To Declare New Zealand A Fascist Failure On Covid-19

Why is New Zealand's pandemic response (as of a few months ago, might I add) being blasted across Fox News in the US and presented as some sort of dystopian totalitarian FEMA internment camp ridden nightmare?

Because there's an Election on. The people backing one of the candidates therein, or even merely 'fellow travelling' with his brand of politics overseas - know that Covid-19 isn't going away, is an incredibly salient political issue; and that against their expectations, the escalating prevalency of both virus and frustration with their not taking it seriously ... hasn't actually been diminished by railing against lockdowns, masks, quarantines. Instead just causing ever-larger numbers of previously pliant people to ask the obvious question: "Why is this happening? Why don't we have a good response?" 

It would be simple enough to attempt to claim that that's because it's a "tricky virus" and that nowhere has it good - therefore absolving the responsibility of leaders who have done little, by suggesting that there was nothing to be done other than what was.

Except this is the Internet Age - and the truth of the matter, that some places have done drastically better than others, is now a matter of public record for anybody with a smartphone. Which is everybody. 

So the question changes. It becomes "Why are some countries doing better than others? Why didn't WE do some of those things?" And the answer ... the answer is "we COULD have, but there would be such 'costs' associated with doing so - to your freedom, to your income and our economy, that 'the cure would be worse than the disease'". 

I somehow doubt that this rings true to many - especially as there's an ongoing demonstration that having an 'open' economy which is nevertheless also open to the transmission of the virus, doesn't actually lead to sustained positive growth outcomes. And especially, further, as people either fall victim to the virus itself (and its lingering, still poorly understood impacts) or hear of others in their community or perhaps even their own family who have. 

So if the evidence suggests that there WAS an alternative, if people can read with their own eyes the statistics and the stories coming out of little old New Zealand showing that what a mighty global superpower was unable to accomplish via bloviating bluster, a small chain of islands at the fringe of the world could do via pragmatic and principled methods ... where does that leave the naysayer? 

Frantically endeavouring to obscurate reality itself with those well-worn tools of the recent political experience: fake news and alternative facts. All in a bid to present one of the international success stories - in this case, New Zealand - as being somehow 'undesirable' to attempt to replicate at home.

By making it seem like we're operating ... well ... that aforementioned "dystopian totalitarian FEMA internment camp ridden nightmare". A sort of Second Coming of Stalinist Russia - with Gulags for dissidents plucked up off the street under the pretext of potentially having the virus.

And the constant implicit repetition that therefore, the ONLY WAY to actually have a competent response to Covid-19 is ... by , well, that.

It's literally Orwellian. Both in terms of presenting our country as Oceania amidst the South Seas with repression aplenty ; and also, more pointedly, in terms of making active utilization of media to change and distort reality so as to make domestic dissent, domestic questioning of governance in their own countries a non-starter. Encouraging and facilitating the adherent of the politics, policy, and politician in question (I hardly think we need to name names by this point) to mentally shut down their own critical faculties; and to spray-repeat these lines to anybody else in their immediate orbit who may themselves be experiencing some subconscious doubts. 

So 4 and 5 star hotels housing people coming into the country for mandatory 14 day quarantine , or close contacts of confirmed cases in the community .. get turned into internment camps where not-actually-ill New Zealanders are snatched up into from off the street ; and remarks explaining the Kiwi policy dating from months ago are branded as a "terrifying new response".

They're trying DESPERATELY to distract from their own blustering incompetence - and therefore transforming via the magic of the camera lens and the biased media talking-head, a situation wherein we are all pretty much living normally here in Kiwiland, one of the most free societies on the planet right now ..

.. into , as I (or rather, as they) say - a dystopian hellscape of socialist / fascist (mis-)rule dotted with camps for dissidents under a tyrannical pseudo-monarch with an adoring cult of personality sufficient to drown out the apparently repressed domestic opposition and "moderate rebels" .

Funny thing, I didn't think the Trump Administration and its supporters had any problem with putting people coming into their country into camps.

At the rate we are going, I would almost be semi-seriously expecting some form of international sanctions to be discussed in 'retaliation' for Jacinda "rigging the election" to produce her unprecedented electoral result or something.

Also, lest I be misinterpreted as suggesting this is somehow a uniquely American problem ... it isn't. We've already seen a British politician push all of this, and this morning we had some guy apparently affiliated with anti-PRC activism around Hong Kong and Taiwan start making similar claims.

There is a Buddhist maxim I am quite fond of :

That there are three things that cannot permanently remain hidden:

The Sun, The Moon, and The Truth.

Leaving aside the Murdoch publication by the name of one of these, and the Cameron Slater edited rag which bore the last of these three names and operated in imitation of the first one ...

The international reputation of New Zealand as something other than a "Hellhole", and somehow less democratic (or, for that matter, free) than the modern United States - shall surely remain similarly resplendent. So bright in fact, that these benighted morons desperately clinging to the rather literal fake news broadcast about this by Fox et co, cannot bear to look upon us.

No wonder they are letting their lurid imaginations 'fill in the blanks' instead.

Unfortunate, yet unsurprising, that we are being made spurious mis-use of as a political prodding-stick for other countries' political brawling . Because we cannot be allowed to be presented as having succeeded where the 'big boys' have stumbled and failed.

New Zealand in the 1950s was declared prominently to be the little country who had lead the world in developing and implementing the humane state and humane society of the Post-War Economic Consensus era.

Looks like We're Back.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Team of Five Million Becomes Team Leviathan - On The Impending Coronation Of Our First MMP Monarch


[Author's Note: I started penning this piece in early August. Events on the ground have, as they say, shifted quite considerably since then - we've had a Second Lockdown, and some of the lustre on Labour may have worn off ever so slightly as exhibited via their collapse down to only just being able to govern alone on most polling. Yet I still think that the core sentiments are applicable. So I've picked it back up again, where I left off ... ] 

I'll always remember my first Law test at University. Largely because I failed it (before, to be sure, then going and arguing my way to a pass ... literally lawyering my way into law-school). What it was on, was a pretty well-known New Zealand constitutional case - Fitzgerald vs Muldoon. If you weren't around in 1975, the facts of the matter were thus: The Rowling Labour government had instituted a compulsory national savings scheme, National had campaigned on rolling it back in favour of a universal superannuation (the famed 'Dancing Cossacks' ad) ... and when the latter won, they did exactly that. Via Rob Muldoon issuing a press statement and declaring that was what was happening - rather than, say, the more usual process of putting a bill through Parliament first. 

One plucky teacher, however (for some reason, it's often teachers who do this kind of thing), refused to recognize this - and kept sending his Compulsory National Savings deductions into the IRD anyway, who kept dutifully returning them. Fitzgerald, for that was the teacher's name, then proceeded to sue the Prime Minister over the matter. And, to the surprise of many ... he won. It was held that Muldoon was in violation of the 1688 Bill of Rights - specifically, section 1: "That the pretended power of suspending of laws, or the execution of laws, by regal authority, without consent of Parliament, is illegal:"

Now, I won't bore you with how my 17 year old self endeavoured to argue that Muldoon was *not* in fact in the wrong upon this matter; nor the economic argument for why a pension scheme rather than a saving scheme was actually pretty socially just in 1975. And will instead skip ahead to what one of my American colleagues recently said upon the matter when I explained the case to him - namely, that Muldoon was demonstrably not acting with the "pretend power [...] of regal authority", because quite clearly if the nation re-aligns itself like that following your issuing a statement, the power being exercised is obviously not "pretend". It is genuine. It's a little more complex than that in actual constitutional legal terms, but never mind that for now.

Why am I mentioning all of this? Because sometimes, it seems, there are few things new under the Sun. A few days ago, it was announced that somebody was once again suing the Government alleging of executive overreach. In this case, the claim is that our Covid-19 Lockdown protocol was legally invalid. That Ashley Bloomfield overstepped his authority by enacting the Lockdown, and that the Prime Minister made declarations with presumed legal force via press-conference. 

Except that's not really what's interesting about this.

What is - to me, anyway - is the reaction that the suit's been getting, as expressed both through our media and in the voices of ordinary New Zealanders. 

There's been some dissenting from this, to be sure, usually from people who're lawyers or constitution-enthusiasts, or avowed opponents of the Government ... yet in the main, Kiwis have not so much shrugged their shoulders at the suit as they have overtly sneered at it.

And that's understandable. The Lockdown worked. It's proven significantly popular, even (perhaps especially) with the benefit of hindsight. Many of us actually wanted it to go much further while it was on. So when somebody sues the Government over it, explicitly claiming that they don't care "how necessary" the Lockdown turned out to be - we, collectively, raise an eyebrow and wonder if the bloke's got his appropriate priorities in order. 

It probably helps, too, that one of the major implicit defendants in all of this, is one of the more well-regarded political figures in living memory - with a pretty incredible 82% of Kiwis feeling they can trust Jacinda per this week's Colmar Brunton poll. There's no similar polling effort that I'm aware of to assess Dr Bloomfield on a comparable basis, but if there were, I feel pretty confident in asserting that he'd be doing well, too. 

And the current crisis in Victoria as well as the ongoing shambles in America mean that all we have to do is look at the World section of the paper to see why the Lockdown being "necessary" is not an irrelevant consideration. 

Yet while it is inarguable that the circumstances around the Covid-19 Crisis have built the pyre ... the flames which have risen thereupon have seemingly taken on a life of their own. The Crisis may still be raging elsewhere, and is thankfully at bay here - but the popularity of Labour, which is in large measure more truly designated the positive reputation of Ardern, continues to surge. It's possible to read this, to be sure, as people concerned and anxious about their future choosing to place their trust in a figure who's managed a decent job of steering us through the calamitous crises of the recent past. It's also probable that the utter implosion of the National Party through their own invidious internal democracy has left Labour as the major force for stability in our politics (something unthinkable a mere three years ago when Jacinda ascended to the leadership, for a few reasons). 

Whatever it's based on, the net impact is that our upcoming Election has been transformed from a potentially fraught democratic contest between two major blocs ... into an effective coronation. Well, a post-facto formalization of the coronation that has implicitly already occurred. The salient 'democratic' element to it is basically us collectively deciding whether we can really be bothered with Winston for another three years, and perhaps The Greens - acting as 'handbreak' and 'biofuel' [or, if you prefer, NOS] respectively. This, in spite of the fact that a little less than three decades ago we demanded the comprehensive reform of our electoral system so that never again would we have the one-party rule of majority-government. 

But if there's an election involved, no matter how symbolic it may be - why do I then call it a 'coronation' ?

Because judging by the significantly unfavourable reactions to the Lockdown lawsuit, we've collectively and in the main come to the conclusion that we actually don't mind the idea of a single figure, perhaps two, exercising that kind of power (provided that it works). It verges on 'regal authority', some might say. 

And you know what? I'm actually pretty OK with this. We have found ourselves the proverbial 'good dictator' or 'good monarch' which [Author's note - that's as far as I got back in August. Everything which follows is more recent re-view.]

I call it a 'Coronation' - because this 'Good Monarch' is the one that we have chosen. The one that we have decided, most of us anyway, we would really quite like to continue to be ... well, just what a monarch is. Something like the Queen in Chess (although in Jacinda's case, she has the weakness of the Labour Party of being their King upon the board also). Wherein the reason that the Queen piece is the most powerful - is because the Queen represents the Nation, the Spirit of the People. It would be entirely inappropriate to term this the 'Figurehead' - as it is a piece with quite considerable and capacious *actual power*. Also why a certain associate of mine has argued that Muldoon was not in violation of the 1688 Bill of Rights Act - for Muldoon's power was most definitely not "pretend" ! He held a press conference, and the law de facto changed around his words. 

However, I also term this a 'Coronation' in a far more archaic sense than we would often think of such a thing today. In the old days - indeed, it is right there in the earlier Germanic conceptions of the ceremony - the King was an elective position. Under 'Democracy' - Your Vote Counts. Under Feudalism - Your Count Votes. And it was a matter of a personal loyalty, a personal engagement between the electors and the figure vying for the position. Who could say, looking at the crowds of people who have flocked into the streets and the town-hall meetings' aftermath to snap their personal selfie with our near-sainted Prime Minister - that there is not at the very least the simulacra of such a personal relationship, personal engagement. We feel, especially in New Zealand, as if we know many of our representatives directly - that clip from The Simpsons wherein an outraged Australian man goes to his local MP ... and then both go to the Prime Minister ... and everybody is on a first-name basis, literally talking in-person? That is also the Kiwi way. And it is one of the things which renders our form of democracy something more sacred, more pure than the American loosely fitting equivalent. 

And yet - what this picture is 'missing' is a pseudo-aristocratic 'middle class'. And by that I do not mean "middle class" in the economic sense - I mean what it used to mean, some two to three hundred years ago, if not more. The layer in the cake between the Monarch and the People. The Middle-Management of Empire. With all the unresponsivenesss and obstructionism that this 'middle-management' term would more modernly, customarily imply. 

This is not to say that they do not exist, of course - only that the last six months have rendered them increasingly irrelevant in practice. Who are they? Well, they are the people who seem to believe that they are 'born to rule'. The National Party, for example, the self-declared 'natural party of government'. The Media, too, contains more than a few self-appointed scions and arbiters of what is 'proper' , the gate-keepers, the key-shelvers who must be appeased if not downright assuaged upon the pursuing pathways of the road-network to power. 

That is partially, I presume, why for some months mid-way through this year there was both such frank incomprehension and active tearing down of the Prime Minister's putative popularity by these sorts. Because they at first subconsciously and thence self-consciously came to realize that they had been .. marginalized. There was now a direct line between the Prime Minister (and never mind even most of her party) and the People. Both in terms of the appeal, the emotional resonancy - but also in terms of speaking directly to the nation during the 1 pm press conferences. As somebody put it , we all collectively felt reassured by Jacinda and Dr Bloomfield as a sort of ersatz 'Mother' and 'Father' of the Nation. [In essence, I would actually say that it is the Dumezilian 2nd and 1st functions respectively - the Warrior-Aristocracy / Monarch , and the Priestly / Academic castes, to speak a little figuratively; rather than what would otherwise be connoted by a Mother and Father of the Nation - a Queen and King ... but I digress] 

So, for weeks it seemed, we had a situation of the poll results being frankly disbelieved. An almost embarrassed tone by media reporting upon them. The succession of "Rogue Polls", as National put it. Because this was Not How Things Were Supposed To Go. It turned out that the Nats were not, in fact, the true 'natural aristocracy' after all. And nor were the Media the genuine 'Anointers'. It was as if Napoleon had taken the Crown from the hands of the Pope and placed it upon His own head. And therefore, the constant attempt on the part of both some Media and the other, official Opposition - to force their way back into proceedings, barge their way back into not merely relevancy, but actual, active saliency into the bargain. 

At the time, I speculated that this would have the opposite-to-intended impact, the converse effect to that which was looked for. Recalling the 2014 Campaign, when Dirty Politics came out and was all the Media could talk of in their harrying of the Key-led administration then in power ... it was precisely this which helped to tip the scales ever further in National's determined favour. New Zealanders like an underdog, and have an innate sense of fairness, fair play. So when we all collectively saw John Key being seemingly harrassed (however righteous that scrutiny actually was), many people therefore concluded that it was some sort of unfair beat-up. And rallied behind the then-incumbent Prime Minister and his colleagues as a result. The pudding, in short, was over-egged, and the Government's critics wound up with egg upon our collective faces as a result. It happens. It especially happens when we are playing the pop-cultural version of Canute - endeavouring  to stand against and thence turn back the onrushing, indefatigable Tide. 

There is another factor, as well - albeit a closely related one. 

During the course of Simon Bridges' latter tenure as National Party Leader, what we saw was a terrier yapping at the pant-leg of democracy. And that became the 'democracy', in practice. Instead of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition , we were treated to the choleric spectacle of "Opposition For Opposition's Sake". And seemingly upon the most spurious and flimsy of matters. 

It got so bad that when Todd Muller took over, one of his first acts as part of his 'sales pitch' was that he would be bringing to an end exactly this kind of performative pantomimicry in our Parliament. Which lasted all of five minutes before we saw a spate of National functionaries capitalizing upon a literally imaginary homelessness problem (as in, not our real homeless problem - an imaginary homeless man being housed in a real hotel, I mean) , the ethnic surnames of New Zealanders returning to quarantine here, and the improper use of a position of trust with an emergency service provider ... amidst inter many alia. 

The National Party also then demonstrated its effusively strong enthusiasm for Democracy by having its second Leadership election in a little more than two months. You could perhaps be forgiven for presuming that all this 'practice' at voting for their figurehead meant they were warming up for the big one later this year (the General Election, I mean - not the internal party contest for who gets to replace Judith Collins and have a crack at the next one). Although the fact that National MPs seemingly kept taking their lead from their new leader(s) and undermining the leader would appear to suggest that they're vastly more interested in "struggling together" than they are in struggling together. 

All things considered - if a relatively strong level of support for the National Party is thought to be vitally necessary to our Democracy ... it is difficult indeed to blame the ordinary voter for thusly concluding that this oppositional "democracy" thing may, in practical terms, be a bit overrated. 

Now some may suggest that this is dangerous. Certainly, a few voices in the media stated as much, saying that because they did not feel free to criticize Ardern without getting a negative response from their audience - that this was a stifling effect upon their freedom to report as they saw fit ... an effective pillow 'pon the face of our democracy. We saw this particularly following a certain 1 pm press conference where the Prime Minister was relentlessly harangued on some matter she'd already answered in pursuit of a 'gotcha' moment. And I say "we saw this", because we quite literally did - it was all broadcast live. And people weren't particularly enthused by the spectacle. What did this result in? Media claiming that it was our fault for being unimpressed - that we didn't understand how a press conference was "supposed" to work , and that we should stop broadcasting the pressers so that the only accountings of what happened which voters would get ... would be the media's own reporting of what happened, shorn of all context and just a gutsful of 'Gotchas' all the way down. 

This is NOT to attempt to suggest there's no place for scrutiny of a Government, especially during a crisis scenario - such as that we've implicitly been grappling with for seemingly all of 2020. It's just to state the obvious: that what people saw, from both the Opposition and the Media, often seemed much more like a vested interest in tearing down the Government rather than helping it to meaningfully do better in its execution. Is it any wonder that we progressively began to tune these voices out? 'Jacinda Under Fire' became a sort of avatar-cum-apotheosis for every elector who'd felt themselves unfairly critiqued, complained about, harassed, harangued, beleaguered, blamed, and battered. We really did start to empathize and identify with this evidently hard-working figure apparently surrounded by idiots and egotists upon a daily basis. 

Except it was not only the vehicle of our major putative Democratic Alternative that turned out to be a clown car. It was also what they were actually endeavouring to push for most of that time that fit that description. During a period of significant success for our home-grown elimination strategy, National and various voices in the Media instead pushed for opening the borders or 'having the conversation' about what an 'acceptable' death-rate would be relative to the economic harms of continuing to ensure our populace are kept safe. To say it was unpopular (except with a certain narrow sector of the business world and, apparently, certain universities who are seemingly entirely dependent upon masses of foreign students to be economically viable), would be an understatement. But they kept at it 

It was only relatively recently that National finally chose to move away from such short-sighted rhetoric, under Collins of all people, and even then they STILL semi-frequently descend into "whatever Labour is for, we want the opposite!" style contrarianism. We also STILL occasionally hear from the "Plan B" advocates, along with other such fringe voices who've all-of-a-sudden discovered an enthusiasm for Swedish Social Democracy .. but only for the certain style of "interventionism" that's delivered greater restrictions than present New Zealand for markedly inferior virus control.

At best, as applies National during those months, you could read their rhetoric as being pig-headed and pig-eared (in the form of a purse) stubbornness ; a lack of flexibility and responsiveness because they're both out of touch and not used to having people question the economic Received Wisdom which has prevailed here since the mid-1980s. More cynically, as well as more recently, you could interpret their actions as being driven out of a desire for "Power for Power's Sake" ; a willingness to say or do absolutely anything in pursuit of the scepter and the crown. Ironically, exactly what many people would find most repugnant about a certain sort of monarchy - or, more aptly, a tyrant. And a petty, tin-pot tyrant certainly would seem to aptly encapsulate their present leadership in both style and (lack of) substance. 

If you want something "Dangerous" for our democracy - for our society! - that, I would humbly submit, is it.

Therefore, while you can argue that it's "dangerous" for us to be moving in the direction we are electorally - wherein a system expressly designed to ensure that there would never again be absolute / majoritarian governance is now prospectively going to deliver us up exactly that - I am not sure that I agree. In this instance, anyway. And that's for one very simple reason. 

The idea that a lack of choice is dangerous - requires that there actually be a lack of choice. This situation is not that. Rather, it is precisely that there IS choice, and people are overwhelmingly choosing one party, one leader. 

The opposition to this sentiment - and you mark my words, the Mike Hoskings and Leighton Smiths of this world shall be absolutely breathless in their turmoil of an "It Can't Happen Here" piquant texture and flavouring - is effectively tantamount to suggesting not that absolutism or 'monarchy' should be avoided for its own sake ... but rather that democracy in and of itself is a bad idea because it may, every so often, produce a rather remarkable out come. 

Some might opine that this view could just as easily be affixed to Donald Trump ... and yet I don't think that's right either. Not least because Judith Collins is presently doing an admirable job of demonstrating just why Trumpian pseudo-"populism" is rather ill-fitted and seemingly quite seriously unpopular here in little old Lilliputian New Zealand. But also because, properly considered, the Jacinda phenomenon is, in essence, the mirror image of Trump - and that is why everything is exactly the other way around. Proving, I suppose, that being right is not mutually exclusive with being popular - and that populism can be the wind in a progressive ship's (flying boat) wings. 

There are valid reasons, to be sure, to lack a certain enthusiasm for Labour governing entirely upon its own - and this helps to explicate just why the two horse race at this year's Election is apparently between Labour and Labour-Greens for the Government. But to bring things back to the jurisprudential matters which provided the active inspiration for this piece - the legal challenge to the first Lockdown, and that most curious of statements by its presumptive prosecutor that it did not matter whether the lockdown was 'necessary' , only that it was pro-forma legal ...

While, again, there are legitimate and valid reasons for looking into the legality of state actions here in New Zealand (and we should be thankful that we have a system, a society wherein such a thing can take place with relatively swift expedition, it would seem); it also feels that various of the people most up in arms about such things are less concerned with heading off some illusory Road to Fascism - and more with actively diverting us down the Road to Freedumb. In the American sense. Where all manner of strange and counterproductive proscriptions as well as prescriptions are left inviolate due to a slavishly hidebound adherence to certain 'letters of the law' (quite literally judiciously reinterpreted to suit) and a largely feigned fear of Tyranny. As in, the historical specter of the King of England, rather than the currently-festering, present-day proclivities of their pseudo-democratically empowered despot in the person (or should we perhaps phrase - 'persona non grata') of the President. Not just the income-bent one, either. A situation which has sadly come to its ultimate fruition through precisely the kind of internal and internecine division into multiple semi-literally armed camps that Jacinda as a sort of 'grand uniter' [capable, it would seem, not only of welding together coalitions - but also of drawing votes from both Labour and even National's usual supporters] is again a diametric opposite to. 

That, too, speaks toward Jacinda as a Hobbesian figure - an avatar of the collective pooling of our individual sovereignties. An Over-Sovereign, if you will [Chhatrapati] - a monarch. 

Or, in short: 

Leviathan Is Coming 

Get Out Of The Way 

Monday, October 5, 2020

On Judith Collins Curious Posturing At Her Rendezvous With The Other JC


A wise man once noted that the essence of successful political presentation was authenticity. Once you could fake that, you'd got it made. 

Now, as applies Judith Collins' apparently entirely unscripted and totally sincere church-visit en-route to vote over the weekend ... well, reasonable minds may differ as to whether the above quote applies. Many are certainly suggesting that the motivation for Collins' apparent Conversion On The Road To Oblivion (via way of Clevedon) is to head off the prospective growth of the New Conservatives , Advance NZ , and other such fringe-right parties who tend to be big on 'politicized Christianity' in pursuit of an Evangelical-esque appeal. Because while these vehicles are unlikely to hit five percent apiece - every percent they DO get comes at National's likely expense. Particularly due to the prospect of various splinters of National's own base decamping (or simply staying home) due to their possible lack of desire to support a leader who's voted in favour of abortion and euthanasia. 

But that's not what I'm here to talk about. You can read elsewhere those sorts of analysis for the strategic impetus for WHY Collins may have chosen to engage in a performative posture of prayer en-route to a polling place (in Kohimaramara, oddly enough). 

Rather, it's the very concept itself - that of public piety in politics - which interests me here. 

Despite the aspirations of pretty much every party I've mentioned thus far (National, the New Conservative party, and Advance NZ, for those of you playing at home) inter alia, New Zealand is not that much like America. And by this, I do not just mean that religion is a far less active and overt portion of our public life here than it is over there - the quantitative metric. There's also something qualitatively different about it, as well. 

While it's definitely and demonstrably true that we have American-style Evangelicals operating here - including prospectively within our next Parliament assuming one of their number beats a certain Seventh Day Adventist in Botany later this year (that's Christopher Luxon and Jami-Lee Ross, respectively); we also have always had something else, as well. Older style, and dare I say rather 'left-wing' strands of Christianity that are unafraid of taking directly political stands on things which affect their parishioners and the broader country. Michael Joseph Savage famously described the work of the visionary First Labour Government as being 'Applied Christianity'. The Methodist Church here regularly overtly opposes neoliberal developments, such as the TPPA. For comparison, the most prominent Methodist saliency in American politics of recent times was probably George H.W. Bush. 

This is not to suggest, either, that community-oriented and economically progressive religious bodies are unknown across the Pacific (or, for that matter, across the Tasman - which has its own Evangelical Christian political projection within the corridors of power). Only that those groups tend to be marginalized and shoved/crowded out both in the popular imagination, as well as the political hublands of power, by the more happy-clappy or otherwise 'performative' (seemingly at the expense of substance) varieties. 

And in THAT situation, I tend to think that EVERYBODY suffers. Both because the more 'right-wing' amenable  Christianities tend to have some rather funny ideas which thence find forceful expression through the political system (some might say 'infliction'); and as a direct result of all of this, the 'crowding out' effect continues apace. So whether you're secular or religious, there's something to be concerned about. People come to think that the ONLY form of religion in politics is the right-wing iteration - leading to a negative perception of these by those not keen on the (neoliberal/neocon) right, and an increase in support for the (neoliberal/neocon) right by genuinely religious people who think that this is now the only legitimate political expression for their beliefs. 

We've seen this in India, wherein the BJP has sought quite effectively to 'monopolize' the political expression of Hinduism - an effort that has occasionally lead to bad theology being promoted upon occasion; and also to a certain level of people reacting to the BJP by either distancing themselves from their ancestral faith, or seeking to redefine it in opposition to the BJP 'brand'. Which, not coincidentally, also occasionally leads to some rather bad theology. 

All of which brings us back to Collins' stunt on Sunday. 

Now, as I have said - there is some debate as to just how 'authentic' Collins' performative piety in fact was, upon that day. On the one hand, everybody seems to agree (other  than Collins - which is perhaps unsurprising) that she has never before in her political career been this overt about her faith. On the other hand, Collins herself counters this by claiming that she's always had it as a guiding principle, citing the remark in her 2002 maiden speech: "I believe in God, and I believe that every human being is created with free will to do either good or evil." Which is ... not exactly a heavily Christian perspective, to my mind, even if some important fundaments are there. Fundaments, I would argue, shared with many other religions - and which, importantly, do not actually directly qualify what Good or Evil actually are other than words upon the page. 

And that goes to the heart of why I'm feeling so iffy about this whole thing. Because it is, in the most literal sense, "virtue signalling". And, with what is meant by the term in its idiomatic context - a potential lack of actual, tangible, deeply-held 'virtue' to be signalled. Instead replaced merely by the words, the forms, the exterior-perceptible symbols so as to disguise the lack of substance. Which is also a bit of a risk, because again - some may then have their perception that ALL religious expression in politics is like this .. performative in a pantomime sense rather than rolling its sleeves up to be performative in a potent one ; and others may take the opposite view - that as it is 'genuine' expression, this means that all that goes with it is suddenly sanctified into the bargain. Because, as we all know, JC (the *other* JC - not the two-letter sign-off Judith Collins has begun appending to all her tweets these past few weeks .. presumably entirely coincidentally) was obviously all about supporting small business and deferring the Rendering Unto Caesar with a temporary tax-cut so as to stimulate the economy. 

Now don't get me wrong. I do think that there's a place - and quite a strong one - for religion in our public sphere. Partially this is because, as a religious fundamentalist zealot, I would be entirely hypocritical if I suggested anything to the contrary. But also because it enables one to get a better sense of who a politician (or a voter, an institution) actually is and what they really stand for. Politics, as with religion, is about the immanentization of values out into our mortal world. And I quite like that we know who the potentially-fringe Evangelical sorts are BEFORE we might vote for them and find out the hard way through their conduct in office - precisely because they tend to directly tell us that this is what they are, themselves. 

Which does not mean  that religious values, religious expression in our politics is above criticism, above contention, above reproach. I mean, both Tony Abbott and Simon O'Connor would hardly be criticized for being 'inauthentic' with their religious adherence - both were, if memory serves, in-training to become Catholic Priests prior to their lives in politics. However, as applies Tony Abbott's recent remarks about how Covid-19 should effectively be allowed to go unchecked because of the cost of preserving the lives of the elderly ... both myself and the Rev. Rolinson were rather chagrined that this apparent lack of regard for life in favour of coin was coming from a man so vocally "Pro-Life" in his other political enthusiasms. 

Similarly, when Donald Trump had protesters cleared from near a Washington D.C. church so as to carry out a bible-wielding photo-op - I think many quite justifiably looked in askance at this Election-year (re-)discovery of America's majority symbolism. Noting the degree of divergence between what's actually in said book and building and the way Trump's generally conducted himself both in politics and in personal life. 

Trump's maneuver is quite relevant for Collins, however - as what he had sought to do, was portray Christianity, Christian Values in America as being under attack, under threat, under siege during the waves of protest and rioting going on over there at the time. Positioning himself, perhaps, as a self-appointed 'Defender of the Faith' [a title more usually held by the Kings of England ... and ironically referring to the *Catholic* Faith, despite the well-known Protestant allegiance of these men; Prince Charles, interestingly enough, is considering amending this to "Defender of the Faiths", plural] - and disregarding all of those people of the faith in question who were actively participating in the collective outrage as to America's race-relations situation at the time. 

Collins may have anticipated that she'd receive a wave of criticism for her gesture on Sunday - and factored that into her calculations. She'd have seen the commentary from various vectors in relation to her sudden frequency of "As a Christian ... " remarks in the course of the Leaders' Debates. She'd know that being photographed in an about-as-stereotypically-"Prayer" posture as you can possibly get would generate criticism. And that sentiment - of people attacking both her for acting in a religious manner in politics, as well as the occasional opposition to religion in our politics full stop - is part of the 'mobilization' strategy. It portrays both Collins - and, via surrogate-proxy, Christianity - as being the 'victim'. As being under siege due to the perceived 'incompatibility' of her pointedly declared faith and politics. And therefore, in addition to garnering her some sympathy from certain sorts of Christian voter (who may, themselves, feel a bit under glowering cloud due to their adherence, from time to time), also positions her as both sword and shield against this negativity. 

In the same way that you find people in America (and, to be fair, here too) voting for Trump or other Republicans in order to "trigger the Libs" (regardless of whether he or they are almost an opposite to what the voter would usually prefer) - so, too, may you find some rallying behind Collins in order to "trigger the Sickulars", the left, the "Woke" (and thus, apparently, the Reserve Bank) or whatever it is this week. 

Having said that, there are other possibilities to consider. I know, better than many, how a sudden outpouring of religiosity during a difficult time can in fact be quite genuine. It is for the same reason that there are rarely to be found many 'Atheists in Foxholes'. Perhaps Collins' prayer prior to voting on Sunday was, as somebody on Twitter put it, a "Hail Mary". 

The real test of this, is the extent to which the religiosity in question persists after the the cessation of the immediate crisis correlate with its promulgation. Whether, following the Election, we still see Collins conducting herself in a manner that might be thought of (or perhaps 'confused for') as religious. 

That might not be such a bad thing, as it happens. It would be good if the implicit coterminity between Collins and Bill English - extended beyond the prospects for an unsuccessful election result (the 2002 one, I mean), and on to some of the man's values. The same ones which saw him describe our prisons as a "moral and fiscal failure" during the same term which saw Judith Collins wanting to escalate this failure via shipping-crate cells and double-bunking for 'deterrent value' (well, more what would likely come with the double bunking as the deterrent value). 

In line with the Hindu axiom - "Hands that help are holier than lips which [merely] pray", it is the actual conduct that goes beyond the prayer via which commitment to religious values (in politics or without) ought be meaningfully assessed. 

Although there is one further consideration Collins may wish to bear in mind. 

Last week, a day or so prior to his Covid-19 circumstance, Trump invited a Hindu Priest to the White House to carry out a puja for peace and protection. It would not seem beyond the bounds of possibility that this prayer was answered - in a rather more general sense than had perhaps been intended by the President. 

Or, phrased another way - Collins may find that endeavouring to call upon (the) God(s) may lead to Divinity Answering. And doing so in a manner that serves a Plan, an intent, other than one's own.