A dry, boring, incompetent Speaker of the House

Since the installation of the Hon David Carter as Speaker of the House of Representatives, I have had a chance to listen, read, and consider his level of competence in the role. He succeeded Dr the Right Honorable Lockwood Smith (yes he really did insist on doctor coming before Rt Hon) and as many Parliament watchers expressed at the time, the shoes to be filled were large. The former Speaker chaired the house with humor balanced by a patriarchal piety. The crimson stripes on his black robes and his imposing stature gave him the ability to be intimidating without the need fore fire and brimstone bellowing. Furthermore he made a definite effort to push Ministers for an answer, he took standing orders seriously, and this was to the benefit of question time.

Speaker Carter on the other hand is dry as the last summer, catastrophically boring, with a selective ear  discerning statements that bear little resemblance to what is reflected in the hansard. Concerning standing orders and the rules of the house he has an almost bottomless deficit, the extent to which he pushes for answers is allowing the question to be repeated. Addressing questions rather than answering them seems to be the way now. He has a comic fear of disturbance, cutting off members when they start to say something witty, something Lockwood allowed periodically knowing it was better if the house lets of steam once in a while.

It may be to the governments benefit that the new Speaker is such a dunce, even though for the moment the Prime Minister can run rings around David Shearer and the uncomfortably flat Labour party. The rest of his government is taking hits, Phil Goff thoroughly embarrassed Chester Burrows who was answering on behalf of the Police Minister, about the closing of several Auckland stations. While Key is popular (and he is likely to remain so until the election) and the Opposition Leader is so verbally strained, question time is likely to be unremarkable. But once the inevitable dissatisfaction becomes evident to pollsters, the Prime Minister will be glad to have a Speaker who won’t push him to take account, and answer questions.

Review of Christopher Hitchens ‘Mortality’.

On December 15, 2011 renowned intellectual and writer Christopher Hitchens died in Houston, yet another among millions to succumb to “a vulgar little tumor”, as he liked to characterize his particular malignancy.
Stage four oesophageal cancer diagnosed is June 2010 as he was in the cut and thrust of promoting Hitch-22, his best selling memoir. The Vanity Fair columns he penned in the hope of demystifying ‘the big C’, were collected into a short volume Mortality which had been the intention of Hitchens to be considerably longer, but which he did not see completed. The resulting work is a fascinating look at the process of “livingly dying”, in his words. An intellectual journey into the banal machinations of terminal illness, the erudite mind struggling to express itself through ossified vocal cords, and numb fingers.

Hitchens sought to demystify cancer, or at least reduce its power to inspire terror in would be sufferers, and solipsism in those it infects. He certainly spared the reader no illusion, in his writing the anxiety is palpable, there is no attempt at dressing up or playing with the guilt of the healthy. He trashes the late Randy Pausch for taking advantage in this way in his book and film The Last Lecture. Terminal illness is not something to make a pious play out of, and in communicating his gnawing fear at becoming boring, his frustration at being unable to summon the familiar boom of his resonant voice. He also writes of the curious connection he feels with the language of the medical staff, and his famous experience of torture (he wanted to know whether waterboarding was torture and after going through it at the hands of former navy seals, he admitted it most certainly was).

The issue of religion and his staunch abhorrence of it was certainly touched upon in the first part of the book. Any suggestion of a death bed conversion was eviscerated by his argument that it makes absolutely no logical sense to say to someone that since they are in the grips of an immanent demise they might want to renege on the values and principles of a lifetime. To the outspoken evangelists who said they were praying for him, he wondered: “Praying for what?” To the thousands of ardent believers who organised a prayer day, he extended his blessing insofar as “pray if it makes you happy”. In one chapter he fully ridicules the practice of intercessory prayer, “please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries.”

Through all, Christopher Hitchens held no personal illusions about his illness. He knew precisely why he had been afflicted by this particular malignancy, a redoubtable constitution that enabled him to consume immense quantities of alcohol, and maintain a heavy smoking habit. Burning the candle at both ends to produce a “lovely light” and fuel the conversation and writing that made the Hitch, well the Hitch. Holding that all of life is indeed a wager, Hitchens decided to wager on this particular bit, and the cancer which killed him at 62, also killed his father at the rather more ripened age of 79. Dismissing questions of “why me” as silly and self-evidently nonsensical to an intellectual, Mortality avoids the pit of solipsism as much as it reaches the crest of being a beautiful final conversation with an author who writes in a way that the reader feels personally addressed.

The final part before the loving afterword by Hitchens wife Carol Blue, contains a revealing yet fragmented spluttering of sentences and paragraphs Christopher Hitchens left unfinished before his passing. They indicate through the haze of tubes and medications the razor-blade mind of the Hitch remained sharp to the very end. Through this I feel that if my life is not suddenly blown out before I come to terms with the situation, and I am taken by paramedic ambassadors across the border from the country of the well to the stark frontier of the land of malady, as Hitchens wrote in his first column about his illness, I at least have a kind of guide. Not specifically a travel book telling me where to stop,  eat, and sleep; but rather an example of how to approach the ultimate frontier. Christopher Hitchens was not so much concerned with dying with dignity, but dying livingly, a lesson as we both live and die ourselves.  


A Plague on all three Houses.

On the first of this month the feared budget sequester came into effect after urgent negotiations to solve the debt crisis failed. I will not pretend to possess any expertise in the United States budget system, nor do I have much interest in the fine details of economics. My interest is in the political science of the matter, and as such I will limit my comments to that theater.

Since his inauguration the President’s approval rating has fallen to 43 percent, he is weakened by his inability to force congressional republicans to a deal before March 1st. Likewise the Republicans are facing an angry public, around 10 percent more people identify with the Democratic party which is polling better in the lead up to next years mid-term elections. But overall the public is not happy with the Senate, the House of Representatives, or the White House. This is a plague on all three houses, and it is my opinion that because that is the case there is no way either of the players can win the public relations battle. President Obama can conceivably bet the farm if he wants, in budget negotiations he has the ability to refuse to agree to the whims of Speaker Boehner even if it means shutting down the federal government. It happened under Clinton, and what we know is that situation is politically unwinnable too. Except Obama never has to campaign for election again. Speaker Boehner and the house have that coming next year.

So the President can afford to be unpopular. In a game where everyone loses the player with nothing to lose is king. The sequester is costing at least 29000 jobs from the Defense department, as everyone who watches US politics there is no way to spin the constricting of the military in a way that favors congress. The Commander in Chief wins a small part of the PR battle here although I am quite sure he is more concerned with the tension in North Korea, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Maintaining his strategic objectives with fewer resources at his disposal.

Without wanting to be held to prediction since I will probably have to adjust it as early as next week, I would say that it is highly likely that the President will outmaneuver his opponents and attain a result closer to his desires. But this is going to be the key fight that will define this term, he will either come out of this weak, or very strong indeed. If the latter proves to be the case it can be assumed that many boxes of his agenda will be ticked by the time he leaves office in 2016.

So it is a plague on all three houses, but one of them has four years of immunity. Its time for US politics to get tough, and get working.

Blind to Chavez

Hugo Chavez stood and quite rightfully falls on principle. He fought in his estimation for the good of the people, but he eroded their electoral voice and withdrew from protecting his people from crime.

He was outspoken against the United States of America, fueling his populism and gaining sympathy from a world suspicious of US power. But if this same world, or rather the people in it, allow his charismatic leadership to overshadow and erase the record of his sinister abuses of power, they then allow themselves to be utterly morally compromised.
Chavez stopped exporting oil to the US which sparked a feud with the Bush Administration and led to their ridiculously heavy handed interference in the internal affairs of Venezuela, to create fertile conditions for a coup to remove President Chavez. This was almost successful in 2002 when massive protests allowed Pedro Carmona to take power for three days before a lack of support brought Hugo Chavez back to the presidency. The culpability of the Bush Administration is clear in the aftermath, with skewed reporting of events revealed in the American press, and Pedro Carmona escaped house arrest and fled to Florida. There are reports of him meeting with Colin Powell at the end of 2002.
The interference of the United States of America is as disgusting now as it was during the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs. It is arrogant and Chavez was quite right to call it imperialism. But after the failed coup he dramatically expanded the military and instead of negotiating with the USA he favored Russia, Syria, Gaddafi’s Libya, and Castro’s Cuba. A cult of personality and electoral manipulation characterized his later years in power. It was announced today of the former president will be embalmed and put on display “so the people always have him.” This puts him in the same league as Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Kim il-Sung, and (ridiculously) Eva Perone. Not a friendly club to democracy and freedom. 
Hugo Chavez was a critic of US imperialism and stood up against it because he could afford to do so, not something many other states can do. But he must be seen as the tyrant he was or else we convict ourselves of gross moral relativism and unworthy of the democratic systems we live under. Good luck to the embalmers of Chavez, the’ll sure need a lot of formaldehyde to prevent the last bits of him from rotting.