A bully-nouveau vintage year for despots and tyrants

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    If our earlier level 4 lockdowns felt eerie, with the lucky of us almost sleepwalking into domestic housewifery, nature walks and having our children surprise us, those pauses and the mesmerising change from busy lives at least allowed us to process even the big, sad stuff with our working minds.

    We could see opportunities for useful reflection and action towards radical, much-needed change, if not immediately.

    This lockdown has no such small consolations. We can be forgiven for taking a body blow, and not really knowing why. Real threats and noisy urgency inevitably throw up more primal reactions and it’s hard to be your best self. 

    Even in the uneasy month before this long-feared Covid outbreak within our borders, we had the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declaring the environmental catastrophe “unequivocal” and reaching into every corner of the globe. 

    Then the UN called New Zealand’s brutal housing shortage a “human rights crisis”. That’s us – a cherished social housing poster nation for 80 years – brought down by democratic governments whose GDP successes rested on massive immigration and a pernicious ideology that only an unregulated market could fix it. 

    Somewhere in there was also the news that monopolistic practices had made us a happy hunting ground for an offshore food giant which has made our nourishment (as well as our housing and building costs) the most expensive in comparable nations. 

    Meanwhile, in the Covid response, Opposition politicians playing party politics in the shallow end with the nation’s morale haven’t helped. 

    Our woeful but still strangely newsworthy Opposition would have done better to have developed a bipartisan model for itself with an overwhelmingly popular government – on the pandemic, if nothing else.

    If they’d put forward constructive plans to develop a genuinely fit-for-purpose quarantine station for the country, I for one would have been with them. 

    As Aucklanders, a great many of us are fed up with the idiocies of  an ersatz MIQ on one of the busiest thoroughfares in downtown. Or, come to that, of the tax-payer gravy train for international hotel chains that have limped along with poor air conditioning and porous protocols that have contributed to the city’s sense of knife-edge hazards this past year. 

    We know we need an effective state, social safety nets and equality in citizens’ rights to housing, education and participation, and it’s desperately frustrating to be served up politics played out as a blood sport: sound and fury signifying – and accomplishing – nothing. 

    Covid lit a bonfire of the vanities almost everywhere and that, too, is agonising. Benighted Afghanistan; displaced refugees from every continent driven from their homes and into the sea; the planet itself in flames and no flicker of leadership to remind us where we thought we were going in the 60s and 70s towards world peace and ending hunger, racial discrimination and poverty. Arms and oil have a lot to answer for.

    Nor is it a mystery that democracy struggles when it cannot deliver stability and prosperity – and even ours hasn’t in recent decades.

    Foreign affairs commentator Simon Tisdall, in a Guardian article on recent upheavals in traditionally democratic Tunisia,  points out the fallacies of democracy as an ideology with big ideas about peace, values and fundamental rights but whose transitions “often trip up over more mundane issues – economic distress, inequality, lack of opportunity, poor education, insecurity”. 

    Quoting Tunisian economics professor Fadhel Kaboub in the New York Times, he said the country had done well on ideological and political freedoms but had kept intact exactly the same economic model that produced inequality, a debt crisis and social economic exclusion. As a result, its democratically elected parliament had been widely reviled as a self-serving oligarchy. 

    “The broad message from around the world appears to be that if people are kept safe, fed, housed and in work by authoritarian or illiberal regimes, they may be prepared to forego the relative ‘luxury’ of high-end Western-style democracy.”

    With America’s Republican party setting a terrible example, it was no wonder democracy is in trouble around the world, Tisdall said.

    “Political liberty in the modern era, like everything else, is transactional – no longer a universal principle expounded by Enlightened philosophers and founding fathers but a tacky tradeoff… This grim situation has not come about by chance or by a bully-nouveau vintage year for despots and tyrants. It’s a product of public apathy and connivance, global inequality and ubiquitous political malpractice.”

    The US and Europe need to convince Tunisians, and the rest of us, that prosperity and security, and collective and individual democratic rights are not incompatible but mutually reinforcing, said Tisdall.

    “They can have both – and they’re worth fighting for.” •
    Liz Waters

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