Monday, June 27, 2016

Towards a free and united Europe

Some years ago, while researching an essay on the Eurozone crisis for Overland, I listened to the recording of a symposium held at the London School of Economics. When it came to discussing whether or not the technocrats who designed the common currency had known that the system wouldn’t work, but counted on using the eventual crash to force the reforms they wanted on a recalcitrant political class, one of the eminent participants candidly said that yes, they probably had. The discussion quickly moved on, but against the background of the rapid immiseration of the Greek people, that comment struck me as disarmingly cynical. It was almost as if it didn’t need to be said. Why would you be so naïve as to think that this is not how the Union went about building its power?

We’ve reached a different crisis now, this one precipitated by an act of democracy instead of the flawed calculations of a team of economists. Yet it would be equally foolish to harbour any great hope that the social fallout will be at the centre of the coming negotiations. The only thing standing between Great Britain and the kind of treatment meted out on Greece are its much greater economic power and a healthier balance sheet (at least for now). But if it wants out, it won’t be on favourable terms, lest other countries get the same ideas. It’s a variation on the theme of the ‘moral hazard’ that led to the criminal refusal to bail out Greece on the part of the Troika. Banks can be trusted. People can not.

Don’t get me wrong, I am dismayed by the result of the referendum, not just because of the hardship it will create in the short-term but because of the political forces that the vote has legitimised and empowered. However, those who – in the name of condemning the recklessness of British voters – have waxed lyrical in the past week about Europe as if it were a beacon of peace and human rights need only look at how it imposes the strictest austerity at its periphery, or at the fate of the tens of thousands of migrants that have crashed against the walls of its fortress. They should also remind themselves that the union was first of all and is still above all an economic pact. Even before it went by the name of Common Market, what we know now as the EU had its very beginnings in something called the European Coal and Steel Community. The task of grafting progressive ideas about coexistence and citizenship onto an industrial consortium was always going to be a difficult one.

But there were other, alternative beginnings. In the Summer of 1941, while exiled by Mussolini on the island of Ventotene, anti-fascist intellectuals Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi wrote a document which they called ‘Towards a free and united Europe’. It mapped the post-war future of the continent as a federated socialist democracy based on universal suffrage and the ‘abolition of the division of Europe into national, sovereign states’. To this end, it envisaged a revolutionary phase during which individual states, critically weakened by the conflict, would be reshaped into branches of the new federal state. This would be ‘the grandest and most innovative creation that has occurred in Europe for centuries’, controlling a single unified army and capable of ‘breaking the economic autarkies which are the backbone of totalitarian regimes’.

Neither Rossi nor Spinelli were Marxists and stopped short of advocating the abolition of private property, believing instead that enterprise could flourish at the service of ordinary working people. However, they did advocate the ‘wholesale nationalisation’ not just of utilities and vital industries but also of any concern capable of exercising undue influence on the state. They placed at the heart of the revolutionary movement a coalition of intellectuals and the most enlightened sectors of the working class. Crucially, they believed that this movement needed to be ready to come into shape as soon as the power vacuum was created. Hence their drafting of the manifesto barely two years into the war, of which they correctly anticipated the outcome.

There are two passages in particular that are worth quoting at length, for they signify the extent in which Rossi and Spinelli viewed internationalism as the only alternative to a future return to barbarism and destruction.
The dividing line between progressive and reactionary parties no longer falls therefore along the formal lines of more or less democracy, or more or less socialism, but along a radically new and substantial division: between those who conceive the central field of struggle as being the old one, aimed at the conquest of national political power, and who will, albeit unwillingly, play into the hands of reactionary forces, letting the incandescent lava of popular passions set in the old mould and allowing the old absurdities to arise once again; and those who see as the central task the creation of a strong international state, who will direct popular forces towards this goal and who, having conquered national power, will use it above all else as an instrument for achieving international unity.
Having set this scene, the authors sound a warning concerning the forces of reaction that ought to have some contemporary resonance.
The point they will seek to leverage will be the restoration of the nation state. Thus they will be able to seize what is by far the most widespread popular feeling, the most injured by recent events and the most easily manipulated to reactionary ends: namely, patriotic feeling. This is also their best hope to confound the ideas of their adversaries, since for the popular masses, the only political experience acquired to date has been within the national context, making it quite easy to channel them and their more shortsighted leaders towards the reconstruction of the states destroyed by the storm. If they achieve this end, they will have won. Even if these states appeared to be largely democratic or socialist, it would be a matter of time before power is returned to the forces of reaction.

I don’t need to tell you that nothing came of the Ventotene Manifesto, although historians regard it as a precursor to some of the debates that informed the birth of the European Union two to three decades later, and although a brief attempt was made in the early 1950s to create a unified European army, which was opposed by Great Britain from the outside and ultimately scuttled by France from the inside. But the document is also an intellectual model for the kind of thinking that can be produced even in times of acute crisis.

Once it was completed, the original text of the manifesto was smuggled out of the island by Ursula Hirschmann, the wife of imprisoned partisan Eugenio Colorni. It was written on strips of cigarette paper which were stuffed inside a roast chicken to get past the gaolers’ inspection. If four people stuck on a small island guarded by Fascists managed to reinvent Europe under those conditions, what’s our excuse?

The text of the Ventotene Manifesto is available here. The translation of the excerpts in this post is mine.

The photograph at the top of the post is of the Carcere di Santo Stefano on the island of Ventotene where Spinelli, Rossi, Colorni and other anti-fascists including Sandro Pertini were imprisoned.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Someone should be going to jail

I’ll admit it, I do identify. How could I not? As a fellow parent of disabled children, I look at Marlena and Dave Peacock and at their desire to do something about the treatment of their son before they are too old to fight or something happens to either of them, and my heart breaks. I recognise those feelings, albeit from a distance. I live with that fear.

Identification may warp my perspective but there are objective facts, too, some of which have been known for a rather long time, others which authorities fought not to have released. The facts are that a man whose only crime is to suffer from autism and psychosis has been kept in semi-permanent seclusion for the last five years, under conditions that were found by Ombudsman Peter Boshier to constitute ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’ as defined by the Crimes of Torture Act. Multiple reports have called for an urgent and radical change of treatment. The chief obstacles are an apparent unwillingness to commit the necessary funding and, most absurdly, his having been judged by the people currently in charge of his welfare to be a danger to others as a result of the way they have treated him.

Ashley Peacock was the subject of a documentary last year and of a forthright and courageous series of reports by Kirsty Johnston in The New Zealand Herald this year. The publicity – which the desperate parents were forced to seek – may yet force the Ministry of Health and the Capital and Coast District Health Board to finally reckon with the findings of two separate Ombudsmen’s inspectors. But it is an utter tragedy and shame that we are even having this conversation. Why weren’t the inspections enough? What is it that makes it possible to ignore their reports and delay justice for Ashley Peacock?

This morning we heard the testimony of Lam Wing-Kee, a bookseller abducted in Hong Kong and held for five months in a small room 27 square metres in size. But Ashley Peacock’s room is half that size, and he’s been there a lot longer, so maybe next time Li Keqiang meets with John Key the Chinese press should ask him if he’s going to bring up our human rights record. This is a provocation, but to a point: for we all well-versed in the art of making some of our people disappear. When it comes to rights, not every New Zealander is deemed to be human. I have written many times about the invisibility of disabled children in our school system, but their lot is enviable in comparison to adults affected by disability or mental illness. Crimes of Torture inspectors, for instance, aren’t resourced to visit dementia units run by private providers. There are places, as a society, we simply choose not to visit.

My last job in Italy was in mental health, and I learned a few things about the system in which I worked. I learned for instance that in order to subject an individual to a compulsory psychiatric treatment such as the one that first landed Ashley Peacock in a psychiatric unit, it was necessary to acquire not only the signature of two doctors, but also of the Mayor acting as guarantor of the rights of the citizens. In the town where I worked, which has a population similar to Wellington’s, compulsory treatments were extremely rare. In any case they expired after seven days, at which point a new application would have to be made in order to prolong the treatment. Here, it was possible for a judge to make Mr Peacock’s order indefinite.

There is another difference between the Italian system and the New Zealand one that keeps popping into my mind ever since I read the first of Johnston’s reports. The difference is this: had this happened back home, I have very little doubt that a public prosecutor would have initiated proceedings against the administrators of the health board by now, for grave neglect in ensuring the welfare of patients is a crime. In other words, somebody would be going to jail. And believe me, I am no great fan of the practice of incarcerating people. But I cannot help but think that the prospect of a doctor seeing the inside of a cell, which would still no doubt be far nicer than Ashley Peacock’s, would lend proceedings some of the urgency they so badly need. It would also reassure that the country hasn't legalised torture.

In his 2013 report, Ombudsman Ron Paterson noted that while he acknowledged that ‘procuring suitable accommodation for Ashley’ remained a ‘complex matter’, he believed ‘that during the initial stages of my investigation there was a lack of collaboration, and insufficient resources available, to make real progress’. They dragged their feet. And yet nobody went to jail.

The latest report was issued in March. It found the Ashley Peacock ‘was still living in a seclusion room’, in breach of the Convention Against Torture. It found that the seclusion register and some seclusion records were incomplete, which strikes me as another excellent reason to send someone to jail. It found that not all clients had a consent to treatment form on their file. It found that not all section 76 reviews were up-to-date. These are the documents that effectively authorise compulsory treatment. How can a facility be without them and still operate legally?

General manager of mental health, addictions and disability services, Nigel Fairley, commented in a press release following the publication of the latest Ombudsman report that ‘the situation is not ideal for the client, other residents or staff’. And I know I can’t send him to jail for saying that, for reducing a five year stint in a small room, with a mattress covered in plastic for a bed and a bottle for urine, as an inconvenience, something not ideal. But I do wish I could.

In the absence of laws that protect the welfare and liberty of disabled people and the mentally ill, Ashley Peacock and his family are left at the mercy of a bureaucracy that can afford to move at its own pace. Minister Lotu-Iiga has said he has received assurances ‘from the Director of Mental Health that [Ashley] is being cared for in the best way possible’, and that the health board ‘are working closely with the family on a solution’. The existence of plain evidence to the contrary doesn’t seem to bother him. Black is white. Up is down. Cruel and inhuman treatment is the best possible care. These are the things you can say when you have all the power, and when you know that no-one is going to jail.

The first of Kirsty Johnston’s reports on Ashley Peacock’s is here and to easiest way to find the links to the others is to visit her author's page. The latest Ombudsman's report on the inspectors' visit to the Tawhirimatea unit can be viewed here. You can also visit the A life for Ashley Facebook page or view Seclusion, the episode of Attitude TV devoted to Ashley’s story.

The picture at the top of the post is of another room in the Tawhirimatea unit and comes from one of Kirsty's reports. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

National values

Girls playing football at the Azraq refugee camp, Jordan.
Photo by Simon Day from his report from the camp for The Spinoff.

The government has finally reviewed our refugee quota, underwhelming us all by making permanent – as of 2018 – the modest increase of 250 people a year currently taken up by the emergency intake of Syrian nationals. This is well short of the doubling of the quota demanded by campaigners and recently agreed upon by the Greens and Labour, but as always you can see the calculation made by National. Not increasing the quota would have been scarcely thinkable. A modest increase plays both to the prevailing, soft anti-immigration rhetoric – which the opposition in other areas cheerfully goes along with – and to the government’s attempts to portray itself above all as pragmatic. We cannot afford to be too compassionate. We must ensure that we can relocate refugees and supported them adequately.

This reasonable accommodation conceals the fact that we could in fact choose to make much greater efforts. Taking 250 refugees a year costs $25 million, neatly equal to the small unit of public expenditure known as 1 flagreferendum, or to one 800th of the money we just committed to modernising our Defence Force. Campaigners for doubling the quota have voiced their disappointment, while Amnesty International has correctly called this effort not just paltry, but ‘shameful and inhumane’ in light of the current crisis. This is the same crisis that made John Key bark in the House last year that the opposition needs to ‘get some guts’ and ‘join the right side’. For the purposes of the debate, it seems, ‘guts’ is defined as sending few members of the armed forces to Iraq in non-combat roles, which was borne out of another pragmatic calculation. Political reporter Claire Trevett called it ‘the least… the allies will let us get away with’, and Key all but admitted as much. However, there is no ‘right side’ to join when it comes to increasing our refugee quota to a level remotely commensurate to the gravity of the situation. There are no guts involved in committing to spend what is necessary to give people displaced by war a safe harbour.

Key calls it an ‘appropriate response’, and what has his entire time in government been if not a series of appropriate responses? The least spending cuts he can get away with, the most gradual – if not quite the least punishing – welfare reforms, the slowest bleeding out of health and education, the fewest state houses sold, the fewest motel units bought after we’ve run out of state houses, the smallest contingent of soldiers as far from the front lines as they’re allowed, the smallest number of refugees. A minutely balanced, opinion-polled-within-an-inch-of-its-life permanent exercise that maximises popularity and consensus while rendering government all but invisible. And, as in the case of the housing crisis that nobody is allowed to call a crisis, when the government reduced itself to making a donation to Te Puea Marae to save face, so too in the case of refugees it looks to defer to the initiative of charitable of citizens. This, from the press release ahead of the quota announcement:
The Government has also agreed to pilot a new community sponsorship category in 2017/2018. The details of the pilot are still being worked through and will be announced next year.
“The offers of support from the New Zealand public in the wake of publicity around the significant displacement of people globally is commendable and the Government is keen to explore how that support might be used to the benefit of refugees,” [Minister of Immigration Michael Woodehouse said].
Translation: if you like refugees so much, why don’t you pay to bring them over here directly?

The Big Society approach may also be seen as an ‘appropriate response’ to this and other similar public relation problems facing the government. Do you care about the homeless? House them yourselves. Do you care about refugees? We’ll help them come across if you foot the bill. It is quite fitting, too, that political questions be reduced to the short-term horizon of ‘caring’, ensuring they remain urgent only for as long as the public’s attention can be maintained – a feat that requires considerable resources and labour on the part of activists, advocates and journalists.

It is possible that the government is slowly running out of reasonable accommodations and appropriate responses, whose steady accretion may just be beginning to wear down the patience of the electorate. It’s hard to say. Fortunately, National’s very, very junior partner came to the rescue today with a grotesque statement to the effect that we should welcome more refugees so long as they are shown to be ‘tolerant’. This, remember, is the party whose former leader, Richard Prebble, warned against the country taking in too many refugees from ‘desert cultures’, which later elected Don ‘Orewa’ Brash as leader, whose former dead-child-identity-stealing MP David Garrett has since called for the immediate cessation of all Muslim immigration, and whose then largest donor, Louis Crimp, cheerfully declared that ‘we’ (meaning they) ‘all dislike Maori’. This group of tolerance-loving free-market radicals who just so happens to be historically lousy with racists, figures that refugees should have to sign ‘a statement of commitment to New Zealand values’, along the lines of those that Australia and Belgium – according to its press release – require immigrants to abide by.

Never mind that refugees aren’t regular immigrants, and that we’re no more allowed to choose which ones we want than they are to choose where they end up. It is also a myth that we are a tolerant nation, a nation that welcomes diversity, a nation that is secure enough in its value system to know that it can meaningfully welcome and integrate displaced people; as opposed to a country that demands conformity, insecure, stolidly monocultural, obsessed with how it is perceived abroad and prone to fits of apoplectic rage when an intellectual speaking at a writers' festival in another country dares to question the image it projects to the tourist market.

The question of the impact of refugees on hosting nations is often seen in strictly economic terms, which are poorly understood to boot, but I would suggest that a country that demands people sign off on its values has more to gain culturally than economically. It is a country that is crying for people to come over and make the place better.

With thanks to @kumararepublic for help with tracking down the Prebble reference, and to Simon Day for permission to use the image at the top of his post. You really must read his piece.
Let me also call your attention to this PledgeMe page for the Freerange Press book on reimagining the media – on which a lot more in the weeks to come.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Poor Peter

I’m not going to belabour further why I venerate Achille Campanile, whom I consider to be Italy’s greatest ever humourist. This week’s post consists of the tenth chapter of his novel Povero Piero (Poor Peter), which tells of the death and burial of a very ordinary man.

In this chapter, two family friends, Paolo and Lola, have been sent by Piero’s widow to the post office to draft a telegram for his family and friends so they can arrive in time for the funeral. The pair wish above all to take special care to break the news to them gently.

The novel was originally published in 1959, although the artwork below – unattributed – is from the cover of the 1988 edition. The translation is mine.

“Imagine what a blow it would be, for them,” said Lola, sitting with her fiancé at the long table that took up the middle of the telegraph office. “They’ll have a heart attack if we wire them to come because Piero is dead.”

Around them, hurried people came and went. Every now and then, a clerk spied from behind the shoulders of the seated customers to check that they weren’t writing letters instead of telegrams.

“Naturally,” Paolo said, “We can’t communicate with brutal honesty the news of Piero’s death. Those poor souls must embark upon a long journey, it wouldn’t be humane to subject them to the harrowing certainty. We shall use due form.”

He took out his fountain pen and got ready to write.

“I suggest,” said Lola, “that we employ the customary formula in these circumstances: “Piero critical, come at once””.

Paolo put down his pen and stared coldly at his fiancée.

“Lola,” he said, “you are a good sort, full of initiative and good intentions, but you never think before you open your mouth.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I’m sorry, but you may as well write: “Piero is dead””.

“This way we won’t frighten them.”

“But everyone knows that, when you wire that someone is “critical”, it means they are dead. You said it yourself: it’s the usual formula in these circumstances. Everyone knows that, if someone dies, this is what you put in the telegram.”

“Yes, that’s true. Let’s write then: “Piero serious.” It’s less frightening.”

“I don’t think so. They will suspect that we don’t want to alarm them by saying “critical” and that Piero really is critical. That is to say, dead.”

“What about: “Piero unwell, come at once.””

“How do you figure that? If one is unwell to the point of requiring the immediate mobilisation of their loved ones, it means that they are critical, and we’re back to square one. You’re going to kill those poor people. Or they’re going to think we’re crazy.”

“You’re quite right. Let’s write: “Piero not very well, come at once”; or “Slight ailment requires your immediate presence at Piero’s bedside”, or…”

Paolo kept shaking his head, disconsolately.

“What then?” Cried Lola. “You’re not going to suggest we write: “Piero in perfect health, come at once”!?”

“My dear Lola, it’s not whether he’s good or well or in perfect health, it’s the “come at once” part, the urgent request, which makes the euphemism meaningless. As a matter of fact, the greater the contrast between the first part of the telegram and the second, the more we’re going to frighten them. I’m sure you realise that if we were to write “Piero quite well,” or even “Piero well,” or “very well”, followed by “come at once”, they would most assuredly be alarmed, so long as they really are fond of Piero. We need to concentrate on the second sentence, to avoid striking a blow to the pit of the stomach by brutally spelling out what happened.”

“By the same token,” said Lola, pensively, “we must get them to come to the funeral. We cannot wire: “Piero unwell, stay where you are.””

“Certainly not.”

A brief silence fell. With furrowed brows, the couple racked their brains to find a formula that reconciled the need for tact with the need to inform.

“What if,” exclaimed Lola, “instead of “Piero critical” we wrote: “Filippo critical, come at once”?”.

Her fiancé gave her an astonished look.

“What’s Filippo got to do with anything, it’s Piero who died.”

“This way they wouldn’t be alarmed.”

“What a lousy solution! They wouldn’t be alarmed, but they wouldn’t understand either. Who is this Filippo?”

“I’m just saying. Any name is good as another. But I think the building's caretaker is called Filippo, isn’t he?”

“Lola, sometimes you baffle me. What kind of a solution is this? They would say we’re crazy if we wire them to come at once because the building's caretaker is ill. In fact, the same thing would happen if we wired them that other tenants or even you or I are critical.” (They both touch wood.)

“Even you or I? I cannot believe it.”

“But of course. And rest assured that, if that were the case, they would believe we are critical rather than dead, because they would not care a jot that we are dead, and nobody would think of informing them using a euphemism, therefore…”

Lola had already stopped following the subtle arguments of her fiancé. She wasn’t one to easily let go of an idea, not matter how far-fetched.

“And yet,” she said, “I don’t think it’s that bizarre a suggestion. We would be able to write without reticence, with brutal honesty, even things like “Filippo expired. Filippo defunct. Filippo dead and buried. Come at once.””

“But to what end, my dear? I acknowledge that this ploy would resolve some of our problems, because the news of the death of the caretaker, or of any other unknown Filippo, wouldn’t upset them at all. But it would be no use. At most they will say: “Filippo is dead, good riddance to him.””

“I don’t think they are that cynical, and remain of my opinion.”

“It’s not a question of cynicism. What use is it to wire them that a stranger has died? Don’t you see?”

Lola resisted.

“Even if,” she said, “there’s no-one among their family or friends called Filippo, I’m still convinced that his death would not fail to inspire in them that measure of basic human sympathy you wouldn’t deny to a dog.”

“But not to the point of making them come here.”

“All right, all right,” she finally relented, with a hint of bitterness in her voice. “You’re always right, according to you. What are we going to do, then?”

“It’s not easy, let me think.”

“Can I make a suggestion?”

“Go ahead.”

“Let’s wire: “You critical, Piero will come at once.””

“I don’t understand. What do you mean, “you critical”?”

“In order not to frighten them. Let’s reverse the roles. Instead of saying that Piero is critical and they need to come at once, we’ll say that Piero is coming at once and they are critical.”

“Oh, my dear soul! You really think that a person would be less frightened to hear that they are critical themselves, rather than somebody else, even if they’re very fond of them? Are you all there? Health is the most important thing. “I” comes before anyone else. And then, to be told via telegram! Can you imagine? You would give them a heart attack, without a doubt. No, no. And anyway, apart from the fact that receiving news of being critical would be worse, I think it would be no use.”

“Oh you’re so long-winded, Paolo! I don’t know how I’m going to cope when we are married and I’m tempted to initiate separation proceedings here and now.”

“I’m saying they wouldn’t understand.”

“Aren’t we trying to make sure they don’t understand?”

“They must both understand and not understand. Tell me, why do people send telegrams in these situations?”

“To summon people to the funeral.”

“Exactly. But they must come without knowing for sure that their loved one is dead.”

“In that case, why don’t we write, for instance: “You won lottery prize, come see what’s in the box”? I bet they would be here in no time. And they wouldn’t suspect for a moment that it’s for a tragic event. It would be a wonderfully happy journey, the journey of a lifetime.”

“What about when they get here? Have you thought of what they’re going to do when they get here? Are you really suggesting, my dear Lola, that we lure them here with the prospect of claiming a prize, only to present them with a dead relative? The shock would be even worse, devastating, as would the gap from imagination to reality, as would, so to speak, the rush of the column of mercury from one hundred above to one hundred below zero, or the run of the piston from end to end. It would be like exposing someone to a strong heat source, only to plunge them under an icy cold shower.”

“Norwegians do it and they seem to enjoy it.”

“I know. But we’re not in Norway, we’re in Italy. You’re lucky if you get to take a lukewarm bath. No, no. Better to just give them the shower first and get it over with.”

“My dear man,” exclaimed Lola again, “you really are long-winded! I don’t know where you get that from and I hate to think…”

“I’m going to get right to the point. We must not create pernicious illusions, but rather a sense of generic alarm that, without producing certainty, will soften the final blow, whilst, at the same time, giving a glimmer of hope, and creating a transitory zone between obliviousness and anguish, so that they can move slowly from one to the other, thereby…”

“You’re going to write a dissertation before we’re done here,” Lola cried. “I still think we should wire: “You won lottery prize, come see what’s in the box.””

“I veto it,” Paolo replied coldly.

“And I raise a motion of no confidence,” said Lola, who was beginning to get agitated.

“Listen, Lola,” said Paolo “I don’t want to argue with you for a matter that, to be quite honest, doesn’t entirely concern us. Let’s split things down the middle. Between your version and mine, let’s adopt half of your telegram.”

“Meaning what?”

“Let’s get rid of “You won lottery prize” and stick with “Come see what’s in the box.”

Lola was beside herself with admiration. She looked at her fiancé with amazement.

“I think we got it,” she said. “This time I really think we got it.”

But Paolo was having second thoughts.

“No,” he said. “The phrase is open to two interpretations. One would kill them before they leave, the other would kill them when they get here.”


“Well,” said Paolo, “let’s cut to the chase. We’ll write: “Piero in excellent health, stay where you are.” Few words to the wise will suffice.”

“It’s the only way.”