Who’s to blame for National

After the huge number of advance votes placed in the lead-up to election day, the overall turnout was shockingly low. It’s easy to imagine that this would follow pre-existing trends in favouring the right. National actually got fewer votes than they did last election, despite winning more seats, but the Greens drastically underperformed even in comparison to the landline polls.

People’s response is naturally to blame non-voters. It’s understandable, but incredibly simplistic and I ended up having to quit Twitter yesterday because of how prevalent it was. The thing is, it’s easy for actively political people to see the link between voting and quality of life. It’s much harder when you’re alienated from politics entirely and just trying to make ends meet. The consequences of not voting are entirely abstract, while the consequences of paying for bus fare or using petrol aren’t. Other things that aren’t abstract: trying to find childcare, the risk of illness if you take small children out in that miserable cold rain we had, the cost of a doctor’s visit if they do get sick, the fact that none of you have raincoats, the length of time it takes to dry clothes out when you don’t have a dryer. And while the Greens particularly had some good policy for those really low income families, knowing that is not necessarily widespread. Most people still think of Labour as the real left wing party – and Labour hasn’t exactly been endearing itself to the vulnerable and needy.

That’s not to say that all non-voters are in this situation. Some of them presumably just couldn’t be bothered, or were put off by Dirty Politics, or whatever. But blaming all non-voters for National’s win feels really fucking gross when a huge number of them are struggling to survive and being failed by the rest of society. We (as a group) can’t treat people like shit and then get pissed off at them when they don’t engage in society in the way we’d wish. That’s bullshit. Blame Slater and Collins and Key. Blame the media. Blame Labour. Blame whoever you want, just don’t blame our victims.

Age is a number

The polls have closed in Scotland and the count has started. Aside from the excitement of a nation voting on whether or not to become independent (peacefully!), there are a few other quirks about the referendum that have drawn notice. One is that 16 year olds were eligible to vote.

Some people think this is a bad idea. Some think it’s “insane”, even. Typically the argument is that the brain of a 16 year old isn’t fully developed enough to understand the consequences of their actions.

I am extremely uncomfortable with that argument for several reasons. Firstly, the fact that that’s exactly the same argument that was used to deny women and various ethnic groups suffrage in the past (and in a couple of places even today). This will be rebutted with the assumption that our knowledge of the brain is better now, but during those previous debates they assumed their knowledge of the brain was correct too. The fact is, we know very little about the brain. They’ve just found a woman in China who’s 24 years old and has no cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for fine motor control, balance, motor learning and speech. Normally when this happens, the person dies quite young. In her case she had the symptoms of a minor to moderate impairment – difficulty walking, slurred speech, late development of both (speaking at 6, walking at 7). Why? Science doesn’t fucking know. The assumption is that other parts of the brain took up the slack. The brain is the least understood part of the human body.

Basing civil rights on mental abilities is really gross. It’s lead to intelligence tests that were rigged for failure. It’s lead to people with any sort of mental impairment being barred from voting (and the history of insanity is pretty fascinating for how mental impairment has been assessed over the years). There are plenty of adults who don’t grasp consequences very well who are nonetheless strongly encouraged to vote. You can vote with a concussion if you want. You can vote no matter what your educational level. There’s no obligation to even read up on the candidates or parties, you can go in there drunk with absolutely zero clues about any of it, pick two options at random, and it’s still a legitimate vote. The fact that we have a tradition of satirical political parties should be some indication that this is not some holy rite that only the most worthy should be blessed enough to take part in.

Meanwhile we let 16 year olds make all sorts of decisions that affect their future in dramatic ways. Pick school subjects, drop out, have children, leave home (in certain circumstances), drive. Car crashes are a major killer, particularly affecting Maori youth, especially rurally.

If 16 year olds are allowed to participate in adult society, and be quite strongly affected by decisions made there (eg youth wages, employment law, tertiary policy, apprenticeship schemes), I think it’s a little outlandish to consider the idea of allowing them to vote to be “insane”. 16 year olds are fairly likely to be taking or have taken civics classes fairly recently, and still have that information fresh in their minds. They are a lot more intelligent than people give them credit for. Not all of them will want to vote, and when you look at the places where they’re allowed to you’ll usually find that at 16 you’re able, but at 18 it becomes compulsory (either to just enrol or also vote), or 16 year olds are only able to vote in particular kinds of election but not all of them. But 16 year olds are right on the cusp of entering the adult world and the decisions people make here tomorrow will affect them strongly. Very strongly, considering some of the areas that have been policy focuses lately. Someone who’s in Year 13 this year and hasn’t turned 18 yet won’t have a chance to vote until they’ve already been in the workforce or higher education (ideally), raising a small child (also pretty hard work), or stuck on a benefit (increasingly more realistically) for two and a half years. That would have been me if you shifted my birth year – I didn’t turn 18 until just after I started university. And yet they have no say whatsoever on who gets to define the terms of their participation for those nearly three years. Looking at it through a civil rights framework, I just don’t think that’s fair. I want to encourage young people to take an interest in politics early. Maybe if we can catch these 16 year olds, it will be one of the factors we need to improve youth engagement. That can’t be a bad thing.

Wrestling with the narrative

Sarah is on holiday in Melbourne, and suddenly the news cycle is being spammed with a press release from Paula Bennett about the thousands upon thousands of beneficiaries traveling overseas. Typically for a Bennett press release, there’s no real breakdown of the numbers. It’s just “these people are going overseas!” We’re apparently supposed to assume they’re all doing something dodgy, especially with the quotes about WINZ checking with Customs to catch people out, but there’s absolutely no evidence given for this whatsoever.

Personally I’m pretty sure that at least 95% of these people fall into (at least) one of the following categories:
- family or friends paid for a vacation for whatever reason
- it was already booked and paid for before they went on a benefit
- they’re traveling for an emergency or very special occasion
- they’re relocating to cut costs/look for work in a better market

I strongly doubt there are many beneficiaries who are paying for their own holidays out of their benefits.

HOWEVER. Even if they were, who cares? Remember, beneficiaries are not just people who don’t have a job but could be working. Not even the Jobseekers Allowance is only people on unemployment because they merged it with the sickness benefit. Some beneficiaries are on welfare their entire lives because they can’t work. But they get lumped in to this punitive authoritarian culture we have where they’re not allowed anything nice, ever, and they’re always assumed to be trying to get one over on the government. But to be honest, if a beneficiary is able to budget carefully enough to save up for a holiday, they fucking deserve it. That goes for all of them, sick/disabled or not. Because living on a benefit is fucking hard. The kind of constant stress it creates is dangerous and bad for you and having to spend all your energy on the basic necessities of living means it’s incredibly difficult to work to improve your situation. Getting away for a week or whatever and having some time to relax and clear your head is probably actually pretty damn helpful.

I feel like a lot of this really is down to jealousy. I see so many people who should know better saying that they work and they can’t afford whatever the big scandal is this time, and actually that’s kind of bullshit. They choose not to prioritise it. It’s not the same thing. And in this situation when the kerfuffle is over overseas travel, the assumption is that it’s something that’s 100% desirable when there are so many reasons where that would not be the case. Like going to a funeral, or to help with a sick relative. Or even something that seems good, like a wedding, but even if everything is paid for going overseas means getting your benefit cut but you still have to pay your bills, so that’s going to lead to some pretty fucking stressful times. If you would like to swap that with your comfortable secure income, seriously, get in touch, because I would fucking LOVE to. A full-time job at minimum wage is nearly $500 a week, let alone people who are earning enough to have a mortgage, and if it comes with no one obsessing over what I spend my money on and not having to get permission for the stupidest things, BRING IT ON. Unfortunately no one is ever going to take me up on this because despite the trappings of jealousy and resentment everyone knows on some level that being a beneficiary sucks.

Apparently some people think this is a good thing.
Edit: There’s a response article up on the Herald today that includes this quote:

“It proves nearly 10 per cent who have been job tested can afford to go overseas. I think a lot of the time someone else has paid, but it’s still what many New Zealanders would consider a luxury.” (emphasis mine)

Again, remember that the JSA includes sickness beneficiaries.

Such overwhelm

Usually it helps me to write. At the moment it’s hard, because to write about situations and choices I have to think about them on some level and I don’t really want to. This is about the third day I’ve been lying in bed knowing time is slipping away from me. Even if I change nothing, I have to stay on top of my schoolwork, and with three assignments due in the next two and a half weeks I fall behind every day. I’ve done some on the easiest – just today I wrote three definitions of social research terminology! I don’t think that’s exactly the level of commitment they have in mind for the course.

If I drop classes to lighten the load it takes that much longer to finish. The semesters stretch out ahead of me for years. Plus, I’d have to arrange limited full-time status to keep the student allowance that is the pittance paying my bills.

If there was a single position, a person, who could do all the contacting and negotiating and advocating, who could deal with mental health teams and WINZ and HNZ and Massey, instead of having so many different agencies either funding themselves or contracted to the government to cover niche areas in a jigsaw pattern with thousands of pieces, I would still find it nearly impossible to connect with them. That’s how people fall through the cracks. I have to be well enough to get help in the first place. Well, I tried that. All I got was a complete lack of fucks. Now I just wish there was a way to regroup and rest without having to rely on support as fickle as the government’s, because they can never be trusted not to withdraw it when you’re at your most vulnerable. If that sounds bitter I guess it is. No one wants to live like this. But there is no market solution to supporting people who can’t work. Even $250/wk adds up fast and there’s no way for a third party to get a return on that investment, unless perhaps you bring back indentured servitude and see if the temporarily ill outweigh the permanently disabled. Surely we can rely on the goodwill of the corporates to make sure they don’t cut off the low hanging fruit.

Waitangi Day and Te Wai Pounamu

On six separate days through May and June 1840 Treaty signings were held in the South Island, largely down the east coast. However, Hobson had already declared British sovereignty over Te Wai Pounamu on May 21 on the basis that it was terra nullius, the same justification for the annexing of Australia. Apparently it wasn’t logically inconsistent to claim that and also to seek a Treaty with the inhabitants, or at least, everyone was willing to pretend it wasn’t. (It was much easier to pretend in the south – the land wasn’t as good, which meant a lower population and more movement around territories that the Crown could later claim were wastelands as they didn’t have a permanent settlement.)

Land sales in the south occurred between 1844 and 1860 (except Stewart Island, which was bought in 1863) with the Crown buying up huge tracts of land at once. The Canterbury block, for example, was eight million hectares for which they paid just two thousand pounds – one third the cost of Stewart Island. Rather than negotiating fairly, agents such as Commissioner Kemp used threats to buy the land from rivals or to use force while promising that one tenth of the land purchased would be set aside as native reserves. This “one-tenth” was reduced to four hectares for each person, generally of poor quality land. When it came to buying Banks Peninsula, the local chiefs refused to sign. The reserves would not be enough even for subsistence. So instead, the Crown simply passed the Canterbury Settlement Act which basically went “Yeah, all this? That’s ours now.” (Again, they still tried to get Kai Tahu to agree to the annexation for another seven years.) Hamilton was the only agent to really express any hesitation over what they were doing, on the basis that two years ago a 12,000ha piece of land in the area had been sold for fifteen thousand pounds, which he was being instructed to pay just two hundred pounds for. Eventually he sold himself the justification that the rest of the land was valueless to Māori, whereas Pākehā settlement would bring benefits of civilisation and trade.

Not that the Māori could do much trade. Kai Tahu and the other Te Wai Pounamu iwi were left basically landless in an area where the big money was in sheep farming, something that doesn’t need as good pasture as the cropping and dairy farming in the north but which needs a lot of it. What reserve lands they did have left were controlled by the land commissioners, who could lease it out for dick all or sell it off at their discretion.

Ultimately the Crown paid just under fifteen thousand pounds for the entirety of the South and Stewart Islands through the use of threats, bullying and outright theft, leaving Māori dispossessed and impoverished while Pākehā settlers got rich on the proceeds of what Mantell had called “an uselessly extensive domain”. European cognitive dissonance had won the day.

The long road to success

Something happened yesterday that shifted my world just a couple of degrees off-centre. I was coming home from the doctor, cleared the mailbox and walked up the steps to the door, digging my keys out. There was a parcel on the doorstep – course materials, for 279.301. Third year social policy. Government Policy, Planning & Administration.

It’s pretty common knowledge that this isn’t my first go at higher education. In fact it’s my third – the two previous attempts I didn’t even last a year. Picking up the course materials for a third year paper on policy process – not Classical Studies or English, but policy – was this moment of utter surrealness that basically just slammed into me. Unwrapping it and starting to look through the administration guide did not lessen the feeling. A while ago, my progress was classed as “ugh, not graduating until 2015.” Then it became “nearly two whole years left!” Now it’s “just over a year to go.” And there are a million posts out there about imposter syndrome, but the weird thing is that along with that, and at the same time as that, I’m also doing shit like looking at this three page list of relevant journal articles and books and going, “Ooh, that sounds interesting!” Part of me wonders what the hell I’m doing with this stuff and an entirely different part feels… sort of competent.

In completely different events from yesterday, of course, was the discussion about Anne Tolley’s criticisms of Metiria Turei['s clothes], which is only relevant because I was talking about it with Metiria. It occurred to me that this phenomenon, where New Zealand is small enough and laid back enough that we can have casual chats on Twitter with some pretty notable MPs (and political commentators, and current affairs show hosts, etc) makes politics here pretty different from physically bigger countries like USA, Canada, Australia, or more populated countries like the UK. Not for everyone, of course, but then you combine that with the relatively high number of MPs who come from pretty modest backgrounds in comparison to the US or UK and suddenly a lot of things start seeming a lot more plausible. I think Twitter has actually been quietly instrumental in being able to get this far through a degree, in switching social policy from my minor to my major, as well as in taking what I’m learning in policy and Māori studies and anthropology and history and being able to apply it in real life – and in taking real life and applying it to my school work. The conversations I have, and who I have them with, make all the theoretical stuff we cover in class practical and relevant. I don’t know that I’d get that anywhere else – maybe for anthropological and indigenous-focused papers, because damn I learn a lot about racial issues and colonialism on Twitter from both local and international people, but not for policy.

(And of course, if I’m really lucky, I’ll be able to make contacts on Twitter that will be useful when I have to actually (gerk) find a job.)

Kismet

It’s nice when things come together, even if it’s just in a small way. Life carries on while I’m working things out (I’ve had an email from MSD confirming they got my letter) and I’ve been spending this morning preparing for one of my final essays, for my medical anthropology paper. The topic is on medical ethics, and the first half of the question goes something like:

Joralemon believes the anthropologist has a special vantage point on bioethical issues that justifies the move from analysis to advocacy. An anthropologist may have an understanding of different cultural attitudes to the integrity of the body, ritual practices that attend birth and death, or the acceptability of the application of techniques that may cause harm or pain to the patient. However, it is important to remember that “moral decision making is contextual…” (Jessica Muller in Joralemon 2010 p.107).

Can there be an ethical code that includes the cultural values and norms that guide healing-related behaviour in any given society? Under what conditions should an anthropologist intervene in a medical context?

For a while I didn’t entirely know exactly what the question actually meant, let alone how to answer it, but when I turned my computer off to let it cool down and lay down with my Kobo and a pad of paper in case of ideas and just read for a while, it solidified. The book I was finishing is called Sniper by Jon Wells, and it’s about an anti-choice terrorist who shot several doctors in Canada and the USA, the last one of which died. The legal case hinged on whether he was intending to injure or to kill but in defence speeches there was a lot of moralising over whether force (deadly or not) was justified to prevent harm in the form of terminations. So I was reading the final few chapters of this book and coming across passages where it’s quite clear that no one can ever agree because the pro-choice and anti-choice positions start at inherently different philosophical positions. It also reminded me of an image someone posted on twitter that I’d glanced at about subsidies for the movie industry, where pro-subsidy people say “If we don’t give perpetually increasing subsidies the jobs will go elsewhere!” and anti-subsidy people say “We’ll have to give perpetually increasing subsidies or the jobs will go elsewhere!” It’s hard to find a universally acceptable answer there because both positions completely agree on the fact, but disagree on which value is the most important.

So, when I put down my Kobo and glanced at my pad of paper, everything just sort of crystallised. There cannot be a universal rule of ethics in medicine because different cultures view things so differently. Under one system you might view the individual patient as central and focus on their physical symptoms to find an evidence-based solution to prevent them from occuring, while under another you might have a holistic collective view where it’s just as or even more important to deal with the entire family, to tend to any tension or social discord that is causing or exacerbating symptoms. Or have different ideas on who should be responsible for decision making – like, what if what the patient wants goes against the interests of the family or contradict medical best practice? What’s the difference morally between a DNR order and euthanasia? What level of mental disability is enough to override the wishes of the patient and cause them to be considered incapable? How is the conception of a person linked to their physical body, and when does that start and end? How do you weigh post-mortem organ donation against beliefs surrounding the treatment of the deceased?

It will be interesting to write because the second half is to be about a current medical ethical debate in New Zealand. I’m doing the treatment (especially with regards to income support) of people with disabilities, particularly mental illness, which will touch on those things like who gets to make decisions and what best care entails. The guy who is like the head advisor to MSD about medical issues has this position where he believes that putting someone on a disability benefit and letting them not work is, like, literally as unhealthy for them as smoking some ridiculous number of cigarettes a day, and WINZ has switched to this position of focusing on what people CAN do rather than what they CAN’T, but they use unqualified people to make these decisions. So all that sort of thing is basically what I’m going to cover, the questions about what is the best outcome for the government or society or the patient and which outcome should be the highest priority and our cultural assumptions about self-reliance, the history of the welfare system, whose interests are supposed to be protected. It’s not as great a topic as I did for my last anthropology final essay, but now that I’ve figured out what I’m going to say it is definitely going to be something that I’ll enjoy writing, not some tedious shit like my first NZ Land Wars essay.