Thursday, 31 July 2014

God Save The People!



THE WORDS to When Wilt Thou Save The People? were written in 1827 by the "Corn Law Rhymer", Ebenezer Elliott. The refrain, "God Save the People!", is, of course, the radical working-class agitator's rejoinder to "God Save the King!"

Elliott's song became the anthem of the Chartist movement, the mass working-class movement for universal manhood suffrage and other political reforms that was active in the United Kingdom between 1838 and 1848.

I have been unable to locate on YouTube a performance of the song set to the music of Josiah Booth, which is quite beautiful. If anyone knows of such a  version capable of being uploaded to Bowalley Road - please get in touch. In the meantime here is Stephen Schwartz's adaptation of the song which he slipped into his 1971 musical "Godspell". Enjoy!

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

The 40 Percent Solution.

Challenging The Conventional Wisdom: The Labour Right believes the party can only succeed by conforming to the prevailing political and socioeconomic orthodoxy; the Labour Left understands that the whole point of the party is to challenge and change it.

PHIL QUIN writes a mean political column. His long-standing connections to the right of the New Zealand Labour Party are extensive and strong. When he writes about politics, especially electoral politics, it is from personal experience and with considerable authority. His contribution to the Dialogue Page in this morning’s (30/7/14) NZ Herald is a case in point.
 
Under the heading “Inept Labour needs to aim higher” Quin argues strongly that “Labour’s strategists are misguided in their conviction that fewer than 30 percent of the vote is sufficient to form a viable government.” Ranging himself alongside fellow dissidents, Shane Jones and Josie Pagani, he urges Labour to “lift its sights to become a 40 percent party, capable of winning a broad spectrum of voters from all parts of the country.”
 
For a history graduate from Vic’ this is a pretty disappointing analysis. Between 1990 and 2011 Labour has managed to be a “40 percent party” only twice (2002 and 2005) and on both occasions Labour’s success owed more to the condition of the National Party than it did to its own.
 
In 2002 the National Opposition was in more-or-less total disarray and slumped to its lowest ever result of 20.9 percent of the Party Vote. Just three years later, however, National’s new leader, Don Brash, stood at the head of a no-holds-barred, far-right crusade to re-ignite the neoliberal bonfire of everything Labour voters hold dear. Unsurprisingly, its core supporters flocked to the polling-booths in pure self-defence.
 
Even with these “advantages” Labour only just made it over the 40 percent line, winning 41.2 percent in 2002 and 41.1 percent in 2005. The average level of support for Labour since 1990 is, however, much lower. In the eight general elections since that year it has won, on average, just 35 percent of the popular vote.
 
In other words, Rogernomics long ago put paid to the “40 percent party”. Labour ceased to be “a credible party capable of winning a broad spectrum of support from all parts of the country” the moment its parliamentary leadership succumbed to (in Phil’s own words) “corporate interests and right-wing politicians”. The very same people whose “fierce determination to defend the prevailing political and socioeconomic orthodoxy that shapes New Zealand’s capitalist system and delivers its beneficiaries ever-expanding wealth, power and privilege” split the party, put an end to FPP, and opened up the political space to Labour’s left for all manner of radical challengers.
 
An historian ought to know this sort of thing. Just as he ought to realise that Labour itself, by steadfastly advancing what were regarded, in the 1930s and 40s, as extremely radical policies, constructed a new social and economic order which the National Party, in order to be elected, was required to preserve intact. Labour’s social-democratic state had become “the prevailing political and socioeconomic orthodoxy”. To remain electorally competitive National had to accept the role of the “other” social-democratic party.
 
Roger Douglas’s singular achievement was to effect a transformation of the social and economic order every bit as radical as Mickey Savage’s and Peter Fraser’s – but in the opposite ideological direction. Neoliberalism was now the new orthodoxy which the leaders of both major parties, under threat of severe economic sanctions from the international financial markets, were obliged to preserve intact. So strong was the grip of the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” that even when Helen Clark was in command of a “40 percent party” she did not dare to challenge it.
 
And it is right about here in the discussion that Phil’s argument for Labour to become a “40 percent party” begins to fall apart. What he is actually saying is that, just as National in the 1950s, 60s and 70s was forced to become the “other” social-democratic party, Labour in the twenty-first century must accept the role of the “other” neoliberal party.
 
What’s more, a closer examination of the Labour Right’s constant exhortations to Labour to embrace “the centre” reveal them to be cruelly disingenuous. What Phil and his comrades are really urging Labour to do is pitch its primary appeal to those New Zealanders who are still holding their own (or even prospering) under the prevailing neoliberal regime. The people whose precarious position of privilege vis-a-vis the working poor and beneficiaries renders them unashamedly reluctant to redistribute even a little of the wealth they have “worked so hard for”. Beneath a superficial “concern” for the disadvantaged, these voters conceal a visceral contempt for the poor. They are terrified of being forced to share their resources with the “underserving” and will have absolutely no truck with any political party which suggests that, as citizens, they have a moral obligation to put an end to inequality and poverty.
 
It was to placate these citizens that David Shearer waxed eloquent about “the beneficiary on the roof”, and why even David Cunliffe forbears from speaking out too forcefully about the lives of the poor and what Labour proposes to do to improve them.
 
Unfortunately for Phil and his ilk, Labour’s rank-and-file have no desire to become a “40 percent party” if, as part of the process, they are required to give up all hope of ever again becoming an organisation brave enough to challenge and transform the existing economic and social order.
 
The Labour Right regards this stubborn refusal to abandon principle in the name of power as evidence of utter fuckwittedness. So much so that he concludes his column with a frank call for heads to roll down at Party HQ.
 
“If Labour fails to break well into the 30s, the party president and general secretary should resign and party council members should convene urgently to consider their own positions.”
 
Back in the old Soviet Union this would have been called a purge.
 
And don’t for a moment think that Phil has forgotten the party leader.
 
“As for David Cunliffe, he should resign with grace and alacrity as soon as it becomes apparent he is unable to form a government, which might be far earlier on the evening of September 20 than any Labour voter would wish to contemplate.”
 
Clearly, the Labour Right, utterly inadequate to the task of slaying the party’s dominant left-wing faction itself, is resorting instead to demanding its collective suicide. What Phil refuses to contemplate, however, is that the Labour Left, having concluded that the long and difficult journey towards social justice might proceed more efficiently without the constant nay-saying of those unshakably committed to the “prevailing political and socioeconomic orthodoxy”, might decide to engage in a little blood-letting of their own.
 
The proposition that Labour would be much improved by losing the 40 percent of its membership who no longer believe that radical change is either possible or desirable may yet be tested.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 30 July 2014.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Changing Priorities Of Protest

The Changing Face Of Protest: In marked contrast to the theologically- and ideologically-driven protest movements of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, contemporary protest, like this demonstration against the latest Israeli assault on Gaza, tends to be led by those whose stake in the identified violation of individual and/or collective identity is perceived to be the greatest. Photograph by GPJA.

PROTESTS against Israel’s latest invasion of Gaza are gathering momentum. In Auckland the rallies and marches of the last two Saturdays have drawn thousands to Aotea Square and Queen Street. Hundreds more have marched in Wellington. More action is planned. The protest organisers are now vowing to rally and march every Saturday until the Israeli Defence Force ceases its assault upon the beleaguered Palestinian enclave.
 
Viewed from an historical perspective these protests would appear, at least superficially, to conform to the templates laid down by the protest movements of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Like the current movement in support of the Palestinian people, the movements against sporting contacts with Apartheid South Africa, nuclear weapons, and the war in Vietnam grew out of New Zealanders’ conscientious objection to conflicts flaring far beyond their country’s shores.
 
The prime movers of these earlier protests were drawn, overwhelmingly, from the churches, the trade unions and the universities. For the most part their motivation was straightforward moral revulsion. The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960; the nuclear war-gamers’ apocalyptic doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction; the technology-driven carnage being visited upon the Vietnamese; all of these horrors stirred into action the muscular Christian ideals which, ever since the days of the Church Missionary Society, have played such an influential role in shaping New Zealand society.
 
Inevitably there was an element of smug condescension in these demonstrations of Christian charity. In the warm glow of the post-war boom many New Zealanders believed their little country came about as close to social perfection as it was possible to get in an imperfect world. With its “exemplary” race relations, its cradle-to-grave welfare state and its convenient amnesia concerning the nation’s disgraceful colonial conduct in Samoa, “progressive” New Zealand felt entirely justified in protesting against the rest of the world’s moral delinquency. How could “God’s Own Country” do less?
 
Playing the part of yeast in all this liberal Christian white-bread were the tiny communist parties. To the worthy moralism of the churches these Marxist missionaries added the sharp-edged arguments of socialist anti-imperialism. Though they were careful never to say so directly, implicit in their criticism of New Zealand’s diplomatic and military allegiances was the clear suggestion that we had taken up our position on the wrong side – not just of the Cold War but of History itself.
 
Wielding influence out of all proportion to their numbers, the communists would have been even more persuasive if their loyalties had not been divided between the gospels of Lenin, Mao and Leon Trotsky. The intensity of the struggles waged by the Communist Party of New Zealand (Beijing) against the Socialist Unity Party (Moscow) and by the Workers Communist League (Mao) against the Socialist Action League (Trotsky) rivalled that directed against the running-dogs of Capitalism themselves!
 
But regardless of whether the deities they worshipped were religious or secular, the leaders of New Zealand’s protest movements shared a common assumption that their respective doctrines were universally applicable. Black or White, Male or Female – everyone was welcome in God’s Kingdom/the Proletarian Paradise. What united human-beings was more important than what divided them.
 
It was only after the most convulsive protests in New Zealand history: the Springbok Tour Protests of 1981; that these universalist assumptions began to be challenged. Maori demanded to know what middle-class Pakehas could possibly know about racial and colonial oppression. Women wondered how men who preached racial equality could be so blind to inequality between the sexes. Gays struggled to make the straight world understand how oppressive a universal definition of sexuality could be.
 
The things that divided human-beings were important too. The new left-wing catechism now held that people define themselves less by the qualities they share with everybody else than by the attributes peculiar to themselves and those similarly identified: gender; ethnicity; sexuality; nationality; religion.
 
In this, the age of identity politics, protest activity operates according to a very different set of rules. The idea that New Zealanders per se might launch a series of nationwide protests inspired simply by Israel’s abrogation of universal moral values would quickly be challenged by persons and groups representative of the people most directly involved. In the case of Gaza and in descending order: by Palestinians; fellow Arabs and Muslims; people similarly victimised by imperialist oppression; and only then by “ordinary” New Zealanders – who must, of course, acknowledge the leadership and political objectives of those at the summit of the identity hierarchy.
 
And so the anti-Israeli protesters chant “Palestine will be free – from the river to the sea!” And no one who expects to be invited back dreams of asking: “Free in what way? Do you mean two free and independent states living side-by-side in peace? Or, do you mean that from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean, Palestine will be free of Jews?”
 
Because there’s a big difference.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 July 2014.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Something Fishy About Nick Smith's Game

Intimidator-in-Chief: For eight years Dr Nick Smith has worked hard to convince voters that he is the National Party's chief point of environmental resistance; the one brave voice raised in opposition to the milk-before-water lobbyists of Fonterra and Federated Farmers. Now we know that it isn't true.

DR NICK SMITH’S crude intimidation of the Fish and Game Council points to the bleakest of environmental futures should National be re-elected on 20 September. It is now considerably clearer than 60 percent of New Zealand’s lakes, rivers and streams that there are no serious points of environmental resistance in John Key’s Cabinet. For eight years Smith has worked hard to convince voters that he is, indeed, one such point of resistance, the one brave voice raised in opposition to the milk-before-water lobbyists of Fonterra and Federated Farmers. Now we know that it isn't true.
 
Smith’s threats to “tweak” the legislation establishing the Fish and Game Council is of a piece with this Government’s proven impatience with all forms of institutional dissent. It will not, it seems, be happy until every official check and balance against unbridled executive power has been neutralised.
 
Unless it is absolutely forced to (as in the case of Environment Canterbury) the Government’s strategy is not to make this suppression of dissenting voices explicit. Its preference is rather to intimidate these legislatively mandated watchdogs into silence. This can be effected in two ways. Either by appointing new and more malleable individuals to quasi-governmental boards and councils, or, by stripping those not subject to ministerial manipulation (like Fish and Game) of all their effective regulatory and/or advisory powers.
 
To casual observers it will appear as though nothing has changed because all the institutions created to permit democratic participation in the management of irreplaceable public resources will still be in place. But they will be looking at a regulatory ghost town. Behind the fading signage, nobody will be home.
 
A succession of National Party ministers have perfected this process by using the Department of Conservation as their guinea-pig. Since 2008 John Key’s government has systematically starved the "DoC" of the resources needed to properly manage and protect the vast estate it administers on the public’s behalf. Constant restructuring has allowed the Minister’s hand-picked managers to purge the Department of its experts and visionaries, wipe clean its institutional memory and leave in place only those willing to make the best of a situation which long ago made the transition from bad to worse.
 
Smith calls Key’s administration a “Blue-Green Government”. But the veteran conservationists, Guy Salmon and Gary Taylor, who established the original blue-green political party, the Progressive Greens, would almost certainly disagree. Much has changed since the early 1990s when Nick Smith and his fellow “Brat Packers”, Bill English, Roger Sowry and Tony Ryle, first entered Parliament.
 
Back then it was still possible for a National Party Environment Minister, Simon Upton, to seriously pursue the idea of a Carbon Tax. Over the past twenty years, however, the ideological and political consolidation of Neoliberalism has downgraded the natural environment to the status of a mere sub-set of the economy when, in reality, it is the other way round. 
 
Neoliberals quickly grasped the deadly threat the science of ecology posed to the re-emergence of laissez-faire capitalism. In Marxist terms, the planet’s finite capacity to absorb the deadly externalities of carbon-based industrial civilisation constituted “the final contradiction”. Capitalism must either be tamed or it and the civilisation which created it will perish.
 
Rather than accept this last, irrefutable, existential challenge to Capitalism its defenders have opted instead for the politics of outright denial. But climate change “scepticism” is only the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg when it comes to the political and cultural consequences of Neoliberalism’s refusal to face the facts of anthropogenic global warming.
 
Resisting “the final contradiction” requires neoliberalism to destroy the rationalist and scientific foundations of the industrial civilisation upon which it stands. This can only be accomplished by undermining the public’s faith in the scientific method and investing all opinions – no matter how absurd – with a spurious equivalence. Evidence-based decision-making, which former National politicians like Simon Upton accepted as the sine qua non of competent and rational governance, is being supplanted by ‘evidence’ commissioned and purchased on the open market from ‘experts’ who specialise in telling Capitalism and its political agents exactly what they want to hear. (Alister Barry’s documentary film, Hot Air, shows how the Carbon Lobby and Federated Farmers utilised this technique to delay and/or defeat every attempt by successive New Zealand governments to combat climate change.)
 
The politics of denial also requires the complete hollowing out of those state institutions deliberately constructed to collect evidence from individuals and groups best placed to provide it. Institutions – like Fish and Game – whose democratic composition protects the processes of gathering evidence from those with a vested interest in suppressing information antithetical to their purposes.
 
When it comes to the Department of Conservation, Nick Smith and his colleagues know they have nothing to fear – as the censoring of the evidence DoC's scientists had gathered about the ecological effects of the proposed Ruataniwha Dam made clear. But Fish and Game and uncooperative Regional Councils still have an evidential sword to draw in defence of Mother Nature.
 
Shut them down.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 28 July 2014.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

French Lessons

Aux Armes Citoyens! Exacerbating Labour's current difficulties is the unfinished character of the rank-and-file's 2012 revolution. It was as if the revolutionary crowds of Paris, having torn down the Bastille, then decided to build it back up again!

“APRÈS MOI, LE DÉLUGE.” These famous words are attributed to King Louis XV of France. He saw the waters of discontent rising behind the straining dykes of royal absolutism and sensed that when he had gone the barriers to change would finally burst. “After me, the flood.” is what he said. What he meant was: “After me, revolution becomes inevitable.” Swept away by the French Revolution, the luckless Louis XVI could hardly disagree.
 
Observing the hapless Labour Party: watching it struggle in the coils of its own contradictions; I cannot help but be reminded of Louis XV’s ominous quip.
 
The last successful Labour leader, Helen Clark, with what can only be described as a royal absolutist grip, contrived to keep her party’s factional mongrels in their kennels. Indeed, with her Chief-of-Staff, Heather Simpson, playing Cardinal Fleury to Clark’s Louis XV, scarcely a mouse dared move in Labour’s Versailles without the permission of at least one of these all-powerful duumvirs.
 
With Clark’s departure, however, the party’s absolutist era came to an abrupt end. Labour’s grandees did everything they could to protect the monarchical style of leadership that Clark had perfected, even though, as is now painfully apparent, none of them possessed the requisite political stature to occupy her vacant throne for very long.
 
Besides, at the base of the Labour Party, in the branches and affiliates from whence the aristocrats of Labour’s caucus drew the deliverers-of-pamphlets and erectors-of-hoardings needed to win elections, revolution was afoot. Clark and Simpson may have ruled Labour’s members with an iron fist, but at least they had given them victories. The pretenders to Labour’s Iron Throne – Phil Goff and David Shearer – brought the rank-and-file nothing but defeat and humiliation. A caucus aristocracy incapable of supplying Labour with a credible king or queen wasn’t worth keeping. Henceforth the peasants would elect their own leader.
 
Unfortunately, Labour’s rank-and-file neglected to first elect themselves a Robespierre: someone to oversee the ruthless beheading of the ancien regime. Poor dears! Far from introducing Labour’s electorate-based aristocracy to Madame Guillotine, the members generously acquiesced in their re-selection! It was as if the revolutionary crowds of Paris, having torn down the Bastille, then decided to build it back up again.
 
Two months out from the General Election we are thus presented with the absurd spectacle of the Labour peasantry’s elected king, David Cunliffe, holed-up in the Opposition leader’s office and surrounded by a caucus aristocracy seething with thwarted ambition and regicidal intent. Many of King David’s courtiers would happily drive a rapier through his guts. And rather than carry the fight to the National Party foe, his sworn enemies vie with one another to make the first thrust.
 
There are only two ways out of this impasse. Either Labour’s peasantry make good on their revolutionary promise and utterly destroy those caucus aristocrats who would restore Helen Clark’s royal absolutism. Or, one of those aristocrats finds the courage to crush the peasants’ revolt, seize the throne, and restore the ancien regime.
 
Then again, if we’re following the grand arc of French history, perhaps, somewhere in Labour’s ranks, there exists a young commander of artillery with vaunting ambitions and inordinate strategic skills. Someone ready to deploy the rhetoric of the revolution to secure the absolute power of the throne. Not for the peasantry, who lack the will to lead. Nor yet for the corrupt aristocracy, who don’t deserve it. But for him – or herself – alone.
 
Just where this Napoleonic figure lies in waiting is difficult to say. Not in the unions, whose opportunity to grasp the brass ring of power came and went 23 years ago when they refused to fight Bill Birch’s Employment Contracts Bill. Not in the careerist warrens funded by the tax-payer through Parliamentary Services and the DPMC. Not among the horse-traders on Labour’s Party List. Not even among the rank-and-file who still refuse to accept the consequences of their revolution.
 
No, if there is a Napoleon out there in the Labour Party my best guess is that you will find him or her toiling away in the corridors of local government. It will be someone who understands what it takes to get elected by your fellow citizens – without the benefit of party colours.
 
If Helen Clark’s departure unleashed the flood, perhaps this new, Napoleonic, Labour leader can drain the swamp.
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 25 July 2014.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

From Here To There: How Did Labour Become So Hopelessly Lost?

No Direction Home: Has Labour ever been so lost? Has the path to electoral victory ever been so obscured? Starting from where they are now, how can they possibly get to where they need to be on 20 September?

WRITING ABOUT the Labour Party these days puts me in mind of the joke about the American tourist and the Irish farmer.
 
Seems there was this American tourist driving down a narrow lane in the heart of Ireland. He needed to get back to Dublin in a hurry but even with the assistance of a detailed road-map was finally forced to admit that he was hopelessly lost. Just then, at the side of the lane, he saw an Irish farmer leaning over a wooden gate in the hedgerow. “Excuse me, Sir,” inquired the exasperated American, “but could you tell me how to get to Dublin?” “Is it lost you are, Sir,” inquired the farmer. “I’m afraid so”, the tourist replied. “And you’re wanting to get to Dublin?” The American nodded. “Ah, well,” said the farmer, taking off his cap and scratching his head, “if I was wanting to get to there, I’d never be starting from here.”
 
Has Labour ever been so hopelessly lost? Has the path to electoral victory ever been so obscured? Starting from where it is now, how can Labour possibly get to where it needs to be on 20 September?
 
What is it? What is making it so hard for David Cunliffe and his party to get any sort of political traction?
 
The answer lies in Labour’s caucus. Not only is a majority of the caucus profoundly unhappy with Cunliffe as their leader, it is also profoundly at odds with the Labour Party members who elected him. Labour’s MPs are torn between their desire to occupy the Treasury benches – and thus be free of the Party’s influence – and the realisation that even by becoming the government they would only be postponing the confrontation with the party that Cunliffe’s election made inevitable.
 
Expressing the problem with maximum brutality: most of Labour’s present crop of MPs are not fit for purpose. A handful are holdovers from the Rogernomics Era – and thus reminders of the very worst period in Labour’s history. More are the products of Helen Clark’s personal intervention in the candidate selection process; followers of a career-path that began in the student unions (or MFAT) and ended in the ministerial suites of the Beehive. The remainder are what emerges from the deeply compromised horse-trading that assembles Labour’s Party List – burnt out trade unionists, media stars and identity politicians.
 
Cunliffe himself is a product of Clark’s shoulder-tapping (albeit via her confidants Jonathan Hunt, Judith Tizard and Chris Carter). What made him Party Leader, however, was his understanding that Labour, both ideologically and organisationally, needed to be made fit for purpose as a credible twenty-first century contender for political power. What made him a bad Party Leader was his failure to grasp that to become a credible contender Labour not only needed to become much more representative of New Zealand at large, but that this would necessitate a wholesale clean-out of its caucus.
 
The sort of government Cunliffe wanted to lead simply could not be constructed from the human material in Labour’s caucus. Rather than confront this reality, however, Cunliffe defaulted to his deep personal and religious belief that all people and all points of view are ultimately reconcilable in the spirit of compromise and goodwill. Psychologically, he simply cannot accept that at least half of his caucus colleagues would happily dance on his grave. Moreover, this fruitless quest for caucus consensus has required Cunliffe to divest himself of the mandate for change entrusted to him by the party's rank-and-file members and trade union affiliates.
 
The public perception of Cunliffe’s willingness to compromise is one of profound weakness. This has not been helped by his habit of attempting to ingratiate himself with individuals and groups he perceives to be actually or potentially hostile.
 
There is, of course, a paradox here. The very qualities that make Cunliffe a poor Leader of the Opposition would also make him an excellent Prime Minister - especially of the complicated MMP coalition government he'd be required to lead. Had Cunliffe been surrounded by a caucus who believed in him and understood the paradoxical qualities of his leadership-style, they could have provided him with a measure of protection – in much the same way that Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Michael Basset and Mike Moore ran interference for David Lange. Instead, he has been surrounded by caucus colleagues willing him to fall at every hurdle (and happy to make sure he did).
 
To arrive at the electoral finish-line first from such a parlous position, Cunliffe is going to need more than a road-map. He’s going to need a miracle.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 23 July 2014.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Who Shot Down MH17?

Killing Fields: The tragedy of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 is amplified by the Western news medias' refusal to either contextualise the airliner's destruction, or provide its global audience with any explanation other than Russian guilt and perfidy. As if historical events have no historical causes.

WHO SHOT DOWN MH17? While there is currently insufficient evidence to declare “Pro-Russian Separatists” guilty beyond reasonable doubt, the balance of probability strongly suggests that Russian-speaking militiamen were indeed responsible for blowing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 out of the sky.
 
Unfortunately, this is the point at which our shock and outrage at the destruction of nearly 300 innocent civilian lives causes our thought processes to stop.
 
For those who grew up during the Cold War, that single word, “Russian”, is enough. Of course “the Russians” are responsible. The Russians are always responsible.
 
For younger New Zealanders, “Russia” means “Putin”. He’s the dead-eyed, bare-chested, gay-bashing gargoyle who threw Pussy Riot and Greenpeace into prison. The President whose gun-toting, balaclava-wearing Spetsnaz stole Crimea from Ukraine. Of course Putin did it!
 
It is vitally important, however, to keep on thinking about the fate of MH17.
 
Is it really credible to suppose that either the armed supporters of the self-proclaimed Peoples Republic of Donetsk (PRD) or their military advisers from just across the border in the Russian Federation, deliberately targeted a civilian airliner? What motive could the PRD and its principal ally possibly have for bringing down upon their own heads the righteous wrath of the entire international community?
 
Isn’t it much more likely that the poorly-trained, fearful (and hence trigger-happy) operators of a surface-to-air missile battery mistook MH17 for a military transport plane belonging to the Ukrainian Air Force and treated it as a legitimate military target? It is certainly true that in the days immediately preceding the MH17 tragedy a PRD missile had brought down just such an aircraft flying above Donetsk at 21,000 feet.
 
And why were the armed forces of the PRD launching surface-to-air missiles at the Ukrainian Air Force in the first place? Could it be because the Ukrainian armed forces have, for several weeks, been bombing and shelling the rebel towns and cities of eastern Ukraine? Hundreds of civilians have been killed in these attacks. Something which the rest of the world, its eyes on the World Cup, failed to register.
 
Nor was the Western news media – whose blanket coverage of the MH17 tragedy is currently drawing the eyes of the world to the body-strewn fields of Donetsk – at all disposed to alert its global audience to the pain and suffering inflicted upon people the Ukrainian Government still insists upon calling its own citizens. Then again, considering the role the Western media played in bringing that government into being, its unwillingness to report the Ukrainian army’s butchery in cities like Slavyansk is understandable.
 
Cast your mind back to January of this year; to the deadly riots in the heart of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. Supported by both the United States and the European Union, the rioters (many of them outright fascists) were targeting the democratically-elected government of Victor Yanukovich. The ultimate success of their “revolution” was hailed by Western media as yet another victory for “freedom”. It was not perceived so in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern provinces. The presence of fascists in the new government brought back bitter memories of the Second World War, when Ukrainian nationalists had fought alongside the Nazi invaders.
 
Context is everything in tragedies like the downing of Flight MH17.
 
Would it have happened if the cease-fire negotiated by President Vladimir Putin and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, had been renewed by the Ukrainian Government?
 
Had the Ukrainian Air Force not been engaged in bombing “Russian Separatist Terrorists” and their civilian compatriots, would the operators of that rogue surface-to-air missile battery have been so quick to mistakenly identify a civilian airliner as a military transport plane?
 
If the Americans and the Europeans were not so eager to extend NATO’s reach to the very borders of the Russian Federation, would the latter’s intelligence officers and special forces now be moving back and forth across Ukraine’s borders with such deadly purpose?
 
And had the Ukrainian constitution not been shredded in Kiev’s Independence Square, and had President Yanukovich been allowed to serve out his term and stand for re-election in May, would there now even be a self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk – with airspace to defend?
 
Context is everything.
 
The victims of the USS Vincennes' surface-to-air missile strike which brought down an Iranian civilian airliner in July 1988. All 290 passengers were killed.
 
In July 1988, when Captain Will Rogers III of the USS Vincennes, fearing that his vessel was under attack from an Iranian fighter-aircraft, ordered the launch of the surface-to-air missile which sent Iran Air Flight 655 plummeting out of the sky, killing all of its 290 passengers, we in the West were remarkably restrained in our response.
 
In the fog of war, our editorialists opined, terrible things happen. Captain Rogers was responding to a perceived threat. He was, after all, operating in a war zone.
 
We grieve for the passengers of MH17 and their loved ones. Those responsible must be held accountable for their deaths.
 
All of those responsible.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 22 July 2014.