Gordon Campbell on telling the poor to ask for more

The government’s “let them ask for more” response to the dilapidated, cold and unhealthy conditions faced by many families in state housing can only be put down to two things – utter cluelessness, or total cynicism. This week, Prime Minister John Key has suggested that families trapped in inadequate housing – or who are having trouble paying the power bills to heat them – should alert Housing NZ and ask for repairs to be done, or ask the Ministry of Social Development for more money. Wow. As if.

Bill English, the Minister responsible for Housing NZ had an equally facile response. Things used to be really bad, English claimed, lots of money had been spent, and if things still needed to be fixed then they should be fixed. This left him room for a bit of victim blaming:

“Tenants, how tenants, you know, use their heating also has an effect. But where … there is real health issues then the public agencies should be, you know, taking action,” Mr English said.

Great to hear that English is so, you know, onto it. In reality of course, these murmurings of concern are political, and almost entirely synthetic. When poor housing is killing children, it is politically necessary to make sympathetic noises that help is readily available – even when you know it isn’t, and even when you’ve actually spent years tightening the screws on the social spending that’s required to fix, insulate and heat cold and leaky homes. (All in order that you can brag about your route to a Budget surplus.)

We all know how bogus the outpourings of compassionate conservatism really are. Yet before becoming too righteous, we can also recognise that middle and upper income earners are still pocketing money from the tax cut package of 2010 that has made this kind of hardship almost inevitable. Poverty is a zero sum exercise. Compassionate consumerism means that we should be looking at donating some of that tax cut largesse back to people in need of help – even while we work to get hypocrites like Key and English out of office.

Charleston shootings

So how have the leading Republican candidates reacted to the issues of racism and gun violence that the Charleston killings raise? Largely by running for cover and not mentioning it (Marco Rubio) or by vigorously defending the right to bear arms (Rand Paul) and putting the killings down to mistaken religious values (Rand Paul, Ted Cruz). Here’s Paul blaming bad juju, and using gun violence to make a plea for Small-But-Godly Government:

“What kind of a person goes in a church and shoots nine people? There’s a sickness in our country. There’s something terribly wrong,” Paul said. “But it isn’t going to be fixed by the government. It’s people straying away. It’s people not understanding where salvation comes from.”

Before anyone gives up on the US entirely on the issue of gun violence, it is striking just how out of tune the likes of the NRA and its bought politicians are with actual US public opinion on gun control. This major 2014 poll for instance has Americans equally divided as to whether the right to bear arms is as important as gun control. True, by 48-37% Americans think gun ownership protects them from crime but by a far bigger margin (51-35% ) Americans think having a gun in the house makes it a more dangerous, less safe place. By 54-40% , they support stricter federal gun controls, a whopping 92 per cent want “background checks for all gun-buyers,” while 89 per cent support “laws to prevent people with mental illness from purchasing guns.”

Just in case anyone thinks these results were skewed by all those New York and Hollywood liberals, similar results were recorded in a PPP poll conducted in February in South Carolina.

There is 76/14 support for a law preventing domestic abusers from buying guns and 64/24 support for one making such people turn in any guns they currently own. In addition to overwhelming support from Democrats and independents, majorities of Republicans (71/17 and 54/31 respectively) support each of those measures as well.

Finally, the response to the Charleston shootings – and the related focus on the Confederate flag – has been another exercise in symbolic politics. Apparently, the Confederate flag had been fluttering proudly from the South Carolina statehouse only since 1962, before being moved 15 years ago – after protests – to its current, still conspicuous position. In the wake of the Charleston murders and after the use of this flag by the shooter, Dylann Roof, protestors now want to see the Confederate flag removed entirely from state grounds. Plainly, the flag flying ‘tradition’ did not originate with the defeat of the glorious South in 1865, but was intended as an act of defiance against the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. It was racist in intent then, and is a racist totem right now. Its historical Civil War significance was appropriated long ago by the “tradition” to which the alleged shooter Dylann Roof belongs.

Unfortunately though, the Confederate flag falls under ther protection of a Heritage Act passed as a trade-off for the concessions won by the protests 15 years ago. This Act will now require a two thirds majority to authorise the removal of any such emblem.

The wording of the Act reads:

“No Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, War Between the States, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, Native American, or African-American History monuments or memorials erected on public property of the State or any of its political subdivisions may be relocated, removed, disturbed, or altered.”

This bizarre Act not only protects the Confederate flag. It also protects the likes of a war memorial in Greenwood, South Carolina that has separated out the names of the local fallen in 20th century wars into two segregated lists of “whites” and “coloreds”. In the face of such “traditions” the removal of the Confederate flag may not be impossible, but it will be more difficult than it looks.

Evidently, the modern Republican Party keeps its own lucrative links to these Southern ‘ traditions’ as well. As the Guardian has revealed, Dylann Roof gave a shout-out of praise in his racist online manifesto to the Council of Conservative Citizens, whose guiding light and prime funder (a guy called Earl Holt III) has donated in recent years to a parade of Republican hopefuls – including Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Tom Cotton etc etc. Racism, money and politics go hand in hand, wherever.

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