Gordon Campbell on the government’s (lack of a) response to Trump

It is unfortunate, but hardly a surprise that Bill English and his Cabinet colleagues should have been left gormlessly uncertain about the impact of the Trump travel ban on New Zealand citizens. We’ve been down this road before, of being smacked around on immigration issues by our supposed allies.

Australia for instance, cracked down on Kiwi former criminal offenders, imprisoned them in dire conditions on the likes of Christmas Island and then booted many of them out of the country that they and their families had been living in for years, or even decades. All without a whimper of criticism from the Key-English government. All it could manage were ways of making an inhuman expulsion system work a bit better at this end.

Déjà vu then, with the racist, Islamophobic Trump travel ban. Nary a word of criticism from the Beehive, and not even a rush to find out whether/how many Kiwis would be affected. Trump issued his executive order last Friday; chaos ensued at US airports over the weekend. By Saturday, Canada could inform its citizens they would be exempt.

Yet by Tuesday morning, it seemed the New Zealand government and officialdom were still talking among themselves about how (and who) to ask about whether our nationals with dual passports would be caught up in the ban. Strange, that. In the past, our membership of the Five Eyes intelligence network has been touted as giving us a special relationship with Washington. Hah. As yet, New Zealand has been left in the dark as to whether we enjoy the same exemption as other Five Eyes member nations, such as Australia, Canada and the UK. [But see Footnote.]

In any case… there’s something undignified about us scrambling to be excluded from a measure that is discriminatory (on the grounds of nationality and religion) and a potential violation of the US Constitution. These measures also affect the people our troops are in Iraq to defend. Mind you, its not easy to identify what the White House policy actually is. The policy was sprung on the world in a form that initially excluded and deported teenagers with valid US visas off to Addis Ababa in one case as well as affecting US residents who carried US green cards, and/or who were dual nationals. Now, reportedly, such people are not to be excluded.

All week, this aura of rank incompetence at the White House, and of policy being made up on the hoof has been evident on other issues as well. Earlier in the week, the White House attempts to get Mexico to pay for the border wall ended in farce. Why, if Mexico wouldn’t pay voluntarily for the wall, the US would slap on a 20% tariff on its exports! The White House needed to be told that then it would be Americans, and not Mexicans who would be paying such a tax. Duh.

This level of ignorance about how trade policy actually works doesn’t inspire confidence that New Zealand has anything to gain from tactful discretion in not criticising the Trump travel ban, in the faint hope we might be rewarded with say, a desirable trade deal sometime in future. That hope has clearly been driving the equally muted response of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is currently exploring the chances of replacing the TPP with a bilateral US/Japan trade pact. The travel issue is not only one for the NZ government. Airlines can also get caught up in it, as Japan has recognised. Since airlines have to meet the costs of returning rejected passengers to their point of origin, some airlines have engaged in policing the travel ban themselves as a condition of boarding:

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s right-hand man, said Japanese carriers are studying how they will handle the issue since airlines are obliged to return foreign travelers departing Japan if they are denied entry to the U.S. because of Trump’s executive order.

Major carriers Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways decided later Monday that they will refuse U.S.-bound passengers from any of the seven Muslim-majority countries, except for diplomats and those with permanent resident status in the United States. Both airlines will refund those passengers.

So far, Air New Zealand does not seem to be actively policing the ban, despite the financial obligations to which it may now be liable:

Air New Zealand advised passengers who feared they might be caught up in the travel ban to contact the US consulate “for clarity”.

“Any customer currently booked to travel with Air New Zealand who finds that their travel is impacted should contact us directly to discuss options with regard to their booking,” spokeswoman Brigitte Ransom added.

As yet not many New Zealanders are affected. That’s a dodgy rationale, though. As history shows, the world chose not to respond to unjust and discriminatory policies in the 1930s, on the basis that the targets were relatively few in number, were immigrants or refugees and thus expendable in the greater goal of not saying anything critical that might unduly annoy the tyrant. On that point, the US academic Juan Cole has dug up a fascinating UK newspaper article from March 23, 1933 about a meeting held between the German ambassador to Britain and some concerned members of the UK Anti-War Council. The parallels are pretty obvious:

“The Ambassador said that the world must realise that what had taken place in Germany was a complete revolution, or, rather, counter-revolution, and not merely a change of government.. Since 1918 Germany had suffered complete national humiliation . . . While stressing the revolutionary character of the change of Administration in Germany, the Ambassador maintained that it had been supported by a majority of the people* [ As Cole says, this was an early example of fake news. The Nazis did not win a majority in the 1933 elections] .

Herr von Hoesch said that very bitter feeling had been caused by the opening of large Jewish stores in all the big towns in Germany, which had swallowed up the small shopkeepers . . . Herr von Hoesch anticipated that in about a couple of weeks everything would have quietened down in Germany. The Ambassador said that he had no anti-Semitic feeling himself. He regretted that the houses of Jews like Einstein who was his personal friend, should have been raided, and said that Herr Hitler was seeking to restrain his followers from maltreating the Jews. . .

The Ambassador agreed that those Jews who had been long established in Germany should be treated in every respect as Germans. It was only the Jewish immigrants who had recently come to Germany, chiefly from Poland, who were looked upon as aliens . . .With regard to the pacifists…they had been in prison not because they were pacifists but because they had taken an anti-national line in foreign countries and were therefore considered to be guilty of treason . . ”

This is not to say that Trump is (tired trope) a Hitler. But he is engaged in undermining the UN Refugee Convention. That Convention was passed in 1951 in order to ensure that the shutting of the world’s borders to Jewish refugees in the 1930s – and their subsequent deportation back to deadly danger in Europe – would never be allowed to happen again. New Zealand is a signatory to that UN document. It would be helpful if Bill English felt brave enough to defend the Refugee Convention, and the values it represents.

Footnote : The US Embassy in Wellington reportedly clarified that dual nationals from the seven targeted countries are exempt from the Trump travel ban, so long as they’re not travelling on the travel documents issued by the nations singled out by the White House. Phew. So that should keep America safe. Because terrorists are never white. Except for Dylan Roof, Alexandre Bissonette, Timothy McVeigh etc etc etc. ( In fact, the chances of an American being killed by a citizen of one of the the seven nations on the Trump enemy list has been calculated at one in 3.6 billion.

Media responses to Steve Bannon

Some media commentators are already urging the media to pick and choose its fights with the Trump administration.

Otherwise, they argue, the public will come to see the media as merely antagonistic. With respect, trying to beat a tactical retreat is precisely the wrong response at this point. As the media cedes ground, the political centre moves rightwards, unimpeded. The unjust thus becomes normalised.

So, unlike RNZ’s Gavin Ellis, I don’t think Jake Tapper’s much-celebrated terse response on CNN (“No”) to the call by White House supremo Steve Bannon that the media should “keep its mouth shut” was an adequate rejoinder, or an effective one. IMO, Tapper was an example of the media’s delusional belief that it holds the moral high ground, and need not engage itself in the messy business of defending it. On the contrary, I’d argue for a policy of zero tolerance. Its high school realism. Unless you’re willing to challenge your bully each and every time, he will only be encouraged.

Since Steve Bannon is the bully in question, we do need to be aware of where he’s coming from. Some are already noting that he’s a different beast to prior Republican strategists like Karl Rove, who was only about maximising his party’s advantage. Bannon, by contrast, seems to be a radical moralist. This 2014 Buzzfeed article is about the closest thing I can find to a comprehensive Bannon worldview, and it seems interesting on several counts. One, Bannon believes it was the Judeo-Christian tradition that gave Western capitalism its vibrant strength in the past; and therefore to Bannon, the crusade against Islam today is literally, a Crusade. In his view, the West’s economic system and its religious system are (or should be) deeply entwined, and both are at war with Islam.

Secondly, it means that Bannon’s evident hostility to Ayn Rand and to neo-liberalism is based on his view of them as being entirely secular in nature – and thus prone to the same de-humanising tendencies and outcomes as socialism. Where Marx saw individuals as the mere instruments of inexorable historical forces, neo-liberalism treats human beings in similar fashion, as mere commodities subject to inexorable market forces. That belief seems to lie behind Bannon’s deep disgust with what has happened to the blighted communities of the US Rust Belt. In his view, they’ve been victimised by the usual de-humanising forces of a godless market.

At the time of the Buzzfeed interview, Bannon could still criticise Vladimir Putin as a state capitalist and as a kleptocrat. Obviously, a lot has changed since then in the US view of Putin. There’s a lot in common, beyond the almost instinctive yielding to kleptocracy. As with Trump…Putin’s brand of Russian nationalism also has a strong basis in a conservative religious orthodoxy that he has actively wooed.

Fear Itself

While we wait for Bill English to find just where his officials have mislaid his backbone, here’s a classic track worth keeping in mind – and the message applies equally to politicians and to the media, in this age of Trump.