Category Archives: politics

Non-violence in the defence of free speech

I have always been a fan of nonviolent tactics in social movements. Being old enough to have seen the apartheid arrangements that existed in the US during the 5os and 60s and follow the movement to break this I have often wondered why the nonviolent methods used by Martin Luther King and his allies have not been adopted more widely.

In particular, it seems to me that the political situation in the US could do with some nonviolent political tactics at the moment.

So I was fascinated to see the video by Joey Gibson from the Patriot Prayer group. Fascinated to see the tactic being advocated now. But also fascinated to see the tactic being advocated by the founder of the Patriot Prayer group which is often described as “right-wing.” Even described by the US House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California, as attempting to hold a “white supremacist rally.” Incidentally, Gibson is not even white – nor are many of his colleagues in Patriot Prayer.

It may be hubris on Gibson’s part, but he is claiming success for these tactics used in the recent Berkeley confrontation. He and his colleagues were beaten by extremists and had to be retrieved by police, but did not retaliate. They adopted a passive stance. He now claims this was instrumental and the apparent shift by the media, and some politicians, to recognise the danger presented by extremist violent groups like Antifa and their misleading charges that advocates of free speech are white supremacists.

If these tactics are having the success Gibson claims then I hope the success continues. It’s about time some sense came into the current political situation in the US and we should not denigrate these tactics just because we may not like some of Gibson’s political or religious views.

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From Charlottesville to Boston – a lesson

Participants in Boston’s Free Speech rally. Speaker is Republican Senate candidate Dr Shiva Ayyadurai. Not a Nazi or white supremacist in sight. Was the media feeding me porkies?

Funny thing – I have become more worried about the lessons of the Boston “free speech” rally than the Charlottesville white supremacist demonstration. Here’s why.

There is nothing new about fighting Nazis, neo-Nazis and fascists in street demonstrations. Many on the left did this, and did it violently, in the lead up to the second world war. It’s happening in Europe again – and, more seriously, in Ukraine.

Participants in genuine anti-Nazi actions are usually proud of what they did. It is one thing to attempt to get one’s head around the concept that freedom of speech should allow expression of racist views but I guess once the violence starts the moral issues become clearer.

So while we can debate the role played by anarchists, Antifa, and outright thugs on both sides in Charlottesville there does seem to have been an excuse there for moral outrage and the inevitable conflict is understandable.

But what about Boston? I originally thought the “free speech” rally held this last weekend was really about white supremacism. The mainstream media told me this. The 15 – 45 thousand demonstrators against the rally convinced me of this. I had absolutely no sympathy for those in the rally and identified morally with the counter-demonstrators. But I was thankful that police organisation prevented conflict – at least conflict between the rally participants and the counter demonstrators (fighting did break out between some counter-demonstrators and the police).

But I was wrong

I was misinformed by the media. It wasn’t until I got involved in a social media discussion that I decided to check out what was really happening in Boston. I checked out who organised the free speech rally and what their aims were. I tried to find out who spoke at the free speech rally and looked for videos of speakers and the whole event online.

In fact, the “free speech” rally organisers were not white supremacists or Nazis. Conservatives or “right-wingers” perhaps. But they do seem to have genuine interests in free speech and the various speakers represented a range from conservatives to Green Party members – and a Dr Shiva Ayyadurai, a Democrat currently standing for the Senate (See the video of his speech above). the placards were anti-Monsata and pro-Black-Lives Matter.

Here is what the Boston Free Speech people say about their rally:

“This Free Speech Movement is dedicated to peaceful rallies and are in no way affiliated with the Charlottesville rally on 8/12/17

While we maintain that every individual is entitled to their freedom of speech and defend that basic human right, we will not be offering our platform to racism or bigotry. We denounce the politics of supremacy and violence. We denounce the actions, activities, and tactics of the so-called Antifa movement. We denounce the normalization of political violence.

We are witnessing an unprecedented move towards sweeping censorship that undermines our democratic system. We are witnessing increasingly regular incidents of political violence being used to silence political opponents. We are witnessing our social media and online communities purging both progressive and conservative content from their networks. We oppose all instances of censorship. We believe that the way to defeat and disarm toxic ideas and ideologies is through dialogue and reason, and that attempting to silence any voice by force of mob or force of law only empowers the radical elements of society and divides us.

There is a lot of misinformation in the media slandering our name by likening our organization to those that ran the Charlottesville rally. THIS COULD NOT BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH! “I can tell you the march we had in May…That group pulled a permit, they worked very well with us” as stated by Boston Police Commissioner William Evans in a press conference Monday (8/14/17)

We are a coalition of libertarians, progressives, conservatives, and independents and we welcome all individuals and organizations from any political affiliations that are willing to peaceably engage in open dialogue about the threats to, and importance of, free speech and civil liberties. Join us at the Parkman Bandstand where we will be holding our event. We look forward to this tide-changing peaceful event that has the potential to be a shining example of how we, in the city of Boston, can come together for the common goal of preserving freedom of speech for all and respectfully discussing our differences of opinion without engaging in violence.”

So, in Boston we had a very small gathering (probably well under 100) exercising their free speech at a permitted rally in the Band Rotunda. (Yes, there were apparently more, including some of the programmed speakers, who couldn’t get through the crowd of counter demonstrators which had blocked of entrances).

They were surrounded by 15 – 45 thousand counter demonstrators yelling a stream of abuse at the rally participants – accusing them of being Nazis, etc. Fortunately, the police had manned a cordon to keep the two groups well separated. I say fortunately because it did remind me of those brave anti-apartheid demonstrators who had invaded Hamilton’s Rugby Park in 1981 to prevent the Waikato – South Africa Rugby game. On that day the police helped to prevent some of the violence.

An aerial view shows how counter-protesters vastly outnumbered a few dozen participants at a ‘free speech’ rally (rotunda) in Boston. Image credit: Daily Mail.
This brought back memories of how the police protected anti-apartheid demonstrators on Hamilton’s Rugby Park in 1981. Photo Credit: Daily Mail.
 My lesson

The presence of a small number of white supremacists in society is probably inevitable and shouldn’t concern us too much. Similarly, the presence of a relatively small number of anarchists and thugs who attend such demonstrations with the aim of creating violence is also probably inevitable. The police in Boston showed how this could be handled in a relatively painless way.

So these minor groups really don’t concern me too much. Nor do honest anti-fascists who attempt to close down white supremacy manifestations.

But that was not the case here. What we had was a huge crowd of counter-protesters who thought they were opposing racists and Nazis – but they weren’t. They were opposing free speech.

These people were misinformed and misled. Misinformed and misled by the mainstream media and politicians who insist on labeling proponents of free speech white supremacists.

Nazis and anarchists do worry more. But not as much as a misinformed mass movement.

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Hypocrisy, irrationality and wise words from Monty Python

I wonder how many others feel like me.

All the old sureties seem to have disappeared. Political words like “liberal” and “conservative” no longer mean what I thought they used to mean.

“Liberals” are attacking “freedom of speech” demonstrations. And those fighting for “freedom of speech” seem to be Nazis – if you can believe the media.

What next, are we going to see nighttime demonstrations of book burning by “anti-fascist liberals!”

How is one to think anymore. Or at least, to think independently and objectively and not simply adopting the slogans and group thought pushed down our throats by the media.

Even if all the wild claims being made by media and demonstrators are true – that those demonstrating for freedom of speech are “Nazis” “white supremacists,” or just outright “conservatives” – what happened to the old adage I was brought up with:

“I don’t for a minute accept what you say – but I will fight to the death for your right to say it!”

So in these days of confusion and lack of any reliable moral compass when it comes to understanding politics, I have had to turn to that one reliable source of guidance – Monty Python.

I have always enjoyed the “Galaxy Song” from “The Meaning of Life.” And more than ever I am finding solace in the last lines of that song:

“So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth!”

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Are we all anti-fascist now?

US neo-Nazis and fascists supporters march in Charoltsvill, USA.
Image credit: Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share via Reuters

Wouldn’t that be nice? What if the current almost universal condemnation of fascism by the main stream media and social media commenters were genuine.? That it represents an abhorrence for fascism and its modern supporters who attempt to revive it – and not just partisan politics.

Because fascism is abhorrent. And it does have its modern apologists, even revivalists. It is not new, even in the US, and people shouldn’t be surprised at its manifestation in Charlottesville.

After all, we have seen similar actions in other parts of the world – in parts of the world which understandably understand fascism and its consequences far better than the average US citizen does.

Thousands of nationals, neo-Nazis and pro-fascists march in Kiev, Ukraine, on the anniversary of the birth of Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera.
Image credit: South China Morning Post.

Yes, I know. Our media tends to treat the marchers in Kiev and Riga as “freedom fighters” and not what they really are – supporters of  Nazi collaborators and those organisations derived from them which still exist today and play a role in the politics of those countries. But, unlike the USA, those collaborators were responsible for thousands of deaths of their fellow citizens(see my article Don’t put all the blame on the Germans – a lesson from World War II).

Supporters of Latvia’s Waffen-SS legion hold an annual commemoration Nazi SS division formed from Latvians during World War Two. Image Credit: The Telegraph.

 

Sculpture of the “Unbowed man” at the Khatyn Memorial site near Minsk in Byelorussia. The sculpture depicts Yuzif Kaminsky, the only adult to survive the massacre by Ukrainian Nazi groups, holding his dead son Adam.
Image credit: John Oldale.

Which brings me to my real message – my suggestion for action

Why not take advantage of this new-found anti-fascist feeling? Rather than let the lessons of Charlotteville disperse and die out why not do something meaningful and specific? Something that might last. And something with an international influence.

My suggestion – the US should change its stance next time the regular United Nations General Assembly resolution on “Combating the glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance” comes up.

The resolution expresses concern about the fact that in some countries, famed Nazi movement leaders and former members of the SS are honoured, and monuments to fighters (e.g partisan heroes) against fascism are demolished or subjected to desecration. It calls on states to pass legislation prohibiting the denial of crimes against humanity and war crimes during the Second World War.

It was last passed in November 2016. Then the only countries voting against the resolution were Ukraine, the United States and Palau!

Just imagine, if the US goes with its current anti-fascist feelings it could, at last, vote for this resolution. Of course, Palau as a client state will also automatically reverse its vote.

As for Ukraine – well, who could say the country is such a mess. Chances are the current government in Kiev may not be in power next time the vote occurs. But, unfortunately, the extreme nationalist and neo-fascist forces which seem to dictate affairs in that country will still be around.

But what about closer to home

Can not New Zealand also learn from the current anti-fascist feelings emanating from the USA? New Zealand traditionally takes the cowards way out and abstains on this resolution. Apparently aligning itself with the 131 countries supporting the resolution in 2016 would have caused too much displeasure from the USA – something we still seem to be afraid of. So we joined the group of 48 countries that abstained.
But, I guess, if the USA changed heart and voted for the anti-fascist resolution we would meekly snap into line and also vote for it.

A job for the US (and NZ) House of Representatives?

OK, the current US president may be even less willing than previous presidents to take a real international stand against fascism. But don’t we have some recent history that might provide a solution. Why don’t the US Congress and Senate follow on from their recent almost unanimous resolutions constraining the president in his handling of international affairs?

They made it impossible for President Trump to take any action on sanctions against Iran, North Korea and the Russian Federation without a decision from Congress.

So why not a near unanimous Congressional resolution demanding the USA in future votes for this resolution in the UN General Assembly? A resolution that prevents the US Ambassador from voting against it again without a decision from Congress?

Perhaps the New Zealand Parliament could place a similar restriction on our representatives at the UN

After all, aren’t we all anti-fascist now?

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The main stream media is out of touch

I find the US mainstream media particularly boring and uninformative these days. It has become embedded in a partisan political campaign and seems to go into a frenzy over every bit of “evidence” or fake news it can garner, invent, or exaggerate in an apparent attempt to reverse the results of last year’s presidential elections.

I think many people must be heartily sick of this campaign. I would not be surprised if this is encouraging many to turn to alternative news sources and I suspect this media obsession is encouraging an increasing mistrust of the mainstream media.

But it is not just a matter of all the fake news and media lies. This political campaign is diverting media attention away from the things that really concern people. After all, they had their election last year and sensible presidential challenges should be off the burner until 2000. Meanwhile, there are all sorts of problems the ordinary person expects their government, and the media, to come to grips with.

So I am not surprised to see recent polling identifying a huge mismatch between the concerns of the media and the concerns of the public. Jon Gabriel’s Ricochet article What Americans Care About vs. What the Media Cares About illustrates this in the following graphic.

Constraining the President

Frankly, I think this US political hysteria is being produced by an alliance of the media, elements of the intelligence community and the “establishment” in general. For one reason or another, they just can not accept the result of the 2016 election and would like to see that result reversed. At the very least, they are using this artificial campaign to constrain the president in areas like foreign policy where they have big differences.

Perhaps pressure from the neocons and deep state to constrain and control a new president is not new. Certainly, we saw this with President Obama. But the campaigners have resorted to a more public and hysterical pressure in President Trump’s case because he is basically a political outsider. He came out of “left field,” was not part of the “acceptable” political establishment and is a maverick. His personality makes him difficult to control in the normal, behind the scenes, way.

Media does itself no favours

There are a number of objective factors creating turmoil for the mainstream media these days. transfer of advertising to social media, changes in technology and the loss of skilled reporters. But the old, established media is not doing itself any favours by diverting into a blatantly partisan political campaign and resorting to such bias in its reporting. And it harms society by encouraging the growth of neo-McCarthyism and supporting those who are working to reduce international cooperation and the relaxation of tension. That is dangerous for the American people – and in fact for the whole world.

But I guess the upside is that this self-exposure of bias is an education to the public. They may now search for alternatives – and that is a good thing. They will also be a lot more critical of what is delivered to them by the news media – and that is also a good thing.

The reader does need to beware – and to question more.

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Don’t rely on sources – follow the evidence

CNN pushes this mantra but many believe they promote fake news

When scientists evaluate published research we are more interested in evidence than in conclusions. In fact, the same evidence may lead scientific readers to different conclusions. That’s not surprising as in the real world no research project is able to consider all the theoretically possible evidence. Readers may, in fact, have other evidence. Or they may detect faults in authors’ interpretations.

I think this is a good thing. Considering the evidence allows competent critiques to be made and encourages knowledge to advance.

However, it annoys me that when we move outside the scientific environment we have to deal with situations where evidence may rarely be considered. People indulge in debating conclusions often with no regard to evidence. In fact, debaters seem to rely more on the real or perceived authority of their sources to support or discredit an argument, than on the evidence.

That’s just lazy. Source authority proves nothing and I would like to think that my discussion partners are capable of coming to a more reasonable position when they are forced to actually consider the evidence.

Both sides are guilty

Unfortunately, both supporters and opponents of a scientific viewpoint or consensus fall into this trap. Take the “fluoridation debate.” It annoys me that some supporters of the scientific viewpoint will respond to an opponent by disparaging their sources. The fact that the opponent is citing the activist Fluoride Action Network, the “Fluoride” journal or one of the shonky pay-to-publish journals where anti-fluoride activists sometimes get published does not, in itself, discredit their argument. On the other hand, if the actual evidence involved in those reports were discussed it might just be possible for the faulty conclusions to be exposed.

On the other hand, how often have I heard opponents of community water fluoridation reject the authority of scientific journals or published research because the workers were paid by the government (we must all get a wage from somewhere) or the journal or conference received industry sponsorship? I am not at all impressed by the refusal to consider the real evidence implied by falling back on disparaging sources.

The other tactic of supporting a claim by pointing to the high authority of the source is also repugnant. Even researchers and journals we generally consider “reputable” can still publish flawed work and even rubbish.

One of the most common arguments used by anti-fluoride campaigners is that the highly respectable, authoritative journal “The Lancent” has “officially” declared fluoride to be a “neurotoxin.” This is wrong on so many counts. The Lancet publishes research papers. It is not in the business of making official declarations on toxic compounds. The paper referred to did not describe fluoride as a “neurotoxin” – that word is inappropriate for describing a chemical of inorganic origin. The work cited in that paper was from areas of endemic fluorosis mainly in China and is not relevant to community water fluoridation. And the paper itself was not justified in making the limited conclusions it did on such poor evidence. I have discussed the paper more fully in Repeating bad science on fluoride.

The odds are, of course, that those activists citing this paper in such a manner have not actually read the paper – a common problem with people who rely on the authority of their sources rather than evidence. In fact, they are probably not at all interested in the details in most cases.

My point is reliance on authority is not a valid supporting argument any more than disparaging a source is a valid opposing argument. We should always follow the evidence – and rely on that evidence for our arguments in such discussions.

The political arena

This problem is even worse in the political sphere where so often we actually do not have evidence to fall back on. In fact, this situation seems to have got a lot worse of late where, for one reason or another, facts and evidence seem to be the last thing in the minds of “reporters” – or at least those who are continually telling us what we should think.

Unfortunately, discussion of political issues often leads people to claim they are using what they think as “reliable sources” or disparaging an opponent’s argument by claiming they are using “unreliable sources.” In fact, people who should know better, seem to often support their claims against any criticism by claiming it came from a “reliable source” or “authoritative source.” And these people who should know better will often resort to “attacking the messenger.” Criticising or rejecting information because it was reported by what they consider an “unreliable source.” The facts or evidence seem to be forgotten.

This can get pretty silly. I once had to confront the argument of a discussion partner who rejected the video recording of a statement made by a spokesperson for the US Department of State because it was part of a piece of RT news coverage! Especially silly as the video recording was probably an official one made by staff of the Department of State.

How often do we see people promoting partisan claims about the political hysteria in the US or the war in Syria by using sources like the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN or Al-Jazeera? Sources they claim are “reliable?” In my article  I described how the New Zealand Ministry’s of Foreign Affairs and Internal Affairs carried out “due diligence” on the White Helmets organisation they were planning to give money to by referring simply to a report from Al-Jazeera. No attempt to dig deeper, to evaluate the veracity of the Al-Jazeera reports or to follow-up other sources critical of the White Helmets. Yet Al-Jazeera has a reputation for supporting “rebels”/”terrorists” in Syria. It is shocking that a New Zealand ministry was not prepared to make a more sensible judgment.

On the other hand, how often do we see people disparaging information or claims about the current US political hysteria or the war in Syria which with they disagree because it was reported by Sputnik, RT or one of a host of other “alternative” news sources?

Both sides of a political argument now denigrate the sources used by the other side as promoting “fake news.” And, to an extent, each side is probably right as every news sources these days has its own point of view – its own bias.

Reader beware – use a range of sources

Unfortunately, many readers seem more interested in confirming their own biases than dealing with real facts or evidence. Understandably these people will select the news source that suits them. That’s OK if you simply want to follow the “party line.” But it is lazy because it avoids any intelligent or critical analysis.

It is incumbent on the rest of us who are more interested in real facts and in drawing more credible conclusions to make an effort to consult a range of news sources and to critically analyse the claims, opinions and information we get from them. I believe that in today’s world there is no such thing as an authoritative or reliable source when it comes to political information. All the media – the “established mainstream media” as well as the “alternative media” are equally capable of publishing and promoting fake news.

We need to be aware of this, be prepared to use a variety of sources to avoid the “party line” problem, and critically analyse what we read so we can separate facts from opinions and unsubstantiated claims.

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Stovepiping to produce fake news

Image credit: THOSE ’17 INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES’ CITED BY HILLARY CLINTON ABOUT TRUMP AND RUSSIA TURNED OUT TO BE FAKE NEWS

I have discovered a new word – “stovepiping.” Must admit I had to look it up – but it seems to be highly relevant to the way media seem to authenticate their news reports today – particularly in the current political hysteria emanating from the USA. And, I think, stovepiping plays a central role in the promotion of fake news.

There is nothing new about fake news – we have been subjected to it for ages. But suddenly everyone is talking about it. Of course, it is always the “other” side which indulges in fake news – never “our” side. But I suggest that just demonstrates our own prejudices and confirmation bias. We should look more critically and objectively at the way “our” news media gathers and present what it feeds us.

Stovepiping in the intelligence community

So we come to “stovepiping” which Wikipedia says:

“has been used, in the context of intelligence, to describe several ways in which raw intelligence information may be presented without proper context. . . . . the lack of context may come from a particular group, in the national policy structure, selectively presenting only that information that supports certain conclusions. “

On the one hand, this may be an inevitable result of the way intelligence agencies work – “due to the specialised nature, or security requirements, of a particular intelligence collection technology.”

On the other hand, it may be purposely used to deceive politicians and the public  (to support “certain conclusions”) – the issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the justification for the US invasion of that country provides a clear example.

Unfortunately, stovepiping is rampant in the current US media and political hysteria surrounding the current political struggles resulting from an election result which didn’t go the way the establishment wanted and believed it would.

Consider all the “confidence” that the US presidential elections were “hacked” by Russia – even by, or under the personal orders of, the president of the Russian Federation. The assertion is claimed to be unassailable, beyond any question, because it was a conclusion reached, unanimously, by 17 US intelligence agencies. Hillary Clinton made the claim last October in a presidential election debate:

 “We have 17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin, and they are designed to influence our election. I find that deeply disturbing.”

The really “deeply disturbing” aspect is that this claim was repeated again and again without a sniff of evidence. Anyone questioning the claim, or asking for evidence, was jumped on as a “Kremlin troll” and no politician seemed to have the courage to draw parallels with the Emperors Clothes.” To actually ask – “where is the evidence.” Neo-McCarthyism is alive and active.

Welcome to evidence-free reporting – where stories rely on unattributed, unnamed sources. Where “intelligence reports” are completely free of evidence – yet presented with high authority. And worse – the media then claims the evidence-free reports themselves as “evidence!”

The retractions are buried and ignored

Sometimes such stories do get retracted. On June 29 The New York Times issued a retraction of the claim that 17 intelligence agencies had reported Russian hacking. The NYT admitted:

“The assessment was made by four intelligence agencies — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. The assessment was not approved by all 17 organizations in the American intelligence community.”

Worse – we had stovepiping within stovepiping. Not only was the claim not approved by the 17 agencies – the claim itself was made by selected personal within the four agencies involved. Heavy reported:

“Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had already essentially admitted to this when he testified in May in front of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee. He said the Russia hacking finding came from a special intelligence community assessment, formed by hand-picked analysts from the NSA, FBI, and CIA.”

This sort of stovepiping is loaded with possibilities for anyone wishing to promote evidence-free but politically damaging claims as part of a political battle. Just hand-select a few anonymous agents who you know will support the story you want. The ultimate confirmation bias.

One might think the news media has the ethical responsibility to be a bit more critical of such stories. To refuse to repeat evidence-free claims. To avoid unnamed, and unchecked, sources. And to publish an analysis of the origins of these claims, stressing the lack of evidence.

Unfortunately, in the USA it appears that the mainstream media has forgotten these ethics. It is wholeheartedly participating in this political battle. It is cooperating with elements in the intelligence community who have also joined this political battle. The mainstream media and this politically motivated section of the intelligence community are taking in each others laundry. Unnamed intelligence sources are providing evidence-free information to fill the news reports. The media is giving public voice to these disaffected intelligence agents and the intelligence community (or elements within it), in turn, is giving “authority” to the reported evidence-free claims. After all, what patriotically-minded US citizen will refuse to accept the authority of the intelligence agencies – even without evidence?

Weak retractions, or even the absence of retractions, seems to be an accepted procedure within the mainstream media. Remember Omran Dogneesh, the “Aleppo boy?” Much media hysteria was spent on his story (accompanied by an admittedly outstanding photograph) promoted by the al Qaeda-affiliated White Helmets as part of their propaganda campaign against Syria. His family was liberated with the rest of eastern Aleppo and they can now tell their story about the way their boy was used – in effect kidnapped by the White Helmets – for propaganda purposes. His family’s story has been reported to some extent – certainly without any of the fanfare the original misleading story was promoted (see How Omran, the dazed Aleppo boy who reappeared this week, became a political pawn in Syria’s war). And a gullible public will be encouraged to continue to believe the original distortions.

Aleppo boy – his true story was buried. The first photo was trumpeted around the world as part of anti-Syria propaganda. The second practically ignored. Credit: India.com.  Aleppo boy Omran Daqneesh makes his first appearance since 2016 bombing! See heart warming pictures of the Syrian kid 

Just as “authoritative” mainstream media sources continue to report that 17 intelligence agencies had a “high confidence” the Russians “hacked” the US elections.

It’s wider than the Clinton-Trump conflict

While this example of stovepiping and fake news is typical of the current political conflict in the USA the problem is not going to go away when that conflict disappears. I think stovepiping and fake news have resulted from the danger the established news media sees itself in as a result of social media and wider digital sources for news.

In fact, when we look at the intelligence reports about the so-called Russian hacking of the US elections we find the main concern being expressed is the possible influence of alternative media. These reports concentrate on media like RT and Sputnik which have Russian origins – but the concern is really about alternative media in general. After all, if the best they can do is complain that RT gave coverage to minority candidates and ran one interview with Trump then we can see what their crime is. RT and Sputnik, just like the rest of the alternative media, is not under the thumb of the establishment. They are free to question the narrative promoted by that establishment.

The alternative media, just like the internet, is not going to go away. It will persist and it will provide alternatives to those of us tired by the conformity and fake news of the establishment mainstream media.

The political establishment in the US and Europe is trying to nip this phenomenon in the bud – after all the alternative media has limited reach so far. But the establishment can see the danger it represents and we cannot avoid the possibility it may take extreme action to prevent the loss of its influence a wider spread of alternative media represents.

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Darwin, sexual selection and Putin

Credit: RussiaFeed.

Must edge my way back in into blogging after a period of mourning. So here is something provocative.

Perhaps President Putin is “making Russia great again” in a way we haven’t thought of. Via Darwinian sexual selection?

If this song is anything to go by maybe Putin as a role model will lead to improvement in the Russian gene pool if women start preferring men with his moral and lifestyle characteristics.

Or perhaps his influence will operate more quickly by encouraging Russian men to smarten themselves up if they want to find a partner?

Is this yet another positive influence Putin has had on Russian life after the disastrous experiences of the criminal anarchy of the 1990s?

Or is it a sign that Putin has finally decided to run in next March’s Russian Presidential elections and this is his first campaign song?

Whatever – it’s a welcome (and tuneful) change from the usual demonisation of the man we get from our mainstream media. (And I expect to get from commenters here).

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Fluoridation: Open letter to Democrats for Social Credit

The only New Zealand political party opposing community water fluoridation relies on false information

The only political party in New Zealand campaigning against community water fluoridation is the Democrats for Social Credit. It is a minor party, nor represented in Parliament and of little influence. However, it does have connections with Fluoride Free NZ, the main anti-fluoride activist group, and its members have imposed anti-fluoridation policies on some groups they belong to. Two examples are Grey Power and the Hamilton Residents & Ratepayers Association – both of which presented anti-fluoride submissions to the recent parliamentary health committee hearings.

I wish to promote an open discussion with the Democrats for Social Credit about their anti-fluoridation policy so have sent them this Open Letter. If they are open to a good-faith discussion I am happy to provide space on this blog for an exchange of views on their policy.


David Trantor, Health Spokesperson for Democrats for Social Credit

Dear David Tranter,
Health Spokesman,
Democrats for Social Credit

You wrote an open letter to the Minister of Health critiquing the government’s policy on community water fluoridation (CWF) and posing some questions about dental health programmes, documented evidence relating to CWF and human rights aspects you consider relevant.

Here I take issue with some of your claims – particularly about dental health in Denmark and the scientific evidence supporting CWF. I believe the evidence does not support the anti-fluoridation policy of your party and your party should reconsider that policy.

If you believe my arguments here are mistaken or otherwise wish to defend the current anti-fluoride policy of your party I am open to a good-faith exchange of opinions and offer you the right of reply and the opportunity for a further discussion on this blog.

Natural fluoridation in Denmark

You point to the good dental health in Denmark and assert “they have never fluoridated their water.” This is true – but you ignore the fact that much of the Danish population benefits from natural levels of fluoride in their drinking water.

Unlike New Zealand parts of Denmark have drinking water fluoride concentrations similar to the optimum concentrations recommended for CWF. Map 1 from Kirkeskov et al., (2010) shows the distribution of different drinking water fluoride concentration ranges.  Map 2 shows the population distribution. We can see a significant fraction of the Danish population does have access to drinking water containing fluoride.

Map 1: Distribution of natural drinking water fluoride concentrations in Denmark. The town of Nexo is on the Baltic island of Bornholm – shown in the top left-hand rectangle.

Map 2: Population distribution in Denmark.

These natural levels of drinking water fluoride are beneficial to oral health in Denmark. Here is some data from Kirkeskov et al., (2010) illustrating this. The following graph compares the dental decay (numbers with more than 2 decayed, missing or filled teeth surfaces – dmfs) at various drinking water fluoride concentrations for 5 year-olds born in 1989 and 1999.

As we can see, the extent of decay declines with fluoride concentration.

There is a similar pattern for 15-year-olds born in 1979 and 1989. This figure shows the relative numbers with more than 2 decayed missing or filled teeth surfaces, DMFS, for 15-year-olds.

And the same pattern for 15-year-olds with more than 6 decayed, missing or filled tooth surfaces.

Danish dental health programmes

You refer to a “Nexux” programme and argue that this could be an alternative to CWF in New Zealand.

I think you are referring to the programme run in Nexo – a town on the east coast of the Baltic island of Bornholm, Denmark. It is a successful local dental health programme, but only one of several in Denmark. Nexo was in an area of very low socio-economic status and introduced a dental programme at the end of 1987 aimed at improving the dental health fo children.  Ekstrand & Christiansen, (2005) give this description of the programme:

“Since 1992, the program has been offered to children from the age of 8 months. It is based on three closely interrelated principles applied according to the individual child’s needs: (1) education of parents, children and adolescents in understanding dental caries as a localized disease, (2) intensive training in home-based plaque control and (3) early professional, non-operative intervention, including professional plaque removal, local application of 2% NaF and application of sealants. In the period when the children have erupting permanent first or second molars, the parents and children are instructed in using a tooth brushing technique specially designed for erupting molar teeth.”

As you can see it is a rather intensive programme and is not a Denmark-wide programme. It has been successful in Nexo, where 15-year-olds had DMFS (decayed, missing and filled tooth surfaces) values in 1986 (before introduction of the programme)  slightly higher than the Danish average. The equivalent values of DMFS for Nexo were the third lowest for all municipalities in 1993 and the lowest in 1999 (Ekstrand & Christiansen, 2005).

Elements of the Nexo programme will be used in other parts of Denmark, and in other countries. Especially where school-based programmes exist.

Incidentally, Map 1 indicates the concentration of natural fluoride in the drinking water on the island where Nexo is situated is similar to that recommended for community water fluoridation. Ekstrand et al., (2005) reports that the fluoride concentration in the Nexo drinking water is 0.8 mg/L.

Nexo is a complement to, not a substitute for, CWF

Each country and region adopt health programmes appropriate to their circumstance. In New Zealand, we have programmes which include some aspect of the Nexo programme or similar programmes like the ChildSmile programme in Scotland (see ChildSmile dental health – its pros and cons and ChildSmile – a complement, not an alternative, to fluoridation). For example the use of fluoride varnish treatments, especially in non-fluoridated areas.

New Zealand can learn from the experience of other countries and in practice, we may introduce some aspects of other programmes. But blanket transfer of full programmes is rare.

The important aspect, though, is none of these programmes is considered an alternative to fluoridation. They are considered as complementary to CWF, and not substitutes for CWF.  The Danish Dental Association has supported fluoridation for areas of low natural fluoride concentrations. Similarly, the British Dental Association in Scotland supports both ChildSmile and CWF and has publicly called for communities to move towards introducing water fluoridation.

In fact, we can consider that the programme used in Nexo (where the drinking water contains fluoride at 0.8 mg/L) actually complements the effect of natural community water fluoridation.

“Documented evidence”

You ask the Minister:

“Why do you ignore all the documented evidence against fluoridation instead of applying positive dental health policies such as the Denmark example?”

The “Denmark example” is dealt with above and it is not what you suggest. Similarly, I suggest the “documented evidence” you refer to really doesn’t give the viable argument “against fluoridation” you imply.

Unfortunately, you do not present any of this “documented evidence” for discussion. Perhaps, if you respond positively to my suggestion of a right of reply and an ongoing discussion, you can give this evidence.

“Informed consent”

You refer to the “H&D Commissioner’s Code of Rights” asserting that:

“no-one can be medicated without giving their informed consent” and “people have the right to give – or refuse – their INFORMED consent when fluoridation is applied to public water supplies?”

Well, I am all for people being properly informed and providing consent to the treatments used for their water supply. I see this as a democratic issue and I support democracy.

But you destroy your argument by suggesting fluoridation is a “medication” when it clearly is not – either legally or rationally. The legal argument was surely settled by the High Court decision in 2014 (see Corporate backers of anti-fluoride movement lose in NZ High Court) where Justice Rodney Hansen concluded:

“[80] In my view, fluoridation cannot be relevantly distinguished from the addition of chlorine or any other substance for the purpose of disinfecting drinking water, a process which itself may lead to the addition of contaminants as the water standards themselves assume. Both processes involve adding a chemical compound to the water. Both are undertaken for the prevention of disease. It is not material that one works by adding something to the water while the other achieves its purpose by taking unwanted organisms out.

[81] The addition of iodine to salt, folic acid to bread and the pasteurisation of milk are, in my view, equivalent interventions made to achieve public health benefits by means which could not be achieved nearly as effectively by medicating the populace individually. . . . All are intended to improve the health of the populace. But they do not, in my view, constitute medical treatment for the purpose of s 11″ [the relevant section of the NZBORA].”

Is scientific knowledge  really “one-sided” propaganda

You also weaken your argument by claiming:

“the one-sided propaganda used to support fluoridation is not informing people”

Describing objective scientific research and findings as “one-sided” simply displays your own bias – and willingness to discredit or ignore the science. Again, you do not give specific examples of the science you consider “one-sided propaganda” – hopefully, you will do so if you take up my offer of a right of reply and a continued discussion.

Democratic rights

You assert:

“when fluoridation is forced upon people it is nothing less than mass medication concerning which people have no opportunity to give – or refuse – their consent.”

The common anti-fluoride claim that people are having fluoridated water forced upon them always raises the picture in my mind of a person being held down and water being forced down their throat as in force-feeding.

Of course, that is ridiculous – for a number of reasons.

  • In New Zealand, there has usually been a democratic public consultation of some sort before the introduction of CWF – or even after its introduction. Local bodies have surveyed residents or used referenda. They have also used a consultation procedure relying on submissions from the public.The opportunity “to give – or refuse – their consent” has in most cases been far greater than for most decisions made by our representatives in this democracy of ours. Some voters find it annoying when asked for such consent (preferring their representatives decide) but I firmly believe it important to include the public in controversial decisions – even where the controversy results from scaremongering rather than facts (as it does with CWF).
  • There are alternatives for the minority. This means that democratic decisions made by a community can actually be a win-win situation. The majority get the social policy they want and have voted for. the minority have access to alternatives. In fact, most anti-fluoride activists already use alternatives – they filter their tap water or source a different supply. Some cities already provide “fluoride-free” water sources to help this. Sometimes I think the real motivation of these ideologically driven activists is to deny this social health policy to others rather than any real concern they have for their own access to water.
  • Some activists will acknowledge there is no evidence of any harmful side effects from CWF but invoke a “precautionary principle” to argue against it. They should be mollified by the fact that CWF is one of the most extensively researched topics. In a sense, we must thank the ideologically and commercially motivated anti-fluoride campaigners for this. Their activity is rarely successful in preventing CWF or fooling most of the public. But it does mean that researcher keep an eye on the arguments and are continually checking them out.

Conclusion

David, I believe you are mistaken, or misinformed, about the dental health programmes in Denmark. You ignore completely the availability of effective natural levels of fluoride in much of Denmark’s drinking water and seem unaware of the nature of the Nexo programme or its limited area of operation.

Expert opinion considers programmes like Nexo and the Scottish ChildSmile are effective complements to CWF – not substitutes for, or alternatives to, CWF. I support our health officials considering use of similar programmes in New Zealand but it is misleading for the Democrats for Social Credit to advocate for such programmes simply as a way of preventing or opposing CWF – which is  an effective, beneficial and safe social health measure.

I appreciate you may not accept my arguments or the facts I have presented here. If that is the case I urge you to accept my offer of a right of reply and ongoing good-faith discussion and am happy to help this by making space available on this blog.

I look forward to your response.

References

Ekstrand, K. R., & Christiansen, M. E. C. (2005). Outcomes of a non-operative caries treatment programme for children and adolescents. Caries Research, 39(6), 455–467.

Kirkeskov, L., Kristiansen, E., Bøggild, H., Von Platen-Hallermund, F., Sckerl, H., Carlsen, A., … Poulsen, S. (2010). The association between fluoride in drinking water and dental caries in Danish children. Linking data from health registers, environmental registers and administrative registers. Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology, 38(3), 206–212.

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Fluoridation: What’s happening with the New Zealand legislation?

The second reading of the fluoridation bill is now on the order paper for the current parliament. Public submissions have been heard, the Health Committee has reported back to the House and the Ministry of Health (MoH) has provided its own responses to submissions.

Of course, we don’t know yet what the final Act will be like exactly. But the submissions, the committee report, and the MoH responses give us some idea of likely changes to the original bill.

Submissions

I have described before how the anti-fluoride activist groups organise to deluge consultation processes with their submissions. This was certainly the case here and their submissions accounted for most of those opposed to the Bill.

However, because the legislation is about the decision-making process and not the scientific or ethical validity of social health policies simple opposition to fluoridation was irrelevant  – outside the scope of the bill. This was true of most submissions (85%) and these should be considered a waste of every bodies time.

I am surprised the anti-fluoride organisations organising this submission campaign chose to take such an irrelevant approach. Surely if they had put a bit of thought into their efforts they could have directed their submission at relevant aspects such as the consultation process, the decision-making body and the question of referenda.

That said, a small number of the anti-fluoride submissions did address aspects of the bill and these were considered by the Health Committee and the MoH.

Putting aside the anti-fluoride submissions which did not address the bill, 20% percent supported the Bill and 80% opposed to the Bill as currently drafted. Most supported extending fluoridation cover, but disagreed with specific parts of the Bill and suggested changes.

The legislation does not mandate fluoridation

This is a common misunderstanding promoted by anti-fluoride campaigners – obviously attempting to use scare-mongering to motivate their supporters. For example, Fluoride Free NZ formally names the legislation the Mandatory Fluoridation Bill which is dishonest – the correct name of the bill is Health (Fluoridation of Drinking Water) Amendment Bill.”

The bill transfers decision-making from local bodies to District Health Boards (DHBs) – but it does not require DHBs to make a decision about fluoridation. That is up to local DHBs and local conditions such as dental health, likely advantages and establishment costs.

Consideration of other health factors

A number of submitters expressed concern that while the bill requires DHBs to consider dental health effects, consideration of other possible health issues is not provided for. However,  the response from the MoH to this is:

“While DHBs are required to consider the evidence in relation to oral health, DHBs are not prevented from considering other factors, including the effect of fluoridation on overall health. However, officials do not consider it necessary for the Bill to require DHBs to consider these other factors.”

So, consideration of other health factors will depend on specific situations, the board members or public interest. Importantly, DHB’s are not prevented from considering wider health aspects.

Considering the science

I was interested to see that:

” The Ministry of Health is currently exploring options for the ongoing monitoring and assessment of research on fluoridation within the Ministry to align with the implementation of the Bill.”

The MoH sees this as carrying on the role formerly played by the now disbanded National Fluoridation Information Service. But this also goes some way to satisfying a suggestion in my own submission that the assessment of research on fluoridation is carried out by some sort of central expert body (see Fluoride, coffee and activist confusion). My concern was that the DHBs are not really suitable bodies for making expert reviews of the literature and evaluating the current state of the science. Handing this over to a central body could also prevent boards being deluged with misinformation and unsupported claims about the science – a feature of local body consultation which caused so much trouble to councils.

It was the pressure of submission campaigns including misrepresentation and false claims about the science which drove local bodies, who do not have the expertise to consider the science, to request a change to the legislation. DHBs will confront the same situation unless they can direct scientific consultation to a central expert body.

Community consultation

Many submitters (12%), both for and against fluoridation, suggested the bill should specifically require DHBs to consult the community about fluoridation decisions. While the bill did not make such specific requirements it also did not prevent such consultation.

In practice, public consultation will depend on the level of demand for it. It is up to DHBs to decide when consultation is appropriate and there is already a regulatory requirement for DHBs “to foster community participation in health improvement” which could cover that.

There is also provision for the Minister to describe a fluoridation decision as a “significant service change” which would require DHBs to undertake community consultation on regional service plans including fluoridation.

So, the anti-fluoride activist claims of denial of community consultation is wrong. While consultation is not specifically required it is not prevented by the bill and will depend on the level of public interest.

Engagement with local authorities

The health committee is recommending the bill be amended to explicitly require DHBs to consider the views of the drinking water supplier. This accommodates suggestions made by some local bodies who feared the imposition of decisions without considering their local situations.

However, the committee also suggested an amendment to make clear that engagement with local authorities does not require them to consult communities. The DHB which makes the ultimate decision would have that responsibility where necessary.

The Committee also suggested “the Government consider whether
it intends to contribute funding towards the costs of establishing fluoridated water supplies” because there is a “moral hazard arising from the DHBs making a decision that will impose costs on local authorities and ratepayers.”  It looks like the Government has accepted this point as they have already made $12 million dollars available to local bodies setting up new fluoridation systems (see Government commits $12m to help councils cover costs of fluoridation in water supplies.).

Provision of non-fluoridated alternatives

Some local bodies have already introduced “fluoride-free” taps at the request of local anti-fluoride campaigners., The MoH is suggesting an amendment to the bill to make clear that “DHBs can direct local government water supplies in their region on a supply by supply basis if they wish.”

This could make it possible for specific local supplies, like Petone in the Hutt region or some supplies in Christchurch to remain unfluoridated if their communities demand it even if a decision is made to fluoridate a region.

The DHB or the director general of health?

Many of the submitters opposed to the bill in its present form suggest that the decision-maker should not be the DHBs but the Director-General of Health or central government. This is because of the likely low expertise of DHB members, low voter turnout for DHB elections and concerns of legal challenges to DHB decisions. There was also the expressed belief that the anarchic and dishonest coordinated submission campaigns previously experienced by local bodies would simply be transferred to the DHBs.

Some submitter proposed that fluoridation be mandatory thereby removing the need for an elected body to be responsible for the decision making.

The committee report and response from the MoH show that parliament will probably stick with the DHBs as the decision maker. There are some advantages in this (the DHB have responsibilities in health areas) and the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Will the DHB approach to consultations be able to successfully give more credence to credible and peer-reviewed science than the misinformation and distortions of science promoted by anti-fluoride campaigners?

Possibly. I hope so.

Conclusions

Despite the anti-fluoride campaigns and the resulting deluge of misinformed or misleading submissions, the submission process has been successful. Problems in the current wording of the bill were identified and reasonable solutions to these problems have been advanced.

We should now see how MPs react to the bill and the recommended changes in the second reading. Anti-fluoride activists have carried on an intensive campaign of emails, letters and representations aimed at MPs. On the whole, this will have been counterproductive as MP are surely aware this bill is not about the science or ethics of fluoridation but simply the decision-making process.

I am picking that these campaigns have produced more heat than light and will have little influence on the progress of the bill. However, I do expect a lot of teeth-grinding, hairpulling, garment rending, lamentations that democracy doesn’t work or that various MPs should be shot or otherwise disposed of from anti-fluoride campaigners. This is already happening and will no doubt intensify when the final bill is passed into law.

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