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Left, Right, self-blame, and brow-beating - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Left, Right, self-blame, and brow-beating
Okay, my current round of Conservasites seems to have a few articles on the blame-America-first attitude of the opposition. "In that regard," writes Victor Davis Hanson, "for the moment George Bush is a godsend. His drawl, Christianity, tough talk, ramrod straight strut — all that and more become the locus of our fears: French and Germans on the warpath? They must have been Bushwhacked, not angry that their subsidized utopia — from a short work week, looming pension catastrophe, and no national defense — is eroding. Bombs going off in Manhattan or stuck in a tunnel while cops search every truck? Either way, Bush is the problem. Either he foolishly went into Iraq and let down our guard, or he is trying to scare us into believing that a nonexistent terrorist is under every bed..."

The general conservative opinion of this is that it's just short of treason (or, if you're Ann Coulter, over the line), maliciously siding with enemies because of self-hatred or--more likely--arrogant hatred of one's neighbors. Either that, or it's mentally unbalanced. The general liberal opinion of it is that it's more sophisitcated and nuanced than the "cowboy" approach of the right, more willing to accept self-doubt. Certainly, it's the "smart person's" approach.

As usual, I find both positions wrong.

That Americans tend toward the isolationist isn't debatable. It's part of our history from the start, with Washington himself warning us about getting into foreign entanglements. Left with a choice, Americans are likely to sit down in front of the TV, pop open some suds, and watch the game, and can't figure out why the rest of the world doesn't just do the same thing (or whatever the local variant is). That we've got our ugly side our greedy side is also quite true.

And quite irrelevant in the current situation.

By coincidence, cleverness, and a healthy dose of sheer dumb luck, we're leading the West in the eyes of the world. That we don't want to lead France, think that we need to step lightly around a unified Germany flexing its muscles, and are scandalized at the mere thought of dictating to Mother England doesn't matter--our infrastructure didn't get trashed in WWII, and that meant we got a leap ahead because of less time spent fixing that damage. The isolationists who would rather avoid these international problems altogether have ended up at the head of the table, and when people have a problem with The West, guess who's entangled?

(EDIT: Yes, of course that's oversimplified, and ignores the Cold War and its implications. But how we got where we are isn't the point, just a sidenote.)

With the Al Qaedists, it doesn't matter what we do. If we send tons of aid, we're trying to buy them off. If we send no aid, we're cruelly starving them. If we get involved, we're imperialists; if we remain isolated, we're arrogant. We've been cast as the devil in a doomsday scenario, and have no more hope of getting out by proper behavior than a Jew in 1939 could have avoided Auschwitz by learning to Sieg Heil with great enthusiasm. Our actual behavior is immaterial.

Now, the left's position is largely that this isn't the case--that we are responsible because of arrogance/racism/greed/whatnot. This is seen as the nuanced and sophisticated view.

I disagree with the position, obviously, but also with the opinion that it is more nuanced and other-directed. In fact, what it does is take the focus off of anyone but us. It's our fault, we did it, look at US, US, US. And it ignores the men attacking us altogether. After all, we of the current west can hardly be blamed for the loss of Andalucia (in the September 10 world, I think a lot of Americans--annoyingly--would have been hard-pressed to tell you where Andalucia was), and that's listed among the grievances that need redressing.

While I admit that there's some attraction in taking power away from terrorists by treating them as nothing more than creations of the west--puppets--I don't think it's a helpful approach to the situation. Ultimately, they are the ones who declared this war, which means that--short of total, abysmal defeat--they are the ones with the unilateral power to stop it. Taking that power away is not in anyone's interest.

On the other hand, the right has got to get a grip.

I don't mean about the terrorists. I think the right has more or less a good read on them. I mean about the left.

Since when is self-examination un-American? We've been doing it since the first Puritans landed and tried to figure out why things were going wrong. Crops are failing? We're not holy enough. Must be witches. Whatever. (Our poor Puritan ancestors have gotten a bad rap lately, but really, the notion of trying to achieve perfection and purity by moving closer to The Truth and away from Sin and Falsehood is as much a part of our lives now as it was then; we've just changed our opinion on what those things are.) Moving on, we see the Revolution, with unfailing patriots like John Adams defending British soldiers because they thought the mob had been in the wrong. It's the old ethos about ignoring the mote in thy neighbor's eye until the beam has been removed from thine own, and it's as American as the World Series and fireworks on the Fourth of July. Whenever anything happens, it's instinct to look at ourselves and say, "What did I do wrong?" That in the case of 9/11, it's equivalent to a rape victim weeping, "I knew I should have worn a longer skirt!" doesn't matter; it's still a natural reaction, just one that needs to be discouraged... although, to be fair, taking care not to walk down dark alleys alone isn't really bad advice, is it? Isn't that what a lot of the precautions boil down to?

And for that matter, oh friends on the right, don't you notice that you're doing the same thing with the physical world? Why were we attacked? Because we didn't have secure airports. Because we aren't keeping track of expired student visas. Because we fell asleep at the switch. We were defenseless then and it was our own fault and next time we will be ready.

That's really not all that much different from the belief that if we just play nice, everyone will get along and be our friend again.

Both positions are perfectly American--if we just work harder on improving ourselves (in whichever is the preferred manner), then that will solve the problem--and both are fundamentally misguided, as we are in reactive mode right now. We didn't start this war, no one wants to be in this war, and we wouldn't be fighting it if it hadn't been declared on us. We don't have the power to unilaterally stop it either by aggressive defense measures or aggressive moralizing, though I'll admit that the former can at least provide some kind of stopgap protection and the latter can force us to remember that we are responsible for how we behave within our reaction. (I firmly believe that if it weren't for our tradition of self-flagellation in place of vengeance, our nuclear arsenal would have been opened on September 12, and that would have been the worst possible scenario--I mean, honestly... if we were really driven by vengeance, the Sahara would be, in the words of a college friend of mine, "turned into a sheet of glass" by now. It's not like we don't have the firepower for it.)

Ultimately, both positions take the scary (but comfortingly familiar) stance that we have the power. That we are the ones in control of all of it. This is perfectly in line with the old Protestant ethos of self-reliance, and I don't think it's bad for the country. We could use better security, and there's never anything wrong with taking a good hard look at one's own morality. But I think we need to accept that neither approach is actually going to solve this problem, because the problem is not ours--we've just been cast in a role in someone else's drama. We're not writing the script here. All we can do is be the best we know how to be and take care of ourselves as well as we can. The journey in this story is going on elsewhere.
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sophonax From: sophonax Date: August 6th, 2004 08:37 am (UTC) (Link)
As a liberal, I think a lot of this debate focuses on the question "Why do they hate us?" and the various things it can mean. There certainly is a large liberal faction that asks the question with the expectation that, having found the answer, we can change whatever it is we're doing wrong and thus not be hated--the emphasis on "we're wrong."

I think this position is flawed, because it assumes that the terrorists can be reasoned with about this particular issue, that there's anything at all we can do that will make them stop wanting to kill innocent Americans. There's an air of, "Well, we've got a disagreement, but we're all reasonable people here, and we can work this out, right?" It sounds pessimistic, but I think we have to work on the assumption that nothing we can do will change the terrorists' minds.

Conservatives tend to agree with me up to this point--the terrorists can't be reasoned with, calm negotiation will not change them; thus the only way to deal with them is by brute force. However, this opinion, coupled with understandable rage at liberal thought that the terrorists' problem with us is no harder to solve than a playground squabble (if we'd only stop being the bully) tends to lead to a more extreme view: that not only are the terrorists not going to be swayed to reason that killing innocent Americans is wrong, but that they have *no moral reasoning capacities whatsoever.* So, any time they hear "Why do they hate us?", they refuse to consider that the answer is relevant.

I still think, however, that it's a valid question, and an important one--not so we can figure out where *we* went wrong, but so that we can understand *their* moral reasoning system, flawed and frightening though it is, so as to be better able to fight them. Fighting enemies who have a completely different morality from yours is hard. It takes work to predict what they're going to do, because they're not bound by the same moral considerations we are, so we can't use parallel reasoning to determine that. It's scary, so it's more convenient to assume that we're dealing with emotionless, coldly calculating animals. But the better we understand that they're not, the better we'll be able to fight them--*not* appease them.

I think a lot of conservatives can't see this difference, though, so they treat anyone who asks the question as essentially saying that America is wrong for not being grateful to the terrorists for showing us the error of our ways by murdering our civilians. Any hint that the terrorists have moral reasoning capacity at all, however flawed, is interpreted as straying from the party line that their reasoning process cannot be understood because they have none, only blind hatred. But there's a world of difference between "They hate us because we are bad, and we should try to stop being bad" and "They hate us for misguided reasons, but there is a process behind those reasons, and we should try to discover what that process is so that we don't underestimate our enemy."
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 6th, 2004 08:48 am (UTC) (Link)
I think a lot of conservatives can't see this difference, though, so they treat anyone who asks the question as essentially saying that America is wrong for not being grateful to the terrorists for showing us the error of our ways by murdering our civilians.

Right. It's very unfortunate for the current situation that the moral crisis in the Arab world was preceded here by ten years of vicious "culture wars," in which the very basis of Western civ has been attacked academically (where a lot of the conservative think tanks spend a lot of time). That's created an almost Pavlovian response--hear "Why...?" and assume it's going to be followed with, "Because we're teh E3IL, and used to have slaves, and are genocidal monsters unmatched in human history." Assume immediate defensive stance. This is where the silly ivory tower tempests in teapots of the 80s and 90s blow in some serious storm waves.
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: August 6th, 2004 08:46 am (UTC) (Link)
In general, I think that those who call themselves "left" or "right" are people of good conscience who disagree with what the solutions "must" be to resolve problems. The right says "we need more jobs" to get people off welfare, and so support business. The left says "we need to provide the support systems so that people can work" so they want to tax us to provide that. Both are not wrong. What is our strenght is that they balance each other.

But I think what's happened is that we've polarized so much that those we don't listen to each other. That the answer is "both/and" and that it's not a zero sum game isn't computing.

To show how wild it's getting, I have a friend who teaches business at graduate degree level and he's talking about boycotting Walmart because their business practices are forcing smaller companies into bankruptcy. If the largest retailer in the world isn't thinking about smaller companies (and their employees who would shop at Walmart), then they're losing sight of the balance.

We can do nothing in the Middle East. It's a morass that cannot be solved by Americans. And as we are their major source of income (oil ain't nothing if nobody's buying and we're buying most of it) you'd think that they would like us to buy more - not a likely prospect when they're bombing us, is it?

As I've gotten older, I'm falling more into the isolationist mentality. However, the world isn't letting us be there: we import and export (our products, our morality, our entertainment, our worldview) too much and have too much influence to be allowed to sleep.

From: 88l71 Date: August 6th, 2004 09:09 am (UTC) (Link)
Well said, Fern.

Ironic that many of the problems in the Middle East can be traced back to European - not American - imperialism. I have a serious problem with extremists on both sides. Whether our foreign policy may have exacerbated the situation or not, even if America WERE totally at fault, it would still NEVER justify acts of terrorism on the part of our enemies. On the other hand, I despise the notion of calling someone "un-American" or whatever merely for holding a liberal viewpoint, or the idea that we need to start sacrificing civil liberties for the sake of security.

I'm no fan of war, despite beign a student of it, but militarily it is always better to seize and maintain the initiative rather than remain passively defensive, and it's better to move the front line to somewhere like Afghanistan or Iraq rather than closer to home, or another solution, as you said, is to adopt an "agressive defense." If nothing else, I hope our intelligence-gathering apparatus, as well as the able to coordinate intelligence sharing with our allies, will become a priority.
angua9 From: angua9 Date: August 6th, 2004 10:52 am (UTC) (Link)
You have an excellent point about our preordained role as the devil oppressor for any country needing a scapegoat or a shared enemy. We can't avoid that, and haven't been able to for the last fifty years.

Speaking as a liberal, I don't concern myself with worrying about why "they" hate us -- I'm fine with being hated. But I'm not fine with the queasy guilty feeling I get when I'm reluctantly forced to agree with "them." I hold my country to very high moral standards, and I want us to lead the world with our principles just as much as -- or more than -- we lead it economically and militarily.

I do concern myself, also, when what I think of as "we" hate us -- when our natural allies are needlessly turned against us by a lack of tact, diplomacy, and cooperation. Things like our petty refusal to pay more than $3 a year to lease our embassy in Moscow drive me wild. That's just throwing our weight around and being obnoxious.

The way I see it, we have more stake than any other country in keeping the world a peaceful place regulated by international law and agreements. We have businesses and citizens all over the world. We trade all over the world. We will bear the enormous cost of military operations if the peace is broken. We will bear the cost of rebuilding and humanitarian aid whenever things go wrong.

That's why it seems crazy to me when we reject and undermine the only organization (created by us, to our specifications) with any ability or mandate to solve international problems -- the U.N. That's why it seems insane to me to show our allies that we no longer consider ourselves bound by international treaties and agreements -- who will sign treaties with us, in that case? It seems to me that we're destroying long-term goals for short-term ones. In some cases, very short-term ones.

We are very strong militarily, but we can't conquer and rule the entire world by force. We need other countries.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 6th, 2004 11:18 am (UTC) (Link)
Well, I doubt we'd reject the UN if it made a modicum of sense, but it hasn't for years. However it started, these days, it's mainly a place for people to spout anti-American and anti-Israeli viewpoints (look at the number of sanctions against Israel as opposed to those against her neighbors, who've committed far worse crimes). It lost its right to good will years before we actually stopped treating it with good will (I remember carrying UNICEF boxes around in grade school, and it was pretty far gone by the 70s).

However, I agree that we need some kind of tougher international agency to keep a hand on things like the Rwandan genocide or the Bosnian genocide (oops, the UN was pretty toothless in both cases). But member states can't have any interest in perpetuating these things--no state should be a participating member without agreeing to basic principles of democratic government (Bill of Rights sorts of things). I think the UN is more or less defunct, but the various trade blocks are in a good position to replace it--NAFTA is a good coalition, and can easily be expanded outward to join with the EU (the North Atlantic Free Trade Association rather than North American). It's a more natural way to come up with a cultural entity anyway, and cultural entities create governments more stably than governments create cultural entitites.
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: August 6th, 2004 12:21 pm (UTC) (Link)

The UN continues to allow genocide in areas where it has control

Read what's going on in Kosovo - the Serbians are being slaughtered, their churches bombed, their society is in ruins; and the UN forces are there, doing nothing.

I hate to think that we must regress to a world without an international agency that will work for peace, but we may be already there. The UN and the EU have asked North Korea and middle eastern nations not to develop nuclear weapons, but the requests are ignored. If nations are not willing to heed the international agencies, where do we go from here?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 6th, 2004 12:46 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: The UN continues to allow genocide in areas where it has control

The same thing was true in Iraq--Hussein had been flouting U.N. decrees for years, but the U.N. didn't do a thing about it.

I think part of the problem on all sides is that the U.S. has been playing global cop for too long, and we need to get some rookies on the beat. (Or recall some of the old fellas.) Right now, we feel beleaguered, and other countries feel either resentful about the fact that we're walking around the neighborhood with a billy club when there's nothing overtly going on or angry that we didn't answer a call in time because we weren't in the neighborhood when something happened. Being a cop is a thankless job, and the UN was never able to do it adequately.

I think one of the biggest practical problems with the UN was its top-down nature. The organization was created, then spread out and tried to spread a message by getting everyone involved. That really doesn't work for governments.

What we did here when we decided to unite thirteen culturally distinct colonies was to insist on a certain level of agreement--federalism. The states retain sovereignty, but are expected to operate within certain parameters. It's something that sort of happened naturally, and there are signs of something of the sort happening internationally. The multitude of trading blocks is a good sign (despite north-border quips about "Canadian resources and American money to create Mexican jobs"), but even more striking, to my mind, is the almost unconscious habit we've gotten into of thinking in cultural blocks that aren't necessarily connected by geography. One of these--the Anglosphere--actually has an immediately recognizable name, even if it's not already known. People know when you say it that you're talking about the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Probably also former English colony Israel as well, and I have a feeling it's not going to be long before India is just assumed to be part of the famiy. Ireland, I don't know enough about to say, though my suspicion is that the Troubles would be less significant when compared to a conflict between the Anglosphere and al Qaeda. With the UK and Ireland in the EU, there's a hinge connecting those two cultural blocks (though the EU strikes me as a more fragile union). And the Pacific trading blocks bring in Japan and most likely the Philippines.

But all of that builds slowly. Right now, the US, Israel, and the UK can work together on pretty short notice, and as time goes on, the list will grow. But I think that it would be hard to put together an official governing document until after people have been working together and recognize having a common interest and a common history. At that point, creating a shared governing body would be little more than a formality.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 6th, 2004 12:55 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: The UN continues to allow genocide in areas where it has control

(PS: And how could I forget? Latin America is also a recognized cultural block, "hinged" to NAFTA through Mexico.)

I think that we're at a totally nebulous point in history--a spot sort of like the fall of Rome, where future historians will hem and haw a lot and try to figure out how we lived through it. But when we come out the other side, the shape of the world will seem like the only sensible thing.

That said, I think there are going to be not only major political problems, but actual hot wars, including "civil wars" within the cultural entities that are neither fully united nor fully separate. Why would we be the first people in history to have a good thing come easily? I worry particularly about clashes between the Anglosphere and the EU proper, or between the NAFTA part of the Anglosphere and Latin America. I don't think it's going to be pretty for awhile... but I think what we'll win through to will ultimately be something very, very good.
erised1810 From: erised1810 Date: August 6th, 2004 12:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
I can jsut say m ybwain hurts!! is this because I'm european or simply because it's super hot in here adn It'd make m ybria nto mushy to have aclue what an yessayist is talkign about.
I cna't beleive it anyway, looking through m yenormosu file of anythig ninterestign saved from lj on thise 0i'l lread later" phases there' a whole hack of alot from you that I constantly stumbledo n duringthe night when I was thinkign "Ooh. itneresting. nah..not now. thisis better for a clear mind after agood sleep."
Just so you know i' mnot ignoringanything just piling upa whoel lto of stuff.
ladylisse From: ladylisse Date: August 6th, 2004 01:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
The need to blame only America disturbs me -- and hell, I'm a liberal. :/ I think you've hit on a good point, that placing the blame on the self somehow nullifies the threat, or perhaps just makes it more controllable. If we change, the reasoning goes, then the danger will go away.

Honestly? I think what scares many people on the left is that while I don't think any of us could ever understand what drives people to become terrorists, we can kind of see what might have bred such vicious extremism. Do I believe that people like bin Laden are destined for Hell? Yes, absolutely. But I would be blind not to see the disparity between my nice, comfy First World country and the parts of the world that breed people like bin Laden. Hence the famous liberal guilt. We feel that if we had done something to change policies sooner, maybe people wouldn't have been quite so willing to support that bastard.

Not that I'm absolving those people, because there's a huge, unused middle ground between passively letting yourself be exploited and blowing people up.

My big issue with both sides is that they're taking things to extremes. As you pointed out, it's perfectly American to question one's own government, and unless you happen to be Hannity or Savage, critique and criticism are hardly the same as treason. You can't blame only America, but you can't blame only the terrorists -- not when truly horrible acts can be blamed on both sides. And, unfortunately, many innocent people suffer because of that.
lazypadawan From: lazypadawan Date: August 6th, 2004 06:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
This conservachick thinks there's nothing wrong with self-examination in terms of what could have been done differently, if possible, to prevent future attacks. Also you have to try and understand your enemies' motives. How else will you be able figure out what they're going to do next? I view it the same way as a profiler figuring out who the serial killer might be and where he might strike next.

What gets my goat is when understanding the terrorist to some becomes synonymous with empathy for the terrorist or at least thinking he has a point. It's the old "let's figure out the root causes of crime as a way to stop crime" way of thinking mixed in with a tendency to automatically identify with the perceived underdog in any conflict. Americans love an underdog irregardless of ideology, but there are those who view the world as haves versus have nots/white vs. brown and when they see "rich" capitalist America attacked by "brown" guys from dusty distant lands, guess who they're going to sympathize with?

One of the biggest misperceptions about terrorism is that it's just a the poor, oppressed guy's way of getting our attention. Of the 19 terrorists invovled in the Sept. 11 attacks, none were poor. All were by Middle Eastern standards middle-class and I think most were college-educated. Carlos the Jackal, the Osama bin Laden of the 1970s, grew up in a rich albeit Marxist family. The Weathermen Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army were entirely made up of upper middle-class college kids who went back to that lifestyle, even while on the run from the Feds. Osama bin Laden had money his entire life.

The story definitely started before there ever was a United States and I think the war ended up on our doorstep because of what this country represents in the milieu of Western culture. That and our support for Israel, but I agree with that support.
hughroe From: hughroe Date: August 7th, 2004 12:38 am (UTC) (Link)
I had a real long entry ready to post, then I decided that most folks wouldn't be interested in the mutterings of a broken down old sailor.
likeafox From: likeafox Date: August 7th, 2004 07:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
In the issue of who is to blame for things like 9/11, I think that, for many people, the issue has become far too black and white. There are people to the extreme on both sides, from the people who believe "we practically attacked ourselves through our greed and arrogance" to the "America can do no wrong" stance.

The latter verges on self-hatred. In fact, of the people I've met who share this view, many also hold America in the lowest regard, often stating that "____ is why I hate Americans so much" and other sentiments like that.

The problem is that many people are far to willing to shove more people into this group than are actually there. I personally think we could have done a better job of not antagonizing other countries, including those the terrorists come from. Still, I do love America and what it stands for. I just understand that, like everything in this world, it isn't perfect. My opinions don't make me un-American, they make me a concienscious citizen.

As for the idea that there was nothing we could have done to stop the anti-American feelings over seas, I want to give this little story that pretty much sums up my feelings:

I (a flaming liberal :P) was cooking dinner for my (very conservative) cousin a while back. While sautéing up some chicken in a nonstick skillet, I realized I was using a metal spoon to stir it. I thought that this was probably a bad thing to do, as I'm fairly sure metal can scrape off the nonstick material that coats the pan and leave it in your food. I'm also fairly sure that same stuff has been known to increase risk of some types of cancer. I commented about this as I switched to a plastic spatula that wouldn't scrape the pan. My cousin just laughed at me and said there were so many things out there that could cause cancer, using a metal spoon in a non-stick pan was the least of my worries.

Now, I know that there are a lot of causes of cancer. Heck, I could be run over by a truck crossing the street tomorrow and not even bother with the cancer at all, but I still think I'll switch to the plastic spatula.

My feelings about trying to pacify the terrorists are along the same lines. We might do everything we can to make them like us and they'll still do horrible things like 9/11. Still, I don't think that should make us give up all hopes of gaining their respect, etc. Instead of acting with much of the arrogance I see in our government now, maybe we should just switch stirring with plastic. We might get run over tomorrow, but maybe we won't and it might just help in the long run.

Oh, dear... I seem to have taken over your comments section. My apologies! :D
likeafox From: likeafox Date: August 7th, 2004 08:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
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<<The latter verges on self-hatred.>>

And, of course, by latter I meant former. Didn't you know this was backwards day? *oy*
From: (Anonymous) Date: August 8th, 2004 08:39 pm (UTC) (Link)

From an outside perspective...

As a New Zealander (where the politician most bashed in our papers is not one of ours, but Bush) I do agree that the tendency to blame America for everything has gone too far. While America's foreign policy _contributed_ to 9/11, that does not make America _responsible_ for it. Al Qaeda are responsible for it. The analogy of not walking down dark alleyways is a good one. What America could maybe do is...well, I don't know. The easy thing to say is "stop making Muslims scared" but can they realistically do that? Probably not. As you say, the causes are really beyond control (but who wants to believe that?) In NZ we can just cheerfully blame the rest of the world for everything, because we know we can't do anything.

The left and right wings in American politics both seem very amusing to us. John Kerry, the "liberal" candidate, would be a signed-up member of our right wing. Our current, liberal, government includes a female prime minister, an openly gay member of Cabinet, a Pakistani Muslim, a Pacific Islander, seven Maori (our indigenous people) and a Maori transsexual ex-prostitute (formerly mayor of a conservative rural backwater, and probably one of our most respected MPs.) In uneasy alliance with the Christian Right and the Greens. Go figure.

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