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Revealed preference

datePosted on 21:27, March 14th, 2011 by Lew

Former National leader Don Brash addressed the ACT party conference at the weekend, which was half “catching Australia” boilerplate and half a warming-over of the infamous “nationhood” speech given at Orewa in January 2004 (for a thorough rebuttal of which see Jon Johansson, Orewa and the Rhetoric of Illusion). During his address at the weekend (although no mention is made of this in the text of the speech on his website, linked above), Brash correctly stated that the Treaty of Waitangi was ahead of its time, because the contemporary Australian approach, by contrast, was to “shoot the natives”.

At this point, a heckler in the audience piped up: “let’s bring it in“. (Audio).

Moments like these, when people are put in the position of genuinely involuntary response to some stimulus or other, are pretty rare in a political environment dominated by strict stage-management, spin and counter-spin. Their type and quality can tell you a whole lot about a political movement, especially when the response is collective, spontaneous, and embedded within a heightened or aroused political context, such as in the middle of a keynote speech.

What happened next was that the delegates in attendance at the ACT party laughed. At the suggestion that New Zealand implement a system of genocide against its indigenous people which, even back in 1840, was a source of shame for Australia, those in attendance at the annual conference of a New Zealand government party whose ranks include two ministers of the crown laughed. It is hard to be sure from the audio, but it sounds like Don Brash also laughed — someone on-mike did, and in such circumstances only the speaker is miked. Quickly, the laughs turned to disapproving murmurs, and Brash continued speaking as if nothing had happened. But by then the moment was over — the ACT delegates’ true colours had been revealed.

Not all of them, to be sure. No doubt there were those who were agape at the suggestion. Stony, stunned silence from the delegation at large would certainly have been an appropriate response and one which I don’t think would have been too hard to muster. Eric Crampton has suggested (though I suspect he’s by no means committed to this line of argument) that nervous laughter is a fair response to shock; admitting also that nobody seems to be claiming that the laughter was nervous. Eric also placed one in five odds on the heckler being a ringer whose plan was to elicit just this sort of response, in order to discredit the ACT party. Fair enough, I suppose. But it’s not the heckle itself which was disturbing — every party contains its fringe lunatics, those who fly off the handle and say embarrassing things. What’s disturbing is the response, the spontaneous, reflexive, collective reaction to the suggestion of genocide.

Just as Labour are the party of humourless, tuneless harridans after their “John the Gambler” song at the 2008 annual conference, and the Greens are the party of morris dancing hippies because of their 2001 annual conference, the fundamental take-away here is that ACT is the party who laughs at genocide jokes. The ACT delegates own that moment of laughter, just as much as they own the disapproval which followed it. It’s not even out of character for a party which has for some years now campaigned on the basis of arguments that indigenous people represent barriers to the white man’s progress, and was at the time of the interjection revelling in a sustained argument to that very effect: get rid of the bloody natives, and things’ll be a lot easier around here, and then we might catch up with Australia, who solved their bloody native problem good and proper. It speaks to the core beliefs of those in attendance, and what’s more, it largely reiterates what most peoples’ impressions of the ACT party are, based on their rhetoric, their policy positions, and their steadfast opposition to every bit of legislation giving the slightest acknowledgement to Tino Rangatiratanga.

Whether a ringer or an organic outgrowth from the party delegation, whether speaking his own truth to power or having just had a few too many free glasses of capitalist sauvignon, the people of New Zealand are indebted to this anonymous heckler. He has granted the nation a unique insight into the ACT party, and rare basis upon which to judge its underlying character. That’s good for democracy.


23 Responses to “Revealed preference”

  1. Eric Crampton on March 14th, 2011 at 22:07

    I wasn’t there. But I know I’ve laughed in surprise when someone’s said something shocking with which I’ve disagreed. I’ve also sometimes laughed rather hard at someone uttering an absurdity … too often at Faculty meetings (different sorts of absurdities there.) No clue what proportion of the audience there fell into each category.

    I had hoped ACT would pull out something like marijuana legalization as a Hail Mary play. Alas.

  2. Russell Brown on March 14th, 2011 at 22:15

    Before the 1999 election, I went to a public meeting In Ponsonby Road where Michael Cullen spoke..

    At one point, an older Pacific Island man who I gather had been part of the Auckland Central Labour branch for years, stood to ask Cullen a question.

    “Speak English!” interjected one of a group of Act Party stirrers who’d turned up.

    It was a nasty moment. I was really, really angry, to the point where I would have been happy to commit a physical assault. Cullen handled the group adroitly afterwards, but I think that was the occasion when I realised this was a weird little party. Well, that and when I interviewed Muriel Newman and realised she was quite crazy.

  3. Idiot/savant on March 14th, 2011 at 23:10

    And if ACT wants to try and disown that moment, all they have to do is get one of their MPs to denounce it. They are conspicuous by their silence. OTOH, is it too much to expect a journalist to ask them what they thought of it?

  4. Pascal's bookie on March 15th, 2011 at 06:55

    …is it too much to expect a journalist to ask them what they thought of it?

    Going by how Stuff & Granny reported it (groans vs gasps), yep.

    I was pretty shocked, on hearing the audio, at how different it sounded to the way it had been reported.

    I’m not one to whinge about media bias, (I’m really not) and I’m not allegeing it here, but it’s strange that both the main press outlets not only failed to note the laughter, but stated as fact that the reaction to the comment was other than what my own lying ears led me to believe.

  5. NiuZila on March 15th, 2011 at 10:09

    I was pretty shocked, on hearing the audio, at how different it sounded to the way it had been reported.

    Totally agree with PB. It sounded like more laughing than groaning, and even then it sounded like only one or two people who groaned.

  6. bradluen on March 15th, 2011 at 11:13

    As with most revealed preference-type arguments, the problem with the one here is that actions are heavily context-dependent. We’ve learned that some ACT party delegates laughed at a call to genocide in a particular context. We can’t conclude that they would laugh at a call to genocide in all contexts (e.g. on a marae sitting next to Buck Shelford), or even in most contexts unless we’re willing to bring in other information–and in that case it’s the other information doing the heavy lifting; the marginal informativeness of this action is negligible. (The same holds, only more so, if you want to conclude that they support genocide in some context.)

    If the point is that a bunch of people in ACT are racist, then (i) duh, (ii) it’s more interesting to note exactly how their policies discriminate against Maori, (iii) the number of Epsom voters who’ll refuse to vote ACT because of the laughter is about five. As it is, there’s as much revealed truth in this story as there is in the current one about the NPR guy saying mean things about the Tea Party.

  7. Lew on March 15th, 2011 at 11:37

    Brad, my argument is absolutely not that ACT, its delegates or its voters support genocide — in any context. I entirely accept that the heckle was intended as a joke and responded to as such.

    My argument is that it takes a special sort of insensitivity to laugh at a joke like that, in a context where the consensus position is that if you just get rid of the natives, catching Australia would be easy.

    What I mean to say of ACT and those in attendance is that their claim to classical liberalism — with its emphasis on noncompulsion, fundamental equality of people, mutualism and peaceful settlement of disputes — has been hollowed out beyond the point of redemption. The party has been taken over by the worst sort of crassly insensitive, disdainful, privileged, self-centred authoritarian bigots. As you say: “duh”.

    But re Schiller: he lost his job. Someone apparently thought it revealed plenty.


  8. TBD on March 15th, 2011 at 11:43

    I was disturbed going to 2005 election meetings/debates and watching NACT supporters/staffers menacingly yell phrases like “hip-hop tour” just like the N word down (American) South in the 60s.
    Less symbolically, bigotry can be seen in the coalition’s breathtaking failure to do anything significant about this brutal recession. The coalition are the elite, they’re not the sort of people who end up out of work and struggling financially, so they just don’t care.

  9. Maxine Redgrave on March 15th, 2011 at 11:58

    You are way off mark suggesting Brash laughed. Get your ears checked.

  10. Lew on March 15th, 2011 at 12:05

    Maxine, I’m just going off what it sounds like. Someone on-mike laughed. Brash was miked by Radio NZ.

    It’s possible that someone other than Brash was miked. But I’m disinclined to trust what the ACT loyalists in attendance say, because I haven’t yet met a one who’s done anything other than deny that there was laughter — laughter which is clearly audible on the Radio NZ audio. (At least one — an electorate candidate, no less — has continued to argue this “groans, not laughter” line even since the audio has been released.)

    Anyway, listeners can make of the audio what they will.


  11. Tiger Mountain on March 15th, 2011 at 12:08

    While not exactly equivalent to spotting a friend or colleague in repose, their usually controlled thoughts or body language briefly abandoned, the ACT tape has a similar revelatory power.

    Based on listening to the recording I don’t buy the involuntary laugh angle. As a veteran attendee of countless political meetings and occasions you can pick the difference between embarrassed reflexive laughter and the real deal. The heckler flipped a switch for many present, with a rapid fire sarcastic remark evoking recognition of an underlying shared attitude to Maori.

    Stony silence with significant numbers of ‘what the’ looks in the direction of the heckler would have been a better response. Or some comment from Dr Brash? hah. Not likely, because these people supported the heckler in spirit at least.

    As others have said, some media digging for a response would be helpful. No effort was spared remember to out the recorder of the Bill English cocktail party gaffe pre the 2008 election.

  12. scrubone on March 15th, 2011 at 12:46

    My argument is that it takes a special sort of insensitivity to laugh at a joke like that,

    I’d have thought the opposite – it’s funny because it’s a suggestion that is completely away from the truth.

    If Brash had been talking about students streaking around the building back in the 1990s, and someone jumped up and said “actually, that’s tonight’s activities” you’d get the same laughter for the same reason. It’s funny because it’s so ridiculous.

    Of course, it’s utterly politically incorrect in an environment where people are willing to take offence at the smallest thing, but I don’t imagine that sort of hair trigger offence exists much in an ACT party conference.

  13. Lew on March 15th, 2011 at 14:49

    Scrubone, the point is that a bit of harmless public nudity is of a different quality to genocide.

    A bit shocked that this needs explained, but here goes: There are a few things which polite society at large recognises as being beyond a joke. These include slavery, paedophilia, genocide. If you think these things are (or can be) joking matters, then it’s on you to explain why, since you’re the one contravening the established social norms. Of course, in a liberal society you’re entitled to try; but by the same token we’re entitled to judge you on the basis of that defence.

    Scenario: At a convention of some reasonably mainstream US group with noted racial supremacist views — say, the Tea Party wing of the GOP — a speaker remarking on aspects of crime and punishment in the 19th Century makes passing, neutral reference to extrajudicial vigilante justice in the Antebellum South. Some wag in the audience says “kept crime down, though!” People laugh.

    What do you reckon happens next? Riots? Shamefaced resignation? Loud denunciation, hasty retraction and apology?

    If you want to argue that a robust response in such circumstances was ‘PC gone mad’ — then fill your boots. I reckon ACT has gotten off extremely lightly in these circumstances.


  14. scrubone on March 15th, 2011 at 16:28

    I stand by my comment – it’s funny because it’s so utterly ridiculous.

    Granted, other people with different backgrounds may not find it so funny, even offensive. But it was clearly a joke and vastly removed from you ridiculous “scenario”. ACT want the opposite to treating people as slaves or shooting practice, the advocate one law for all.

  15. scrubone on March 15th, 2011 at 16:40

    Sorry, I should clarify.

    I’m not saying that the joke was in good taste, nor that it should have been made. All I’m saying is that people laughed at it because it was ridiculous, not because they thought it was a good idea.

    Clearly someone forgot that the ACT conference was in the public view and statements could be interpreted outside their actual context. It’s not “PC gone mad” for people to be expected to act respectfully towards others, and in the open context those comments were clearly offensive to people.

  16. Pablo on March 15th, 2011 at 16:56

    John Key smirks when Paul Henry makes a bigoted remark. The ACT conference laughs at a racist remark from one of its delegates. What ever happened to the use of uncomfortable silence as a passive way of signaling disapproval?

  17. wtl on March 15th, 2011 at 17:01

    scrubone: The point is not that many people would laugh at such a ‘joke’. Ergo, the fact that the attendees did laugh tells us something about them.

  18. scrubone on March 15th, 2011 at 17:04

    scrubone: The point is not that many people would laugh at such a ‘joke’. Ergo, the fact that the attendees did laugh tells us something about them.

    I agree – that they’re not
    a) racist
    b) worried about being accused of racism

  19. wtl on March 15th, 2011 at 17:09

    scrubone: Good for you. Others will draw their own conclusions regarding (a).

  20. scrubone on March 15th, 2011 at 17:29

    scrubone: Good for you. Others will draw their own conclusions regarding (a).

    Which is the problem with (b)…

  21. ak on March 15th, 2011 at 21:59

    Anyone who is the teensiest bit surprised to discover that the the average ACT supporter is an arrogant, bullying racist, can never have met one. Lucky bastard.
    I’m pleasantly surprised the laughter was so restrained – and wasn’t the chilling, gutteral roar of support witnessed at “shed meetings” in the 90s. Those groans are actually a sign of progress – at this rate they’ll be almost human in a decade or two.

  22. marty mars on March 16th, 2011 at 12:55

    The heinous comment, the laughter from the conference and the absolute void of politicans denouncing the statement are stains on this country.

    Shouldn’t a politician, any politician, say publicly that that comment is offensive. I may have missed them, if they have been made – but it seems like silence to me.

    Sure it’s too stupid to bother commenting on in some respects – but not to those who are the targets.

  23. Ruth on March 18th, 2011 at 15:28

    A few years ago, when my kids were at Primary School, the Principal alway used to say his most important advice for life was to choose your friends wisely. At End of Year assembly he would always say “You are judged by the company you keep”.

    I used to support Libertarianz – Not PC and so forth, but no longer do because they support Brash ( a failure in business and in his personal life), worship everything Israel does, and even worse adore the bigoted Lindsay Perigo.

    The ACT episode just reinforces how correct that school Principal was.

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