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Unearthing the mole.

datePosted on 14:12, September 7th, 2018 by Pablo

The issue of who wrote the anonymous “Resistance” op ed in the NY Times (about Oval Office insiders working to thwart and buffer Executive policy-making from Trump’s impulses and excesses) has dominated the media cycle in the US since its publication. Coming on the heels of the publication of excerpts from Bob Woodward’s book Fear, which chronicles the dysfunction of the Trump White House, the search is on for the “senior official” mole. The text has been carefully parsed in order to detect grammatical patterns that could identify the author. Attention has focused on the word “lodestar” in the essay, a word that has been used repeatedly by Vice President Mike Pence in public speeches but which has not been used by other senior Trump administration officials. Focus is also on the phrase “anti-trade,” which suggests to some that someone involved in economic policy making is the author. Others have pointed to phrases in the text said to be used by other senior officials, either as proof that they wrote it or as a cover and deflection from their real identity.

Since my opinion is about as good as anyone else’s when it comes to speculating about the author, and since I have not seen this particular angle covered as of yet, let me offer the following possibility:

The op ed is a joint effort by mainstream Republican insiders now serving in the White House. It was released with at least the tacit knowledge of the Republican congressional leaders, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and it has been done as a way of terminally undermining Trump in the run up to the November 2018 mid term elections. The reason is that the authors and GOP leadership may well believe that they are headed to a landslide loss in November if they continue to ride Trump’s coattails. For them, it is not so much the possibility of Trump being impeached that is a primary concern (if the Democrats regain a majority in the House he certainly will be impeached), but of the disruption to their legislative agenda if they lose control of Congress. Should they lose the House and even more so if they lose the Senate as well, the GOP will be dead in the water when it comes to advancing its policy agenda. And although the economy is strong, they know that Trump’s disapproval ratings are at record levels and his divisiveness is corrosive to the national well-being, something that has prompted a rise in youth and ethnic minority political involvement and a shift to the Left in Democratic congressional primaries at the same time that cleavages between mainstream and populist Republicans in their primaries grow larger. None of this augers well for Republican electoral chances on November 6.

By the tone and language of the op ed, the authors are mainstream “traditional” Republicans, not Tea Party adherents, economic nationalists like Steve Bannon or alt-Right freaks like Stephen Miller. They clearly exhibit insider knowledge of beltway politics and congressional dynamics.  The language used in the essay suggests that the two retired generals that are senior administration officials–Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis–are not centrally involved even if phrases attributed to them appeared in the text (although they may have been aware of the drafting process).

Pence could be  involved as an author. As Vice President he stands to gain much if Trump resigns, and as a former congressman before becoming Indiana Governor, he has close ties to the GOP Congressional caucuses. But Jeff Sessions could also be involved in the drafting of the op ed. A former Senator and current Attorney General who has been the subject of relentless attacks by Trump for recusing himself from the Mueller investigation into Russian involvement with the Trump presidential campaign, Sessions shares the views outlined in the Times piece. He  has ties to Congress that go back decades and he has a motive for revenge. Kelly Ann Conway is another likely conspirator. Married to a long-standing GOP operative who despises Trump and herself a long-time Republican strategist, she has the worldview presented in the op ed and the connections to the “steady state” that is said to be running things in the pursuit of stability and consistency under the nose of the irrational fool in charge.

So my take is this. Regardless of who exactly are involved, no one individual in the White House would have the courage to write the Resistance essay alone. But a group of mainstream Republican senior officials stuck with an incompetent, ignorant, narcissistic sociopath as leader of their own party as well as president, one who could well be leading them to a historic defeat that could in turn irretrievably fracture the Party, might well have decided to put their heads together and come up with a plan to undermine Trump in order to force his ouster via resignation. They will not come forth and give their names because to do so would allow Trump to regain some initiative by firing them.  Remaining anonymous and in the shadows so close to the Oval Office has and will send Trump into a witch hunting frenzy that, given his obsessive personality, will dominate every aspect of his routine. And in the measure that he obsesses about leakers and scurries to rallies in order to seek comfort and solace far from the isolation he feels in Washington, the more nothing else will get done when it comes to Executive policy-making. Along with the ongoing vendettas, feuds, insults and scandals that are the daily circus that is Trump’s “crazyland” (as General Kelly purportedly referred to it), that makes it easier for Republican candidates to abandon him in all but the most die hard pro-Trump districts. Since those districts alone cannot keep a GOP House majority, it is in contestable districts where the GOP choice to ride his coattails or jump ship is starkest. The Resistance op ed is a signal to them as to which way to go.

So, as others have already pointed out, there is a slow moving coup at play here. It is not coming from the armed forces and/or Democratic Party. It is coming from within the Republican Party in an effort to save itself from the cancer that is Trump. The questions are whether the Resistance coup will succeed and whether it will be enough to save the Republicans from what they have become.

Bonus media link: Mitch Harris and I talk about the Resistance essay and more during our latest radio conversation.

So a National MP and assorted right-wingers believe that Chelsea Manning should not be allowed to speak in NZ because she is a [insert unpleasant adjectives and nouns here]. Many of those who vociferously demanded that a Canadian white supremacist tag team be allowed to use publicly funded facilities to spew their venom in NZ have gone silent about Manning. To their credit, some of that motley “free speech coalition” think she should be allowed in, so at least they have the virtue of being consistent.

What is interesting is that those who want Manning banned from entering NZ appear to be using a false equivalence. They believe that people who, at little personal cost, encourage racial divisions and promote xenophobia are comparable to people who, at great personal cost, divulge abuses of power and authority in and out of war zones. In their minds both types of speech are basically the same: offensive to some, welcome by others. If racists are to be silenced, then so should dissidents be.

That is simply nonsense. There is no equivalence of any sort between racist xenophobes and people of conscience.

I am not entirely comfortable with what Manning did in releasing classified materials to Wikileaks. I am uncomfortable because Wikileaks has moved from being an objective whistleblowing outfit to a tool of authoritarian forces seeking to undermine Western democracies, and because she had outlets within and outside her military chain of command that she could have gone to in order to raise alarms about improper conduct that she was familiar with (which is why she could not avail herself of the whistleblower protections available to civilians). In any event she was tried, convicted and sentenced for unauthorised disclosure of classified material to unauthorised outlets and had that sentence commuted by President Obama. She is now a free US citizen with no restrictions on her rights to vote, work, travel or speak. In fact, she even ran in the Democratic primary for a Maryland Senate seat (although she lost in a landslide to establishment politicians).

The Canadian racists have suffered no indignities other than cancellation of speaking events and ridicule. Sponsored by Rightist promoters with little legitimate institutional backing, they nevertheless whinge about their treatment and ask that suckers donate money to them in order to cover their expenses. Manning accepts what has happened to her and uses her experience to talk publicly about abuses of authority and the dangers of confronting powerful institutions. Her talks are sponsored by civic organisations and academic institutions.

It is interesting that the National MP who wants Manning banned from NZ, Michael Woodhouse, not only maintained that the racists should have been given a NZ forum, but also appears to have more than Manning on his mind. After all, the Opposition Leader is currently mired in a slow burning fiasco over his travel expenses that threatens to undermine his position. It is widely believed that the leaks about his expenses came from within the National caucus and rumours of plotting and scheming against him are rife. Not surprisingly, Simon Bridges is desperately trying to find a way to put a lid on the affair and move on to anything else. Now Woodhouse drops the call for banning Manning into the mix. Bridges has to respond by either supporting or repudiating his Immigration spokesperson’s demand, a complication that he does not need and a no-win proposition whichever way he chooses to go.

Bridges and Woodhouse may believe that the proposal to ban Manning is worth floating because it is a good diversion that will allow Bridges to reassert control over his caucus while cementing support from National’s conservative base. But, because he defended their right to speak in NZ, it also gives the impression that Bridges would prefer to have foreign racists rather than whistleblowers address audiences in this country. Or perhaps Woodhouse was being mischievous rather than helpful in raising the issue, something that poses more questions about Bridge’s hold on the National Leadership. Whatever the motivations at play, Bridges stands to lose more than he gains from Woodhouse’s gambit.

In the end this is just another beat-up. Unlike the Canadian racists, Manning poses no threat to NZ’s social harmony. She is not coming to test the boundaries of free speech. The idea that her US convictions disqualify her apriori is nonsense given her public role and the fact that what she was convicted for did, in fact, serve the public interest even if it discomfited the authorities that she was exposing (and who took their judicial revenge upon her).  So if foreign racists without prior convictions (that I know of) can come to NZ to preach division (and I did support their right to speak so long as no taxpayer money was used to host them and they provided their own security), then it seems to me that it is only fair that a whistleblower convicted for doing so can come to speak about the dangers of unbridled and unchecked authority under the same rules.

All she needs is a visa and a private venue, something that the racists ultimately were not able to secure.

Then again, perhaps the false equivalence is just a ploy and the beat-up is not just on Manning.

Peddling drivel.

datePosted on 12:05, February 10th, 2018 by Pablo

As an admirer of the eloquent written word and nuanced argument, occasional op-ed writer and someone who grew up reading the editorial pages of major newspapers in several countries, I have long seen the editorial pages of newspapers as places where public intellectuals debated in some depth the major issues of the day. Those who appeared on them came from many walks of life and fields of endeavour, with the common denominator being that they were thoughtful exponents of their point of view and grounded in the analytic, philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of the subjects that they discussed. Unfortunately, at least in NZ, that is no longer the case (if it ever was).

Over the last decade or so there has been a pernicious two-track trend in NZ media that has not only resulted in the dumbing down of the “news” and public discourse in general, but the substitution of informed and considered debate by shallow opinionating by celebrities and charlatans.

The first trend is the move toward consolidation of media “empires” (in NZ, mostly Australian owned), in which previously autonomous entities in television, radio and print are amalgamated into one parent entity with several platforms. As with all media enterprises, the parent entity seeks profit mainly through advertising (as opposed to subscriptions), including digital advertising promoted by so-called “click bait” and sponsored “news ” (i.e. stories paid by entities seeking brand publicity). In NZ the two big players are Mediaworks and NZME. The former controls TV3, Radiolive and various pop culture radio stations. NZME controls Newstalk ZB, the NZ Herald and various pop culture outlets. It has connections to TV One (at least when it comes to newsreaders), while the Mediaworks TV News platforms appears to episodically share personnel with Prime News. Fairfax Media is also in the mix, holding a portfolio of print and digital vehicles.

Because the NZ media market is small and saturated, the “race to the bottom” logic for getting readers/viewers/listeners in a shrinking print advertising market is akin to the “bums in seats” mentality that pushes academic administrators to demand easing up of marking standards in university courses. Although in the latter instance this creates a syndrome where unqualified people are admitted, passed and receive underserved (and hence meaningless) degrees, in the media realm this means that scandal, gossip, “human interest” and other types of salacious, morbid, tragic and otherwise crude and vulgar material (think of terrorism porn and other prurient non-news) have come to dominate the so-called news cycle. This is accelerated by the presence elf social media and 24 hours global news networks, which makes the push for original content that attracts audiences and therefore advertising revenues increasingly focused on sensational headline grabbing rather than in-depth consideration of complex themes. Among other things, this has led to headlines that trivialise serious matters in favour of witty one-liners, e.g., “kiddie fiddler put in time out.”

In the editorial opinion field what we are increasingly subject to is the often inane and mendacious ruminations of celebrities, “lifestyle’ gurus  or media conglomerate “properties” who are used to cross-pollinate across platforms using their status on one to heighten interest in another. That squeezes out op-ed room for serious people discussing subjects within their fields of expertise. What results is that what should be the most august pages in a newspaper are given over to gossipy nonsense and superficial “analyses” of current events.

Consider what we get these days: two NZME “properties,” a married couple who do back-to-back morning shows on NewstalkZB (and previously worked at TV One), are now filling daily column inches (at least in the digital version) at the Herald with their thoughts on things such as high housing prices  and deporting families (he thinks the former is good because it means that everyone is doing well and the latter is good because to do otherwise is to “send the wrong message”) or relations between school students and displaying breasts in public (she thinks the former are good but the latter bring consequences). Given their ubiquity this “power” couple apparently are renaissance-like in their command of subjects and thus worth the daily attention of the masses, although it is also clear that their views only cover already established news stories and are presented along strictly gender lines–he addresses “serious” issues while she covers topics usually found in women’s rags. The Herald also offers us the received (and sponsored) wisdom of lifestyle bloggers  (“how to have the best sex at 60!”) and buffoons such as the U Auckland business lecturer who poses as a counter-terrorism expert (she of the advice that we search every one’s bags as the enter NZ shopping malls and put concrete bollards in front of mall entrances), gives cutesy pie names to the (often sponsored) by-lines of real scientists (the so-called “Nanogirl,” who now comments on subjects unrelated to her fields of expertise) or allows people with zero practical experience in any given field to pontificate on them as if they did (like the law professor who has transformed himself into a media counter-terrorism and foreign policy “expert”).

Fairfax is less prolific in its use of “properties” to sell product, but instead have opted to fill newspaper space with lifestyle and other “fluff” content at the expense of hard news coverage and informed editorial opinion.

The pattern of giving TV newsreaders, radio talking heads and assorted media “personalities”  column inches on the newspaper op ed pages has been around for a while but now appears to be the dominant form of commentary. Let us be clear: the media conglomerates want us to believe that the likes of Hoskings and Hawkesby are public intellectuals rather than opinionated mynahs–or does anyone still believe that there is an original thought between them? The only other plausible explanation is that the daily belching of these two and other similar personages across media platforms is an elaborate piss-take on the part of media overlords that have utter contempt for the public’s intelligence.

The trend of consolidating and regurgitating extends to the news. Most of the international news stories on NZ newspapers, TV and radio are obtained from overseas sources, particularly media outlets owned by the Australian based investment funds that control Fairfax, NZME and Mediaworks. There are few international correspondents left in the NZ media scene other than “properties” who share views on multimedia platforms such as the single “news” correspondents assigned by NZME to the US, UK and Australia. Some independent NZ-based foreign news correspondents still appear in print, but there too they are the exception to the rule.

The evening TV news and weekend public affairs shows are still run as journalistic enterprises, but the morning and evening public affairs programs are no longer close to being so. “Human interest” (read: tabloid trash) stories predominate over serious subjects. The Mediaworks platforms are particularly egregious, with the morning program looking like it was pulled out of a Miami Vice discard yard and staffed by two long-time newsreaders joined by a misogynistic barking fool, all wearing pancake makeup that borders on clownish in effect. Its rival on state television has grown softer over the years, to the point that in its latest incarnation it has given up on having its female lead come from a journalistic background and has her male counterparts engaging as much in banter as they are discussing the news of the day. The TV3 evening show features a pretty weathergirl and a slow-witted, unfunny comedian as part of their front-line ensemble, with a rotating cast of B-list celebrities, politicians and attention-seekers engaging in yuk yuk fests interspersed with episodic discussion of real news. Its competitor on TV One has been re-jigged but in recent years has been the domain of–you guessed it–that NZME male radio personality and an amicable NZME female counterpart, something that continues with its new lineup where a male rock radio jock/media prankster has joined a well-known TV mother figure to discuss whatever was in the headlines the previous morning. What is noteworthy is that these shows showcase the editorial opinions of the “properties” on display, leaving little room for and no right of rebuttal to those who have actual knowledge of the subjects in question.

These media “properties” are paid by the parent companies no matter what they do. Non-affiliated people who submit op ed pieces to newspapers are regularly told that there is no pay for their publication (or are made to jump through hoops to secure payment).  That means that the opinion pages  are dominated by salaried media personalities or people who will share their opinions for free. This was not always the case, with payments for opinion pieces being a global industry norm. But in the current media environment “brand” exposure is said to suffice as reward for getting published, something that pushes attention-seekers to the fore while sidelining thoughtful minds interested in contributing to public debate but uninterested in doing so for nothing. The same applies to television and radio–if one is not a “property,” it is virtually impossible to convince stations to pay for informed commentary.

To be sure, the occasional “deep thinker” comes along to share their ideas and opinions in print or audio-visually. Some, like good ole Chris Trotter, still pound their keyboards and pontificate on radio and television for a handful of coin. There is even some young talent coming through. Blogs have begun to substitute the corporate media as sources of intelligent conversation. But people of erudition and depth are increasingly the exception to the rule in the mass media, with the  editorial landscape now populated in its majority by “properties” and other (often self-promoting) personality “opinionators” rather than people who truly know what they are talking about. Rather than a sounding board for an eclectic lineup of informed opinion, editorial pages are now increasingly used as megaphones to broadcast predictably well-known ideological positions with little intellectual grounding in the subjects being discussed.

With over-enrolled journalism schools churning out dozens of graduates yearly, that leaves little entry room and few career options for serious reporters. The rush is on to be telegenic and glib, so the trend looks set to continue.

This is not just an indictment of the mass media and those who run and profit from it. It undermines the ability of an educated population to make informed decisions on matters of public import, or at least have informed input into the critical issues of the day.

Perhaps that is exactly what the media and political elites intend.

Goodbye to a good soul.

datePosted on 04:44, December 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

Yasmine Ryan died this past week in Istanbul. She was only 34. She was an intrepid, dedicated, courageous and honest journalist, someone who unlike so many others vying for attention in the New Zealand media landscape, went out and did the type of serious investigative reporting that is now all but absent in her country of birth. Her death is not only a loss to her family and friends. It is a loss to the journalistic profession as well as New Zealand’s reputation for providing impartial perspectives on matters of political and social import world-wide.

Yasmine was a student of mine when we were at the University of Auckland. She went on to work at Scoop here in NZ, then Al-Jazeera and other outlets in the Middle East. Before her death she was working for TRT World, the Turkish international television news service. Her articles appeared in many important publications, including the Guardian, Independent, Sunday Star Times, Washington Post, LA Times, New York Times, Middle East Eye and Foreign Policy, and she was a contributor to outlets such as CNN, CBC, NZ National Radio and NZ TV One News. She co-authored a book about the Ahmed Zaoui case in New Zealand, helped produce three documentaries on contemporary Arabic politics and society and was a 2016 World Press Institute Fellow in the US who most recently had been elected to the board of the International Association of Women in Television and Radio. Fluent in French and English and well versed in Arabic and Spanish, she lived in France, Qatar, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia before her move to Turkey a little over a year ago.  She traveled exhaustively and had a global network of friends and professional contacts who are now left to mourn her loss and the void that she left behind.

Yasmine was and is a special inspiration to women entering the journalistic profession. Her desire was not to work her way up to talking head status on the local news by reporting on cats in trees and celebrity sightings. She was not interested in cozying up to politicians, yukking it up on breakfast shows and posing on red carpets at awards shows.  Instead, her focus was on providing an outlet for forgotten voices and views seldom aired in mainstream Western outlets, and to offer in-depth analysis of events and trends that often received no more than cursory coverage outside of the places in which they occurred. Endowed with great personal courage, she left the comfort of her homeland to become an freelancer in a region not known for its encouragement of independent women in that profession. Her writing about what became known as the “Arab Spring” and its aftermath cemented her reputation as a first-rate reporter in North Africa and the Middle East, and her subsequent work confirmed that she was an extraordinary talent even at such a young age. That makes her departure all the more difficult to understand.

A GiveaLittle page has been set up in her memory in order to help her family cover the expenses of returning her home. It can be found here. Please consider donating.

May your eternal rest be a peaceful one my friend. You made a difference.

The beginning of the end of an error

datePosted on 12:26, December 2nd, 2017 by Lew

There were no winners in Kim Hill’s interview with Don Brash this morning. Not Kim, and not Don, not Guyon Espiner’s unflinching use of te reo on Morning Report, and certainly not the people of Aotearoa. Pākehā liberals wanted the bloodsport spectacle of their champion vanquishing the doddering spectre of our reactionary past, and Pākehā right-wingers craved the sweet outrage of Hill’s rudeness and dismissive scorn towards people like them. Māori people mostly were just dismayed at Brash getting a platform to debate the value of their existence, again. Everyone except for Māori got what they wanted, but nobody got anything more.

In a way, this morning was a last gasp of credence for the notion that debate is possible with people who are oblivious to evidence. Kim got in her zingers, ably skewering Brash’s incoherence and inconsistency, but there’s nothing new there. All the evidence was as incidental as it was anecdotal. We were treated to discourses on the population density of Māori in proximity to kindergartens, based on nothing at all. Concerns about the use of te reo on RNZ cannibalising the audience of Māori language radio and TV stations, without any reference to what those flaxroots practitioners of te reo want. And discourses about actual cannibalism and the stone-age pre-settlement society, where listeners were asked to accept the claim that the deliverance of the Māori from their horrid existence was worth any price, up to and including their cultural erasure. Nobody who has given even modest consideration to these topics could have learned anything or changed their views this morning.

The discussion mocked the very rationality it sought to demonstrate, because it was all about feelings: Brash’s feelings of alienation from his country and his time, and Hill’s need to defend her employer and her worldview. Centred around Pākehā feelings, with no regard given to what Māori felt, or for their agency, it was merely the latest in two hundred years of discussions about Māori, without Māori.

It was a question of evidence that brought the interview to an end, though. Brash finally went one small step too far, with the claim that the Māori are not the indigenous people of Aotearoa, but merely its second-most-recent invaders. This notion has been debunked for almost a hundred years, since Skinner’s work on the Moriori in the 1920s, and there was enough scholarship done on it through the 20th Century that reliance on these claims in the 21st is a straightforward flag that whatever is going on here, it’s not an evidence-based discussion. There was nowhere left for Kim Hill to go. Nobody can debunk arguments advanced with such disregard for reality.

So she shut it down. But better than shutting it down would have been not entertaining it in the first place — which is, by and large, what Māori seem to have wanted. The error of this interview was not merely giving Brash a platform, but its objectification of Māori, the idea that their right to existence on their own terms was a matter for debate. It was an exercise in discursive theatre, a ritual sacrifice performed to appease the savage gods of fair-minded middlebrow liberalism, in the hope that rational discourse will deliver us into salvation. The sacrificers — yes, Kim Hill was one of them — were Pākehā, and inevitably, the sacrificees were Māori.

I was in the crowd for this sacrifice. Loath as I am to continue focusing on Pākehā feelings, I have to say: my only remaining feeling is the horror of being responsible for all this. Not only for today’s sacrifice, but the small sliver of the past that is my contribution to what got us here. We Pākehā need to take care of our own embarrassments, it should not fall to Māori to do that. So we need to stop treating the right to Māori existence on their own terms as conditional on our goodwill, and start treating it as a fact of life. Which, in the letter and spirit of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, is what it is. It’s not hard to do. When people want to debate the legitimacy of te reo Māori in public, here’s a simple response: “Like the right of Māori people’s physical existence, the right of Māori people to cultural existence is not a matter for debate.” We have, in polite society at least, stopped talking about “maoris”. We have stopped mocking haka, waiata, and karakia, and even people like Brash have stopped mocking te reo, making honest attempts at decent pronunciation and using what kupu they know in ordinary speech. We can stop treating the existence of Māori as debatable, too, and it’s about time we did.

L

Mitch Harris and I continued our weekly radio conversations from the US, this week discussing Harvey Weinstein, reports that Trump is  mentally “unraveling” and how the Mueller investigation into possible Russian interference in last year’s US election is progressing. Theme of the week might as well be “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Trump is Toast

datePosted on 13:21, October 11th, 2016 by Pablo

Well, all good things must come to an end.

But first, let’s play word association:

Authoritarian Populist.

Racist. Bigot. Xenophobe.

Bully. Buffoon. Bankrupt.

War-mongerer. Torture fan. Genocidal Demagogue.

Narcissistic Sociopath. Tax evader. Ignorant blowhard.

Serial Liar. Serial Cheat. Serial adulterer.

Thin skinned. Egomaniac. Coward.

Lecher.

Sexual predator.

Whose name comes to mind when these words are mentioned?

Conservative spin aside, there is no coming back from this. The destruction of brand Trump is unfolding before our eyes and soon will be complete.

Let’s unpack the video outtakes from his 2005 Access Hollywood appearance in order to explain the reasons why.

In it he speaks of pursuing a married woman. That will cost him religious conservative votes as well as those from people who take a dim view of home-wreckers.

He then boasts that he has a pre-meditated strategy to swallow breath mints before he forcibly kisses women without their consent. He goes on to say that because he is a “star” he can grope women’s genitals with impunity. These are admissions of repeated sexual assault. That is going to cost him much more than female votes, as many in the law and order crowd, to say nothing of men who have real respect for their mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and grand daughters will walk away from a self-admitted practitioner of such criminal behaviour (say what you want about Bill Clinton, there is no audio recording in his own voice of him admitting to sexual assault).

In his non-apologies he claims that the crude and lewd language he used during the now infamous bus ride is just “locker room banter.” Besides the fact that many have pointed out that it is not, in fact, normal athlete talk to speak the way he did, what he is basically saying is that (presumably male) locker rooms are places where discussion of sexual assault is common place. If that is true, then what he is speaking about–and dismissing–is a particular aspect of rape culture. True or not (and there is definitely a problem with rape cultures in some areas of US society), the fact that he downplays the seriousness of boasting about sexual assault (whether real or made up) is indicative of deeply seated misogyny on his part. This may have been something that he could get away with twenty years ago, but it is not now.

Better yet, Trump is a wrecking ball that is bringing the Republican Party down with him as the GOP rats scramble to get off that sinking ship known as the 2016 campaign. They have to jump because the word association game that we just played will be attached to those who do not. Already 50 Republican elected officials are trying to put distance between themselves and Trump, including the House Majority Leader and 14 Senators. The focus of the Republicans is keeping their House and Senate majorities, and that looks to be increasingly in peril in the Senate (where a shift of 4 seats restores a Democratic majority).

In parallel, the media facilitators at the alternative universe known as Fox News are also in full meltdown mode as the Trump sycophants (Sean Hannity) publicly quarrel with other colleagues (Meghan Kelly, Shepard Smith) in a crisis environment brought about by the forced resignation of another sexual predator, Roger Ailes, as CEO of the network.

These are the worst of times. These are the best of times.

The forces of evil in the US are in disarray, on the run and looking for whatever (political) cover they can find. But there is no place to hide.

This year November 8 is not just election day. It is not just judgement day for the GOP.

It is armageddon for US conservatism. The end is nigh.

The real questions now are what will the Democrats do with the gift of Republican self-destruction? Will the Clinton administration heed the lessons of the election and integrate at least some aspects of Bernie Sanders’ policy prescriptions into it? Will the Democratic Congressional leadership seize the opportunity to consolidate or pursue legislative gains in areas such as health care, education, campaign finance reform and taxation? Will the Supreme Court nominations made by the Clinton administration ensure a “progressive” majority for decades to come?

For their part, will the unsavoury forces unleashed by the Trump campaign crawl back under their rocks or will they turn into a violent disloyal opposition? Will the GOP split into “moderate” and retrograde wings and if so who will dominate conservative discourse? What lessons will the Republicans take away from this disaster? Will those lessons teach them civility or even more darker modes of behaviour?

Time will tell but for the moment we can only thank The Donald for his efforts.

Bland Eyed Soul: Analysing Brand Key

datePosted on 15:03, August 30th, 2016 by E.A.

It was a toss-up between posting this or my short fiction story “John Key goes to prison”. I will post the story some other time.

While doing research for a few upcoming KP posts on Asia I was distracted on the weekend by Vernon Small’s article about John Key and the outcome of the Broadcasting Standards Authority investigation into a complaint about his prison rape/soap joke while on the Radio station the Rock last year and rapidly spiraled off into what you are reading now.

But it was Small’s specific comment about Key “trading prime ministerial dignity for a populist hit” that really started me thinking about what exactly is going on with our Dear Leader and his carefully crafted media image.

Because while there have been recent articles claiming that Key is “plummeting” in the polls as preferred PM the reality is that he remains well head of the rest by a significant factor and while not at the Trump level of being able to kill someone in the street it’s clear that John Key can say and do things other could not get away with, PM or not.

So yes Keys popularity is the lowest it’s ever been and there is definite wisdom in what Small was saying but that level of analysis is not enough, right now we have only four of the journalistic five W’s (who, what, where and when) while what we really need is the why.

And it’s an area which has been examined before, the why of “why is John Key so popular?” question that NZ political reporters have been asking for a long time now. And with more than a few shots at it, the best of the bunch are Bryce Edwards piece in the NBR from 2011 and Tracy Watkin’s recent look at having Key around for a fourth term but neither really dig into Brand Key.

Watkins focuses on the Key playbook while Edwards notes the apolitical nature of Key and these are both valid approaches but Brand Key needs an actual breakdown of the brand and both pieces remain rooted in pure politics rather than from John Key being commodified in exactly the same way a bar of soap is or how a pop star marketed to their fans.

So with this in mind I aim to have a deeper look into John “you have a pretty mouth” Key through the lens of advertising rather than politics.

Now full disclosure, while not an expert on advertising, I worked in the industry for a short period (creative, copywriter and catalog model*) and I have always had an interest in advertising itself as in many ways it is the lingua franca of capitalism and the true art of our age. So while I may scramble the terminology at times I am looking at Key in the same way as I looked at creating an ad when I was employed to do such.

To begin with we need to look at the key principles behind Brand Key which are: brand awareness; brand loyalty; brand strategy; brand definition; brand equity; synergy and brand momentum. These are the key (no pun intended) principles behind Brand Key. Of course these terms are the language of marketing but, in this case, underneath there is a creepy layer of politics that we will get to that a bit later.

First up is brand awareness or how aware are they of Brand Key. For Key its pretty good, he is the PM after all and he regularly appears in the media both politically and at times non-politically in tabloid/gossip publications like those found at supermarket checkouts. He also gets named on blogs like this (oh the irony) and his face is recognizable as the PM of NZ. Most of us know who he is and would recognize him if he stepped out onto the street (as he did one time in Wellington as I was walking to work). So say his name (try it five times while facing a mirror) and people will know who you are talking about. That’s a high level of awareness.

Next is brand loyalty or how loyal are people to his lizardness. This can be measured by the fact that Key has remained popular in the polls as preferred PM for almost a decade now, that not a  bad achievement despite him making rape jokes, pulling pigtails, sending in his lawyer to lobby for tax havens and all the rest of grubby little things he has been linked to. It is worth pointing out though that loyalty in public and loyalty in the party may not be the same thing as Judith Collins previous coup attempt shows that the art of backstabbing leaders remains alive and well in the National party (but they don’t call John Key the “smiling assassin” for nothing so he lived though that one).

Another point to note is that loyalty for Brand Key may not translate into loyalty to the National Party as its current position in the polls exists by virtue of Key capturing the all-important (at least for the time being) middle voter demographic on their behalf. Few if any would vote for National if it was not for Brand Key (something I noted in my previous post on the party).

From brand loyalty to brand strategy (what strategy is being used to manipulate the image of Key in such a way as to appeal to voters), we now start to get into the subtle and often unspoken nuances of Brand Key which is a combination of being apolitical (as Bryce Edwards noted in his 2011 article) and that blokey, matey, kiwi every-man quality that all male politicians in NZ, and a few female ones as well, desperately want to tap into.

Well in Key’s case he has nailed it and this is reflected in loyalty to Brand Key, he is perceived as being an authentic kiwi male (likes rugby, drinks beer etc) which resonates with kiwi voters in that he is a male figure that they can identify with and which also appeals to female voters in the same mold as the fresh faced, suit wearing, middle aged white men first made popular by Tony “poodle” Blair but later co-opted by conservatives everywhere has appeal.

Brand Key as an image is incredibly strong and resonates in much the same way any popular brand does and through a variety of media formats (image, sound, word etc) which makes the strategy of billing him as an apolitical middle man perfect for appealing to middle ground voters unhappy with the perceived failures of partisan politics and wishing only for a simple message and action orientated leader (if only in image rather than actual action) an easy task.

The fact that Key has kept hidden his deep ideological background to the vampire squid and all that it entails from Godzone voters is proof that this strategy has worked wonders and remains viable today.

Following on is brand equity (or capital) which is the measure of how much good will a brand has banked away for a rainy day. Again in this area Brand Key has been very successful and while things have had a bit of a downturn of late (as with the rape joke not going quite as well as planned) it remains in credit with the mainstream voting public.

Brand equity is built primarily through a successful brand strategy and as we have seen the strategy has been so successful that it has led to a windfall of equity to which Brand key has used to offset moments like a backfiring rape skit on a brain dead radio show.

Then there is brand definition (the positive, open articulation of the brand though positioning it within a particular idea or framework) which is the opposite of brand strategy (which is primarily subliminal in its articulation to people). Brand Key has been defined by words like “pragmatic” or “human” or photos of him doing human things (like having a pizza delivered to his house) which all lead to John Key often being set apart from other politicians.

Brand Key is defined as a kiwi guy, popular and the kind of person you could run up and take a selfie with, the kind you would want to take a selfie with and to which we would like to know more of his life, just like we do when we hanker for more info about our favorite celebrity, a Kardashian like politician if you will (the spawn family from Hollywood not the aggressive alien spawn from Star Trek) for the political public to consume through vicarious means.

If Brand Key could be defined in the language of soft drinks then John Key is the politician that refreshes, with no added political baggage (like ideology and such) that Labour and the Greens have (well maybe the Greens) and focused on the things that matter, like having an economic surplus and lower taxes (i.e. getting wealthy). He is the politician you vote for when you want the classic taste of economic conservatism but none of the ideological aftertaste you get with ACT.

After brand definition is synergy, a king among buzzwords, even in marketing and now in government. Synergy in this sense means the magic of bringing it all together with that extra something special that gives things mojo where they themselves had none. Its the X Factor for politicians and Key is racking up the votes while the accordion player and albino dancers languish off stage. There is no denying Key has the X factor when it comes to politics.

And finally there is brand momentum, the movement or energy of a brand. The easiest way to picture brand momentum is to imagine a brand as a shark swimming, if its stops it sinks and it dies therefore it’s imperative for there to be continual movement and in marketing “movement” means exposure, new advertising campaigns (not necessarily any new products) to keep the brand in the mind of the public and keep it oxygenated and alive because there are always other predators/brands out there which will pounce on a weak brand and usurp its position as apex predator.

In the case of Brand Key there is no possible momentum outside politics. One could not imagine John Key helming the NZ version of Celebrity Political Apprentice (although I do like the idea of such a show) uttering some immortal line (“you’re a tree hugging liberal!” for example) at the end of each episode as another unfortunate contestant is hauled off to some distressing little room in the Beehive basement for another session on the rack before being returned to the backbenches to mutter “I love John Key” slowly and repeatedly during sitting days in parliament.

No, with no politics there is no Brand Key, it is only within those waters does such a creature swim and out of all the principles discussed this is the one area where Brand Key has a real problem because it is here that the limitations of Brand Key become evidently clear and where the veil on Brand Key is pulled away to reveal another layer; a dirty grimy layer, coating the surface like some sticky, amorphous and unidentifiable substance stuck to one’s finger that is difficult to remove and smells funny as it comes off.

And it is not the fault of any of the principles of advertising which fail when applied to Brand Key but the concept itself of applying marketing techniques and ideologies to something such as politics. Sure it shows the pervasiveness of late stage capitalism in penetrating all aspects of society but that does not mean that they will work as intended to even work well. The commonality of the public and community that politics is supposed to represent does not fit well with the highly individualized act of consumerism in the 21st century.

Branding in politics, as in any form of branding, is style over substance, it is artificially building up something which does not exists or has not yet had the time to reach such a state naturally before delivering it to an eager consumer to be consumed and in the case of John Key few if any would consider him a genuine statesman when compared to his ongoing image as Prime Minister. Key at best is a manager, a middle manager, following the orders from higher up and implementing their agenda rather than formulating any real policy or ideas of his own.

In his past career as a market speculator he may have shown some brilliance in manipulating the small variances of the market to make his vampire squid bosses rich but that was the extent of it (although there is no doubting that Key, unlike many in Nationals cabinet, is a genuinely intelligent person). His miracle advance through the ranks of National in the early 2000s has all the hallmarks of a heavily stage managed career path, not one of his own making or design (he had the talent but a bit of promotion never hurt). John Key is a cypher, of no importance himself but useful in the grand scheme which is why he is so apolitical because making money needs no real political allegiance and as PM he himself is just an actor playing a role.

Therefore the building and maintaining of Brand Key has been essential to hide this simple fact. Brands tap into the subconscious, bypass the rational and distract the mind (like a meme or a virus) with easily repeatable images and words’ all of which are to hide from view the true fact that product A is exactly the same as product B.

The shaping and molding of John Key into Brand Key has been an unqualified success in the last decade but this has not been at the behest of John Key. He may have allowed himself to go under the spin doctor’s knife in order to enhance his image (much like Helen Clark did with her makeover while PM, to appear more human and less like a Quentin Blake drawing) but this was in the service of his “role” as PM and not a conscious or natural evolution.

And its those spin doctors sitting in such close proximity to the PMs office that are likely the same individuals who brought about the Dirty Politics scandal which exposed the National party agenda for winning the 2014 election as one less focused on winning the vote or enacting any actual policy changes and more about smearing the opposition; using attack blogs, rumors and manipulation of the political discourse to such an extent that all other voices are drowned out and the only thing one can hear is the mind numbing buzz of the Brand Key jingle burrowing its way into your head like some brain controlling worm.

So what happens to Brand Key when John Key loses an election or decides to retire from politics, what happens to old brands when they go off to die?

Most brands don’t age well, think of all those pro-smoking adds from the 1940’s or other lame and nauseous adverts from the 1950’s onward (like coke or Macdonald’s) with their artificial realities, happy families and smiling faces hiding the grim realities (such as lung cancer or type two diabetes) which come after the product has been bought and consumed.

The chances of John Key turning out to be a classic or iconic brand are low. Brand Key has been more a series of flash in the pan media moments with its strobe light effect smashing again and again in the victims eyes, blinding them to the generic product wrapped up in marketing hype; rather than a NZ trusted brand which radiates appeal to kiwis.

The likely legacy that Brand Key will leave behind is as the Fred Dagg of his generation, a caricature of a politician with his endless media moments rather than genuine Kiwi political figures who left behind real legacies (such as Norm Kirk, Keith Holyoake, Robert Muldoon or David Lange); a smooth talking city boy with a bland soul rather than an authentic political individual that enacted real positive political change**.

I end here with a quote from a hero of mine which fits this post rather well; it came to me by chance as so many things in my life do. Take it away Bruce!

“Those who distrust the life-giving force within them, or who have none, are driven to compensate through such substitutes as money. When a man has confidence in himself, when all he wants in the world is to live out his destiny in freedom and purity, he comes to regard all those vastly overestimated and far too costly possessions as mere accessories, pleasant perhaps to have and make use of, but never essential.” Bruce Lee.

*-because when you are a short, skinny dark hair guy in Asia you can work as a photo model. And yes I have a schizophrenic CV, that’s my life.

**-That does not mean the john Key as the actual human being may not turn out to be a genuinely interesting person but this post is looking at the political context only.

Praise where it’s due…

datePosted on 08:52, August 15th, 2016 by E.A.

I did little this weekend except walk on the beach, watch the roller derby and surf the interwebs, where I found…

After bagging New Zealand’s political media last week about low budget reporting (specifically Stacey Kirk’s article about Labour/Greens being “neck and neck” with National in the latest polls) and previously for similar bland and mediocre work (in that case Tracy Watkins for reporting on Winston Peters) I was pleasantly surprised to see that both reporters had filed rather good pieces over the weekend (here and here).

Now my inflated ego would love to think that this was due to the persuasive words in my posts about their work stinging them to produce better but the reality is that they simply turned in good work, because they are professional journalists after all, and would not know me (or my rants online) from Adam.

So in that case praise where praise is due for both of them turning in sharp and interesting articles on the current situation in Labour (you would think Labour would try to build off their recent jump in poll results but noooooo).

And for those who might wonder if I am simply trolling Stuff for all my political reportage I link this piece from Gordon Campbell (previously from the most excellent Scoop but now on his own site, Werewolf) who I consider the gold standard to which I strive in my blogging but rarely achieve.

Campbell is always incisive and on point and his recent post on the China situation where he describes Todd McClay as “the sock puppet otherwise known as the New Zealand Minister of Trade” is a fabulous combination of scathing political commentary and actual grim truth (given how McClay took the bullet meant for Key on China’s dodgy behavior) as he relates the latest on and then compares the National Governments response to that of a PR firm fronting for China.

Finally I watched this rather excellent video of Jon Stewart talking with David Axelrod (yes that David Axelrod!) about the US elections and wondered, like many others, what great work he would have made from things this time given how he covered the last round of clown politics in 2012 (my all-time favorite being the Dope Diamond).

Have a good week.

Again I find myself wondering if the media are really doing their job?

Latest poll results from Reid Research show both Labour and the Greens up in polls while National is down and the media declare it “neck and neck”.

But before we break out the bubbles let’s have a bit more of a look at the numbers and consider the reality of the situation.

Currently the polling is: National at 45.2%, Labour at 32.7%, Green at 11.5% and NZ First at 8.1%.

Therefore under current polling a Green/Labour coalition comes close but only with NZ First added could they beat National but a Labour/NZ First pairing only is not enough to beat National.

So the total as it now stands is a Labour/Greens coalition is close to making the nut over National, except for one small thing, Winston Peters! This is hardly “neck and neck” except in the very literal sense and that’s not what this headline is implying.

And the poll numbers can only shift so much at this time giving that the only realistic thing which could degrade Nationals poll lead enough to make Labour strong enough to pair with NZ First for a government would be the housing hernia rupturing.

So I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that while one part of Andrew Little does not want the hernia to blow (think stabilization) another part is hoping that the hernia does cause a few painful moments, enough to drive down Nationals poll advantage while bringing Labours (and possibly NZ Firsts also) up.

Now this is not news to anyone who reads the media but the significance of John Keys statement that he did not need Winston before so he won’t need him in 2017 rings a little hollow (actually it positively peels with hollow but why quibble at a time like this) given these numbers.

And it’s seems that both sides in this (Labour/Greens and National) have been rather coy about this little factoid when looking at the numbers.

The recent movement in political polls and the usual nine year itch of NZ politics means that National is likely to be down to the wire in the coming year and election. Every seat and vote will count and the housing hernia remains the ongoing bugbear issue in the minds of many Kiwis which has nothing but negative potential for any government (in the form of bad media about rising house prices, speculators, homelessness etc) even if it does not rupture.

If it ruptures before the election then Key will have Winston on speed dial for sure and so will Andrew Little for that matter.

Therefore if John Key and his merry band of reptiles want to make a fourth term they can’t rely on their usual margin of Key’s popularity (now more like a tired worn out comedic routine of an actor like Adam Sandler (the first few films were funny but after that it was just the same old things again and again and again and again!) or the zombie parties (Maori and United Future) to prop up any bare bones margin in the house.

In fact I am now 50/50 that the hernia will rupture sooner rather than later and if it does there will be an extremely high correlation between the damage and the drop in Nationals popularity (and the subsequent rise in that of Greens/Labour) because as we have already seen any drop in house prices will hit those whose mortgages are now bigger than the home’s value hardest and those are the very people that have been backing Key all this time on the housing market fun ride*.

Loyalty will only go so far and the fickle “middle ground NZ” voter will switch vote once their homes value is heading down as that’s what middle ground voters do.

And if that happens and a Greens/Labour coalition gets close to National or even more than National there is only one thing which will save Key and National and it won’t be a series of humorous interviews with assorted brain dead morning radio hosts or a last minute cult of personality blitz with John Key out on the hustings hustling for blue votes (which we all know National is planning).

No, what will be required will be a straight out injection of New Zealand First life into the veins of the blue bloods, there is no other option and no other way and Key can twist the words all he likes but the inescapable fact is that he will have to do a deal with Winston if the results go against him in 2017.

Of course the same applies of Labour and the Greens if they get close but simply are short by one or two seats BUT they also have the options of trying to cage a seat from Peter Dunne (if Labour doesn’t try to outright take his seat from him) or the Maori Party (if they are amenable). For National the numbers are too close now and relying of near dead political parties is a risky strategy at best and positively suicidal at worst.

So I am wondering if any of these parties has an actual plan for dealing with NZ’s very own populist politician, Winston Peters?

And what kind of form would such a policy take?

Winston does not advertise his price and as we have seen before he can be as much of a liability to a government as his vote block is an advantage. Getting into bed with him is a risky proposition.

Sure he looks all alluring laying there, shirt open, soft music playing, his big brown eyes giving that “come hither” look that makes one go weak at the knees and those sweet words he whispers.

But there is no protection and the morning after who knows what the incoming government will wake up to find sleeping beside them. Even worse as the days drag on and the magic fades, the harsh reality of that one crazy moment will come crashing in like a truck full of expensive crystal wares through your living room wall; a government may find itself wondering if it was really worth it.

Therefore any policy for dealing with Winston will have to have some built in risk mitigation, some provisions to prevent any ugliness, but you can bet your bottom dollar that if things get desperate and the wheeling dealing starts (a definite possibility if the results are close) then those rational provisions will get thrown out the window in favor of all manner of  libidinous promises made by those with the drooling lust for power that infects all politicians.

Like dogs circling a bitches box (I remember as a kid watching the males circling, howling and generally going crazy in their frenzy to get what they could clearly smell but could not reach) both Little and Key will promise the earth to secure Winston if NZ Firsts seats are needed.

For me this is more shades of 96 than 05, Winston’s deadly deal with National turned out to be far worse than good and in part helped put National into the deadly slump in faced in the early 2000s (and which it will likely return to again when Key abandons ship).

But let’s not be coy here, this is not a level playing field, this is not some dating game with two hopeful contestants behind the curtain trying to woo Mr Right and who both have the same chances to get that coveted rose. In fact both contestants already have a history with Mr Right and the man himself is not such a catch as he might seem.

The turgid reality in 2017 will be that Mr Right may in fact turn out to be Mr “Rightwing” and go with his natural and preferred choice (as he has made it clear he is no fan of the Greens) and we get to see Keys lizard like visage on our TV screens for another three years.

And it’s at this point that it becomes clear why the Greens/Labour marriage only goes up until the election itself, afterwards each party is free to go the way it wants, as Labour is hedging its bets on how the seat numbers break down.

If Labour can form a government with just itself and the Greens then that will happen but the odds are that won’t happen and in that case the next (and probably the preferred) option is that if Labour can form a government with just itself and NZ First then the Greens will be out in the cold. This is the probable rational for the Green/Labour alliance only lasting until the election.

The least preferred option for Labour is a Labour/Greens/NZ First style government with Little in bed with the other two and not enough duvet to go round.

It’s somewhat cynical no matter how people try to spin it as “political pragmatism” as it potentially means a rather nasty situation if the Greens are left at the altar come the day after the election as it finds that Labour is now shacking up with smirking NZ First as they have the numbers. This is because Labour and Little are banking on the Greens supporting them no matter what which as I have noted before may be one assumption too many for the Greens to stomach.

It also defeats the purpose of having a MOU in the first place as by cementing the Labour/Greens brands together now and  common campaigning purposes (ie common goals and messages) means a rather nasty unpicking later if they don’t stay together post-election.

I would be less cynical about this if the friction between Labour and the Greens (both current and historical) was less but it’s not and this is the environment they operate in.

Come 2017 Winston is likely to go with National if his anti-Green stance does not change and Labour knows this which is why it is desperately trying to get its numbers up to a level (by trying to differentiate itself from National but still giving the same safe/clean/neat message under the label of “stabilization”) where it does not need the Greens and can rely on NZ First to get it across the line and why its marriage of convenience with the Greens ends the day after the election.

The flip side to this is John Key knows this also but in reverse. Key knows that he is likely to have to deal with Winston to stay in power and the price will be high. Nationals only chance is to sweep the polls as it has previously done but the odds of that in 2017 is next to none and Winston pulled no punches in Northland when taking National to task so the horrible reality is that Key will be making sure Winston is in the blue corner as much as possible (and as much as Winston is willing to give away) before polling starts.

Finally the horrible reality for Labour and the Greens is that they might get enough seats come the 2017 election to beat National but then NZ First goes with John Key and its 1996 all over again.

So there is nothing “neck and neck” about the current situation between National vrs Greens/Labour unless the Andrew Little is a giraffe.

 

*To be fair those voters will also turn on Little and Co quick smart if a Greens/Labour government can’t actually do anything about the hernia rupturing, and with the two minds of $350,000 houses (the possible Greens position if Turei is to be taken at her word) and “stabilization” at god knows whatever still painful house price Labour consider “stable” there is potential ahoy for a first term Greens/Labour government crisis of major proportions.

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