Archive for ‘Media’ Category

Identity is politics

datePosted on 22:04, August 29th, 2013 by Lew

(Or: How the activist left learned to stop worrying and love identity politics.)

Here and elsewhere I spend much time railing against the notion that “identity” is somehow distinct from “politics”, or that “identity politics” is anathema to the idealised “real politics” of class and ideology. I don’t accept that those with politicised identities — in our context most often women, Māori and LGBTI people — ought to fall in behind the straight white able-bodied men of The Cause on the understanding that The Cause will lend its support to their subordinate issues when the time is right. Moreover, I don’t accept that a person’s politics can meaningfully be divorced from their identity. Identity is politics. I am far from alone in these views.

Recently it has come to my attention that many of those who claim to oppose “identity politics” are pretty happy with it too, given the right circumstances. The contest between Grant Robertson, Shane Jones and David Cunliffe provides a good example.

Right out of the gate the contest was framed in terms of identity — Grant Robertson’s sexual identity. “Is New Zealand Ready For A Gay Prime Minister?”, the headlines asked, proceeding then to draw dubious links between unscientific vox-pops and the reckons of sundry pundits, all of whom were terribly keen to assure us that they, personally, were ready, even if the country isn’t yet. But while Robertson’s identity is what it is, his campaign is not an identity politics campaign in any meaningful way. In this it differs sharply from the campaigns of the other two contenders.

Shane Jones
Shane Jones is expressly running an identity politics campaign: he’s Māori, and his goal to win all five seven of the Māori electorates for Labour is one of many explicit appeals to his Māoritanga, and well he might appeal: it is an attribute sorely lacking among our political leaders, and a particularly stark omission in Labour, with its long claim to being the, um, native party of Māori.

But Jones’ Māoritanga isn’t the only identity pitch: he has made overt masculinity a part of his brand. When he came clean about charging pornographic movies to Parliamentary Services, his explanation was “I’m a red-blooded male”. He recently doubled down on this in relation to Labour’s proposed gender-equality measures, saying New Zealanders didn’t want “geldings” running the country, and that “it was blue-collar, tradie, blokey voters we were missing”. His value proposition for the Labour leadership is that he can expand the party’s electoral base into the archetypally-masculine realm of the “smoko room” where such voters are said to dwell. It seems likely that this strategy will alienate a good number of female voters into the bargain.

David Cunliffe
David Cunliffe’s identity pitch is doesn’t look like an identity pitch, because we’re not used to seeing identity pitches from straight white men. But identity politics isn’t the sole domain of women and minorities — the US Republican Party has been running a long identity politics campaign for most of a decade against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Cunliffe’s claim is his identity as a guy who greets his supporters in a dozen different languages and whose announcement of a candidacy is greeted with a waiata, wearing a lei like it ain’t no thing. He is a mutual-second-best candidate for a bunch of different identity groupings — he’s male, but he has strong caucus support from Labour women, including his previous running-mate Nanaia Mahuta and marriage equality champion Louisa Wall. He’s straight, but he’s not homophobic or chauvinistic about it. He’s Pākehā, but his multicultural bona fides are clear, and he has strong support from Māori and Pasifika caucus members. He studied at Harvard, but he’s the working-class son of an Anglican minister. He’s comparatively young — Generation X — but not so young as to be seen as a whipper-snapper by the Baby Boomers. Homo Sapiens Aotearoan is David Cunliffe’s identity; a modern native of the biggest Pacific city in the world.

Grant Robertson
Grant Robertson’s campaign is quite unlike the others, which are pitched at the electorate, or parts of it. Robertson’s campaign is focused on unifying the Labour Party, on the basis that a unified party will be a more effective machine for building electoral support. His isn’t a pitch based around his individual brilliance or personal character, but his ability to organise, strategise, and forge an effective team out of his diverse and complicated group of colleagues. Robertson’s identity is a part of this — his advocacy and work in passing the marriage equality bill earlier in the year indicates where his politics lie, and make clear he’s no shirker — but this is by no means the focus.

And yet last night’s story by Brooke Sabin basically wrote Grant Robertson’s candidacy off on the basis of a series of ad-hoc buttonholes with workers at a union rally who apparently didn’t like that he was gay. Sabin reported that only two of the 40 people spoken to would support Robertson, and in the studio introduction to the piece anchor Hilary Barry inflated this to:

Labour leader hopeful Grant Robertson was dealt a blow today. Many in the religious and socially-conservative faction of the party, out in force at a rally this afternoon, don’t like that he’s gay, and won’t vote for him.

There are a swag of problems here: most obviously that repeatedly and urgently raising the issue (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”) sets the agenda. Further, the footage suggests that the only thing these vox pops were given to go on when assessing Grant Robertson’s fitness to be Prime Minister was that he was gay — so it was the only thing on the agenda. Worse yet; one respondent, when prompted to choose between Jones and Cunliffe, asked “Shane Jones … is he a gay too?” suggesting that not only was she not very well placed to make an informed assessment of the comparative merits of each candidate, but that asking her to do so anyway, taking her word as an indication of general union sentiment and then playing her naïve answer on national TV bordered on exploitation. (At least part of my assessment is shared by Neale Jones from the EPMU, who was there, and said on Twitter, “Sabin went around repeatedly badgering workers about whether they had a problem with Grant’s sexuality. Got story he wanted.”)

The Identity Agenda
Jones’ identity pitch is clear, and Cunliffe’s is less so, but not much less so. Robertson’s identity pitch is inferred from his sexuality and inflated. The only aspect of the archetypal “identity politics” candidate’s campaign which is focused on “identity politics” is the “ready for a gay PM” agenda, which is set by commentators and the media, outside Robertson’s control (but which he must tolerate, lest he be reframed as a “bitchy gay” rather than as the solidly masculine, rugby-playing sort we are possibly prepared to tolerate.)

So that’s ironic. But the deeper irony of this is that David Cunliffe is the darling of many of the people on the activist left who have railed most fiercely against “identity politics” all these years. (Check the list of endorsements here). There’s no policy to speak of in this contest — Cunliffe’s campaign is identity politics through and through, and yet the activist left loves him for it. I don’t think it’s unfair to observe that they love him, and they love it, because now it feels like their identity being prioritised in politics, as if it hasn’t ever been before. All that evil old “identity politics” they railed against before — the problem wasn’t that it was identity politics, but that it wasn’t their identity politics.

But I’m glad they love it. It works, after all. We have a strong sense of who David Cunliffe is, where he comes from and what motivates him, and that helps us understand, and more importantly to believe, his strategic vision and the policy platform he articulates. I think he genuinely does speak to a wider audience of potential Labour supporters than any recent leader, and that can only be a good thing for the party and the polity as a whole. If he wins, and I think he will, I hope it will go some distance to demonstrating that identity and ideology aren’t zero-sum; they’re complementary. Maybe once that realisation sinks in we’ll be really ready for a gay Prime Minister, or a Māori one.

Disappointing.

datePosted on 13:54, May 15th, 2013 by Pablo

Although I always knew that “hope and change” was a rhetorical chimera rather than a realizable objective, and understand full well that the US presidency is a strait jacket on the ambitions of those who occupy its office, I am one of those who have been disappointed by the Obama administration on several counts.

I fully understand that he inherited a mess and has done well to dig out from under it, particularly with regard to revitalizing the economy and disengaging from two unpopular wars. With some caveats, I support the drone campaign against al-Qaeda. I support his health care reforms, his support for gay marriage and his efforts to promote renewable energy. I support his measured endorsement of the Arab Spring coupled with his cautious approach to intervention in Libya and Syria, where he has used multilateral mechanisms to justify and undertake armed intervention against despotic regimes (US intervention being mostly covert, with the difference that in Libya there was a no-fly zone enforced by NATO whereas in Syria there is not thanks to Russian opposition).

But I am disappointed in other ways. The failure to close the detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay Marine and Naval base, and the failure to put those detained there on trial in US federal courts because of local political opposition, are foremost amongst them. Now, more egregious problems have surfaced.

It turns out that after the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012,  the administration removed from its “talking points” for press briefings and interviews the facts that the attack was conducted by al-Qaeda affiliates (and were not a spontaneous response to an anti-Islamic on-line video, as was claimed), that repeated requests for security reinforcement at the consulate before the attacks were denied in spite of warnings about imminent threats, and then military assets were withheld during the incident (which lasted eight hours).

The public deception was out of proportion to the overall impact of the attack. Whether or not al-Qaeda affiliates conducted it, serious questions about the lack of security were bound to be raised. The White House appears to have panicked under campaign pressure about the significance of the date of the attack and who was attacking (a purely symbolic matter), compounding the real issue of State Department responsibility for the security failures involved.

While not as bad as the W. Bush administration fabricating evidence to justify its rush to war in Iraq, it certainly merits condemnation.

There is more. It turns out the IRS (the federal tax department, for those unfamiliar with it), undertook audits of right-wing political organizations seeking tax-exempt status as non-profit entities. IRS auditors were instructed to use key words and phrases such as “Patriot,” “Tea Party” and other common conservative catch-phrases as the basis for deeper audits of organizations using them. That is against the law, albeit not unusual: the W. Bush administration engaged in the same type of thing.

Most recently it has been revealed that the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Eric Holder (a recent visitor to NZ), secretly obtained two months of phone records from over 100 Associated Press reporters and staff, to include their home land lines, office and cell phones (in April-May 2012). The purpose was to uncover leaks of classified information about counter-terrorism operations to reporters after AP managers refused to cooperate with government requests to divulge the sources of leaks. That made the phone tapping legal. But there was an option: the government could have subpoenaed those suspected of receiving leaks and forced them to testify under oath as to their sources.

The main reason I am disappointed is that the Obama administration should have been better than this. I never expected the W. Bush (or the Bush 41, Reagan or Nixon administrations) to do anything but lie, cover up, fabricate, intimidate and manipulate in pursuit of their political agendas. They did not disappoint in that regard. But I do expect Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, to behave better in office. They are supposedly the defenders of the common folk, upholders of human rights and civil liberties, purportedly staunch opponents of corporate excess and abuses of privilege.

Republicans inevitably use public office to target domestic opponents and bend the law in favor of the rich and powerful. Democratic administrations are supposed to be better because, among other things, they know the consequences of such manipulation. Yet apparently they are not, even if these events pale in comparison to the crimes and misdemeanors of Republican administrations.

I am not being naive. I spent time working in federal agencies under both Republican and Democratic administrations in the 1980s and 1990s, and the difference in approach to the public trust, at least in the fields that I worked in, were great and palpable. It would seem that the things have changed since then.

Democratic governance often involves the compromise of principles in the pursuit of efficiency or cooperation in policy-making. There are always grey areas in the conduct of national affairs, and there are events and actions where reasons of necessity make secrecy more important than transparency in governance. The actions outlined above are neither.

I still prefer Obama to any of the GOP chumps that rail against him. But as John Stewart makes clear in this funny but scathing (and profane) critique, he and his administration have just stooped closer to their level.

Hence my disappointment.

 

Gilmore’s ghosts

datePosted on 10:36, May 11th, 2013 by Lew

I disagree with Pablo’s post about media treatment of the Aaron Gilmore saga — but I only disagree a little. In my view the Gilmore case is “stuff that really matters”, but I do agree with Pablo that most of the coverage of it isn’t getting to the “stuff that really matters” elements of the case nearly well enough, and that it is displacing coverage of more crucial issues from the agenda. All the stories Pablo mentions are worthy of much more, and more in-depth reporting than they have received. Two other points Pablo makes are particularly valuable — that “blood in the water is not akin to developing real critiques of the way power is exercised”, and that “the problem of Gilmore’s unwillingness to resign stems not from MMP but from political party charters regarding their lists in an MMP environment.”

The Gilmore story is important, as are those others — but the coverage is so individuated to him that it makes the issues seem trivial, because ultimately, if you reduce the story to that of a drunken backbencher, it is. At the heart of the Gilmore saga is the abuse of power, and the problem is that the coverage is about Aaron Gilmore’s attempted abuse of his own power, not about a culture within the National Party and the government where the abuse of power is not merely acceptable, but routine and expected.

The deep questions — how such a megalomaniac got into an electable position on a party list; who, having been apprised of these born-to-rule tendencies after previous incidents of this sort, approved his position; and the implications of this for the health of our democracy — these are important questions. They haven’t really been asked, or answered, though Matthew Hooton, of all people, had a go at it early on.

The John Key National-led government has a lot of form for bad and self-serving appointments, and for the abuse of power. This has presented opportunities for the opposition to frame them as serial cronyists, which they haven’t been able to take. (I wrote a couple of things about this in the first term — it’s not new). And it’s still going: to hear locals tell it, how Gerry Brownlee and CERA are treating Eastern Christchurch isn’t all that different in its principles to how Aaron Gilmore treats waiters and public servants. (The difference is that they have real power.) Recent appointments on the basis of loyalty or malleability at the expense of quality or expertise include Catherine Isaac to implement charter schools, Ian Fletcher as head of the GCSB and Dame Susan Devoy as race relations commissioner.

This is a government which has been particularly unconcerned with even the appearance of due process, and this should be acknowledged in every story on this topic. There’s no credible argument they hadn’t done due diligence on Aaron Gilmore — he was already in Parliament once. Why do they appoint people like this, and why do they get away with it?

The hard truth is that political parties will overlook an awful lot if there’s a financial or electoral advantage to doing so, just as corporations will. Militaries will overlook almost literally anything, up to and including the mass murder of civilians. This is true of the “nice” guys as well as the nasty ones — the Obama administration’s continuing support of Guantanamo Bay and its increasing use of UAVs are two clear examples of this. Apple products are manufactured by the notoriously exploitative Foxconn (Apple is far from alone in this, but we’re supposed to think Apple is somehow better than others). For a recent local example, see the Labour Party’s dogged defence of Taito Phillip Field, whose abuse of vulnerable workers cut directly against everything a Labour party ought to stand for. There are many more.

The fundamental reason this sort of behaviour is endemic is that we — as voters, or in the corporate case, as consumers — reward it with our votes, or our wallets, or both. Parties and companies that eschew these methods tend to lose to those who accept them as an ethical cost of doing business because while we are happy to get outraged, when the chips are really down, we don’t actually care that much about this sort of thing. It doesn’t really change our behaviour.

The danger is that people start caring, and more importantly, start remembering, and changing their behaviour. If the Aaron Gilmore affair haunts the National party — and the other parties — such that they see a strong downside risk to appointing cronies, selecting megalomaniacs for their lists, and generally swaggering around as if they own the place, we’ll all be better off. If parties are forced to accept responsibility for their bad decisions, and as a consequence to select better people and implement better systems of accountability and conduct, cultures of power-abuse will abate. Incidentally, this is why I don’t favour a rule that allows parties to eject rogue MPs from Parliament* — the Nats bought Aaron Gilmore, they own him. We should judge the entire party by his actions.

But for this sort of change to occur, we need media coverage to develop those real critiques of the exercise of power, rather than critiques of an obnoxious individual who is ultimately just a product of larger cultural systems. That would make this sort of wall-to-wall coverage worthwhile.

L

* Though I still believe any credible political leader should be resourceful enough to find ways to persuade rogue MPs to resign.

Happy for Gilmore

datePosted on 19:56, May 9th, 2013 by Pablo

National has to be delighted about the coverage of their drunken bully boy last on the list MP, Aaron Gilmore. Coalition partner John Banks is in court on issues of political corruption. National is trying to ram through under urgency a gross expansion of domestic espionage courtesy of the amendments to the GCSB Act. What does the media focus on? Not-so-happy Gilmore. If I were the PM, I would milk the Gilmore story for all its worth, always looking chagrined.

There are very serious issues being discussed this week. US Attorney General Eric Holder is currently in the country. This is the person who authorized the FBI extradition pursuit of Kim Dotcom that resulted in the over the top raid on Dotcom’s home and subsequent legal debacle that is the case against him and which resulted in the Kitteridge report that recommended the organizational and legal changes now being proposed. As I allude to in the immediately previous post, the findings of a military inquiry about major failures in command and training in Afghan deployments have been released but not made public (huh?). The Green/Labour attempt to disrupt asset sales could be a watershed political moment.

Yet all of these take a back seat to the habitual escapades of a dolt working hard at being a lout.

Note to the media: although the salacious details of an inconsequential politician’s idiocy might seem worth mining, especially if it seems that he could wound the government, the real stories are dead and centre in front of you. Smelling shallow blood in the water is not akin to developing real critiques of the way power is exercised.

Note to the PM and the media that take his ignorance or obfuscation at face value: the problem of Gilmore’s unwillingness to resign stems not from MMP but from political party charters regarding their lists in an MMP environment. The two things are quite different.

Contrary to what the government would hope and TVNZ would like to believe, Seven Sharp is an idiot echo chamber, not a news aggregator, and therefore should not be used as a model for selecting which stories deserve emphasis.

Time to get off of the shellacked curly-cued imp and onto the issues that actually matter.

Journalistic license.

datePosted on 11:30, April 12th, 2013 by Pablo

Over the years I have been repeatedly misidentified by NZ media types and others in the public domain as to what I am or have been. I have been called a Middle East expert, White House aide, CIA agent, Zionist agent, 9/11 conspirator, Nazi war criminal, anti-Muslim racist, security expert and assorted other niceties. The trouble with these characterizations is that they are all wrong. Worse yet, some of them have invited unwanted and unpleasant personal attention.

Imagine then my dismay to see Andrea Vance of Fairfax identify me as a “former US spy” in an article about the GCSB report. How did she get that label? I certainly made no such claim so it is difficult to understand why she felt that she could publish such a characterization, especially since it carries in some minds a very negative connotation. Shame on her.

The reality is that I simply am a former defense policy analyst and consultant to US security agencies who alternated government service with academia. My background is in international relations and comparative politics with emphasis on unconventional warfare, intelligence analysis, Latin American politics, regime dynamics and labor relations. Lots of field and documentary research, but no spying involved.

Bonus question: readers are invited to suggest who might be on the list of 88 people spied on by the GCSB. I imagine that the Urewera 18 were and that some in the NZ Muslim community may continue to be. The Zaoui defense team might be a good bet. Environmental, animal and anti-FTA activists could be targets. John Minto and Valerie Morse believe that they have been (Val, of course, was part of the Urewera crowd). Any other suggestions?

 

Some questions about Zac Guildford.

datePosted on 19:59, January 24th, 2013 by Pablo

Zac Guildford’s latest alcohol-fueled incident has been amply covered in the press, and the focus is on his problems with the drink. But there is another issue that the media have only briefly touched upon that is far more worrying than his drinking.That raises questions about what the New Zealand rugby authorities know or are doing about it.

Consider the fact that Guildford, a 23 year old well-paid professional rugby player and All Black to boot, is living in the house of a 43 year old man. One would think that a player in his circumstances could afford an apartment of his own. Perhaps he needed guidance as well as companionship. But the older flatmate in question is not a personal trainer, rugby coach, NZRU representative, his agent, an addiction specialist, mental health counselor, spiritual guru or a relative.

No, the flatmate, who Mr. Guildford has lived with for two years, is a TAB bookmaker. Apparently he specializes in harness racing and got to know Guildford through their mutual interest in horse racing. Regardless, the bottom line is that the bookie makes his money playing the odds on sport and Guildford happens to play at the pinnacle of a sport that is the national pastime. Odds-making depends on information. Information on professional sports is carefully managed, often regulated and therefore hard to come by, especially when it comes to precious national institutions like the All Blacks. In many countries professional athletes are barred from having any contact with gambling entities or bookmakers of any sort, or if allowed, under strictly supervised circumstances. Apparently that is not the case in NZ, or at least in Guilford’s case.

It gets worse.  Guildford is rumored to have a gambling addiction problem, and even his bookmaker buddy admits that the latest incident involved gambling as well as a drunken assault.

So lets recap what we know so far: an immature, young, alcohol and possible gambling addict professional athlete on New Zealand’s most revered sports team shares a house with a bookmaker who considers the athlete to be one of his best mates. They share a love of horse racing, which is also a love shared by the athlete’s jockey girlfriend.

This leads me to some questions. Is it me or is there not a potentially serious problem here? Do not the Crusaders and NZRU feel a touch uncomfortable with this triangle? Do they not consider the implications of having a reputed alcohol dependent gambling addict on their payroll living with a bookmaker while exchanging pillow talk with a jockey? Things like rugby training ground injuries, possible lineups, game strategies and formations and a host of other team intelligence is the stuff bookmakers live and dream for. Add to that the possibility of the casual exchange of information on horses, racing tactics and betting trends and one has the potential for manipulation of odds in a number of betting scenarios, with the common denominator being a talented but troubled professional athlete as the source of inside information. All of this against a backdrop in which organized crime has its hand in the gambling business.

I may just be a cynical doubter and everything about Mr. Guildford’s relationships with the bookmaker and jockey are above suspicion. The triangle could be fine except for Mr. Guildford’s drinking. However, methinks that alcohol issues are only part of the problem that is Zac Guildford. The issue may well be much larger and far more insidious than one man’s personal failures, which makes me wonder why the rugby authorities and mainstream press have avoided the gambling angle like the plague. It is not like the summer news cycle is jam-packed with hard story action.

Lets look at a worse case scenario: if it became known that at least one bookmaker has inside information on Guildford’s rugby teams and/or the ponies via his jockey friend, then a scandal of major proportions could well ensue. The trouble is that avoiding the issue does not make it go away, and if what I am wondering about proves to have a grain of truth–and I have no basis for ascertaining the truth either way–then the damage to NZ sports as well as the country’s reputation could well be immeasurable.

It is time a stakeholder addressed the issue of the exact nature of the relationship between the troubled rugby player, the jockey and the bookie.

 

Who to Believe?

datePosted on 09:51, November 1st, 2012 by Pablo

Journalist John Stephenson is a person of high integrity and a strong memory. He does not report anything until he is exactly certain he has the facts correct. Prime Minister John Key has a difficult relationship with the truth and suffers from memory loss well in advance of his age. He responds to unwanted or contrary facts and opinion with derision, distraction or insult.

John Key says that the SAS is in Bamiyan after the dual ambushes of NZDF troops to provide logistical and intelligence support. He initially said that only four SAS officers were dispatched but now admits there could be a couple of others in Bamiyan as well. John Stephenson reports that the SAS are actively engaged in the hunt for those who ambushed and killed NZDF personnel, and that their numbers exceed those offered by the PM.

Given their track records, if I had to take the word of one against the other, I would take the word of John Stephenson.

I also think that it is perfectly fine and natural for the SAS to deploy to Bamiyan after the ambushes. After all, the NZDF has been the lead ISAF force in that province since 2002 so has the best (albeit insufficient) knowledge of terrain, transit routes, local politics and the nature of the enemy. The SAS’s most basic role is long-range patrol, infiltration and surveillance. Thus they are a natural fit for the job of hunting down those responsible for the deadly attacks on NZ soldiers. The hunt for the killers involves but is not reducible to utu or revenge. It is about letting the Taliban know that attacks on the NZDF during the process of withdrawal from Bamiyan will not be tolerated. The Taliban understand utu. It is in fact part of their fighting culture. To not engage the SAS with the purpose of delivering a lethal response would be seen as a sign of weakness and encourage more attacks. Bringing the SAS into the equation reduces that possibility.

The Bamiyan PRT consists of approximately 4 platoons with an engineering and medical complement. The SAS officers deployed after the ambushes likely have assumed command of those platoons in order to sharpen the latter’s respective patrol skills. Although bad for the conventional officers who likely were relieved of their duties in the wake of the ambushes (one of them was seriously injured in the first attack), this is a smart thing to do given the worsening security situation in Bamiyan. It would also not be surprising if SAS enlisted personnel were sent to reinforce those platoons with their sharpened combat skills.

Since all of this is pretty well understood in military circles, the question begs as to why Mr. Key insists with a cover story that is patently bogus. Has his experience as a money trader made him believe that he can bluff, hedge and bluster his way out of every corner?  If so, then his condition is pathological and undermines his mana. After all, what worked amongst the closed community of money traders does not always work in an open society with a critical press and a political opposition looking for cracks in his leadership facade. With John Stephenson as his main counter when it comes to what the NZDF is really doing in Afghanistan, Key is on a hiding to nothing when he persists with his obfuscation on military-security matters.

 

On “average”

datePosted on 20:44, May 25th, 2012 by Lew

The New Zealand Herald’s archetypal “average” Kiwi family, the Ray family of Sandringham East, has declared the 2012 Budget “sensible and unspectacular”, probably the strongest endorsement Bill English could have hoped for. But let’s look at what this article signifies.

First and most obviously, the article makes something of the fact that the average income in Sandringham East is nearly identical to the average income across Auckland as a whole — not quite $27,000 per annum* — but the Ray family income is about four times that, $105,000. If both adults were in paid work, their income level would be about twice the average. But the article says that Amanda Ray is a full-time stay-at-home mum, from which we can reasonably assume that Alistair Ray’s income is four times the median on its own. Income level: not “average”.

The figures given for income, and for the decile rating of the local school, date from “the last census”, which was held in 2006. Census data from 2011, had it been held, would probably not yet have been released anyway, so that’s not really a factor — but the data is six years out of date in any case. The principal of the local school says the area is “gentrifying” and the middle-of-the-road decile 5 status is likely to be revised upwards. Suburb: not “average”. [Edit to add: the school decile rating doesn’t necessarily support this conclusion; see Graeme Edgeler’s comment explaining deciles, below.]

Alistair Ray is an urban designer, and Amanda has a doctorate in cancer research. I’m not sure of the qualifications required to become an urban designer, but I think it’s safe to assume that it requires postgraduate study to honours — probably master’s — level. Education: not “average”.

Education is just one aspect of social capital more generally. The Rays immigrated relatively recently from the UK. Their language is our language; their qualifications and experience are accepted here without question; many of our social norms and customs, and our legal and political systems are very similar to those of the UK, having been largely derived from the institutions of the Old Country. This is hardly uncommon — roughly a third of immigrants to NZ come from the UK — but neither is it typical. Immigrants from Asia and the Pacific (combined) make up a higher proportion, and these groups do not enjoy the same degree of familiarity that British immigrants do. Social capital: not “average”.

None of this is any sort of criticism of the Ray family. I have no doubt that they are honest, hardworking, skilled and decent folk who are committed to this country, who make a valuable contribution to it, and are as entitled as anyone else to express opinions on its government. They are welcome here. The Herald chose to frame them as an “average” family, though, and by these metrics they are not an “average” family. I think it is fair to characterise the Rays as an “aspirational” family.

And that, I think, answers the implicit question of whose view the Herald’s coverage seeks to express, and whose interests yesterday’s budget serves. The elision of “average” and “aspirational” is, I think, the single most powerful shift in this country’s political discourse in the past five years — since John Key took the National party leadership. This piece of terminology (and its close cousin, “ambitious”) dominated the 2008 election campaign, and while it has tailed off more recently, the policy settings the government has chosen demonstrate that it is still a core theme of their ideological project. This government does not speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders, and in this article the Herald does not really speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders. Blurring ideas of “aspiration” almost interchangeably with ideas of “average” defines an “us” in which nearly everyone includes themselves, persuading “average” people that the government speaks for, and to them, even though the policy programme yields them no direct advantage whatsoever. At the same time, it permits the government and others to define anyone who fails to “aspire” hard enough, for whatever reason — a lack of education or financial or social capital, chronic illness or disability, or a history of abuse, mental illness or repression, poor choices or simply bad fortune — as an unperson. So defined, the state can with relative impunity dismantle the system of benefits, state assistance and remedial advantage that, in the final analysis, enables more of the population to become genuinely “aspirational”.

That bell probably can’t be un-rung. I think we are stuck with this elision, and this delusion that everyone can be above-average — it’s normal, and expected, and if you aren’t, you’re a failure. That’s a concerning prospect.

L

* I should at least give credit to Simon Collins for using the median, rather than the mean with regard to income — many, including the government, are not so scrupulous.

Whining John.

datePosted on 15:28, May 15th, 2012 by Pablo

Late last year a friend of mine who works in the media said to me that the press had turned on John Key over the Teapot Tape affair. Key’s attempt to have the photographer prosecuted, following on his defamatory and/or contemptuous treatment of individual members of the press corps, was seen as the last straw. My friend noted that the press had generally been kind to Mr. Key during his first term and had avoided digging into a veritable trove of scandal and mischief simply because Mr. Key was riding high in the polls and they did not want to get off-side of a popular PM. That, my friend said, changed after the election, and the press would take a more critical stance with regard to Mr. Key and his government.

To my mind that was welcome news, because it seemed to me that Mr. Key had been treated with kid gloves during his first term and I felt that he needed to be pushed a bit on matters of National policy as well the behavior of some of his party entourage.

In the first quarter of 2012 a number of questions have been raised to Mr. Key that appear to support my friend’s prediction. None of these questions are particularly damaging by themselves, but a pattern has emerged in Mr. Key’s responses. Slowly but surely, as each new mini-scandal or crisis was revealed, Mr. Key began to drop his smile and wave optimism and replaced it with a surly, if not seething disdain for his questioners. Although he keeps his nice persona sharp for staged interviews on TV and radio, his guard drops when doing the impromptu stand-up Q&A with the press gallery. This was very evident when he was asked on one such occasion about the No Asset Sales hikoi, where he clearly struggled to reign in his contempt before saying that he did not concern himself with the opinion of 1000 people.

Now it appears he has had enough with the press in general and the NZH (and to a lesser extent the SST) in particular. He complained  to a rightwing talkback microphone jockey that the press was aggressive and sensationalistic and singled out the NZH as scandal-mongering in its treatment of him and his government in order to raise flagging sales of newsprint.

I do  not have any particular affection for the NZH, SST or the NZ MSM in general–in fact, just yesterday the TVNZ evening news borrowed without attribution a phrase I had used in a discussion about drones with Chris Laidlaw the day before(a phrase I did not coin or copyright but which I nevertheless introduced to the NZ discussion of the subject, which just happened to be the subject of the news item in the TVNZ One broadcast). Since such behavior is increasingly the norm in the NZ MSM, the standard of NZ journalistic training and ethics is, in my opinion, in the main less than optimal (needless to say there are some exceptions to the rule). But I find it ludicrous that Mr. Key is upset about the “aggressive” and “antagonistic” nature of the press approach towards him as of late. Shoot, he got the press equivalent of a free pass for the first three years in spite of often equivocal, deceptive or disingenuous answers to anything other than patsy questions. Why should he get upset when the questions begin to develop a harder edge? Does he not think such questioning comes with the job? Does he think that he is entitled to be treated differently than other politicians?

Of course, all politicians complain about their treatment in the media and past NZ prime ministers have not been above attacking the messenger or interrogator. But it seems to me that Mr. Key is being very rich when he complains about his recent treatment in the press. It may not be the solicitous if not supplicant posture of the first term, but the press approach to Mr. Key is also not anywhere close to the hostile negativity and contrariness of press corps in a wide range of democracies (I think of the partisan jousting that goes on in places like Argentina, the Philippines, the US, Spain, Taiwan and Italy, where the relationship between sections of the press corps and government executives is often very strained, if not toxic).

Thus I have come to the conclusion, following on previous posts about Mr. Key’s demeanor and attitude, that he is a pampered whiner with a royal’s sense of entitlement. He simply does not see himself as having to be accountable to a critical press, and as a result complains to the lapdog press that he is being treated unfairly. Not only is his accusation untrue. It is also politically stupid because it now has the media dissecting his complaint in public. If he thought he was going to win sympathy from anything other than his diehard base, he needs to think again.

Whatever calculus he may or may not be employing, I have one thing to say to him: harden up and do your friggin’ job, which includes fronting up to hard questions from time to time. After all, you do not get the big bucks just to smile and wave.

This may sound mean but having bank economists talk about global macro-and political economics on major NZ news outlets is like having pedophiles talking about childcare. Having them speak authoritatively on the “news” skews public perceptions of economic matters towards the preferred constructs of finance capital. Leaving aside the matter of finance capital’s interest in deregulation of capital flows and currency manipulation, using bank economists may be fine when discussing banking take-overs or interest rates in local markets. But there are many other economic interests at play that deserve mention when it comes to issues of political and macro economy and bank economists are ill-suited for a robust discussion of them. To the contrary, their “expert”opinions masquerading as informed commentary in the news media are often poisonous to the integrity of public debate on economic matters.

Is there not a single non-banker economist in NZ who could be used instead? Are all the Economics, Business and Management departments in local universities full of useless PBRF worshippers devoid of real world experience? Are there no economists in research centers, institutes or government agencies who could present a dispassionate and non-vested perspective on the state of global economic play? I find it hard to believe that is the case.

Just saying…

12345... 161718PreviousNext