Archive for ‘Propaganda’ Category
The political Right regularly accuses the Left of engaging in social engineering. Be it pushing such unnatural constructs as union and civil rights, health awareness and environmental concerns, the Right claims that the Left is out to control how people behave and even think. For freedom-loving individualists, this is anathema.
Consider my surprise, then, when I saw the Prime Minister saying that one of the reasons for the $2000 dollar “kiwi-first” purchase option with loyalty premium for Mighty River Power shares was to “change the investment psychology” of New Zealanders. It seems Kiwis put money into real estate and bonds, but not the stock market. Mr. Key thinks that his countrymen and women should diversify their portfolios into stocks, and the asset sales option is one way of promoting that. After all, it is not really prudent to have too many eggs in one basket.
I can see his logic. As a money trader and speculator, stock manipulation comes natural to Mr. Key. Sell short, hold, think long…he has the field covered. And truth be told, in a market environment such as NZ’s, it may not be unreasonable to urge people to spread their savings around. Higher rates of savings are traditionally linked to higher standards of living and growth, so by market logic such a move is both collectively and individually optimal.
What I find notable is the PM’s admission that the Mighty River Power stock purchase proposal is a deliberate attempt to alter the way Kiwis think about investment. In other words, it is a social engineering project that proposes to transform the psychological disposition of Kiwis when looking at their investment options.
But if that is the intention, how is that different from campaigns to get people to stop smoking, not drink and drive, use public transport, practice safe sex, license and desex their pets or stop littering? Are these not all examples of what the Right claims is undue interference by government on the rights of individuals to freely choose how to live their lives? Even if one admits that the share purchase option is not compulsory and still a matter of free choice (as are some of the examples just mentioned), is not the intention of the National government and Mr. Key to engage in exactly the type of social engineering–to include psychological indoctrination–that the Right accuses the Left of championing for its nefarious totalitarian purposes? Mr. Key has admitted that there is a social engineering intent to the proposal, so how is that good when other social engineering experiments are considered by the political Right to be bad? Or are some types of social engineering more acceptable to freedom-loving market individualists than others?
If the latter is true, than even the Right has to admit that social engineering projects embarked upon by governments are not always contrary to the small-governance/more market/individual choice principles that ideologically underpin Right thought. And if that is the case, then how can social engineering experiments be totalitarian, collectivist and fundamentally anti-democratic at their core?
Pardon me if I see a little contradiction here…
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.
* 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.
I struggle to believe the National party that read and led the public mood so well for most of the previous six years has so spectacularly lost its way. Recent months, and the past few weeks in particular, have been the government’s hardest, and only part of that is due to ministerial incompetence and bad optics. Part of it is because they have chosen policies that contradict the very narratives Key and his government have so carefully crafted.
This can’t be accidental. I think the fact that they barely won a majority despite the worst performance in a generation by the Labour party has convinced Key that this term is probably his last, and he intends to make best possible use of it. This is good strategy for them. It’s a strategy I’ve been writing about since Key was in opposition, and one that the Labour party ignored, to their detriment, until late in the last term. John Key is no mere smile-and-waver, but a man of action who, when the time is right, will act ruthlessly and decisively. He has spent his five years as leader earning the trust of the electorate, gaining a mandate, and now he intends to put that mandate to work. This country will not be the same in three years.
There are many possible examples here: privatisation of state assets is the most obvious, but is well-covered by others more informed than I am. I’ll cover three more recent topics: two are bad politics, but I can see the point to them; the last is simply a terrible idea that, if not abandoned quickly, will have profound implications for the future of New Zealand’s political discourse.
Paid parental leave
The decision to call an immediate veto on Sue Moroney’s private member’s bill extending paid parental leave was badly handled. If it were to be done, it ought to have been done immediately the bill was drawn, in an offhand way so as to frame the veto as inevitable; as it was, sufficient space was left for the idea to take root in the collective imagination of the electorate, and now the use of the veto looks anti-democratic; signalling it before it has even been debated looks doubly so, and leaves about a year for sentiment to continue to grow.
Of course, the government has the procedural right to take this action, if perhaps not the moral right to prevent Parliament from passing something that a majority of its members supports. But it chips away at the Key government’s carefully-framed appeal to being pro-middle-class, pro-family, pro-women. Unlike welfare reform, this is not an issue that only impacts people who would never vote for the National party anyway. Paid parental leave predominantly benefits middle-class (rather than working-class) families, and especially middle-class women — those who, for five years, the government has been reassuring that we are on your side. Key is personally very popular among women, and this has been central to National’s success. It looks like the government are prepared to sacrifice this on the altar of fiscal responsibility. The comparison to Barack Obama’s strategy to win a second term on the basis of strong opposition to GOP misogyny could hardly be more stark.
This is in spite of the argument on the merits: a low-cost policy that yields considerable long-term benefits of the sort the government has been anxious to create (or invent, if need be). And the arguments being levied against the scheme are particularly weird: “Is it about labour force participation, or about women spending more time with children?” Well, yes. “It’s discriminatory against non-working mothers!” Well, yes, but I don’t see any of the people making that argument supporting a Universal Motherhood Entitlement, and in fact, I distinctly remember some rhetoric about “breeding for a business” whenever such ideas are raised.
A possible reason for this bad veto call is that it foreshadows a future softening of National’s position on the topic; as Key did with the Section 59 bill, when it looks close to passing the government will signal support, in the spirit of bipartisan cooperation.
Or, maybe it’s just that they don’t care any more — so they’re unpopular, so what?
The latter argument also explains the decision, announced today, to limit the availability of student allowances and require higher repayments of student loans, although not completely. This is bound to be popular with those who have forgotten (or who never experienced) how hard it was to undertake tertiary study and build a career without Daddy’s cash and connections, and those of the generations who had it all laid on for them by the taxpayers of their day. But it will be less popular among the growing ranks of young voters, and it will be less popular among the parents of those young voters, who are having to provide financial support to their kids through their 20s and in some cases into their 30s, because said kids are finding the economic dream is more rosy than the reality.
This policy is also anti-middle-class, anti-family, and anti-women: because the middle class includes most of those who can afford to (and have the social and cultural capital to) undertake tertiary study; because it places an additional burden on their parents, and because women are already disadvantaged in terms of earning power, and therefore have less ability to avoid or pay back loans. It also erodes National’s aspirational, high-productivity, catch-up-with-Australia narrative, by raising the barrier to becoming qualified to do the high-productivity jobs that such a goal requires. More crucially, it erodes National’s “money in your pocket” narrative by imposing upon borrowers a higher effective marginal tax rate — over and above the existing 10% higher effective marginal tax rate — making it harder to survive on the wages that come with those jobs.
It could be worse. They’re not reintroducing student loan interest. But it is only the first budget of the term, and the same reasoning — this is good because it allows borrowers to pay off their loans sooner, and it will provide cost savings for the government — is true in spades when you charge interest. People can already pay their loans back more quickly if they choose — it is easy to do. People don’t, because wages are low and the cost of living is high, so the government wants to force them to do so. So much for choices.
Although I disagree with them, there is some political justification behind both these previous positions. But nothing explains the government’s decision to take a harder stance against asylum seekers. In the Australian context (and in the USA and the UK, although I know less about these), immigration and the treatment of asylum seekers is a political bonfire. This is most obvious in terms of human life and potential. Able, resourceful and motivated people are imprisoned for months or years, barely treated as humans, and allowed to become disenchanted and alienated while hostile bureaucrats decide their fate, and cynical politicians on all sides use them as ideological tokens in a dire game — before being released into society to fulfill the grim expectations that have been laid upon them. But it is also a bonfire for political capital — the more you chuck on, the brighter it burns — and for reasoned discourse. Politicians, commentators, lobbyists and hacks of all descriptions dance around this fire like deranged cultists which, in a sense, they are.
The immigration debate in Australia, though it barely deserves that name, is toxic, internecine, and intractable; it has been propagandised to the point where it is practically useless as a policy-formation tool, or as a means of gauging or guiding public sentiment. It sets light to everything it touches; people take leave of their senses and run around shrieking whatever slogans fit their lizard-brain prejudices. The word “sense” is used so often it ceases to have any meaning: all is caricature, and in keeping with this, other ordinary words also lose their value: assurances that asylum seekers will be treated “fairly” or that systems will be “efficient” would not be recognised as such by an impartial observer. Somehow, it becomes possible to simultaneously believe that the policies are targeted against “people-smugglers”, while being fully aware that the punitive costs imposed by such regimes are suffered by the smugglers’ victims. Otherwise-reasonable people resort to idiotic bourgeois framing such as “jumping the queue” — as if it’s OK to escape from political or religious persecution, if only you do so in a polite and orderly fashion. Mind the gap!
What makes it all the more stupid is that a brown tide of refugees in rusty boats is not even an issue for us: we are simply too isolated, and surrounded by waters too hostile, to be a viable destination. Unfortunately this fact will not be sufficient to prevent people from getting worked up about it, and demanding that Something Be Done. Someone on twitter recently said that anyone who could get a boatload of people here from the third world deserved a beer and our congratulations, and I couldn’t agree more. We need people with the degree of daring, toughness and pioneer spirit to make such a journey, and qualities such as these were once most highly prized.
This policy also undercuts National’s mythology about itself, most assiduously cultivated over the past year in preparation for the sale of the Crafar farms and other assets — of New Zealand as a land of opportunity, welcoming to outsiders and open for business. National have been swift to condemn any deviation from this line as xenophobic, and yet this is somehow different. It is worse than a solution in search of a problem — it is a cure that is far more harmful than its ailment.
What’s more, while I can see the underlying political reasoning behind the two other policies I’ve discussed here, I can’t see the reasoning for this one. Most likely it is an attempt to cultivate some love in redneck-talkback land; to shore up slipping sentiment among the culturally-conservative base that National used to own. But even in this it is misguided: this is not a debate that does any major party any good. It is an opportunity for extremists to grandstand, to pander to society’s most regressive elements. It crowds out meaningful discussion of other matters, it makes reason and compromise impossible, and what’s worst: it never dies. We saw a glimpse of this with the Ahmed Zaoui case; by fearmongering about boatloads of Chinese en route from Darwin on the basis of just one isolated case National runs the risk of admitting this sort of idiocy to the national conversation permanently.
And that might be this government’s legacy. The former two topics, while they will change New Zealand’s politics in meaningful ways, are essentially part of the normal partisan ebb and flow. Asset sales is much bigger; other topics, like primary and secondary education reform and the proposal to cap government expenditure will also have longer-term and more profound impacts. The National government has a mandate, and they are using it while they can, in the knowledge that you can’t take it with you when you go. That is understandable, if perhaps regrettable.
But to use such a mandate to permanently poison New Zealand’s discourse, willingly driving it towards a permanent state of cultural war is a different sort of politics altogether — deeper, more ancient, harder to control, and much more dangerous. I hope I’m wrong.
Whatever your opinion regarding the Urewera Terror raids, you have to admit that the Police and Crown Law have failed.
The so-called “Urewera 4″ were convicted on about half of the least-serious charges brought, and the jury was hung on the more serious charges of participation in an organised criminal group. The defendants may be retried on these latter charges, and they may yet be found guilty. But the paucity of the Police and Crown Law operation is pretty clear regardless.
Let’s put this in context. The Crown sought initially to lay dozens more charges against many more people than the four who eventually stood trial; leave to bring charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act was not granted, and most of the other charges were dropped after the Supreme Court ruled that the evidence upon which they were founded had been illegally obtained. A year of fancy intensive surveillance; an extreme and unprecedented police assault on an unsuspecting community, including violent treatment of old people and children; four and a half years of lawyering comprising the most expensive trial in New Zealand history, held almost as far from the homes of the defendants as is possible; leaks and publicity tactics designed to bring about a de-facto trial-by-media — and the best they convict on is Arms Act offences such as about half the adult male population of rural New Zealand would be guilty of at some time or other? This, we are supposed to believe, is Aotearoa’s finest at work.
Not only did they fail at the nominal objective of securing convictions, they totally failed at the personal, punitive motive of punishing Tāme Iti and shaming him before his people. Iti has been literally the face of Māori activism, at least since Hone Harawira took the institutional path, and it is impossible to see this trial as anything other than utu for his temerity in escaping conviction for previous acts of defiant political theatre, most notably shooting a flag at a Waitangi Tribunal hearing in 2005. By going in loud and heavy, attempting to show them uppity Māoris who was boss, the Crown set themselves an ambitious target: they had to actually show who was boss. By failing to convict him on the serious charges at a canter, they failed. Tāme Iti is now a celebrity. His mythology is greater than his deeds, except inasmuch as resisting such a legal and ideological onslaught with dignity is a significant deed in itself. He has, in the view of a significant minority of the population, been victimised by the system, and that victimisation provides proof of Crown oppression he had previously struggled to demonstrate. For the rest of the population, Iti represents a brown, tattooed bogeyman, an object of fear, and of loathing that ranges from mild to virulent depending on who you talk to. Iti isn’t standing for office, he doesn’t need to be loved by 50%+1; he just needs to engender fervent support among an active minority, and vague feelings of unease in the rest. Notoriety differs from fame only in its polarity. The Police and the Crown have granted Tāme Iti this sort of fame. He should probably thank them for it.
As if the particular and the personal weren’t failures enough, the Crown also failed at the strategic project of redefining “activism” as “extremism”. Despite all the preceding factors weighing in the Crown’s favour, that a heavily-vetted jury was split indicates that they have failed to blur this crucial distinction, and failed to reframe left-wing and Māori activism* as a threat to civilisation, rather than a legitimate expression of dissent in an open society. This suggests that, in spite of years of Police infiltration and surveillance, of decades of stigmatisation and propagandisation of groups from Ngā Tamatoa to Ploughshares to SAFE, in spite of the better part of two centuries of official attempts to elide the gulf between dissent and insurrection, the public doesn’t really buy it. The jury — and, I would suggest, the people of Aotearoa — quite like and value that distinction and although it is been somewhat eroded, there it remains.
For that finding alone, and regardless of the result of any retrial, yesterday was a good day.
* Māori and leftist because, let us not forget, the Right Wing Resistance are free to continue with their training camps and their pseudo-secessionist projects, unmolested.
And now NZ On Air board member Stephen McElrea (who, in Tom Frewen’s marvellously dry turn of phrase, “also happens to be John Key’s electorate chairman and the National Party’s northern region deputy chairman”) has used his dual position of authority to demand answers from the funding body and, simultaneously, make implicit but forceful statements about what constitutes “appropriate” policy material for such a funding body to support.
There has been some outrage on the tweets about the obvious propaganda imperative here — agenda-control is pretty crucial to a government, never more so than during election campaigns — and I agree with Sav that this shows a need for NZOA to be more independent, more clearly decoupled from the government, not less so. Stephen McElrea, after all, is not simply a disinterested member of a crown funding agency — he is a Key-government appointee to the NZOA board, a political actor in his own right, and has a history of advocating for broadcasting policies curiously similar to those being enacted by the present government, such as in a 2006 column titled “Scrap the charter and get TVNZ back to business”.
I may write more about this as it develops, although it seems likely that the ground will be better covered by people much more qualified than I am. But what I will do is return to my initial point, to wit:
I still haven’t heard that peep. Given the fact that the National party leader feels at liberty to dismiss attempts by David Shearer and others to make child poverty alleviation a matter of bipartisan consensus, and that a senior National party official so close to the leader feels at liberty to throw his weight around in this professional capacity, I rather despair of hearing it.
The image above is “scientifically formulated to enhance [women's] perception of men who drink Molson [...] a perfectly tuned combination of words and images designed by trained professionals. Women who are exposed to it experience a very positive feeling. A feeling which they will later project directly onto [men who drink Molson].”
That’s not my analysis; it’s what the creatives who developed the ad said about it, in another ad. The first ad, the one you see above, ran in Cosmopolitan and was pitched at women. The ad from which the explanatory text was drawn ran in Playboy under the heading “Hundreds of thousands of women. Pre-programmed for your convenience.” The full analysis is here, on the Sociological Images blog.
The lesson is essentially that propaganda relies on market segmentation; messages crafted and pitched with accuracy and intent. If you read what you’re told to read, you’ll think what you’re told to think. Avoiding such a fate means embracing diversity of input, understanding your opponents’ arguments and their reasoning even if you disagree with it. To a large extent that means consuming their media. For a rounded perspective you’ll need, at least occasionally, to read sites like DailyKos and Free Republic, infuriating and interminable comment threads on The Standard and Kiwiblog, and SOLOpassion and Gates of Vienna and WSWS and the Wall Street Journal; listen to talkback, watch Fox News and pick up both Cosmo and Playboy from time to time, for the articles or whatever. This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but the point is: read, listen, watch and discuss promiscuously. Argue with those folks you disagree with; drink beer with them from time to time. Take them seriously. Insist that they take you seriously, and give them reasons to do so.
It might hurt; in fact, it often will. But it beats being a dittohead.
Edit to add: Anita points out that the Sociological Images post created a bit of a stir. They write:
As you would. Not clear whether they now regret the decision to run such ads, or whether it’s a pro-forma blowback response.
These things occurred to me while making my daughter’s birthday cake:*
Endorsement games continue, with a range of people from across the political spectrum still out for Shearer; including Goff’s erstwhile strategist John Pagani and that notorious Mooreite Phil Quin alongside the rest of us Tory plants. Meanwhile, David Cunliffe has the endorsement of the Young Nats, here and here. Cheap shots, but it is the Young Nats after all. When they’re not photoshopping your head onto a dictator they obviously have the hots for you.
This sudden and spontaneous outbreak of public-sphere democracy is sending Labourite dittoheads into a panic; they’re convinced it’s a trap — one so cunning they can’t see what the right has to gain from it, but it must be something. It’s like they’ve forgotten what they believe; they just read Farrar, Slater, Hooton and Odgers and believe the opposite. Tragic. Those guys are good and all, but they only have so much power because so much of the NZ left is stricken with paranoiac idiotosis.
Meanwhile Trevor Mallard has it all figured out: the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy decision to endorse Shearer is not a trick to ship Labour with an easybeat leader (or worse, a wolf in sheep’s clothing) — in fact it’s a double-bluff designed to give Labour second thoughts about choosing the obviously-best candidate. (Incidentally James Meager, formerly of the now-defunct Mydeology blog, called this on Thursday.) Someone should redo the poison scene from The Princess Bride with such rationalisations. It’s positively Kremlinesque; parallels to the well-documented phenomenon of impending-collapse paranoia within authoritarian regimes seem almost too obvious.
Nevertheless, amongst all the bogus objections, I think there are two legitimate concerns about Shearer’s potential leadership. The first I noted in the Close Up interview: his presentation is not strong. He ums, stutters and hesitates, speaks too softly and lacks cut-through. When he’s been put on the spot he has struggled. He is much better at the set-piece but that on its own is not enough. What he does have to say is often very good; he is a very perceptive listener and he has a pretty remarkable grasp on a wide range of issues. (There’s a comprehensive archive of his weekly in-depth interviews with interesting and important people on the radio here.) That having been said, our present PM is akshully not the world’s greatest public speaker, and the public may view a less-polished performance as a common touch. Whatever the case, this weakness can be overcome by training; presentation is one of the few things in politics that can really be taught. Key and Clark are both great examples.
(Incidentally, it amuses me greatly to see folk who’ve always been focused on wonkish detail and hard policy, to the stern exclusion of doing anything that might win elections, now complaining about a candidate on the grounds that he talks a bit funny.)
The second objection is a bit more substantive, and was raised separately by Anita and by Chris Trotter, and also by Audrey Young: Shearer is reputedly aligned with Damien “gaggle of gays” O’Connor, and perhaps other members of what I have previously termed the blue collars, red necks faction of Labour. Because of this, Young suggests, a Shearer-led Labour will be “a more pragmatic party, with less emphasis on gays and feminists”, or as others might say, he might mean the end of identity politics. Leaving aside the offensive dichotomy between pragmatism and support for equal rights, I don’t think this necessarily follows. O’Connor’s views as expressed in his infamous “gaggle of gays” comment were somewhat archaic, but it’s not clear they will greatly shape the party’s culture. In addition, O’Connor has a point: homophobia aside, his critique of the faction politics of the Labour party has some merit (he also criticised “self-serving unionists”, Trotter’s latest target). Absent any indication that Shearer himself shares O’Connor’s unreconstructed views I think it’s a long bow to draw. Even so, I think the priority for Labour now is sorting its institutions out, and that will mean deemphasising some other projects. I can see this being a touchstone issue for some people; vive la difference.
Lastly, what we have before us is a Labour leadership candidate that can be supported by the right-wingers and former strategists noted above, Sanctuary, AK, myself and presumably because of his potential appeal to Waitakere Man and supposed opposition to identity politics, Comrade Trotter. A person like that doesn’t come along very often.
* Huhu grub cake made of rolled lemon sponge filled with fresh cream and bush honey, lemon cream cheese icing. Yeah, colonial-bourgeois Kiwiana is how we postmodern Gen-X long-spoon suppers roll.
Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged isn’t a work with universal appeal, but it interests me as a work of propaganda. It is a powerful text, and one that has had an enduring influence on Western politics. While my disdain for Objectivism and the sanity of most of its adherents is pretty well documented, I do, at least to an extent, get the appeal.
There are some things that were inevitably going to be bad about the recent movie adaptation Atlas Shrugged: Part I, the first in a trilogy: the utopian pseudo-philosophy at its core; unlovable heroes and pantomime villains; the absurdity of a mysterious stranger going about making zillionaires offers they can’t refuse to leave it all behind, and so on. This is all the usual stuff of Atlas Shrugged criticism and while fair enough, it’s not really pertinent to criticism of the movie, because the movie couldn’t have been made authentically without it. (The question of whether it should have been made authentically at all is another one; I think it should.) So this review isn’t a critique of the novel, or Rand’s philosophy; it’s a critique of the film.
There’s a scene early on in the story where Paul Larkin, a business-courtier of sorts, counsels Hank Rearden about the importance of public opinion. The movie plays it pretty straight and is much shorter than the novel text, so the dialogue is transcribed here:
This theme — to hell with what the peasants think, only quality matters — it central to Rand’s work, and the filmmakers here have taken it entirely to heart. They have made a film that is almost incomprehensible to those who aren’t familiar with Rand’s text, presumably on the premise that anyone who matters will know the story already, or will be able to divine the work’s innate and self-evident quality for themselves.* The result is a simplistic, primary retelling of Atlas Shrugged: a film without cinematic appeal or narrative cohesion, and that doesn’t effectively convey Rand’s milieu, her ideas, or her ideology, and consequentially fails to live up to her vision.
The first and most immediately evident failure is that the film is talky to a fault. Before it was released I expressed concerns that a production team of Objectivist True Believers would lack the necessary courage to take the red pen to the hallowed text. This fear has been fully borne out. What works on the page — and what worked on the page in the 1950s — does not always work on-screen. The iron law of the moving picture is show me, don’t tell me, and it is not unfaithful to cut an author’s prose to suit the needs of a new medium. Yet it seems every cut, every edit (and of course there are many; it’s a long book) has been made reluctantly.
Seriously: as Hank and Dagny retire to their rooms after celebrating the John Galt Line’s maiden run, we don’t need Hank to confide in a stage-whisper to Dagny that he wants to kiss her, or for her to say “what’s stopping you?”. Earlier, after about 40 minutes of wondering when the hell the movie is going to start, we got a brief conversation about dessert, banana or chocolate? In other cases Rand’s phraseology intrudes: the introduction of John Galt — the first meaningful piece of dialogue in the film — comes almost verbatim from the novel: he introduces himself as “someone who knows what it’s like to work for himself, and not let others feed off the profits of his energy”. Come again? Rand’s hackneyed ideological tropes (“Anti Dog Eat Dog Act” &c) are retained without the benefit of the novel’s context, in which they make sense. The screenplay manages to fail both the tasks of good exposition: convey a vivid sense of milieu, and do so efficiently and with congruence. While you could argue it sets the scene, it’s still not entirely clear what that scene is, or why so many words were needed to set it.
Casting and direction is poor, as is to be expected from a first-time director possessed of sufficient (and archetypically-Randian) hubris to cast himself as John Galt. There is an utter dearth of chemistry between the characters; the actors do a mostly serviceable job, but they are given precious little to work with. Rand’s heroes are notable for their severity, but also for their passion, and while the emotional top-note of severity is overplayed, the undertone of passion for the most part just fails to cut through. There are, in this film based on a very emotionally-intense novel, about four moments of genuine emotional intensity. The first is about half-way through, when Ellis Wyatt shouts at Dagny in her office. It is a jarring moment, and not in a good way — the first moment in the film where anyone on-scene is speaking above a low conversational tone, and is totally off-register. It comes out of nowhere — in the novel, again, it was cushioned by exposition — and confuses the relationships between the characters. This is a particular problem in a film where it is already unclear who are supposed to be the “good guys” and who the “bad” (again, a lack of effective exposition).
At other times, despite remaining slavishly faithful to Rand’s dialogue, the film alters the register of a scene so utterly that it is unrecognisable. The sex scene between Hank and Dagny is one of the central events of the first part of the novel: two kindred spirits, having previously thought themselves alone in the world, consummating their relationship with violent intensity. Her “highest achievement”, Dagny calls it, in the novel; in the film we are treated to a slow-motion desaturated montage of soft fades, arched backs and half-open mouths. Its only redeeming feature is its brevity. I mentioned that there were about four moments of genuinely intense emotion in the film: this was not one of them. Going to such lengths to retain Rand’s words while neglecting to retain the tone and sense of her narrative is penny-wise and pound-foolish, as far as authenticity goes.
Deeper than the failure of narrative, though, is the film’s failure to deliver its ideological payload. The expression of Rand’s ideology is garbled, the narrative itself is poorly explicated. Nor is it carried by structure, or image or performance, or anything, really. Signature scenes that conveyed this material vividly and at tiresome length in the novel are all but absent — such as the encounter with Hugh Akston, which becomes a trivial footnote in a weird road-trip montage — while other aspects, such as Rearden’s sell-down and the implementation of various acts and regulations, are bogged down in irrelevant technical detail. We learn a lot about the structure of the steel and railroad industries in Rand’s America, but very little about why these things matter to the story.
So although the filmmakers have remained quite true to the text this is not a film that is true to Rand’s vision. It’s barely a film — it’s more like an illustrated audiobook, badly abridged. Rand was a screenwriter whose work was produced on Broadway; someone who understood drama, who wanted Clint Eastwood and Farrah Fawcett to play the leads in the movie of Atlas Shrugged. She worked to have it produced twice, as a film, and then as an eight-hour miniseries; both failed. At the time of her death she was (re)writing the screenplay herself. She had great ambitions for the movie. As an ideologue and a propagandist she knew and understood deeply the power of words and images, of ideas and argumentation, to move people, and for all their faults her novels — or this one, at least — did that.
Film’s use as a propaganda medium was by no means alien to her. Early Soviet Russia had the best-developed ideological film tradition of its time, and Rand was also said to have caught what Lev Kuleshov referred to as “Americanitis”, infatuation with America, from watching the Hollywood films that so eloquently portrayed the bourgeois individualism of American life. The films of the Soviet tradition in which she grew up, no less than those of the classical Hollywood system in which Rand later worked, were profoundly cinematic works, used quite purposively to convey ideological material in every cut, every frame, every note. It was not a tradition of simplistic, literal narrative adaptations, but works of political art in their own right.
Like the exponents of Soviet montage, Rand tirelessly inferred ideological symbolism into arbitrary works of art. She was not afraid to challenge readers, to shock or outrage them. For all it may be nominally faithful to the text, this film fails to use the aesthetic tools of the medium to convey its message. It fails to challenge, or shock, or outrage. It fails to do anything, really. This movie of a novel about the primacy of action over inaction, preoccupied with the most immense mechanical and ideological forces, literally about the engines that drive humanity, is shamefully static.
The film’s dearth of cinematic character means that not only has it failed to make money (an Objectivist KPI), but it also fails to fulfil the purpose of an ideological text: to engage, to inspire, to move people. Other than those for whom the text is sacred, who overlook the faults of the adaptation out of fawning affection for the source material, nobody is watching Atlas Shrugged: Part I; there were no queues, there is no buzz. At a time of deep and divisive public debate about the nature of the relationships between business and government, between the state and the individual, at a time when Rand’s latter-day apostles are so fond of declaring that her work has never been more relevant, and that her ideas are enjoying a renaissance, there isn’t even any outrage about this film. In this regard it is no better than the preachy Bible films, full of hollow, lazy sentimentality, that get replayed to captive audiences of bored children every Easter and Christmas. The Gospel According to St Matthew this ain’t.
For all I disagree with her philosophy, Rand’s novel deserved better. As noted, her work is packed with references to the expression of ideology and exaltation in the everyday — in the structure of a building, a person’s voice or bearing; or most notoriously, in their approach to sex. This film is no such expression of any innate excellence. Echoing the conversation between Hank Rearden and Paul Larkin, a motif of Atlas Shrugged is frequent reference to the composer Richard Halley, one of the “strikers”, whose work is described as so profound that it is misunderstood and mocked by the ordinary workaday folks, the leeches and moochers and second-handers, and by the time they come around to appreciating it Halley has decided they are not worthy.** Objectivists certainly consider Halley’s work as being analogous to Rand’s, and I get the sense that the principals of Atlas Shrugged: Part I fancy themselves as having created such a work — one that can only be properly appreciated by those of a nobler character. That they, as Galtian Übermenschen, would succeed where everyone else had failed by sheer force of will, and in spite of the doubts and limitations placed upon them by the second-handers. Their conceit could hardly be greater.
Perhaps those of us who are not Objectivists should be grateful; Atlas Shrugged made to Eisenstein, DeMille, Capra or Pasolini’s standards would be a mighty work of propaganda indeed.
* Fitting irony: this review also assumes readers are familiar with the story.
I recently tore into Chris Trotter’s argument that polls are deployed to promote a “spiral of silence”, to demoralise those holding non-majority views, and to deter them from political speech and action. I stand by that post, and I still don’t think the argument holds in the general case, but this morning I think we saw an example where polling data was used in just such a way.
National campaign chair Steven Joyce appeared on Morning Report defending the party’s handling of the “teapot tapes” strategy. Joyce came to his Morning Report interview armed with overnight polling data that he says shows 81% of people are sick of the coverage of the teapot tapes, only 13% think the issue is a big deal, and that some in the media ought to take a long, hard look at themselves. Russell Brown covers the topic in more detail; this post began as a comment there).
Leaving aside questions about the veracity of these figures (they could be utterly fabricated and we’d be none the wiser; Bomber reckons they’re bollocks), this actually is a case of a politician deploying polling data to send a message, not only to the media, but to the public: If you care about this you’re out of touch, disconnected, in the minority, obsessed with trivia, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves. While I disagree with his assessment, what’s more interesting is how he framed that assessment: as a normative argument about what election campaigns ought to be about, and what “real New Zealanders” care about; echoing John Key’s “issues that really matter” rhetoric, which is precisely what all the National supporters I’m in touch with have been saying: nothing to see here, it’s a sideshow, can we get back to the substance, and all that.
Which is pretty ironic given that the Nats have done extremely well for most of the preceding five years by staying the hell away from policy arguments wherever possible. It’s a pretty remarkable position from a National party whose strategic success has been largely founded on a ruthless commitment to campaign realism, expressed by avoiding “noble” pursuits such as the robust policy focus and appearances in the hard-news media in favour of what is effective — personality and brand-focused campaigns, point-scoring, agenda domination, and routine appearances in sympathetic forums, for example. It’s even more remarkable since Joyce himself has been the architect of this strategy since the 2008 campaign.
So I am cynical about National’s sudden love for the “real issues”. They have touched on them before — the election-year launch of the privatisation policy that I wrote about in February is the best recent example — but this has hardly been their preferred route. What seems more likely is the “spiral of silence” imperative — marginalise, shame and heap scorn upon those who genuinely see a substantial public interest in the way the teapot tapes episode has played out, not out of a prurient interest in the contents of those tapes but because — as Danyl notes, it “keys into a huge range of really substantive issues: the Prime Minister’s integrity; media ethics; surveillance”. This deployment of normally-secret polling data — probably collected for this exact purpose using carefully-framed questions — seems like an attempt to bully into silence those who aren’t willing to ignore an unprecedented breakdown in the relationship between the Prime Minister and the media, and a nearly-unprecedented glimpse into the internal workings and political culture of the National party and its leader.
It has had the desired effect on other political parties — Phil Goff and Peter Dunne have sung from the same songsheet today, leaving only Winston Peters to reap the electoral harvest from these events. Given that, it is not unlikely that it would have a similar effect on voters, especially in Epsom. Of course, there may not be an electoral harvest; the polling data might be accurate and it may genuinely be perceived as a “Bowen Triangle” sideshow. I don’t think so, but then, I would say that.
Update: Since writing this, Fairfax has released a poll of their own that suggests the public are over the teapot tapes. Its numbers are considerably more ambivalent than those released by Steven Joyce, however; the strongest result was for the obviously-correct proposition that politicians should be able to discuss controversial topics privately (63%). On this basis Matthew Hooton is now praising the strategy as “genius”. It’s also important to realise that this isn’t a pure popularity contest, but a balance of complex factors — the intensity of sentiment on either side matters. As Danyl remarked in the Public Address thread, “If 4% of National supporters switch their vote over to Winston Peters on the basis of this affair, then that’s a strategic catastrophe for Joyce’s party, no matter what the other 96% do.” There’s no indication that this has happened, of course, but there’s no really definitive indication of the fallout from these events at all. The Herald on Sunday tomorrow will be fascinating.
To state the bleeding obvious: the coordinated actions of a group of Green activists to deface National party billboards is bad form. This is not so much because of the defacement itself (that’s bad enough), but because of the scale and extent of the organisation by members and representatives of another political party, and one which claims to be a good electoral citizen.
The method of defacement — stickers with snarky slogans, mimicking National party campaign material but conveying opposing messages — was clever, well-executed, and the slogans might arguably be true, but that doesn’t excuse the offence against our democratic loix de la guerre, such as they are. That having been said, I would not be so concerned if it had been undertaken on a smaller scale, had been less organised and more “organic”, and particularly if it had not been coordinated and undertaken by members of a rival parliamentary organisation that stands to gain a zero-sum advantage from National’s embarrassment. A certain amount of public-sphere critique and satire is to be expected within a democracy, and at times that means having to tolerate a little vandalism. But these actions crossed well beyond what most people would consider reasonable.
Fortunately for National, and unfortunately for the Greens, this sort of transgression brings its own punishment, and the episode should be a clear lesson to all political parties that dirty tricks of this nature aren’t on (or, more cynically, if you’re going to go there, you need to outsource it). This goes double for the Greens, whose political brand of good-faith, play-the-ball-not-the-man politics would have been ruined if this were seen to be an integral part of the Green strategy. It seems not to have been seen that way, and I think this is largely due to the exemplary response by Russel Norman (and to the best of my knowledge, other senior Greens), coming clean as early as possible (only a few hours after co-leader Metiria Turei urged the Prime Minister to do likewise regarding the “teapot tapes”), and offering the time of Green party volunteers to repair the harm done. This shows excellent faith and genuine respect for the democratic process, and in an ideal world such a response would also be its own reward — though in reality a public opportunity to demonstrate such a commitment may not be worth as much as a dose of (in this case, justified) outrage. It is a black mark against the Greens’ institutional competence that such a stunt could be arranged so close to the leadership, but this shouldn’t be overstated. In general they are pretty good, and given the size, diversity and ideological fervour of their activist community, that this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often is itself quite remarkable.
An unrelated observation regarding National party billboards: most days I travel between Kapiti and Wellington, and on the weekend for my sins I drove to Palmerston North and back. Leaving aside the demographic changes between electorates, it puzzles me that the National billboards are erected in such a slapdash manner. If you’re going to have a billboard campaign setting out an ordered list of priorities, why on earth would you not stage the billboards in order following peak traffic flows so as to establish a coherent, narrative communication platform? Perhaps they have attempted this, but some billboards have been knocked over, obscured or whatever. But I have been able to distinguish no clear patterns, and it seems a missed opportunity.