Archive for ‘Propaganda’ Category

Protesting a little bit too much

datePosted on 10:31, October 23rd, 2009 by Lew

21clarkyoungnats_smallDPF published two posts yesterday about prominent lefties comparing righties to fascists: Minto comparing Bush to Hitler and Amin, and Carter comparing Key to Mussolini. I agree with him that both comparisons are entirely unjustified, and do a great disservice to political discourse in this country.

But without taking away from that, let’s not forget that David, his commentariat, his blogging cohort and indeed some of his ideological allies have spent most of the past decade making political hay by comparing Helen Clark to various dictators. David was central to the Free Speech Coalition whose billboards protesting the Electoral Finance Act evoked Mao Zedong and Frank Bainimarama; he wrote a weekly column entitled ‘Dispatch from Helengrad’, perpetuating the Clark=Stalin syllogism; his blog permits and tacitly endorses the almost daily comparison of left-wing political figures to tyrants; his closest blogging acquaintance Cameron Slater has constructed his political profile almost entirely of such cloth. The National and ACT parties themselves have a very large portfolio of such comparisons — from the Young Nats publishing the famous image above, to Heather Roy talking about the Clark government’s ‘feminazi’ welfare agenda to Bill English’s frequent comparisons of the Clark government to the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, both in the House and in the media. And how could I forget John Banks — former National party cabinet minister and now Citizens & Ratepayers Mayor of Auckland — whose public comparisons of Clark to Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot and references to her as the ‘Chairman of the Central Committee’ among others only ceased when he decided to run for Mayor and they were no longer politically tenable. To say nothing of the foaming of various branches of the libertarian and objectivist movements, who are admittedly further from National than Labour are, but nevertheless have been occasional allies of convenience. Although typically less egregious than Carter’s and Minto’s comparisons, these are all the same in principle. The difference is one of magnitude, not of type. And the very worst examples of the type are exclusively from the right.

I should imagine that many of those who engaged in these sorts of attacks on Clark and her government but who are wide-eyed with mock outrage now that the shoe is on the other foot believe (to themselves if not in public) that the former comparisons were rooted in reality, while these latter are not and so are not justified. This demonstrates a phenomenal absence of political or historical perspective: Clark, like Bush, was removed peacefully from office by the ordinary process of democratic action, and the comparison of their programmes with those of the named dictators simply does not bear comparison, and it is disrespectful to history to draw it. David is right to point out that Labour are wrong for stooping to the level of National and ACT and their less-savoury constituents, but that does not erase the initial wrongness which spawned it, and in which he played a role.

L

[Edited to add Banksie and the libertarians to the list of offenders, and add the image at top.]

Winner does not take all

datePosted on 10:28, October 21st, 2009 by Lew

Peter Shirtcliffe is furious (audio), and well he might be, because the government’s plans for electoral reform are eminently sensible, subject to wide bipartisan support, and most critically, not at all hasty. This is electoral reform done right: for change, a majority of voters must reject the status quo system outright at two consecutive general elections, with plenty of time for reflection, consultation and campaigning before each.

Shirtcliffe’s proposal for a one-off vote on which electoral system to use at the 2011 election makes only one concession from his holy grail of government decisiveness: he thinks it should be preferential. His scheme aims to deliver that grail to his beloved National party wholesale and for good, by springing fundamental constitutional change upon the NZ electorate with less than two years’ notice and discussion, with no societal safety net, no cooling-off period, no opportunity for reflection. It would turn the time between now and the 2011 general election into an all-out propaganda war for the future of democracy in New Zealand, a war in which the National government and its allies hold all the strategic ground: unprecedented popular support and an opposition at its nadir; confused and rebranding environmental and social justice movements; the recent memory of an unpopular and dysfunctional government which represented all that people thought was wrong with MMP; a political environment in which many people will simply vote for what That Nice Man John Key recommends; and an anti-MMP lobby which is practiced, prepared and very well-resourced. Shirtcliffe’s careful circumspection — refusal to express opinions on such matters as what system should be adopted, and how campaign funding should be managed — and flattery of the plebiscite (“we’ve got an intelligent electorate out there”) seeks to hide this behind a high-handed neutrality of purpose, masking the fact that the process he advocates yields his own cause very great advantages.

Shirtcliffe’s decisiveness imperative insists that the winner must take all, in elections and in constitutional reform as in heavyweight boxing: a few ceremonial minutes in an enclosed space which determine who is the winner and who is the loser, and all that happens in between bouts is meaningless hype. It is not a democratic model, it is not a consultative model, it is not a model which gives adequate consideration to the views and opinions of the electorate at large; far from respecting electors as intelligent and capable actors, it reduces politics for the individual voter to a single, somewhat inconvenient event which happens once every three years, or in the case of something as important as changing the electoral system, once every generation or so if we’re very fortunate. Fortunately for New Zealand, and indeed to the great credit of the National party, he has been denied. The proposed framework should yield a legitimate and durable result, and one which should be supported even by those whose preferred option is not selected.

There’s much which could go awry yet, but this framework is as good as we could hope for. Idiot/Savant’s assertion that “if we want to protect MMP, its not enough simply to vote for no change in 2011 – we also have to chuck out National, just to be on the safe side” seems a little overwrought — National under Key has taken to MMP like a duck to water, learning to play both ends against the middle in a way the Clark government never did. And although there have been some recent cat-herding problems to do with keeping errant ministers in line, and around the rugby world cup, I can’t see a desire to return to the bad old days of one party rule. I do think National will campaign hard for SM as an it’s-the-same-really-only-better option, and this provides Labour and the Greens a good opportunity to differentiate itself — by pushing for MMP-as-it-is-now, or MMP-with-some-changes; although it must be said Labour aren’t behaving much like MMP-aware political actors these days. A larger threat from the National party, I believe, is the possibility of rolling the abolition of Māori seats into the new electoral system, or choosing to support an electoral system in a second referendum which (they may claim) renders the seats obsolete. This will be a strong wedge, and will enable National to frame the debate in terms beneficial to its own interests.

I await the further propagandisation of electoral systems with interest. Meanwhile, I/S’s conclusion is unarguable: “we need to make it clear to both parties: our democracy is non-negotiable.” And I’m still interested in peoples’ responses to the question: what kind of electoral system do we actually want?

L

Maybe the greens are doomed after all

datePosted on 13:54, October 1st, 2009 by Lew

That’s greens with a small g, not the party itself, though with reference to this.

Anonymous Coward at The Standard sez:

To put it simply, you cannot be a socialist, a greenie or any kind of progressive and eat meat.

Way to isolate those political movements to the lunatic fringe.

I have myself used a similar rhetorical device before, notably in critique of Chris Trotter’s class-and-only-class dogma. But I didn’t go so far as to insist that people can’t rightly call themselves progressives unless they return their raupatu land to the tangata whenua from whom it was taken (as my family did) — only that they support, rather than hinder the overall agenda of Māori self-determination.

I’m thrilled for people to advocate lifestyle changes on the basis of their political, economic and environmental consequences, and I was right with the AC in their struggle for acceptance of their chosen lifestyle option — until it became clear that if I wasn’t with them, I was against them. It’s important to draw strong distinctions of principle and practice in your political movement, but I surely don’t need to point out the manifest idiocy of setting the bar so high as to consciously exclude four fifths or nine tenths of the population. Including toad!

In short: if them’s the club rules, then count me out, and count ‘most everyone else out as well — it’s your loss, not mine. Perhaps socialism is already marginalised in this way; but environmentalism and progressivism have a future without this sort of damfoolish absolutism. The future of those two political movements lies more with liberalism, as the preeminent philosophical force in modern Western democratic politics, than with the sort of proscriptive authoritarianism evident in that post. If they are to succeed it is with the carrot of willing change, not the stick of forced exclusion.

L

Conservatives speak a different language

datePosted on 21:47, September 29th, 2009 by Pascals Bookie

… and often I don’t understand it.

Pretty much every time I see the term ‘Social Engineering’ used I think the writer has got it backwards.

Mark Krikorian writes in a short post at NRO’s corner blog:

As John O’Sullivan wrote years ago in NR, if different groups of Americans had children at different rates, resulting in changes in the ethnic (or religious or whatever) composition of the nation, that’s nobody’s business one way or the other. But mass immigration, especially in the context of the low fertility levels that are inherent to modernity, represents social engineering in its purest form, the elite’s decision to dissolve the people and elect a new one. Instead, how about we leave social engineering to the ChiComs and just let today’s American moms and dads decide what tomorrow’s America will be like.

(emphasis mine).

Leaving aside the merits of the US immigration debate and other aspects of Krikorian’s post*, I find the use of ‘social engineering’ here to be fascinating. I understand his point well enough, (and I’d rather not dwell on it), but what grabs me is that social engineering here can only mean the actions of his opponents, it could never be applied to his own policy. It’s a code of some sort, it no longer means just what the words say.

Obviously much of what governments do is social engineering of one sort or another. The criminal justice system is in place largely to deter and punish behaviours. Taxes are used to encourage some activities over others and so on. These sorts of things are never termed social engineering though. SE is almost always a bad thing. This much I can understand and be quite comfortable with. Whatever ‘social engineering’ is, it’s something that goes against freedom, and we are all liberals now pretty much, with the arguments being about how best to maximise (and define) liberty.

What I don’t understand is that whenever the term is actually used nowadays, it seems to be aimed at policies that remove some aspect of State control over the shape of society. In the example above, Krikorian seems to be saying that open borders would be an extreme example of social engineering. To me that is precisely wrong. A strict immigration policy, aimed at keeping a nations demographics in some sort of racial or cultural stasis would be a far better fit for the label ‘social engineering’. Given what the words mean.

If the US government was forcibly dragging non-white immigrants to the US in order to deliberately alter the demograhic mix, or refusing white applicants entry, then he’d have a point. That would meet the natural definition for SE. But they aren’t doing anything like that.

The same applies to arguments around gay marriage and state recognition of de-facto relationships. Surely when the state is recognising the relationships that people have, and not discriminating between them, then that is the opposite of what the words ‘social engineering’ actually mean.

And on the contrary, when the state did discriminate on those grounds and deliberately favoured some relationships over others, (and even made some relationships illegal), in order to foster a particular style of domestic arrangement that was felt to be most beneficial for society, then that is, quite precisely, ‘social engineering’.

So is all this just projection on the part of conservatives, or are they adding (or subtracting) some meaning to the term that I’m not seeing?

* I’ll just say that his links are interesting, as are the uses he puts them to.

Headline battle!

datePosted on 17:25, September 28th, 2009 by Lew

LingLingBattleWithin a half-hour, the two leading trumpet-blowers of the blogosphere have favoured us with their interpretations of the latest developments in the Bill English accomodation saga, and their headlines are marvellous. Both are factual; neither contain any misleading or false information, and yet they convey such different things.

First (chronologically), in the red corner: The Standard:

English admits he’s been rorting us

  • “English”, formal, invoking his role and status as a public personage and the head of a noted family (who also benefit from the ‘rort’).
  • “admits”, an implied concession of wrongdoing (even though English’s statement — not linked or substantively quoted in the post– makes quite clear that he’s conceding nothing of the sort).
  • “he” and “us”, an active phrasing emphasising the power dynamic in play, in which “we” are being exploited by “him”.
  • “rorted”, a hugely fashionable term in these parts nowadays (a fact on which someone recently wrote an interesting article; can anyone remember who?). It’s a strong, colourful term redolent of the back-slapping corruptness of entitlement, viewed as harmless and trivial by those privileged few who, by dint of social station, connections or wealth are able to perpetrate it, and as an insufferable reminder of greedy injustice by those not so able. This is the word it all hangs on: it provokes the visceral reaction of disgust, and divides the “him” from the “us”.
  • “[has] been” and the past tense throughout, focusing on what has happened. In some ways represents a softening: he has been, but he isn’t any more. But in the wider context this emphasises the ongoing nature of the campaign against English, an unspoken “see, we were right all along, and we have forced this admission” — again, despite the fact that English claims there’s no such admission. Being backward-looking, it focuses on the matter of principle, not of practice; it doesn’t matter that he paid the proceeds of his rort back, what matters is that he rorted it in the first place.

And in the blue corner, Kiwiblog:

Bill pays back allowance

  • Parsimonious, omitting a part of speech which in this case would bear important information, leaving the question open: “his” allowance? “the” allowance? We don’t know if the author thinks he has a right to it or not. It’s just “allowance”.
  • “Bill”, informal, emphasising his individuality and personal characteristics rather than social roles or position. Familiarity suggests reliability, trustworthiness.
  • “pays back”, active phrasing indicating Bill’s volition — he was not forced into anything, he did it of his own accord. Also echoes the Nats’ favoured cat-call of the past half-decade: “pay it back!”, first directed at Helen Clark, then at Winston Peters, a clear delineation drawn because Bill is paying it back and they didn’t.
  • “allowance”, something one is allowed. As in the other headline, this is the word it all hangs on. Its use implicitly disclaims any wrongdoing; because it’s impossible to ‘rort’ an ‘allowance’ by definition, this begs the question of whether Bill is, in fact, allowed it.
  • “pays” and use of present tense throughout, focusing on the future rather than the past, practicalities rather than principles, actions and consequences rather than character or trustworthiness. No harm, no foul, right?

With headlines like this, why would you even need to read the article — or the actual statement?

L

Democratic Service and Repair

datePosted on 17:25, September 14th, 2009 by Lew

In the shadows of chain-store ghost towns
Where no-one walks the streets at night
A silent nation, hooked on medication
Stares into a blue flickering light.
— Calexico, Service and Repair

This verse has been on my mind rather a lot since moving to my new exurb (it’s not quite a chain-store ghost town, although there sure is one of every chain store here.) But it’s the second pair of lines I’ve dwelt most upon; a potent image of Brave New World escapism as a substitute for real-life engagement, a soma-ed out populace who’ll take what it’s given.* This is a fashionable refrain in postmodern affluent liberal polities: democracy is being undermined by apathy, generated by those who would prefer you didn’t engage in politics at all so they can just get on with running the world without pesky peons interfering.

Political engagement in NZ is fairly weak and superficial, and that is bad for democratic politics. Engagement with and understanding of both the function and the presentation of political process is critical sustenance for democracy; but note, it must be with both the function and the presentation. It can be active (marches, submissions, donations, party membership, etc.) or passive (caring about the news, writing letters-to-the-editor, talkback, bloggery, heated discussions at the pub).

Both are important. In a political network model of concentric circles, a party’s leadership is surrounded by a wider group of insiders, cadres, activists, lobbyists and so forth, surrounded in turn by the party’s wider electorate. Organised political activity will only ever be the domain of a relative few, whom we might call second-circle elites; those who are involved in the political process but who do not drive it. The major role of these second-circle elites is to act as intermediary between the first and third circles; to channel information from the electorate to the leadership and to spread politics out to the electorate. These two functions (in and out) are very different; the former involves constant, frank and honest self-appraisal, a critical assessment function which must be independent from the proselytising imperative. The latter is the proselytising imperative; it requires faith and focus and adherence to doctrine and discipline.

When the feedback loop breaks down and information is fed out but not back in, a political movement becomes hijacked by its elite base — as if the second circle can somehow substitute for the third circle, as if burning desire among a few people can somehow substitute for smouldering will among a much larger number, in apparent ignorance of the fact that votes are not distributed on the basis of intensity of feeling. Ultimately the role of second-circle elites is to promote engagement between the first and third, and where apathy reigns in a polity, it is generally due to their failure to adequately perform those gatekeeping, proselytising and critical assessment functions. But second-circle elites all too frequently blame the electorate for these failures. Often, as in NZ at present, this leads to them decrying ‘politics by focus group’ or ‘pandering to the masses’ as defence of their own ‘principled’ or ‘just plain right’ positions; a view which scorns and patronises the electorate. Often, this position is combined with the grudging acknowledgement that the masses do in fact have all the votes and must therefore be ‘pandered to’ in order to gain sufficient support to prosecute a political agenda which may or may not resemble the agenda campaigned upon. This elite-centred view of politics kills engagement and increases apathy among non-elites, and results in the self-fulfilling prophecy that the unwashed hordes make poor political decisions — they often do, because they often don’t get what they vote for and didn’t have much of a hand in defining it anyhow.

But although the elites might sneer, engagement among the so-called silent majority is highly valuable, and the number of their votes is the least part of their importance. Their scrutiny of political events, policy and discourse may not be so intense, but it is broader and more stable. Even a moderate degree of political and media literacy among a wide section of the electorate provides a valuable check on how much government, its delegated authorities, lobbyists and other political actors can get away with, raising the bar of political action and discourse and providing a check that a high degree of literacy among a small second-circle elite can never provide. This is simply the wisdom of crowds.

Political movements need to decide whether their main priority is to agitate their own partisan lines for short-term electoral gain and alienate those segments with whom they disagree, or to build a democratic infrastructure of engagement and literacy in the polity in the knowledge that greater engegament and literacy will pay dividends. Or, to put it another way, political movements need to decide how much of the one they are prepared to sacrifice to the other. It’s a tricky balance, and I don’t mean to suggest it’s a precise zero-sum tradeoff, but the project of building democratic literacy and engagement is not usually compatible with a partisan agenda, and this means accepting that some proselytisation opportunities will be missed. But if the core problem is a low standard of political action and discourse in the polity, and the imperative is to drive up the quality of political action and discourse by increasing polity-level political and media literacy, then the strategic job of the agitators should be to promote political literacy above all else; even to the partial exclusion of short-term partisan gains. In my view, too much has been sacrificed to the electoral cycle; that the government so often gets away with the ‘nine long years’ gambit, itself a propaganda device to deflect attention from some policy failure or unappealing priority decision, indicates the failure of this imperative.

The NZ electorate is not entirely unengaged, though the standard of that engagement is quite low. There have been a number of catalytic issues in recent years which have made people sit up and care about politics: the Orewa Speech, the Foreshore and Seabed Act, the Electoral Finance Act, the s59 repeal; the h debate are a few which spring readily to my mind. Most of these were created by the right for largely partisan reasons, realising that engagement was a way of taking the political initiative. It is critical to note here that engagement is not the same as literacy, but that it can lead to literacy in the long term if properly managed. While the iwi/kiwi debate and the smacking debate and so on generated much heat and little light, they provide an illustration that political activism isn’t quite hunched before the TV screen with a beer in one hand and a remote control in the other. What’s needed is a cultural change in NZ democratic politics; issues that the polity cares about, politicians who are responsive to those issues, and elites who are committed first and foremost to raising these issues and sustaining the discourse betwen the first and second circles for the good of democratic politics rather than strictly for partisan gain.

Crowdsourcing politics for democracy’s sake is preventative maintenance. It’s well overdue.

L

* Really, what will we do now that NZ’s Next Top Model has been cancelled?

Hide-ing to nothing

datePosted on 09:06, August 24th, 2009 by Lew

Two topics in this post, because I don’t have time to fully develop them.

First, John Key must not ignore the anti-smacking referendum. Although the question was leading, the result was decisive and will embolden people like the Copeland/Baldock/McCoskrie axis of evil to drive the stake deeper into the heart of NZ’s traditional social liberalism. Tinkering with guidelines won’t mollify them, and won’t stop the electorate from listening to them because it doesn’t address the substantive point about the status of a light smack in law. What will do that is the Borrows Amendment. With a view to neutralising further attacks on the discipline legislation, I think the government should adopt and pass the Borrows Amendment with due haste, and put the issue to bed (without its dinner). It’s a mutual-second-best solution, whereas the repeal as passed in 2007 was not and will not endure.

Second, Rodney Hide’s position on the Auckland mana whenua seats is consistent and his behaviour is responsible. The (proposed) mana whenua seats in the Auckland case aren’t the same as the Māori electoral seats – they’re appointed, not elected, and this gives him separate grounds to oppose them. It is not inconsistent that he favours entrenching Māori electoral seats if they exist, but not of implementing any more such seats, and not implementing any seats which aren’t elected. He’s being responsible in clearly signaling his intentions in a fairly measured way. He’s not trying to exercise any more power than he has, but simply saying ‘my resignation will be a cost of making this decision, just so you know’ and requiring John Key to consider whether that cost is worth it. In addition, he’s working with Pita Sharples on the issue rather than taking a reflexively oppositional approach. Finally, this is strengthening his core political brand. It’s smart politics all around because whether he gets his way or not, he comes out of this looking good.

Update: A third thing – eternal guest-poster r0b at The Standard continues to go from strength to strength.

L

Putin the scribbler

datePosted on 10:26, August 12th, 2009 by Lew

In contrast to last week’s vanity shots of Vladimir Putin, an illustration that you don’t get anywhere in the Russian political-security complex by writing down your thoughts on bits of paper.

putin-scrib

Or by looking idle.

(Thanks to AG for the pic.)

L

Sovereign Democratic Realism

datePosted on 12:18, August 6th, 2009 by Lew

2003849206Via Scott Yorke’s excellent Imperator Fish, pics of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Siberian vacation photo-op.

The wider photoset (you’ll have to google around for all the photos, since each website only contains part of the set) is a strong statement of Russia’s new national identity as a fit, keen, ruggedly independent nation which is the master of its own destiny, answerable to nobody. Vladimir Putin idealises Russia as it wants to see itself.

The wider campaign propagandises Putin’s adopted doctrine of Sovereign Democracy, essentially ‘we call our system democracy, so democracy it is’. It fetishises Putin’s personal capability and authority; his command over nature, his idolisation by ordinary Russians (even those thousands of miles from Moscow), his statesmanship. Closely resembling what I/S calls Heinlein’s psychopathic frontier barbarism, Putin rides horses, treks in the mountains, fishes in a wild river, pilots a fast boat, builds a fire, helps rescue a beached whale, comforts an Ingushetian politician injured in a suicide bombing, works in a metallurgists’ plant, gives orders as to a train crash, visits a political youth camp, meets Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s widow, and shares tea with the locals. All with the cameras in attendance (and in some cases, with the sound guy in-shot – no attempt at pretending it’s not a propaganda exercise).

There has been much speculation as to the import of this photoset, ranging from the suggestion that, by appearing bare-chested in the outdoors on a holiday with the Prince of Monaco, Putin is sending a signal of tolerance about homosexual rights, referencing Brokeback Mountain. The semi-official spin, naturally, is that it’s simply a demonstration that Putin knows how to relax – a signal that he will retire peaceably at the end of his second term as Prime Minister.

I am not so convinced. This lays the groundwork for a perpetuation of Putin’s role as Russia’s eminent statesman of the 21st Century, and in a much more subtle and compelling way than either Hugo Chávez or Manuel Zelaya’s clumsy attempts at circumventing constitutional term-limits. The key to sovereign democracy is its illusory consent – the appeal to Russian independence, strength, unity and capability which Jonathan Brent and others have argued (audio) present the danger of sliding back to a new form of Stalinism, even with the support of those who would suffer under such a system. This is a strong warning to Dmitry Medvedev, who has criticised ‘sovereign democracy’ as a form of authoritarian doublespeak, and to the Russian people that if a ‘real’ leader is needed, one exists. Former KGB officer Putin, here, is presenting himself as another Man of Steel.

L

NZ’s Joe the Plumber?

datePosted on 22:46, July 22nd, 2009 by Lew

Bruce the Engineer.

Turns out he and his wife have a lifestyle block in John Key’s well-heeled electorate and two rental properties, and the whole story was a plant by Phil Goff. This was a very poor choice of poster boy: nobody with a lifestyle block and two investment properties is entitled to cry poverty. Even if their cashflow situation means they’ll be doing it hard until Bruce finds another job, arguing that they should be entitled to full benefit plays right into the hands of those who argue Labour is all about middle-class welfare or, in this case, welfare for property-speculator millionaires. There is no way Labour can claim to speak to genuine need while they nail their colours to cases like this, people far better off than most of those who are Labour’s nominal constituency. What of all those who don’t have two houses and a lifestyle block to fall back upon? Honestly, it’s insulting.

Labour, if you’re going to try to cynically manipulate public opinion, can you at least make a halfway-competent job of it? Poor Bruce and Jo have been used as propaganda pieces by Phil Goff, and badly so. They lose, Labour loses, NZ loses.

Edit: Shorter Lew: “There are plenty of people for whom Labour could be going into bat during the current recession. These ain’t them.”

L

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