Archive for ‘Propaganda’ Category
Update: This post was a response to an attack on me by Chris Trotter. Since it was published, Chris has graciously apologised for writing it, and for the general bad blood between us. He has deleted the post from Bowalley Road, and I give him my hearty thanks for the reconsideration.
I have also been culpable in this rather nasty exchange, which stretches back almost a year. For that part in it I, too, must apologise. While I retain strenuous objections to Chris’ political positions (as I’m sure he does to mine) these needn’t have become personalised, and are better discussed calmly as befits reasonable adults. While they may yet prove intractable, it should be possible for people in a free society to hold irreconcilable differences and yet remain civil. Much heat, and too little light, has emerged from this meeting of political minds, but I think there is potential for future engagement between Chris and I based on some sort of goodwill and tolerance rather than upon vituperation and political posturing, and I will do what I can to cultivate it.
While Chris has deleted his post, I do not believe in tampering with the historical record in that way. While I might regret things I’ve said, I won’t pretend I didn’t say them. And so the content of my response remains below the fold. It should be read with the subsequent context and this apology (and pledge to more constructive engagement in the future) very firmly in mind. In fact, the most worthwhile thing by far to emerge from the dispute is an unexpectedly useful discussion led by commenter “Ag” on the nature of class consciousness and electorate rationality: I commend that discussion, rather than the post from which it emerged, to the KP readership.
In the coming years, core tenets of socialist and indigenist faith will be tested. Labour, with its recently-adopted ‘blue collars, red necks’ strategy, has struck out along a path which requires a large slice of its core constituency — Māori — to search their political souls and choose between the renewed Marxist orthodoxy which privileges class above all else; and the progressive social movements developed over the past three or four decades which have produced a society tolerant enough to permit their unprecedented cultural renaissance.
The strategy indicated by Phil Goff’s speech appears to be substantially based on the simple calculus, most forthrightly argued by Chris Trotter, that ‘social liberals’ are fewer in number than ‘social conservatives’ among the proletariat, and therefore an appeal to ‘social conservatism’ will deliver more votes than the equivalent appeal to ‘social liberalism’. This is couched as a return to the old values of the democratic socialist movement — class struggle, and anything else is a distraction. But because the new political strategy is founded upon an attack on Māori, it requires that working class solidarity wins out over indigenous solidarity and the desire for tino rangatiratanga in a head-to-head battle. Māori must choose to identify as proletarians first and tangata whenua second. Similarly, the māori party’s alignment with National and subsequent intransigence on issues such as the Emissions Trading Scheme asks Māori to privilege their indigeneity over material concerns.
An article of faith of both socialist and indigenist movements is that their referent of political identity trumps others: that all proletarians are proletarians first, and that all indigenous people are indigenous people above all else. In the coming years, unless Labour loses its bottle and recants, we will see a rare comparison as to which is genuinely the stronger. Much of the debate which has raged over this issue, and I concede some of my own contributions in this, has been people stating what they hope will occur as if it surely will. For this reason the test itself is a valuable thing, because it provides an actual observable data point upon which the argument can turn.
A spontaneous interlude: I write this on the train into Wellington, in a carriage full of squirming, shouting, eight and nine year-olds on a school trip to the city. In a (rare) moment of relative calm, a few bars of song carried from the next carriage, and the tune was taken up enthusiastically by the — mostly Pākehā — kids in my carriage.
Read into this what you wish; one of life’s little rorschach tests.**
Clearly, I don’t believe Māori will abandon the hard-won fruits of their renaissance for a socialist pragma which lumps them and their needs in with everyone else of a certain social class, which in the long term would erase the distinction between tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti. This distinction will fade with time, but that time is not yet come. For this reason I believe the strategy is folly at a practical level. Add to which, the appeal to more conservative social values was always going to be strong among Māori and Pasifika voters, so the left and right hands (as it were) of the socialist conservative resurgence seem unaware of what the other is doing: with the left hand, it beckons them closer, and with the right it pushes them away.
My main objection to the ‘blue collars, red necks’ strategy is not practical — although that would be a sufficient cause for opposing it. The main reason is because of principle, and this question turns on an assessment of the left in politics. Trotter and other old-school socialists (and presumably Pagani and Goff and the current leadership of the Labour party) believe that the left has been hijacked over the past generation by non-materialist concerns and has lost its way as a consequence. I believe that the wider social concern with non-material matters has saved socialism from its own dogma.
Largely discredited as an economic system and its legacy irretrievably tarnished by the catastrophic failure of practically every implementation, socialist-aligned parties on the left have been forced to diversify from a strict focus on what’s in the pockets of the proletariat to what’s in their heads — what they care about and who they are, their identity beyond being ‘the proletariat’. In doing so these movements have embraced liberalism, social equality movements, and environmentalism, and the resulting blend, termed ‘progressivism’ has become part of the political orthodoxy, such that the political right must now pay at least some mind to these considerations if it is to remain viable. This broadening, and the progressive movement’s redefinition of what is right by its general and gradual rejection of racism, sexism, sexual and religious discrimination, among others, has been hugely beneficial to society. For reasons of principle, it should not be discarded out of cynical political expedience.
Furthermore, maintenance of the social liberal programme has strategic, pragmatic value. It has enabled left political movements to broaden their support base and engage with groups often marginalised from politics, breaking the previously zero-sum rules. The modern Labour party has built its political church upon this rock of progressive inclusion, broadening its support base by forming strategic alliances with Rātana from the time of the First Labour Government and less formally with the Kīngitanga and other Māori groups, to which the party owes a great deal of its political success. The progressive programme has broadened to include other groups historically marginalised by the conservative establishment. For Labour to shun its progressive history and return to some idealised socialist pragma of old by burning a century of goodwill in order to make cheap electoral gains by emulating their political opponents is the same transgression many on the economic left have repeatedly levelled against the māori party, and with some justification: selling out one’s principles for the sake of political expedience is a betrayal, and betrayals do not go unpunished. In this case, the betrayal is against the young, who will rapidly overtake the old socialist guard as the party’s future; and Māori, who will rapidly overtake the old Pākehā majority in this country’s future. The socialists might applaud, but Labour represents more than just the socialists, and it must continue to do so if it is to remain relevant.
So, for my analysis, the ‘blue collars, red necks’ strategy fails at the tactical level, because it asks Māori to choose their economic identity over their cultural identity; it fails at the level of principle, because it represents a resort to regressive politics, a movement away from what is ‘right’ to what is expedient; and it fails at the level of strategy, because by turning its back on progressivism the party publicly abandons its constituents, and particularly those who represent the future of NZ’s politics, who have grown up with the Labour party as a progressive movement. It is triply flawed, and the only silver lining from the whole sorry affair is that (again, if Goff and Pagani hold their nerve) we will see the dogmatic adherence to class tested and, hopefully once and for all, bested.
* Of course, Goff claims it is no such thing. But Trotter sees that it is and is thrilled, and John Pagani’s endorsement of Trotter’s analysis reveals rather more about the strategic direction than a politician’s public assurance.
** I see this as an expression of how normalised Māori-ness is among young people, and as much as can be said from the actions of nine-year-olds, an indicator of NZ’s political future.
Perhaps this speech is an attempt by Phil Goff to reclaim the term and concept of “Nationhood” from the clutches of rampant colonialism. If so, it is an abject failure. It compounds Labour’s cynical appeasement of National’s race-war stance in 2003 with a reactionary, resentful re-assertion of the same principles before which Labour cowered in 2004. It is the very epitome of what Raymond Nairn and Timothy McCreanor called “insensitivity and hypersensitivity“. More on this here
I had an incandescent rant underway, but I’ve said it all before. If you refer to the tag archive under the terms “Chris Trotter” and “Michael Laws” you can read most of it — which should give you an idea of the company Goff’s speech deserves to keep. And in the mean time, Idiot/Savant has summed up my thoughts in several thousand fewer words than I would have. I can do no better than to quote him (and please excuse the transitory obscenity in this instance):
I’m trying very hard to find an image of that “white is the new black” All Whites poster/shirt with which to adorn this post — because that’s what Goff is driving at here: what you thought was colonial paternalism wasn’t, and what you thought was self-determination isn’t. It’s a disgrace.
This morning at The Standard, vto* questioned how anyone can figure that the TVNZ7 ad featuring Bill English could be political advertising, since it doesn’t contain any baldly partisan political statements.
Although I tend to think vto is either being purposefully obdurate or is just simply oblivious, it’s a fair question. Since in my experience he is usually genuinely puzzled rather than just shilling for the blues,** I undertook to do an analysis of the clip for his edification (or ridicule). As I said in the comments thread, you don’t create this sort of thing by accident:
A few basics of political discourse, first. While in the case of video, a text is made up of sounds and images, this is different from the ‘words’ and ‘pictures’ vto talks about. There is also a temporal dimension to video: editing, mise-en-scene and lighting changes, camera and focal movement, etc. which I’ll lump in with ‘image’ for these purposes. Likewise, most of the sound is spoken words, but there is also music, which is non-trivial in terms of meaning. The point is that nothing is in there by accident. When you have a limited budget and the requirement to work within a 45 second ad slot, nothing is optional or discretionary.
Given that there are images and sounds, and that they’re all there for a reason, it should be clear that there’s more to analyse than just the words and pictures, and so an apparent absence of political meaning in the words and pictures doesn’t mean the text lacks political meaning; it just means that it’s not overt (or not overt to everyone). The meaning lurks in how the various parts of the text hang together as much as in the ‘words’ and ‘pictures’ themselves. This, also, is purposeful: people are natively suspicious of political messages, and it helps to be able to communicate them via means which people aren’t accustomed to analysing closely. People are very well accustomed to interpreting political speech (‘words’), but much less accustomed to parsing video texts and the subtexts which emerge when multiple texts are intercut with each other in a dense and coordinated fashion. This is what makes video such a strong medium for political communication; why Eisenstein and Riefenstahl and Capra were given such prominent positions in their respective regimes, and why practically every US presidential election since 1960 has been predicted by which candidate’s TV coverage was the stronger.
The clip in question presents a dual narrative which appeals simultaneously to peoples’ cautious, empirical, rational side and to their hopeful, nationalistic, emotional side in order to produce a sense of hope. It is composed of two separate video texts intercut: one featuring footage of Bill English, Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister; and the second of Bill English, kiwi bloke. The topic is the same, and the visual edit minimises the visual difference between the two narratives, while the voice remains constant throughout. This continuity of voice leads us to interpret the statements of Serious Bill and Chipper Bill as if they are uttered by the same person (which they are) and in the same role and context (which they certainly are not). The context is provided by the image, not the sound, and demonstrates that one person can (and should) hold both opinions simultaneously although the relationship between the two narratives is arguable. Of course, people can hold both views simultaneously (though whether they should is another matter).
The first, Serious Bill, establishes the Minister of Finance at a respectful social distance in a dark suit (with cut-ins to tie and face); the Sky Tower and the bright lights of NZ’s commercial capital in the background, a composition chosen to provide authority and credibility. This is a fairly soft form of the tycoon shot, a wealthy man overlooking his glistening domain. He speaks calmly and in technical terms, playing NZ’s economic problems with a straight bat. He uses the first person plural (“we”) throughout in order to include the audience in his statements. He looks the camera (audience) square in the face, talking directly to us.
The second, Chipper Bill, is established in a full-frame headshot, cut from a full-frame headshot of Serious Bill. This is what I mean by ‘minimising the visual distance’ between the Two Bills. He starts with “Y’know”, a commonplace employed more often to tell people what they (should) know than to genuinely appeal to shared common knowledge. This also marks a distinction between the complex, technical language used by Serious Bill and the colloquial, understandable terms and sentiments which follow. It is a relief to hear someone speaking ‘plain english’ after all that techno-jargon, right? Especially when he’s saying something we want to hear: good news about how “we can beat those Aussies”, after the bad news which Serious Bill was talking about, how our we’ve been “underperforming” when compared to them.
Chipper Bill — smiling and personable, an approachable everyman in a patriotically black polo shirt, continues to be intercut speaking in exhortative platitudes about how we just need to “back ourselves” (cut briefly to Chipper Bill gazing into the middle distance) and “apply some old-fashioned Kiwi can-do”, and so on, in response to Serious Bill’s authoritative but somewhat dry and gloomy facts. This use of “old-fashioned” is a hint of a dig at the previous government, the one responsible for “underperforming”; this dig is made a bit more explicit with the enthusiastic “we’re nearly through the tough times and things are looking up” — just leave it to good old National and everything will be well, not like that other lot, who were opposed to everything traditional, right?
The two narratives describe the reality of how things are (described by Serious Bill) and a dream of how things could be (described by Chipper Bill), as the music gradually rises in the background. The clincher, and the factor which makes this more a political advertisement than anything else, is that Bill English is the connection between the two narratives: if you accept the narrative line, he is the key to turning the dream into reality. This is essentially an overarching ‘hope’ narrative, a most powerful sort in troubled times, as Barack Obama realised, and as expressed by Drew Westen in the first chapter of his book The Political Brain, which opens with an analysis of two contrasting video advertisements for Democrat presidential candidates: one successful, for the Clinton campaign, and one unsuccessful, for the Kerry campaign. What was Clinton’s narrative? Hope.***
This “Two Bills” ad creates a similar hope narrative around the putative Kiwi Dream of “beating the Aussies” with “good old Kiwi can-do”. How could anyone not like that?
Just so you’re not starved of policy analysis, there are unstated, non-trivial National party assumptions about what’s important all through the ad too. The prime one among these is a focus on financial metrics (GDP growth, productivity growth) to the exclusion of other considerations. A Labour ad along these lines might have emphasised a balance between economic and environmental and other outcomes such as quality of life — the fact that this ad mentions no other metrics than wealth is not value-neutral or void of political meaning: it demonstrates the writer’s policy priorities and direction. As well as that, the “beating the Aussies” narrative is a core plank of the government’s current policy of “closing the gap” — it’s not policy-neutral either, but is a function of the government’s own preferences and their political strategy of measuring themselves against previous governments on metrics which favour them. And hang on a minute: are we really “through the tough times”, and are things really “looking up”? Depends who you ask; this is a matter of opinion and legitimate professional dispute among Those Who Know About Such Things, it’s not a slam-dunk even if the Finance Minister says so: after all, it’s his job to say so. And will “old-fashioned Kiwi can-do” on its own really be sufficient to bridge the significant productivity and GDP growth gaps between NZ and Australia? What the hell is “old-fashioned Kiwi can-do” anyhow, and if it were that easy, why haven’t we done it all before? The entire narrative is constructed of politically-charged assumptions, but it is formed in such a way as to discourage the audience from thinking too hard about it.
There’s one other thing, too: Plain English is Bill’s newsletter to his constituents, and it looks like the similarities don’t end there. It was a catch-cry of his 2002 election campaign. Perhaps if he’d had this production team working on that campaign he’d have won, or at least done well enough to prevent Don Brash from taking over.
So that’s a reasonably thorough teasing out of the political content of this seemingly-innocuous 45-second commercial. As I said in the comment thread at The Standard, the only thing more absurd than this ad getting made and screened with a straight face is Eric Kearley employing the Lebowski Defence when challenged on the fact that the ad quacks very much like a propaganda duck. Regardless of whether it was bought and paid for, as the more conspiratorial commentators think, or whether the use of the form was simply a (very successful) ploy to garner attention, it’s idiotic to pretend that this isn’t political advertising in function. While I tend to find industrial explanations for apparent media bias more compelling than political explanations, people like Kearley obstinately denying the bleeding obvious doesn’t make it especially easy to keep doing so.
* Stands for ‘Vote Them Out’, as I recall.
DPF 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.
[Edited to add Banksie and the libertarians to the list of offenders, and add the image at top.]
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?
That’s greens with a small g, not the party itself, though with reference to this.
Anonymous Coward at The Standard sez:
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.
… 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:
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.
Within 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:
And in the blue corner, Kiwiblog:
With headlines like this, why would you even need to read the article — or the actual statement?
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.
* Really, what will we do now that NZ’s Next Top Model has been cancelled?