Posts Tagged ‘Lindsay Perigo’

Master-race baiting

datePosted on 22:57, July 9th, 2011 by Lew

[Updated 10 July 2011 to account for Don Brash's statements in response to John Ansell, and Ansell's resignation from ACT.]

Many have remarked on the appropriateness of the website of the ACT Party Parliamentary leader’s press-secretary, SOLOpassion, and many have made jokes about the sound of one hand clapping, or fapping, as it were. It is therefore entirely appropriate that ACT should become the butt of these same jokes, since they appear to have swallowed (implication most definitely intended) Lindsay Perigo’s paranoiac auto-stimulatory tendencies whole. His hand-work is evident in the party’s ever more deranged press releases, speeches, and most recently in this morning’s advertisement in the New Zealand Herald, titled “Fed up with pandering to Maori radicals?” and strategically timed for the end of Te Wiki O Te Reo Māori. The advertisement is worth reading; the image below is stolen from The Dim-Post. Read the comment thread over there; it’s magnificent.

There’s an awful lot wrong with this, but aside from the warlike verbiage, none of it is much different from ACT’s or Brash’s prior form, and since I’ve been over most of the arguments before I will spare you the full repetition. You can trawl through the Take Māori section of this blog if you want the detail. But just a couple of obvious things: the reasoning privileges Article III of the Treaty; that is, the article which gives the Crown a colonial payday, while neglecting Articles I and II, upon which the consideration of Article III rests. In terms of a contract, which is a way of thinking about the Treaty that ACToids might be expected to understand, Brash’s reasoning emphasises the payment for services rendered, while materially ignoring the requirement to actually render those services. (More on this theme here). Secondly, it’s more of the same selective history we’ve come to expect: our history as Pākehā matters and has value; theirs, as Māori, doesn’t — except for the bits Pākehā can turn to their advantage, like the decontextualised appeal to Ngāta.

But there is a broader point that this development illuminates. Race relations in Aotearoa has changed enormously in the past seven years. In the winter of 2004, the country was in the throes of Orewa madness. The māori party had just been formed, promising to deliver “an independent voice for Māori” in parliament. Eight years ago tomorrow Tariana Turia won her by-election, seeking to deliver on that promise. Don Brash was the leader of a resurgent National party who held a strong lead in the polls, and whose race-relations platform dominated the policy agenda. Now, Turia leads a hollowed-out party whose mandate and credibility are under severe threat from one of their own. Don Brash, having been ejected from the National leadership disgrace, now leads a party with less than one-twentieth of the electoral support he once commanded; a party he was only able to colonise after it was fatally weakened by a series of appalling political scandals, and then only by the narrowest of margins.

Under Brash National’s popularity stemmed from the fear of a brown nation that emerged from the foreshore and seabed debate and the māori party’s formation. As far as the general electorate of Aotearoa is concerned, those fears were not realised. As far as Māori are concerned, the māori party’s results have been disappointing to say the least. As far as the established political power blocs are concerned, the māori party has proven a very dependable agent their political agendas; even while disagreeing with many of their positions, both National and Labour recognise that the māori party are invested in constructive collaboration with the Pākehā mainstream, not in its destruction. I’ve long argued that the initial purpose of the māori party wasn’t to effect sweeping policy change, but to create cultural and political space for kaupapa Māori politics, and to establish the credibility of same. For all their policy failures, they have succeeded at this task in spades; perhaps they could have afforded to succeed at this task a little less. But largely as a consequence of the sky not falling after the passage of the Foreshore and Seabed Act and the emergence of the māori party as a credible political force, neither National nor Labour have any truck with ACT’s vitriol. Don Brash, his “one law for all” rhetoric, and his scaremongering are firmly on the outer.

Even further out on that slender but flexible branch is the architect of Brash’s Iwi/Kiwi campaign, probably the best campaign of its type in our recent political history and certainly one of the most memorable: John Ansell. Ansell’s rhetoric had become distasteful enough by the time of the last election that even the ACT party — then under the leadership of Rodney Hide — refused to use much of his best work. Thereafter he was picked up by the Coastal Coalition. A less credible gang of fringe loonies it’s hard to imagine; one of its principals, Muriel Newman (who, shamefully, was invited by Radio New Zealand to speak as an authoritative expert on the WAI262 Treaty claim) believes that pre-Tasman Aotearoa was settled not only by Polynesians but by “people of Celtic and Chinese ancestry as well as Greek, French, Portuguese, Spanish and others“. Ansell’s own views on race are similarly bizarre; Māori, he reckons, are “not a race, but a religion“.

Ansell is now reduced to ranting in Kiwiblog comments, and is as critical of ACT as he is of everyone else. Even there, though, his views hardly find great favour, with more people objecting that his campaign is distracting from the “real issues” than supporting him. His contribution to the thread about the Brash advertisement — it’s not clear whether he was involved in the ad’s production or not — is a magisterial display of racist, misogynist essentialism, and I think it really gets to the heart of the paranoiac auto-stimulatory tendencies to which I referred earlier. I quote his initial comment in full:

The problem with New Zealand is it’s full of white cowards who are too frightened of being called names to stand up for the truth.

(And that’s just the ACT Party.)

And the truth (if we are honest enough to admit it) is: for the last quarter-century, our country has been brownwashed by a bunch of scammers (aided and abetted by legions of white ‘useful idiots’) into feeling guilty for the supposed sins of our British great-great-grandparents.

A sober reading of the facts reveals that some of these sins were actual (though far less sinful than the crimes perpetrated by Maori on Maori). Many others were highly exaggerated and delivered with lashings of emotional blackmail, for the purposes of extorting compensation.

But of course we are New Zealanders and we are not allowed to tell our truth (as Alasdair Thompson recently found out to his cost).

We are not allowed to speak out about state suffocation, Maorification, feminazism, National socialism, teacher unionism or any of the other evils that are dragging our country into the third world.

Those who do have the guts to tell the truth are called nasty names like racists in the hope that, like snails, one light contact with politically-correct criticism will be enough to make them shrink back into their shells.

And of course it works a treat.

There are plenty of parties for pessimists, backward-looking Maori and white bedwetters. But there’s only one for optimists, achievement-oriented people and forward-looking Maori.

ACT will not succeed until it champions the latter and tells the dishonest others to go to Hell.

In short, their catchment is men and women who think like men. Not men and women who think like women. ACT is the party of the strong father, not the soft mother.

(By strong father I include strong women like Rand, Richardson and Thatcher, and by soft mother I include weak men like Key.)

I hope you people will think about that.

[Update: A NZ Herald article titled Act ad man blasts ‘apartheid’ contains more such statements from John Ansell, who is ACT’s creative director; and in it Don Brash distances himself from them, saying “I don’t want to associate myself with those kind of views at all”. He may not want to, but he is. His own press release issued in conjunction with the advertisement above calls any form of “preferential treatment” — such as concessions granted under Article II of the Treaty, which ACT apparently does not recognise — “a form of apartheid”. Perigo is fond of the term, and also of referring to Māori, Muslims and anyone else who doesn’t quack like an Aryan duck as “savages”. Moreover the prospective MP for Epsom, John Banks — who represents the kinder, gentler face of the ACT party — also has form on this issue, having previously referred to Māori TV as “Apartheid Television”, and holding views generally very comparable with those of Ansell and, in some cases, with Perigo. So Brash’s will to not be associated with such views really raises a question: will he, in order to dissociate ACT from these views, fire his creative director, the press secretary for his Parliamentary leader, and the only MP likely to win an electorate? I rather doubt it, but I believe Aotearoa deserves answers.]

[Update 2: Ansell is gone. One down; how many to go?]

As Russell Brown said, Ansell’s comment is “essentially an incitement to race war“, and I don’t believe Ansell himself would deny that. But it’s more than that; it’s also an incitement to sex war. It’s easy enough to dismiss as the usual sort of dark mutterings, but hang on a minute: this fool is claiming to speak for me, and if you’re a man (or a woman who thinks like a man, whatever that is), he’s claiming to speak for you too. But he doesn’t speak for me. To head off the inevitable speculation, I’m hardly what you’d call a feminised liberal pantywaist; I have a beard, I hunt, I fish, I provide for a family; I like whisky and brew my own beer; I like rugby and rock’n’roll and Rachmaninov, and breaking things to see how they work; I’ve spent years studying martial arts and I’m trained to do or have done most of the things on Heinlein’s list. I wear a Swanndri to work in an office on Victoria Street, for crying out loud.

But in my world, masculinity isn’t measured by warrior prowess or the vulgar ability to force one’s will upon others, whether by physical, social or legislative means. Those things, as anyone who’s studied totalitarianism will tell you, only garner a mean and hollow sort of respect; the sort which dissipates as soon as the heel is lifted from the throat of the oppressed. No, in my world, masculinity is judged by honest work, truth and wise counsel, respect and tolerance, forbearance and understanding, accommodation and partnership; from love and support, and strength of a kind which intersects with but is not eclipsed by that to which Ansell appeals. As I have argued before, that sort of view — the dictator’s view that power comes from the barrel of a gun, that only the whims of the mighty matter — is a bare and miserly sort of humanity. And if that’s how Aotearoa actually is, then I say: come the feminised, Māorified revolution, because we desperately need it.

Of course, it’s not. Ansell no more represents Aotearoa’s men than Muriel Newman does its women, Lindsay Perigo its homosexuals or Don Brash does Pākehā. Their methods have become unsound. As Conor Roberts put it, “if you gaze for long into the sub-5 percent abyss, the sub-5 percent abyss gazes also into you.” Let’s see how long they can keep gazing.

L

Notes on democratic fundamentalism

datePosted on 22:48, June 9th, 2011 by Lew

Perhaps I’m reading a bit much into Jordan Carter’s declaration that he’s a libertarian socialist — as he said on the tweets, “it’s just a pun, an oxymoron. Which I found amusing”. So I may be overreacting in the particular case, but if you’ll forgive that, it’s made me look at and consider my own perspective in a way which lends itself well to writing down.

I think Jordan is cherry-picking his definitions; co-opting two existing pieces of fashionable terminology for the sake of provocative pretension. I think what he’s described is really just liberal-social-democracy of the relatively ordinary modern kind — a pretty far cry from anything resembling either libertarianism or socialism in actual history — and I don’t see what’s gained by smacking an ill-fitting label on it. But there’s a fair bit to lose. For a start, by doing so you alienate all those who really do call themselves libertarians and the socialists (though perhaps that’s not a great loss).

Moreover, as a matter of political branding it’s braindead. By applying what is, unjustly or not, heavily loaded and controversial terminology to what is actually a thoroughly mainstream political movement you risk marginalising it. ‘Socialist’ and increasingly ‘libertarian’ are markers of political extremism, at least in the Anglo world. They breed mistrust and fear, and rightly so: you can carry on all you like about how the horrors of 20th Century socialism and communism weren’t worthy of the names, but the fact is those were the names which stuck. They’re beyond reclamation. (I’ve argued this before, and I understand it’s not a line which is popular with wishful socialists, and you’re free to disagree — but I’d prefer not to argue the toss at too much length again; it’s really a sidebar in this post.)

‘Libertarian’, although Ayn Rand hated the term and its baggage, has been similarly redefined from its original usage by her heirs, and the authoritarian-conservatives who are busily colonising that movement (Tea Party, UKIP, ACT etc; collectively I call them ‘liberthoritarians’). Association with that lot is anathema to social democracy and left praxis of any sort. On the other flank you have the link with anarchism, whose symbolic currency among the social mainstream to whom a political vehicle like the Labour party must appeal is little better.

That’s all really just a preamble, though, to the following more important bit of the post, which is about my own rather amorphously-defined political perspective (bearing in mind that this is also a massive topic which I hope do deal with in about a thousand words and a couple of hours). The reason I think it’s daft and a bit pretentious to adopt titles like ‘libertarian socialist’ is that I’m less interested in what people declare to be their philosophy and more interested in the mechanisms they choose to promulgate that philosophy. Being a “socialist” or a “libertarian” or whatever else is one thing, but if your commitment to achieving the aims of your chosen creed is via democracy, that implies a commitment to fulfilling the expressed wishes of your society whether or not they accord with your own. If the electorate really does decides it wants a full-scale neosocialist agenda and votes in a government which will deliver it, a genuinely democratic libertarian movement will not impede the progress of such an agenda except by legitimate legal means; and by the same token, if the electorate seriously votes for the neutering of government and the implementation of a social-Darwinist Nightwatchman State, then a genuinely democratic socialist movement will grudgingly accede to that. The trouble is that many, if not most, libertarian and socialist movements are only democratic movements insofar as democracy is convenient.

Although I think I have previously disclaimed the title, I am essentially a democratic fundamentalist — I consider the commitment to democracy to undergird the rest of a political-philosophical agenda, rather than sitting on top of it. The reasoning is a mix of principled and pragmatic arguments which I’ve also made many times before, mostly derived from uncontroversial old-fashioned liberalism — that people have the right to determine the shape and nature of their society (right or wrong), that the government must answer ultimately to the governed, that there’s no other proven method of ensuring smooth, regular and nonviolent power transfer, and so on. For these reasons I have no truck with non-democratic movements on either side of the aisle; the authoritarian socialists who killed a millions in the last century, or the modern-day liberthoritarians who call for the violent overthrow of legitimate governments with which they happen to disagree, or those who argue that democracy is broken because voters make ‘bad’ choices (with the inference that, for society’s sake, the power to make such choice should be stripped from them).

Such movements don’t hold with democracy; they may tolerate democracy as long as it gives them results they like, but democracy doesn’t work that way. You take the bad with the good, on the understanding that you will have the opportunity to win back the fort and set things to rights again, if you can persuade the electorate that you’re worth supporting. So to merit consideration as a legitimate political movement, this commitment to democracy is a necessity. And to a large extent such a commitment — assuming bona fides can be demonstrated — is sufficient to grant legitimacy. For this reason, as much as I despise the ACT and New Zealand First parties, for instance, I do accept that they have legitimacy inasmuch as they generally conform(ed) to and support(ed) the robust, existing democratic norms of society. Regardless of the policy mix which sits on top of it, I can tolerate a genuinely democratic movement because in a robust democracy, you should only get away with doing what the electorate permits you to do.

Explained this mechanical sort of way it’s a naïve view, but to be useful, notions such of these do need to be considered in light of what lies beneath. Determining whether a given system constitutes a democracy worthy of the name is often non-trivial, particularly at the margins. Even within generally robust democratic systems, there exist distortions and imbalances which warp access to and exercise of power in favour of one group or another. There is even a pretty wide tolerance within which a democratically-elected government with a mandate to do so can fiddle with the levers, creating advantages for itself while not fundamentally rendering the system undemocratic. The authority of democracy is also not ironclad, it does not obtain outside the existing normative moral, ethical and legal frameworks of humanity; if 51% of an electorate decide it’s ok to slaughter all blue-eyed babies, it being democratically certified does not make such a provision legitimate. So in this way what I’m talking about it isn’t really democratic fundamentalism at all — there are sound arguments to be had all down the line about these and other factors, and indeed recognising and addressing the (many) limitations of democracy isn’t something to be shied away from.

The question of ultimate sovereignty also can’t be ignored. The ultimate authority for how a society ought to be configured rests with the people, and if this means that a government, democratically-elected or not, is acting egregiously counter to the electorate’s wishes in ways which democracy can’t fix, stronger medicine must sometimes be applied.

This is the reasoning the Tea Partiers claim when calling for Obama to be overthrown; and that Lindsay Perigo (now shilling for a noted authoritarian who is the parliamentary leader of a noted authoritarian party) appealed when he declared the Clark government illegitimate. But while some legitimate grievances exist(ed) in both cases, those calls were and are vexatious. In reality a stronger standard is needed to maintain the balance between democracy and ultimate sovereignty. Of course, in both cases the calls for insurrection came to nought — they were manifestly idiotic and consequently did not attract support; and moreover, in both cases subsequent democratic elections under the systems that both provocateurs claimed were invidious returned strongly in favour of the opposition parties, utterly disproving the assertion. In the New Zealand case, the incoming government repealed the offending Electoral Finance Act, doubling that proof (and then proceeded to enact something very substantively similar, to very scarce outrage from anyone).

Of course, this principle of the peoples’ sovereignty means the electorate can relinquish its power, vest it permanently or semi-permanently in some other mechanism of power. I’ll get the obvious out of the way now: this is what happened to the Weimar Republic; the existing democratically-legitimate rulers of Germany ceded their authority to Hitler, who enjoyed impunity from democratic censure (and, it must be said, who brilliantly exploited the constitutional arrangements of the republic to engineer the ongoing popular support for his cause and the ineffectuality of his opponents). What happened in the years following 1933 is an example of why a movement’s commitment to robust democracy must be treated as fundamental, but the ultimate recourse to power must remain with the people.

For me what it all really boils down to is the comment usually attributed to Tocqueville, that a democratic society gets the government it deserves. But this is both misattributed and misquoted — it was Joseph de Maistre, and the original quote omits ‘democratic’. The implication is that any society gets the government it deserves. A sham democracy exists because those governed by it do not demand more — more representation, more transparency, more robustness, more accountability. A dictatorship is such because its victims didn’t do enough to prevent one from becoming entrenched, or overthrow it once it had become entrenched. This is a harsh view, and strictly incorrect — there is little the Ukrainian peasantry of the Holomodor could have done to prevent their expurgation as a result of Stalin’s decrees, and nothing they did to deserve such a fate, for instance — but the essence of truth in the quote is generally that, in the final analysis, nobody has a greater responsibility or ability to ensure that their government carries out the wishes of the people it governs than the people themselves.

L

Depicting Julia Gillard

datePosted on 14:27, July 5th, 2010 by Lew

I’ll be watching with interest the characterisation — and caricaturisation — of Australia’s new PM, especially as compared to Helen Clark. Some of you might be aware that I once wrote a research paper on the characterisation of Clark by John Banks and Lindsay Perigo in talk radio during 2007. I was informed at the time that, via the usual academic networks, a copy made its way from Victoria University of Wellington to someone at the Australian National University in Canberra who had contacts within the then-Deputy Leader’s office, and that Gillard had read it with some interest. I’m not sure how true that is, but I do know she took a keen interest in Helen Clark’s public image, likely with this very eventuality in mind, so it isn’t altogether implausible.

The Clark-Gillard comparison is a natural one, due partly to geographical and temporal proximity; but also due to genuine similarities between their politics, manner and ascent to power. The comparisons have been highly ambivalent. The usual slanderers have already begun spreading the same ludicrous assertions that Gillard, like Clark, is a closet lesbian, on the grounds that she hasn’t had children and is more apparently bolshy than her husband. Apparently very deep in the closet, since she’s come out against gay marriage. (But then, she would, wouldn’t she?)

Peter Cresswell described her as Helen Clark with lipstick, which I guess is negative as to her politics but positive as to her perceived femininity, notwithstanding that Clark did in fact wear lipstick herself. Auckland University’s Jennifer Curtin pointed out some comparisons as to the two women’s assumption of their roles, though I can’t help but think she must have a more nuanced and complex position on the topic than was suitable for an AAP statement:

“They’ve both started off on the left but moved kind of to the centre of their party,” she said. They both appear to be hard workers, good speakers and have made similar choices in selecting their political allies and portfolios – opting to avoid women’s policies specifically. “If they represent women they do it in a more mainstream kind of way,” Curtin said.

Clark’s biographer Brian Edwards, speaking on ABC Radio National, outlined the similarities in more detail:

Well there are extraordinary similarities. I’ve been reading some of the reports about Julia Gillard in the papers here in New Zealand, and it’s absolutely uncanny, and what we’ve just heard is also true, that from the start, Helen Clark was a professional politician, she was absolutely focused, her intention I guess, long term, was to be prime minister, and she would do everything possible to do that. And if you look at the two women, as I say, the similarities are remarkable. Both unmarried, both decided, clearly, that being a politician and aiming to be prime minister did not go with having children, that was the decision, a positive decision which Helen Clark made, she and her partner, Peter Davis. Helen in fact, never wanted to get married and was actually more or less pushed into it by the Labour Party, and wept on her wedding day, which was relatively unusual. She was an atheist, she received some of the same sort of criticisms that I gather Julia Gillard has received in your country for her voice, she had a strong Kiwi accent, a rather deep voice; for her looks, people didn’t like the look of her hair, they didn’t like the look of her teeth; she was accused of being a lesbian, primarily by her opponents admittedly in those early days, and had an extraordinarily hard struggle to make it at all.
And these were all things that a man would not expect to happen at all in politics. None of those things would have come up if the man was a bachelor or was married or didn’t have any children, or any of those other things.

Clark fought these attacks, in part, by recourse to a “makeover” in mid-2005, when she appeared on the cover of women’s magazines — notably Woman’s Weekly — more heavily made up, more softly and sympathetically portrayed and generally appealing more directly to women, and to men who, if they had to be led by a sheila, wanted to be led by a real sheila. This was probably crucial to her winning the 2005 election. Gillard, The Australian tells us today, already has a similar glossy campaign well underway. It’s a good move. (Anyone who wants to call it fake or staged or a cheap trick or blatant media sycophancy to make such an appeal had better first recall John Key’s appearance on Gone Fishin’ (audio), and accompanying article by host Graeme Sinclair in — you guessed it — Woman’s Weekly. Incidentally, if anyone has or can find a copy of the video of that Gone Fishin’ episode, I’d love to see it. I missed it at the time.)

Other Gillard comparisons have also been made: to Margaret Thatcher (as Clark before her was), and to British Labour’s present acting leader Harriet Harman. In contrast with Jennifer Curtin’s observation that neither Clark nor Gillard emphasise their femininity in policy terms, The New Statesman‘s Alyssa MacDonald argues that the public treatment of Harman illustrates that it’s still not politically viable to be an overtly feminist female leader, even in 2010:

Both come from legal backgrounds, hold multiple political posts, have strong union connections, speak with distinctive voices and are always politically “on”. But while Gillard is popular and respected, Harman is often, very unfairly, spoken of as hectoring, dowdy and not very bright. Even before Gordon Brown’s departure, her chances of becoming Labour leader were the same as the number of forthcoming Harman biographies: zero.
Politically, there’s a glaring difference between Gillard and Harman. One has fought consistently for a feminist agenda, while the other has approached her political career with individualistic ambition. Not to do Gillard down — she’s very good at her job and she deserves her success — but her premiership isn’t necessarily any more of a great lunge forward for women than Margaret Thatcher’s was thirty years ago.
Meanwhile, Harman’s drive to push issues such as rape laws and the Equality Bill into the spotlight has undoubtedly been good for British women — and a huge contibuting factor to her unlovely public image.
Gillard’s success is still a symbolic step forward, signalling that the presence of women in Australian politics has become normal. And it looks likely to be good news for the country as a whole. But it’s not as if Australian women now have a Harman at the top to look out for their interests.

As MacDonald notes, Gillard is much more favourably-portrayed than Harman (and I would add, than Clark was at any point during her leadership). I think a lot of this is down to the “lipstick” to which PC refers: a metaphorical sort of lipstick which speaks to a particular notion of femininity, like the kind which Sarah Palin made famous. For one thing, Gillard’s attractiveness has been emphasised by the favourable comparison to Scottish actress Tilda Swinton:

This distinctive visage, the “bricklayer” voice to which Brian Edwards alluded, and her speaking style have been welcomed by the Australian media and satirical communities, who found Rudd “almost irritatingly bland”, according to editorial cartoonist Bill Leak. This from an article, also in today’s Australian on the topic:

Gillard’s wealth of striking anatomical attributes is almost too much of a good thing, says Cathy Wilcox of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun Herald. “She’s got so many features that if you just go for one, it isn’t enough. The challenge is how to get all those things in there without her head being enormous.”
Since Gillard took power, editorial artists have been studying her face with the obsessiveness of a lover, poring over photos and freeze-framing the TV to parse her every angle and expression.
Australia’s first female Prime Minister, seen through their eyes, has a “striking head of hair”, “incredibly beautiful skin”, eyes that manage to be simultaneously “squinty” and “big and distinctively shaped”, “chubby cheeks” with “pronounced cheekbones” and a mouth that “sits small and low” above “a small chin that tucks into an incredibly long neck”. Not even her earlobes escape attention.
And who else but an artist would notice that the new PM has “a reasonably ample bottom in relation to her head”?
But there is one facial feature in particular about which they all rhapsodise: Gillard’s “pointy”, “assertive”, “wonderful” nose. A nose, as Leak puts it, “that looks like you could chop wood with it”.
Fiona Katauskas, freelance cartoonist and producer of the Talking Pictures segment on the ABC’s Insiders, says Gillard’s nose is a defining feature that artists can utilise to express her character, just as the jutting lower-lip of former PM John Howard came to represent his determination, or obstinacy.
“I will take a punt and say Gillard’s nose will become the equivalent of Howard’s lip,” she says.

What’s interesting about all this is that, unlike most of the discussion of Clark and Harman’s appearance, it is robust but not unkind. Gillard’s relatively warm reception is being put down to her status as Australia’s first female PM, and I think there’s some legitimacy to that view; a genuine preparedness to “give her a go” tinged by a fear that bagging her too early would come off as sexist. We’ll see how long that persists, and how long her distinctiveness — of appearance, manner, and political character — is portrayed as quirky and endearing rather than bizarre and threatening.

L

On blog conduct

datePosted on 10:48, February 13th, 2009 by Lew

Or, this is not a democracy, it’s a private residence, get used to it. But we need you, and you apparently need us, so let’s do what we can to get along.

Weblogs and online discussion forums are a type of feedback media, where the published content forms the opening chapter, not the entire story. In feedback media, there are broadly two groups of participants, who I’ll term proprietors and contributors; the former being those who operate the medium and provide its `official’ content, the latter those who participate in the medium by adding their own content. The nature of the relationship between these two groups is critical in determining how the medium functions. This post is a quick examination of how feedback media operate at a theoretical level, a survey of examples, and a rationale for dual-mode gatekeeping, with a view to creating an environment conducive to quality discourse which is largely free of personal feuds and partisan point-scoring.

The Dump Button
Though there are others, the canonical mainstream feedback media are the letters-to-the-editor page and talk radio. In either of those media, a proprietor has the unilateral ability to prevent or limit contributors’ participation – in the case of the newspaper editor, the mechanism is `points noted’; radio hosts have a button with which they can drop a caller between when she starts speaking and when she goes to air – traditionally, this timeframe is seven seconds. Blog proprietors have a range of similar devices at their disposal.

This has important implications when viewed in the light of one of the fundamental pieces of media theory – Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model, which argues that a given text is encoded with meaning by its creator, and that meaning is decoded by the person reading it, who can accept, partially accept or wholly reject the encoder’s frame of reference (not the content; that’s a different matter with which Hall was not largely concerned). In principle, the presence of gatekeeping mechanisms such as those described above means it’s virtually impossible to have a statement published which the proprietor doesn’t want to be there. The logical flipside of this is: if your comment gets published, it’s because the proprietor wants it to be published, and for their own reasons.

Symbiosis
Proprietors of feedback media generally have plenty of reasons for wanting to allow content to be published, the primary one of which is the symbiotic relationship they have with contributors. The nature of the content and the nature of the gatekeeping are the two primary factors which determine the tone of a medium; the former largely because of the contributors it attracts and the latter largely because of the contributors it drives away. When Lindsay Perigo took over from John Banks on his Radio Pacific talk show, many regular callers kept calling because the political content Perigo aired was quite similar. Banks was extremely tolerant of callers who took a while to get to the point – he rarely, if ever, cut people off, and he had a great deal of time for listening to peoples’ stories. Perigo was the opposite; he guided the show much more firmly and did not generally tolerate callers chatting about trivial or mundane matters, and that changed his audience and his contributors. Banks’ loyal callers became quite displeased when Perigo, for instance, dedicated an entire hour of his show to the songs of Mario Lanza, of whom they’d never heard, and became irate when he lost his temper with some of the more elderly callers and began to cut them off for not sticking to the programme or saying anything he considered meaningful. Gradually, the old callers stopped calling and were replaced by a new set: younger, less religious, sharper of tongue, etc.

Gatekeeping Models
Plenty of different gatekeeping models exist in practice. I’ll focus on four which are fairly archetypal. Each creates a different atmosphere.
1. Slashdot. The lunatic asylum model. Members control almost everything. This results in a community which is extremely tolerant of insults, memes, tomfoolery, and has an incredibly low signal to noise ratio.
2. Kiwiblog. The echo chamber model. Content is published by DPF, commented upon by members, who use a karma system and are subject to a demerit system (operated by DPF) which is more theoretical than anything. This results in a sort of groupthink; not because DPF enforces it, but because he allows his commentariat to do so, creating a recursive loop of abuse which deters dissenters from participating. There is an argument that DPF (who’s a thoroughly decent bloke, quite unlike his comment threads) keeps his blog this way in order to make himself look sensible and reasonable by comparison.
3. No Right Turn. The Holy Sepulchre model. Content is published by Idiot/Savant, and that’s what you get. Idiot/Savant took the opposite line to DPF and turned off comments altogether a good long while ago. The result is almost pure signal, very little noise. I/S is frequently referred to by and comments on other blogs to maintain the feedback aspect of his medium.
4. The Standard. The noisy tavern model. Content is posted and comments are moderated by a group of writers, and Lynn Prentice, who tolerates very little of the sort of abuse for which KB is known. In general this results in a more congenial atmosphere, with a wide range of dissenting voices who are usually treated with at least a modicum of respect. However, it still gets pretty heated because there is no clear delineation between content and conveyance.

The Living Room Model
Anita’s model for Kiwipolitico is of a living room in which robust and complex but civil and reasoned discussions take place. This implies rights and responsibilities, and although I’ve only recently moved in (as it were) I shall presume to list a few as I see them. These apply equally to proprietors and to contributors.

* You have a right to be treated as an honourable contributor and to be free from serious personal attacks, abuse or character assassination.
* You have a right to not have your personal or professional life dragged into a discussion unless you allow it, or it is somehow germane to a legitimate matter of debate.
* You have a responsibility to defend and substantiate your arguments and assertions, not to assume that because people here are civil you can get away with a weak argument or unproven claims.
* You have a responsibility to adhere to and enforce these standards of conduct to the extent you are able.

Sir Karl Popper (and others) argued that if a society is perfectly tolerant of any and all behaviour, it must tolerate behaviour which is destructive of toleration itself, eventually leading to a general absence of toleration. This is pretty clearly evident in the Slashdot and Kiwiblog examples above and to a lesser extent in The Standard example, where because of a greater or lesser lack of discipline, much worthwhile discussion is simply drowned out, and the signal to noise ratio drops. The problem is usually not with the arguments, which can be well-reasoned and supported; it is the attacks and epithets which accompany those arguments which deters dissent. Therefore, in order to privilege argument over attacks, the content to be argued and the means by which it is argued need to be treated separately. The living room model requires that there be little or no gatekeeping of argument itself, coupled with strict gatekeeping of the means by which that argument is conveyed – essentially: make what points you choose, but do so in good faith and in accordance with decent norms of conduct and reasoned debate.

The point and purpose of the model is to separate arguer and argument for the purpose of criticism. You should be vulnerable to critique only on the grounds of your arguments, your ideas, or your conduct. Good ideas and arguments, cleanly made and supported by evidence and logic, will thrive here regardless of their ideological bent, but arguments resorting to personal attacks, abuse, absurd hyperbole, rash generalisation or wilful misinterpretation to make a point will perish whether we agree with their premises or not, because these are the signs of a hollow argument which lacks a valid foundation. While you will be sheltered from personal attacks, don’t expect your argument to be sheltered or defended by the proprietors; indeed, we may take great glee in watching it be torn asunder, as long as the tearing is done in a civil, justified and reasoned fashion. Finally, toleration breeds toleration. If you consistently exhibit good character and careful arguments, occasional minor indiscretions may be overlooked. This is a privilege to be earned, and I hope everyone will earn it.

L