Posts Tagged ‘Propaganda’
The Directors of the GCSB (Acting) and SIS appeared before the Parliamentary Select Committee on Intelligence and Security (SCIS) to deliver their respective annual reports. Those reports include national threat assessments. I was not at the meeting but here is what I gleaned from the media coverage of the event:
Did the SIS Director focus on the hundreds of gang members who see violence as a way of life, to include sexual assaults, drug dealing, gun running, property crime and assorted acts of physical mayhem that result in death and injury and whose collective behaviour intimidate and terrorise sectors of the communities in which they inhabit? Answer: No.
Did the SIS Director mention the dozens of white supremacists with track records of violence against minorities and who openly call for a race war and ethnic cleansing in NZ? Answer: No.
Did the SIS Director address the infiltration of transnational organised crime into NZ and its use of business fronts, corruption, extortion, and intimidation to extend its reach in NZ and beyond? Answer: No.
Did the Director comment on the presence of foreign espionage networks in NZ seeking to obtain sensitive corporate, diplomatic, political and security information. Answer: No.
Instead, according to the media coverage, the Director focused her remarks on the handful of NZ women who are believed to have left the country in order to join Daesh in Syria and Iraq. The Director was not sure if they left to marry or to fight (or both), and wondered about the effect the experience may have on them should they decide to return. That is interesting since few of the foreign women who have left to marry into or fight with Daesh return to their homelands, most being killed in conflict zones or while trying to escape the not-so-paradisical life of a Daesh concubine. The lucky few who have managed to get back to their homelands have not committed any acts of violence after their return.
Perhaps Director Kitteridge wanted to capitalise on the recent mass shooting in the US where one of the perpetrators was a so-called “jihadi bride” in order to focus public attention on the potential threat such women pose to NZ. But the woman in San Bernadino did not surreptitiously travel to a conflict zone, marry a Daesh fighter, then return to her homeland. Instead, she was a citizen of one US ally (Pakistan) and came from another (Saudi Arabia), who appears to have deliberately married a US citizen with the explicit intent of gaining entry to the US in order to carry out acts of politically motivated violence. Similarly, the woman who was an accomplice to the Paris mass murderers had never been to Syria and was unmarried. Neither is in any way comparable to NZ women marrying quickly and heading off to the Middle East.
That these women–again, less than a dozen by the Director’s own admission–chose to do so is certainly a tragedy for their families. It is also a small social problem in that it shows the depth of alienation and desperation of some women in NZ who see life with Daesh as a better alternative to life in Aotearoa. It can be considered to be a mental health issue because, to put it bluntly, one has to be a bit unhinged to think that life under Daesh in the killing grounds of al-Raqqa and elsewhere is an attractive proposition.
One thing is even clearer: it is not a pressing national security issue and should not have been the focus of the Director’s remarks or of the press coverage given to them.
So why so much attention given to the subject? Is this not public fear-manipulation via threat distortion? Was it the Director who was playing this game or was it the media doing so in their coverage of her remarks? Again, I was not there and only saw the coverage, but either way someone IS playing games when it comes to national threat assessments.
There is one more oddity about the mention of NZ “jihadi brides.” Western women who have travelled to join Daesh are known to be more likely than male foreign fighters to try and maintain contact with their families and/or friends back at home. They are known to be more likely than men to use social media applications as well as cell phones to communicate from Daesh-controlled territory (which speaks to the strategic, tactical and technological limitations of Daesh). This makes them a highly exploitable resource for intelligence agencies seeking to establish their locations, track their movements and those of their associates as well as get a sense of life under Daesh.
So why on earth would the Director jeopardize the ability of the SIS and GCSB to do so by publicly outing the fact that these women are being “monitored” as much as possible? This is especially perplexing given that these women are undoubtably included in the 30-40 people that the Director and PM have already said are being watched because of their Daesh sympathies, so there was no compelling reason to provide a gender breakdown of the approximately one in four who are female and who may have decided to travel in order to join Daesh.
A cynic would say that the comments by both Director Kitteridge and Acting GCSB Director Una Jagose were designed to prepare public sentiment for forthcoming security legislation allowing more intrusive powers of surveillance. The PM has now repeated his concerns about the “dark web” and spoken of the problems of decoding encrypted terrorist communications. So perhaps the stage is being set for that.
We must remember that the technologies involved in encryption and decryption, including the temporary “snapshot” encrypted communications that Western security authorities claim that terrorists are now using, all originate from military and intelligence agencies themselves. Thus the cycle of encryption/decryption, much like the previous cycles of code-making and code-breaking, has been well in progress for some time and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. In this cycle it is security agencies who have the lead, not private sector application manufacturers.
In any event, jihadi brides are unlikely to be at the leading edge of this cycle so using them, however obliquely, as the foil for extending communications security legislation is a bridge too far.
Prime Minister John Key did a whirlwind trip to Iraq to confer with its Prime Minister and President and visit the NZDF personnel stationed at Camp Taji, 25 kilometres north of Baghdad. The trip was supposedly secret yet he took an entourage of 40, including selected members of major NZ media outlets. He stayed overnight at Camp Taji in between duststorms, fog, and assorted other travel contretemps that lengthened the journey.
The coverage from the invited media was breathless and fawning. It was mostly about the travel delays. It was a mix of reporter’s lament and “hey I am here!”. Save the protocolar press releases, nothing, as in zero, was reported by the NZ media about John Key’s meetings with the Iraqi government, AKA the people that ostensibly have sovereign control over the land in which the NZDF operates at their formal request. That much was announced by the National government four months after NZ agreed to the military terms of its joining the anti-Daesh coalition.
What passed for reportage about the NZDF mission was basically regurgitated NZDF press releases extolling the virtues of the NZDF trainers, the difference that they made and the successes they were having in training Iraqi troops. PM Key was featured at length in audio and video clips talking about his sense of personal responsibility for the troops and his commitment to their cause.
Taking it all in, my gag reflex was forced into overdrive. If I were vulgar I would label those covering the visit as “useful fools.” If I were nasty I would simply call them “tools.”
Whatever morale boosting the visit may have occasioned amongst the NZDF troops, this was a PR exercise/photo op/sound bite exercise of the first and crassest order. Let me explain why.
“Secret” trips by Western political dignitaries to troops in conflict zones usually do not involve a pack of media figures tailing along. That is because real morale boosting is about the troops, not the dignitary’s image back home. Troops like to be appreciated by their political leaders, and that can be done without media fanfare. In fact, most troops prefer the appreciation to be given in private and not in the glare of cameras (and in fact, NZDF personnel other than Defense Chief Tim Keating were not identified in the reportage of the visit). Bringing media along turns the exercise into a circus side show that is more about the dignitary than the troops. And so it was on this occasion.
The media coverage of the trip was not of the “embedded” type. Embedded journalism, which has many problems associated with it, is the practice of placing journalists for extended periods of time in military units. This was no such instance. Instead, it was a government funded junket for a select few media types.
The coverage was boot-lickingly atrocious. Beyond the vapid commentary about dust storms, aborted plane flights and chopper rides, the description of the NZDF focused on the harsh terrain, nasty weather and the need for security. TV viewers were treated to images of Iraqis running around pointing weapons and kicking doors and were told by Iraqi officers via translators that the trainees were determined to fight for their country and fellow citizens. John Key spoke of how awful the place was and how two years was all that he was prepared to keep the NZDF there (the first rotation of NZDF troops is about to leave Taji and be replaced by a new cadre. The composition of future cadres may not necessarily resemble the first one, where 16 trainers are protected by a couple of platoons of infantry along with medical and intelligence personnel).
Although all of the coverage was vacuous, that of a print reporter from Wellington takes the cake for most ignorantly obsequious. Among other gems, she claimed more than once in her reports that the PM as well as herself where outfitted in “full body armour.” Photos of the visit suggest otherwise, since Key is seen on base in a flak jacket, shirt, pants and a baseball cap. Most of the military personnel around him were dressed in basic uniforms with no armour or helmets, save Iraqi recruits running drills and his personal protection force (30 “non-deployed” SAS soldiers, which is a bit of overkill when it comes to that sort of thing and makes one wonder from where they were sourced since 30 is a significant chunk of the unit). There is even one photo of Key walking along with some guy in a suit.
According to this particular reporter, her “full body armour” consisted of a flak jacket and a helmet. I reckon that she needs to be briefed on what being fully body armoured entails. And the guy in the suit may want to consider his status if everyone but him in the entourage were given helmets and flak jackets.
The entire gaggle of NZ media regurgitated the line that the NZDF was making a difference and the training was a success. This, after a day at the base and, judging from the tone of their reports, never talking independently with anyone on it (the NZ media were accompanied by “minders” at all times).
We are told that 2000 Iraqis have been trained and returned to the front lines and that the mission has been a success. My question is how do we know what success is in this context?’ The NZDF states that Iraqi troops are trained in six week blocks in groups of battalion size. Assuming that the figure of 2000 is correct, that means that over the 5 months of NZDF training at Taji there have been 3 light battalions of 500 troops trained and sent to the front, with a fourth group soon to graduate before the original NZDF deployment ends.
It is a pretty admirable task for 16 trainers to accomplish. With a ratio of recruits to trainers of approximately 30:1, that is a lot of contact hours for the trainers. Given that ratio, has there been any burnout amongst the trainers given the cultural differences and widely variant notions of military professionalism between them and the recruits? Have any of the original soldiers sent to Camp Taji in May had to leave, and if so, why? If that is the case, what was the contingency plan?
More broadly, what is “success” when it comes to the training mission? Does success mean that all who entered the training completed the course, or that some significant percentage did? Does it mean that there were no green on blue “incidents?” Does it mean that the recruits came in like rabbits and left like Rambos?
Then there is the issue of post-training success. Has it been confirmed that the troops trained by the NZDF did in fact return to the front and achieve battlefield successes? If so, what were they?
I wonder about that because Mr. Key mentioned that the problem of unreliable Iraqi officers still exists (and those are the officers that presumably will lead the NZDF-trained troops into battle, which begs the question why officer training was not part of the mission). He also admitted that the Iraqi Army has not retaken any of the large towns and cities that Daesh has occupied (like Mosul, Falluja and Ramadi), that the NZDF personnel were restricted to the base because of security concerns and that the road between Taji and Baghdad was impassable by land due to the threat of IEDs and/or Daesh attacks. In light of that, what ARE those freshly trained soldiers doing?
One thing is certain: we will never find out from the press junket crowd because none of them appear to have asked questions to that effect or if they did, they chose not to report the answers. Instead, they seem to have taken the NZDF and Iraqi Army’s word at face value.
I will not comment on the debacle of having the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office publish photos of his meeting with Mr. Key in advance of Key’s secret visit to Taji, in contravention of the security protocols imposed by the NZDF and NZ government. As one wag noted, that was not too bad a security breach so long as Daesh only read the NZ Herald (or presumably watched NZ TV or listened to NZ radio).
In any event what is clear is this. With the complicity of major media outlets, Mr. Key has added troop visits to his pandas and flags repertoire of diversions. In saying so I in no way mean to denigrate the work and sacrifice of the NZDF soldiers at Taji or downplay the difficulty of their mission. Nor do I discount the positive impact his visit has on the NZDF personnel deployed, or the diplomatic and symbolic overtones of it. I simply do not think that the visit was about the troops per se. Instead, I think that the trip was a propaganda exercise that was more about burnishing the PM’s image as well as softening up the NZ public for a possible announcement of future changes to the NZDF mission in Iraq (and Syria).
It is a pity that none of those from the press gallery who were invited to join the PM on his meet-and-greet with the troops thought to wade through the fluff in order to cut to the chase of the matter. On the other hand, perhaps that is precisely why they were chosen.
Imagine if Jon Stephenson had been on that trip. I am willing to bet that not only would his reporting have been very different, but it would have set the tone for the entire group to be a little more serious in their scrutiny of the event. Then again, pigs will fly before such a thing ever happens.
I came back from six weeks abroad to see the beginning of the Internet Party’s “Party party” launches. It leaves me with some questions.
It seems that what the Internet Party has done is this. Using Kim Dotcom’s wallet as a springboard, it has selected a candidate group largely made up of attractive metrosexuals (only a few of whom have political experience), recruited as window dressing a seasoned (and also attractive) leftist female as party leader (even though she has no experience in the IT field), and run a slick PR campaign featuring cats that is long on rhetoric and promises and short on viable policies. The stated aim is to get out the apathetic youth vote and thereby reach the three percent electoral threshold.
The strategic alliance with the Mana Party makes sense, especially for Mana. They get additional resources to more effectively campaign for at least two electorate seats, especially given that it looks like the Maori Party is moribund and the Maori electoral roll will be more contestable even if Labour tries to reclaim its historical support in it. The Internet Party gets to coattail on Mana’s activism and the presence of relatively seasoned cadres on the campaign trail. Between the two, they might well reach the five percent threshold, although current polling suggests something well less than that. The lack of political experience in the Internet Party could be problematic in any event.
But I am still left wondering what the IP stands for and how it proposes to effect change if its candidates are elected. We know that the IP came about mostly due to Dotcom’s hatred of John Key. But Dotcom is ostensibly not part of the IP, which makes his attention-grabbing presence at its public events all the more puzzling. Leaving aside Dotcom’s background and baggage for the moment, imagine if major financial donors stole the stage at Labour, National or Green Party rallies. What would the reaction be? Plus, hating on John Key is not a policy platform, however much the sentiment may be shared by a good portion of the general public (and that is debatable).
Giving free internet access to all seems nice, but how and who is going to pay for that? Wanting to repeal the 2013 GCSB Act and withdraw from the 5 Eyes intelligence network sounds interesting, but how would that happen and has a cost/benefits analysis been run on doing so? Likewise, opposition to the TPP seems sensible, but what is its position on trade in general? The policies on the environment and education seem laudable (and look to be very close to those of the Greens), and it is good to make a stand on privacy issues and NZ independence, but is that enough to present to voters?
More broadly, where does IP stand on early childhood education, pensions, occupational health and safety, immigration, transportation infrastructure, diplomatic alignment, defense spending or a myriad of other policy issues? Is it anything more than a protest party? Nothing I have seen in its policy platform indicates a comprehensive, well thought roadmap to a better future. In fact, some of the policy statements are surprisingly shallow and in some cases backed with citations from blogs and newspapers rather than legitimate research outlets.
Is having attractive candidates, catchy slogans and a narrow policy focus enough for IP to be a legitimate political contender?
I have read what its champions claim it to be, and have read what its detractors say it is. I am personally familiar with two IP candidates and have found them to be earnest people of integrity and conviction who want more than a narrow vendetta-driven agenda opportunistically married to an indigenous socialist movement. I would, in fact, love to see it succeed because I think that the political Left in NZ needs more varied forms of representation in parliament than currently available.
So my question to readers is simple: is the IP a viable and durable option in the NZ political landscape, or is it doomed to fail?
One thing is certain. If dark rumours are correct, the government has some unpleasant surprises for the IP in the weeks leading to the election. If that happens, it may take more than Glenn Greenwald and his revelations about John Key and the GCSB to redeem the IP in the eyes of the voting public. I would hope that both Dotcom and his IP candidates are acutely aware of what could be in store for them should the rumours prove true, and plan accordingly.
As much as anybody I enjoy sports and competition, so much so that I enjoy watching top level competition in sports that I am unfamiliar with. I have therefore enjoyed watching the America’s Cup racing, not so much because of the nationality of the teams but because of the boat design, speed, tactics and seamanship involved. In fact, I am poorly placed to get worked up on patriotic grounds because as readers of my earlier post on liminality may remember, I have allegiances to several countries and divided loyalties as a result. Moreover, I believe patriotism to be the last (and best) refuge of political scoundrels so I endeavour to resist its emotional pull wherever I happen to be living.
In this America’s Cup series I am cheering for Team New Zealand because I know that it means a lot to New Zealand and very little to the US. Other than rugby, Kiwis tend to adopt a “David versus Goliath” approach to international team sports. They are not alone in this small country syndrome, as I have pointed out previously with regard to Uruguay and team sports other than soccer. But in New Zealand that syndrome extends beyond sports, including into the international political and economic arenas.
With regard to the America’s Cup, here in NZ there is live blow by blow coverage of every meter of every race, whereas in the US it is not being covered live anywhere except on boutique cable boating channels. Here it is front page news in every newspaper and news broadcast. In the US it barely rates a header in the sports section of big city newspapers, including that of the race venue San Francisco. Heck, in Texas high school football (the helmeted version) gets more coverage on a weekend than the America’s Cup has had in a year!
In the US most people do not give a darn that Larry Ellison indulges a billionaire fancy with a crew that includes only one American. Here people want to name their first born sons after Dean Barker. They also want that turncoat, traitorous preferably ex-kiwi Russell Coutts strung from the lanyard because he dared to work for the competition. In other words, Kiwis are heavily invested in the outcome whereas in the US they are not.
Or are Kiwis that heavily invested? From what I gather from video coverage of people watching the race live on television on the Auckland waterfront, there is hardly a brown face in the mix. The same goes for those Kiwis who have traveled to the America’s Cup Village in San Francisco. Pure pakeha pulsation throughout.
So where are the non-Pakeha kiwis when it comes to this race? Are they just not into sailing? If so, why not? Why is something that is so heavily promoted by the media and advertisers as a nationalistic rallying point having so little impact on non-Pakeha communities?
I ask because the New Zealand taxpayers have put $38 million into Team Emirates for this race series (both Labour and National support the expenditure). So whether or not they are emotionally invested in the racing, Kiwis are financially invested in it. The public expenditure was justified on grounds that the economic benefits to NZ of a future Cup defense in the event of a win would justify the investment (since winners get to name the venue for the next race). The narrow investment now is said to bring greater and broader future returns.
Besides the fact that no public consultation preceded the allocation of taxpayer money to Team Emirates, the issue of benefits is thorny. Even if Auckland benefits from hosting a future defense of the Cup (and that would mostly go temporarily to hoteliers, restaurants, bars and other service sector providers), what about the rest of the country? Other than Auckland based niche industries like boat-building and sail-making and a few high-end tourist locations and ventures, is it true that the country as a whole will benefit from the tax revenues generated by increased economic activity in Auckland? Do we really expect to believe that places like Ruatoki and Twizel will see direct benefit from an America’s Cup defense in Auckland?
It should be noted that Team Oracle USA received no public funds for its Cup defense, and that the redevelopment of the Embarcadero in San Francisco was a majority private venture that has not yielded the economic dividends to the city that were originally tabled by way of justification for holding the race there. So the “future benefits” argument is contentious at best, especially if drawn over the long-term. Yet spending public money on the challenge is seen as in the long-term NZ national interest.
Put another way, why is it that NZ taxpayers coughed up money for a yacht race campaign that not all New Zealanders care about and which relatively few New Zealanders will benefit from in the form of future uncertain economic returns in the event of a successful challenge this year? Since hosting the Cup defense will undoubtably include allocations of more taxpayer dollars to infrastructure and venue development, is this an appropriate use of public money? Given that the food in schools program receives just $10 million a year, could it not be argued that government priorities are a bit out of whack when it comes to long-term investment in the nation’s future?
Leftist conspiracy types will claim that the government subsidy for a small appeal elitist sport is designed to benefit its rich and upper middle class business supporters, nothing more. I would hope not, but then again I come back to the question of who in New Zealand is truly supporting the Cup challenge. Is the America’s Cup for the few or for the many? In the US it is for the few by the few, but here in NZ the issue appears a bit more complicated.
Anyway, I could be entirely wrong in my read and certainly do not have a good handle on the extent of support for the America’s Cup outside of what I have seen and heard in the media. Readers are welcome to ponder and comment on the issue.
Better to do that than to get started on the subject of host venue race time limits being enforced in low wind conditions on a day when a overwhelming match-winning victory by the challengers was in sight!
The image above is “scientifically formulated to enhance [women's] perception of men who drink Molson [...] a perfectly tuned combination of words and images designed by trained professionals. Women who are exposed to it experience a very positive feeling. A feeling which they will later project directly onto [men who drink Molson].”
That’s not my analysis; it’s what the creatives who developed the ad said about it, in another ad. The first ad, the one you see above, ran in Cosmopolitan and was pitched at women. The ad from which the explanatory text was drawn ran in Playboy under the heading “Hundreds of thousands of women. Pre-programmed for your convenience.” The full analysis is here, on the Sociological Images blog.
The lesson is essentially that propaganda relies on market segmentation; messages crafted and pitched with accuracy and intent. If you read what you’re told to read, you’ll think what you’re told to think. Avoiding such a fate means embracing diversity of input, understanding your opponents’ arguments and their reasoning even if you disagree with it. To a large extent that means consuming their media. For a rounded perspective you’ll need, at least occasionally, to read sites like DailyKos and Free Republic, infuriating and interminable comment threads on The Standard and Kiwiblog, and SOLOpassion and Gates of Vienna and WSWS and the Wall Street Journal; listen to talkback, watch Fox News and pick up both Cosmo and Playboy from time to time, for the articles or whatever. This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but the point is: read, listen, watch and discuss promiscuously. Argue with those folks you disagree with; drink beer with them from time to time. Take them seriously. Insist that they take you seriously, and give them reasons to do so.
It might hurt; in fact, it often will. But it beats being a dittohead.
Edit to add: Anita points out that the Sociological Images post created a bit of a stir. They write:
As you would. Not clear whether they now regret the decision to run such ads, or whether it’s a pro-forma blowback response.
Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged isn’t a work with universal appeal, but it interests me as a work of propaganda. It is a powerful text, and one that has had an enduring influence on Western politics. While my disdain for Objectivism and the sanity of most of its adherents is pretty well documented, I do, at least to an extent, get the appeal.
There are some things that were inevitably going to be bad about the recent movie adaptation Atlas Shrugged: Part I, the first in a trilogy: the utopian pseudo-philosophy at its core; unlovable heroes and pantomime villains; the absurdity of a mysterious stranger going about making zillionaires offers they can’t refuse to leave it all behind, and so on. This is all the usual stuff of Atlas Shrugged criticism and while fair enough, it’s not really pertinent to criticism of the movie, because the movie couldn’t have been made authentically without it. (The question of whether it should have been made authentically at all is another one; I think it should.) So this review isn’t a critique of the novel, or Rand’s philosophy; it’s a critique of the film.
There’s a scene early on in the story where Paul Larkin, a business-courtier of sorts, counsels Hank Rearden about the importance of public opinion. The movie plays it pretty straight and is much shorter than the novel text, so the dialogue is transcribed here:
This theme — to hell with what the peasants think, only quality matters — it central to Rand’s work, and the filmmakers here have taken it entirely to heart. They have made a film that is almost incomprehensible to those who aren’t familiar with Rand’s text, presumably on the premise that anyone who matters will know the story already, or will be able to divine the work’s innate and self-evident quality for themselves.* The result is a simplistic, primary retelling of Atlas Shrugged: a film without cinematic appeal or narrative cohesion, and that doesn’t effectively convey Rand’s milieu, her ideas, or her ideology, and consequentially fails to live up to her vision.
The first and most immediately evident failure is that the film is talky to a fault. Before it was released I expressed concerns that a production team of Objectivist True Believers would lack the necessary courage to take the red pen to the hallowed text. This fear has been fully borne out. What works on the page — and what worked on the page in the 1950s — does not always work on-screen. The iron law of the moving picture is show me, don’t tell me, and it is not unfaithful to cut an author’s prose to suit the needs of a new medium. Yet it seems every cut, every edit (and of course there are many; it’s a long book) has been made reluctantly.
Seriously: as Hank and Dagny retire to their rooms after celebrating the John Galt Line’s maiden run, we don’t need Hank to confide in a stage-whisper to Dagny that he wants to kiss her, or for her to say “what’s stopping you?”. Earlier, after about 40 minutes of wondering when the hell the movie is going to start, we got a brief conversation about dessert, banana or chocolate? In other cases Rand’s phraseology intrudes: the introduction of John Galt — the first meaningful piece of dialogue in the film — comes almost verbatim from the novel: he introduces himself as “someone who knows what it’s like to work for himself, and not let others feed off the profits of his energy”. Come again? Rand’s hackneyed ideological tropes (“Anti Dog Eat Dog Act” &c) are retained without the benefit of the novel’s context, in which they make sense. The screenplay manages to fail both the tasks of good exposition: convey a vivid sense of milieu, and do so efficiently and with congruence. While you could argue it sets the scene, it’s still not entirely clear what that scene is, or why so many words were needed to set it.
Casting and direction is poor, as is to be expected from a first-time director possessed of sufficient (and archetypically-Randian) hubris to cast himself as John Galt. There is an utter dearth of chemistry between the characters; the actors do a mostly serviceable job, but they are given precious little to work with. Rand’s heroes are notable for their severity, but also for their passion, and while the emotional top-note of severity is overplayed, the undertone of passion for the most part just fails to cut through. There are, in this film based on a very emotionally-intense novel, about four moments of genuine emotional intensity. The first is about half-way through, when Ellis Wyatt shouts at Dagny in her office. It is a jarring moment, and not in a good way — the first moment in the film where anyone on-scene is speaking above a low conversational tone, and is totally off-register. It comes out of nowhere — in the novel, again, it was cushioned by exposition — and confuses the relationships between the characters. This is a particular problem in a film where it is already unclear who are supposed to be the “good guys” and who the “bad” (again, a lack of effective exposition).
At other times, despite remaining slavishly faithful to Rand’s dialogue, the film alters the register of a scene so utterly that it is unrecognisable. The sex scene between Hank and Dagny is one of the central events of the first part of the novel: two kindred spirits, having previously thought themselves alone in the world, consummating their relationship with violent intensity. Her “highest achievement”, Dagny calls it, in the novel; in the film we are treated to a slow-motion desaturated montage of soft fades, arched backs and half-open mouths. Its only redeeming feature is its brevity. I mentioned that there were about four moments of genuinely intense emotion in the film: this was not one of them. Going to such lengths to retain Rand’s words while neglecting to retain the tone and sense of her narrative is penny-wise and pound-foolish, as far as authenticity goes.
Deeper than the failure of narrative, though, is the film’s failure to deliver its ideological payload. The expression of Rand’s ideology is garbled, the narrative itself is poorly explicated. Nor is it carried by structure, or image or performance, or anything, really. Signature scenes that conveyed this material vividly and at tiresome length in the novel are all but absent — such as the encounter with Hugh Akston, which becomes a trivial footnote in a weird road-trip montage — while other aspects, such as Rearden’s sell-down and the implementation of various acts and regulations, are bogged down in irrelevant technical detail. We learn a lot about the structure of the steel and railroad industries in Rand’s America, but very little about why these things matter to the story.
So although the filmmakers have remained quite true to the text this is not a film that is true to Rand’s vision. It’s barely a film — it’s more like an illustrated audiobook, badly abridged. Rand was a screenwriter whose work was produced on Broadway; someone who understood drama, who wanted Clint Eastwood and Farrah Fawcett to play the leads in the movie of Atlas Shrugged. She worked to have it produced twice, as a film, and then as an eight-hour miniseries; both failed. At the time of her death she was (re)writing the screenplay herself. She had great ambitions for the movie. As an ideologue and a propagandist she knew and understood deeply the power of words and images, of ideas and argumentation, to move people, and for all their faults her novels — or this one, at least — did that.
Film’s use as a propaganda medium was by no means alien to her. Early Soviet Russia had the best-developed ideological film tradition of its time, and Rand was also said to have caught what Lev Kuleshov referred to as “Americanitis”, infatuation with America, from watching the Hollywood films that so eloquently portrayed the bourgeois individualism of American life. The films of the Soviet tradition in which she grew up, no less than those of the classical Hollywood system in which Rand later worked, were profoundly cinematic works, used quite purposively to convey ideological material in every cut, every frame, every note. It was not a tradition of simplistic, literal narrative adaptations, but works of political art in their own right.
Like the exponents of Soviet montage, Rand tirelessly inferred ideological symbolism into arbitrary works of art. She was not afraid to challenge readers, to shock or outrage them. For all it may be nominally faithful to the text, this film fails to use the aesthetic tools of the medium to convey its message. It fails to challenge, or shock, or outrage. It fails to do anything, really. This movie of a novel about the primacy of action over inaction, preoccupied with the most immense mechanical and ideological forces, literally about the engines that drive humanity, is shamefully static.
The film’s dearth of cinematic character means that not only has it failed to make money (an Objectivist KPI), but it also fails to fulfil the purpose of an ideological text: to engage, to inspire, to move people. Other than those for whom the text is sacred, who overlook the faults of the adaptation out of fawning affection for the source material, nobody is watching Atlas Shrugged: Part I; there were no queues, there is no buzz. At a time of deep and divisive public debate about the nature of the relationships between business and government, between the state and the individual, at a time when Rand’s latter-day apostles are so fond of declaring that her work has never been more relevant, and that her ideas are enjoying a renaissance, there isn’t even any outrage about this film. In this regard it is no better than the preachy Bible films, full of hollow, lazy sentimentality, that get replayed to captive audiences of bored children every Easter and Christmas. The Gospel According to St Matthew this ain’t.
For all I disagree with her philosophy, Rand’s novel deserved better. As noted, her work is packed with references to the expression of ideology and exaltation in the everyday — in the structure of a building, a person’s voice or bearing; or most notoriously, in their approach to sex. This film is no such expression of any innate excellence. Echoing the conversation between Hank Rearden and Paul Larkin, a motif of Atlas Shrugged is frequent reference to the composer Richard Halley, one of the “strikers”, whose work is described as so profound that it is misunderstood and mocked by the ordinary workaday folks, the leeches and moochers and second-handers, and by the time they come around to appreciating it Halley has decided they are not worthy.** Objectivists certainly consider Halley’s work as being analogous to Rand’s, and I get the sense that the principals of Atlas Shrugged: Part I fancy themselves as having created such a work — one that can only be properly appreciated by those of a nobler character. That they, as Galtian Übermenschen, would succeed where everyone else had failed by sheer force of will, and in spite of the doubts and limitations placed upon them by the second-handers. Their conceit could hardly be greater.
Perhaps those of us who are not Objectivists should be grateful; Atlas Shrugged made to Eisenstein, DeMille, Capra or Pasolini’s standards would be a mighty work of propaganda indeed.
* Fitting irony: this review also assumes readers are familiar with the story.
One of the more vexing problems in politics is to turn opposition to something into a virtue. Being anti-something is reactive and defensive rather than a path with which to move forward. It is the antithesis of a proactive, innovative posture where the power of a better future is conveyed in order to secure implicit agreement to the unspoken “Yes” latent in the electorate. The latter is a positive reaffirmation, often couched in crude nationalism or other symbols of consensus and collective identity. In contrast, the implicit or explicit “No” embedded in negative campaigns carries with it connotations of obstructionism, obstinacy and lack of vision.
The negative connotations of a “No” campaign suffer from a structural disadvantage when it comes to mass political psychology. All things being equal, it is harder to successfully engage in “No” campaigns rather than “Yes” campaigns, especially when the former is confronted by the latter in electoral competition. Negative campaigns can also be a sign of defeat. Although all political challengers must attack incumbents on their record, there are ways to do so in addition to simple rejection of the opponent’s policies. In practice, opposition parties that fail to cloak their campaigns in a positive and proactive message are often conceding the outcome and using the electoral process for party rejuvenation rather than truly competitive purposes.
Yet it is possible for negative campaigns to convey a positive message. An example of a successful negative campaign is the opposition to the 1989 referendum on the nature of the Chilean regime. After 16 years of market-oriented military-bureaucratic authoritarianism, General Pinochet sought to continue as a civilian president in a “guarded” democracy installed by “controlled” elections. He and his supporters formed a political party to that effect, relaxed restrictions on the political opposition, and held a referendum that proposed that voters say”Yes” to constitutional revisions that would guide the installation of the “guarded” democratic regime. Pinochet and his followers banked on their control of the media and relative economic successes to ensure that the “Yes” outcome would prevail. The language of the referendum spoke to this fact by asking voters to vote “Yes” or “No” on continuing the unfinished process of national reconstruction under a Pinochet presidency.
Opposition to the “guarded” democracy plan came from a diverse array of groups, who preferred a full transition to democracy and the removal of Pinochet from politics. It did not necessarily have the support of the majority when the referendum campaign began, and besides the advantages accrued to the Pinochet regime, it was hampered by tight campaign regulations, lack of access to publicity, restrictions on public gatherings and the fact that many of its leaders were in exile.
Even so, the Opposition campaigners phrased their negative message so that a “No” vote was a vote for democracy as well as a vote against authoritarianism. It played on the knowledge that most Chileans understood that whatever its successes, the Pinochet regime was an aberration rather than a model, and that the price for its success was not worth the benefits supposedly gained. This organic understanding of Chilean “good sense” in the face of elite-purveyed common sense shifted popular perceptions of the referendum, and the “No” vote won a commanding majority. Confronted by defeat, Pinochet was abandoned by his supporters and the stage set for a fuller transition to democratic rule (I say “fuller” because the terms of the foundational election and the character of the political system for the first post-authoritarian decade were fixed by post-referendum constitutional reforms made by the outgoing Pinochet regime under executive fiat, which were heavily weighed in favour of the elites who benefitted from the Pinochet regime and which was backed by a military commitment to defend them. It was not until the 2000s (and Pinochet’s death in 1999) that Chilean democracy was fully consolidated, and even then the structural and institutional changes wrought by the authoritarians and their successors skewed socio-economic and political power in favour of those who prospered under Pinochet).
Regardless of what happened later, the “No” campaign on the 1989 referendum succeeded in shifting the terms of the Chilean transition to democracy away from those preferred by the authoritarians and towards those of a long-repressed opposition. It is therefore a good example of turning a negative stance into a political positive.
The success of the 1989 Chilean “No” campaign might provide some insights for Labour as it enters the final phase of the 2011 election. Labour has staked its campaign on opposition to National’s economic policies, epitomized by the “No” on Assets Sales plank. A little more subtly, the proposal to raise the retirement age is an admission that not all is well in Aotearoa. In other words, it is an admission of a negative, which is also the case for the repeated references to job losses via immigration to Australia. Most importantly, although Labour has “positive” planks in its electoral platform, these appear to be overshadowed (at least to me) by the negative aspects of its campaign. For its part, National can play the role of positive campaigner, using the upbeat character of the Prime Minister, the hopeful nature of its policy message (however devoid of positive content that it may be) and incidentals such as the All Blacks WRC victory to cement its pro-active and affirmative image in the eyes of voters.
Given the late stage of the campaign, it might be worth considering how Labour might cast its “negative” planks in a positive light. The key is to use the implicit “No” as an affirmation of Kiwi (as opposed to class or ethnic) identity, be it in its quest for economic and political independence or in its reification of individualism as a national trait. Here differences can be drawn with National on issues such as security policy, where National has basically subordinated its military perspective to those of Australia and the US, or on foreign investment in an increasingly deregulated domestic economic context, where National would prefer to ease restrictions on foreign capital flows into the country regardless of their impact on strategic assets, local capital or the integrity of resident labour markets and environmental conditions. Saying “no” to such things is not being obstructionist or reactionary, it is about reaffirming who we are.
I have no expertise in political marketing, but it seems to me that if the 1989 Chilean opposition could turn a negative campaign into a positive statement given the severe restrictions and disadvantages under which it operated, then Labour might consider how to cast its campaign in a way such that its opposition to National’s policy proposals becomes a reaffirmation of Kiwi autonomy and independence. Other than that, it has little else to go on.*
* I am well aware that on economic fundamentals Labour and National are two sides of the same slice of bread, and that many National policies are mere continuations of those originally set by the 5th Labour government. My point here is to show that there is a way, however improbable, for Labour to rescue its election campaign.
On Red Alert, Clare Curran has a hapless pro-forma whinge about the standard of media coverage in New Zealand vis-a-vis in the UK, where a quarter million people are presently engaging in running battles with police; compared with here, where the media are obsessed with Darren Hughes.
Excuse me if I sound like a broken record, but the fundamental issue here isn’t exactly uncharted territory, and the fact that Clare has a lower opinion of the media than I do should make it easier to accept my advice, which is this: If you want the media to talk about something, Clare, give them a reason to talk about it. Make a stink, cause a scene, do something which makes not talking about it impossible. As a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin says: write a book, or do something worth writing a book about.
If you don’t give the media a compelling reason to care, don’t be surprised if they don’t. If you don’t provide them with something powerful to cover, they’ll go with scandal and innuendo every time. In the fable of the scorpion and the frog, the scorpion stings the frog. Why? To do so is in its nature. Frogs, while unable to prevent scorpions from stinging, would at least be wise to deny them the opportunity.
With that in mind, some of the following in this case might also have helped:
It’s not that Labour didn’t give the media something to cover, so the media covered the Darren Hughes scandal by default: it’s that Labour gave the media the Darren Hughes scandal to cover, covered in juicy scandal juice, and then didn’t give them anything more compelling to cover instead. (As if there is something more compelling than a sexual investigation into a male frontbench MP’s alleged dalliance with a teenaged male youth MP in the house of the deputy leader after a Parliamentary function, which was covered up for two weeks by the party leader.)
Let me be crystal clear: the issue here is not about right and wrong, or about justice. Perhaps it should be, but electoral politics is not about what should be; it’s about what is. If you choose to privilege ‘justice’ over ‘politics’, as Phil Goff claimed on Q+A this morning, there’s a political cost to doing so; a political cost which, while it might be regrettable, isn’t something to whinge about. After all: if you made the choice you’re presumably better off than if you’d chosen differently. To behave as if it were otherwise, and to blame the media for their role in exacting that price is to blame the scorpion for having a sting in its tail.
Anyone to whom this dynamic isn’t clear has no business running strategy for a Sunday book club, much less a political party which aspires to government. As long as Labour continue to fail at this, one of the most basic tasks of politics, the phone will remain off the hook.
… for trying to run game on New Zealand, scaremongering the Foreshore and Seabed hīkoi:
That was on page four of the dead tree edition, and online here, under the headline “Opponents put up roadblocks to bill”. Use of this outrageously unrepresentative photo makes a number of unjustified implications which aren’t present in Claire Trevett’s generally factual and balanced article. These include:
The core message of this choice of photo to accompany what is mostly a story about the trivial frustrations of a government trying to pass an unpopular law is this: Māori radicals and gangs are forcibly blocking this law, and they will block you from the beach as well.
It would be absurd if it wasn’t so offensively misleading.
(via Pascal’s bookie)
That was published in the Washington Post, and syndicated to the front page of the international news section of today’s Dominion Post. Read the whole thing, it’s worth your time.
Then try to re-imagine this story if the protagonist was an uneducated working-class youth from the Palestinian Occupied Territories, rural Afghanistan or the Iran-Iraq borderlands.