Posts Tagged ‘symbolic politics’

Friends like these

datePosted on 12:13, December 6th, 2011 by Lew

I don’t know who’s set up wewantdavidcunliffe.co.nz to lobby for his leadership of the Labour party, but I’m pretty sure David Cunliffe won’t be thanking them, despite their obvious enthusiasm. Click the image below for a full size version.

wewantdavidcunliffe.co.nz

All the information is broadly accurate (except for the idiotic scaremongering of “Don’t let the right-wing bloggers hijack your party’s Leadership election. Submit the form now!”). Cunliffe is a strong candidate with many good qualities. But I doubt many people will read that far because the site is offensive to the eye. The layout is horrible, and I know colour-blocking is meant to be in right now, but seriously — the dominant red is too much. Contrast with the text is poor, and the faux-script headings and such give the whole thing a 1990s Geocities-Angelfire feel that has no place in the 21st Century interwebs.

Worst of all is the banner — it tells us that grey, faceless bobble-headed people want David Cunliffe as leader. As a friend of mine, a graphic designer by training, said (after “MY EYEEEES”) — aren’t grey bobble-heads the New Zealand First brand?

The use of such symbolism is a slander on David Cunliffe that even a member of Team Shearer like me can’t support.

L

Stop/Go

datePosted on 20:13, November 9th, 2011 by Lew

National’s initial Stop/Go TV ad is a pretty good one. Clean, to the point, not bogged down in detail but jampacked with symbolism:

Toby Manhire, writing on The Listener‘s excellent new website, has already done the analysis so I’ll quote him:

Red STOP Labour sign-guy looks a bit tense, uncomfortable, slouchily off-centre. His fist is closed, zip sloppily undone, and look at the state of those shoes.

He looks like he might just call in sick tomorrow because he feels like it, even though the country’s economy will suffer, while he just lies around, stuffing his face all day.

Green-blue GO National sign-guy looks comfortable but focused. Shoes are good. Sensible. He’s a little unshaven, but that’s because he’s a bit like the All Blacks, don’t you think? Like John Key is a bit like the All Blacks.

Check out the clouds, too. Fluffy, familiar things above Green-blue GO sign-guy; grey, foreboding, riskier bastards above that Red STOP man.

It can be no coincidence, what’s more, that the shadow GO Blue Green GO sign GO the All Blacks sign guy casts a shadow pointing where? The centre, people, the centre of the road.

But hang on a moment. The symbolism of a lazy Labourite and a clean-cut Tory is laid on a bit thick — and the scruffy old Labour guy looks just a tiny bit “ethnic”, if you know what I mean. Moreover the whole Stop/Go metaphor is a bit trite — trite enough that it was the basis for a satirical diary piece by David Slack in December last year:

And If you think about how traffic control actually works, the metaphor has coherence problems. Last night, Anna Hodge tweeted the following observation, which in hindsight seems so obvious:

Also, does National understand road works? Or fairness? You need sign-holding dudes with both GO *and* STOP to keep traffic flowing.

Um, quite. For some to go, others must stop (at least until we get reef-fish-inspired traffic management systems.)

Anna’s tweet generated a bunch of responses as the narrative of the ad began to unravel. Mine was that if you’re at the front of the queue, only the GO sign matters; others were about the size of your SUV, the increase in inequality between north- and south-bound traffic flows, and the fact that Stop and Go signs are the same sign, just viewed from different angles.

Aaron Hicks remarked that the STOP sign at road works means that there’s actually work going on, a point you’d have thought might be clear to a government undertaking such an aggressive roading policy. And did the green of the go sign hint at a National alliance with the Greens? But they’ve spent the last decade and a half telling us that the Greens’ green means stop so green is basically red, and now their own green (not even a Blue-green!) means go?

The more you think about it, the more tangled and incoherent the narrative gets. And yet for all its flaws the ad works. It relies on people not thinking too hard about it — upon audiences swallowing whole the top-level symbolic material Toby described, making what Stuart Hall called a hegemonic reading of the text. In Hall’s model the second audience position is a ‘negotiated’ reading — such as Toby’s analysis itself, which recognises the hegemonic aspects of the discourse but doesn’t necessarily accept them, and the third position is ‘contrary’; consciously reading against the text’s hegemonic meaning — what Anna did, as did those of us who responded to her observation.

A lesson from this is that reading a tightly-encoded text counter-hegemonically is hard work. Audiences are not sponges or “sheeple”; they will often take a negotiated position, but in general such a position doesn’t prevent the text from having some impact. This illustrates a point of strategy that my regular readers must be bored tears with by now: you can’t rebut a text like this head-on with wonkish facts and figures. Dry details about Labour’s record and plans on economic progress wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to the effectiveness of this particular ad, for two reasons: first because the hegemonic material doesn’t lodge in the head, it lodges in the guts (it’s truthiness, not truth); and second because such a rebuttal implicitly accepts the framing of the original text, and that framing is half the payload. But subverting the paradigm, man, that’s where the action is.

I’m not suggesting a comprehensive strategy to counter the National party campaign could be composed around a response to one 15-second ad, but if a counter-strategy was to be composed, that’s how you’d do it. Don’t berate people for accepting the hegemonic position, or for negotiating: find ways to make them see it in a different light.

L

Turning Negatives into Positives.

datePosted on 10:00, November 4th, 2011 by Pablo

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.

Question of the Day.

datePosted on 12:45, October 18th, 2011 by Pablo

Is the global “Occupy” movement a genuine grassroots mobilisation with revolutionary potential or is it bound to fizzle out, be coopted, voluntarily moderate its demands or splinter into myriad fringe groups without promoting substantive change in the socio-economic status quo?

Interested readers are invited to share their views.

Throughout the globalised system of capitalist production, grassroots discontent with the economic and political status quo has produced a number of national counter-hegemonic mass mobilizations. All are born of alienation, but their social origins, goals, modalities and outcomes differ.

Alienation is a product of environment, natural and human. Even if conforming in the main to universal standards of conduct, individual (and later collective) social subjects become emotionally detached from the realities of everyday existence.  The causes are many–disaffection with a job or lack of employment prospects, racial difference, inter-personal difficulties, environmentally-caused psychological disorders, etc. This promotes a social outlook that grows increasingly hostile in the measure that adverse life conditions are interpreted to be the result of circumstances created or exacerbated by the socio-economic and political elite. That leads to various types of “anti-social” behaviour, individual and collective, which constitute expressions of the resentment that alienation breeds. Some of this behaviour is little more than petty acts of rebellion. Others pose a more serious threat. Individual and small-group alienation can often be treated as a psychological and criminal problem. Mass alienation resulting in grassroots mobilization is another thing because it involves horizontal solidarity and networking between self-perceived disenfranchised groups rallying in opposition to a common (elite) enemy. However, this does not mean that there is ideological coherence in the oppositional claims of the alienated.

The reason is simple. One product of alienation is false consciousness. False consciousness is a condition where the individual and collective social subject thinks about the causes of alienation in ways that run contrary to material self-interest under the assumption that the reasons for deteriorating or negative life circumstances are rooted in cultural or ideological factors rather than structural realities. Rather than confront the macroeconomic presumptions and biases inherent in a market-driven system of private (and increasingly corporate) ownership, consumption and exchange, false consciousness focuses on behavioral differences rooted in primordial beliefs, identities, ideological differences or contrary collective action.

Under conditions of collective false consciousness there is often a yearning for a return to tradition or a retrenchment of in-group identification along national, ethnic, religious or racial lines, sometimes with overtly nostalgic class content. This mainly occurs with descendent class fractions (for example, the industrial working class in the US) whose position in the social division of labour has been eroded by structural changes wrought by the globalization project. Confronted by this slippage in class status, descendent class fractions such as the white Christian middle classes in a host of liberal democracies blame their condition of so-called “others:” immigrants, religious minorities, non-traditional or opposition ideological movements, etc. In an effort to reclaim their past status, declining social groups are willing to condone anti-establishment, non-institutionalised forms of political competition because for them the threat is existential. When these forms of collective action take on a restorative or revanchist tone, they are considered to be passive revolutions.*

Passive revolutions are not genuine social revolutions. Although they can be violent, they do not destroy and transform the socio-economic and political parameters of society. Instead, they seek to use non-institutional means to reclaim a previous status quo in which they prospered. Because contemporary and future structural conditions preclude a return to a previous form of production and its attendant social division of labour, these groups are prone to extremism in the measure that they are denied their self-perceived just rewards. The starkest examples of passive revolutionary movements were European fascism and Latin American national populism. Although each had a different socio-economic core (Southern European fascism was a mixture of working class and small property owners’ movements, whereas Northern European fascism was urban middle class based, with national populism being a combination of urban working class and peasant movements depending on the specific country in which it manifested itself), they all had the commonality of being a reaction against something rather than a source of substantive forward-looking change to the basic parameters of society.

Not that all progressive counter-hegemonic grassroots movements are necessarily revolutionary. Many progressives seek to improve upon rather than transform the status quo. They do not seek to question its basic foundations but to make it more humane (hence the refrain “people before profits”). Coupled with an aversion to violence on the part of most progressive groups in liberal democratic societies, this leads to counter-hegemonic strategies that are not wars of position or of maneuver. Instead, they are collectively reformist rather than revolutionary in nature.

Given the above, from an elite perspective counter-hegemonic grassroots mobilization is best handled via state reformism and reform mongering. State reformism is the adoption of a conciliatory and concession-based policy approach by which elites give up certain prerogatives and agree to modify certain institutional frameworks in order to allow for more popular voice and benefit. Although the distribution of benefits between dominant and subordinate groups may be altered by such arrangements, overall control of material conditions, ideological context and political office remain in the hands of the elite. Reform mongering is the piecemeal allocation of concessions to social groups based upon the persistence of their demands and their strategic importance in the social division of labor (which can also be part of a divide-and-conquer strategy). Things such as civil rights and labor legislation represent examples of reform mongering in capitalist regimes, with broader programs such as the US New Deal and Great Society are examples of reformism at work.

This brings up the issue of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements in the US, the England riots and the mass mobilizations that have occurred in France, Greece and Spain among other places. While some of the mobilizations have been progressive, there has been plenty of passive revolutionary sentiment embodied in them as well. The Tea Party movement is a glaring example of the phenomena, but the rise of right-wing nationalism throughout Europe is also emblematic in that regard. Even the ethereal “Waitakere Man” has, if only latently, as much passive revolutionary as it does reformist traits, with very little progressive revolutionary consciousness evident in the collective “him.”

The dominant ideological tendency towards reactionary or reformist rather than revolutionary perspectives poses problems for progressives because the three ideological strands that are the most difficult to overcome in any parametric struggle are cultural tradition, nationalism and religion. When these are combined in a reactionary groundswell against the usurping “others,” they make for a formidable obstacle to substantive change, especially when elites tacitly support their emergence as a hedge against mass collective action that is focused on structural transformation.

The so-called Arab Spring is a variant on the theme. Although some believe the uprisings to be revolutionary, they are in fact reformist at best and passive revolutionary at worst. There is no doubt that post-Gaddafi Libya will remain capitalist, sectarian and tribal, albeit under different (most likely authoritarian) leadership. Mutatis mutandis, the same holds true for Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and other Arab states, to say nothing of Iran should popular discontent magnify to the point of unstoppable mass uprising. Revolts are not revolutions because of their reformist and passive revolutionary character.

The lesson in all of this is to recognize that alienation may be at the root of the thirst for socio-economic and political change, but false consciousness often intrudes on perceptions of the proper “solution set” to the point that the passive revolutionary option remains as viable if not more so than reformist alternatives, with the chances of genuine social revolution lessened to the extent that false consciousness, be it spontaneous or manicured, prevails in society.

In sum: passive revolutionary sentiment in the body politic in modern capitalist society constitutes the biggest obstacle to progressive change. With corporate elites dominating the media discourse and actively encouraging such beliefs, the task of the grassroots mobilizer becomes all the more difficult because the first step required is to promote an ideological conversion amongst non-believers who are indoctrinated to believe that the status quo is worth defending, even if in modified form.

Couple that with the limited revolutionary consciousness of the organized labour movement in most advanced capitalist democracies, the reformist nature of the likes of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the apathy and narcissism that is another manifestation of alienation, this augers poorly for the prospects of parametric grassroots change in the near future.

* Left for another time is discussion of ascendant class fractions in the contemporary capitalist context, not all of who (such as finance elites) embody the spirit of progressive change.


 

Two current events

datePosted on 08:56, July 15th, 2011 by Lew

Since I’m in the middle of deadline crush, and I spent yesterday afternoon socialising instead of working, just a couple of quick notes.

Vulnerability of Labour’s Capital Gains Tax:
Overall my initial impressions of the CGT and associated policy is that it’s pretty good, but vulnerable to attack. There are the usual economic and ideological objections — full of loopholes, won’t raise enough revenue, raises rents, punishes people for getting ahead, will require more borrowing in the medium term, and so on — but for mine the best attack line rests on the coincidence of taxation rates between CGT and GST. If I were running the National party’s attack campaign, I’d be leading with “Tax off fruit & veg, tax on houses”, or better yet, “tax on bricks & mortar”. Just another of many reasons why GST off fruit & veg is bad policy.

Misunderstanding of Hone Harawira’s Oath Stunt:
So Speaker Lockwood Smith ejected Hone Harawira from Parliament for swearing his oath to the Treaty of Waitangi rather than to the Crown — despite having pulled a similar stunt in 2005 without incident. There is the usual sort of wailing and gnashing about this around the traps, and it seems to have pressed everyone’s ‘sanctimonious outrage’ buttons. What I find strange is that people seem reluctant to see the stunt for what it is — mutual base-arousal, brand politics for both Harawira and Smith. Hone Harawira was, to a large extent, elected to anger and infuriate uptight honkeys like Smith and the KBR and the talkback haters, and inasmuch as his defiance of procedure has achieved that he’s winning. Smith, for his own, has brought a new dignity and solemnity to Parliament, and his personal brand of conservatism requires that he takes a firm stance. Both acted perfectly well to type, and in a sense each has done the other a favour, by granting an opportunity to grandstand. The people who are hating on Hone were never going to vote for him; and likewise for Smith. To an extent there’s also some base arousal by the māori party, too — they have fallin in behind Hone, and are calling for the Treaty to be included in the oath. That’s a useful societal discussion to have.

I find it particularly ironical that the sort of people who are so scathing and disrespectful about Māori ceremony have their dander up regarding this rather minor infraction of procedure; many seem to be raising the counterfactual of ‘imagine the outcry if this happened on a marae!” The thing is, though, in Te Ao Māori as elsewhere, kawa are made to be broken. How and when and why they are broken, and by whom, is key. With suitable mana, ihi, wehi, you can get away with a lot. There is a famous account of Dame Whina Cooper lifting her skirts to remind the men present to respect where they came from. I think, in these terms, it was much worse for Hone that his korowai fell off.

Contra this view, however, Annabelle Lee-Harris from Native Affairs says she’s heard from left-wing Māori who are angry with Hone for trivialising and causing another sideshow; that they thought he was “indulgent when Māori in Te Tai Tokerau are in dire straits’. So maybe I’m wrong. But the bottom line is: Hone Harawira was elected to Parliament by a higher power than the Speaker; all else is procedural.

L

Dollar dollar bill y’all

datePosted on 22:56, July 11th, 2011 by Lew

Tonight’s Native Affairs debate between Pita Sharples and Don Brash is now up on their website, and it is must-watch television for a few reasons. The first and most immediately evident is Julian Wilcox’s quality as an interviewer and moderator — this was not a structured debate, with time allotted and mechanical switches between speakers, nor preset, pre-scripted questions. It was a free-flowing affair, with Wilcox acting as both interviewer and moderator; and throughout the two speakers were respectful, genuine, and both had ample opportunity to get their points across. It was superbly done. (Hone Harawira, in a later discussion, twice jokingly invited Wilcox to stand for Te Mana, but for mine he’s too valuable in the media.)

Another reason it was remarkable was because of Don Brash’s bizarre, out-of-touch equation of sentimental or cultural attachment to natural features — maunga, awa, moana and so on — with “animism”. It’s a perverse position to take, given the deep connection New Zealanders — both Māori and Pākehā — have to their landscape, about which I’ve written before. Imagine, if you will, a series of billboards featuring Aoraki Mt Cook, the Waitemata Harbour or Rangitoto, the Waikato or the Whanganui, Wakatipu, Taupo, or my own ‘home’ mountain of Taranaki — with the legend “Brash thinks this is just a lot of water”, or “Brash thinks this is just a rock”. If ACT were politically relevant, it might be worth doing.

Cash Rules Everything Around Me
C.R.E.A.M, get the money
Dollar dollar bill y’all
— Wu-Tang Clan

Like the gangstas of Staten Island legend, this sense that only what’s literal and material matters, that when push comes to shove, money trumps everything is integral to the faux-rational actor model to which ACT subscribes, and this leads into the major thing which made this interview important:

(Image snapped by Michael John Oliver, via twitter, thanks!)

And a brief transcript:

Brash: “Pita, I put …”
Sharples: “No, you didn’t.”
Brash: …”Apirana ta…Ngata on …”
Sharples: “The country put that on. Let’s be clear about that.”
Brash: “I made the decision. I made the decision, as governor. And I put him on that because I think he’s one of the greatest ever New Zealanders.”

Don Brash, the archetypal white rich guy, brought along a fifty dollar note — a note that many poor Māori voters rarely even see — to a debate that was substantively about the reasons why Māori are politically, socially, and economically deprived.

To appeal to Sir Apirana Ngata in a newspaper advertisement — as Brash did this weekend — is merely crass. To bring that actual visage in as a prop in an argument to dismantle the Aotearoa that Ngata and others had worked to build — that, as Sharples said, Ngata was criticised for being a “radical” by rich white guys like Don Brash — and seeking to imprint his divisive and offensive policies with Ngata’s mana is offensive to the man’s memory. To seek to take personal credit for Ngata’s mana being properly recognised — “I made the decision” — is obscene. To play a statesman’s memory like a chip on a weak hand at the last-chance saloon is no sort of respect. It is the ultimate “I’m not racist” gambit — “look, some of my best banknotes have Maaris on”. I wonder if he would treat the memory of Sir Edmund Hillary or Kate Sheppard in this way. Distancing himself from John Ansell’s misogyny by saying “hey, I put a broad on the $10” would be a thing to see. He had a decent crack at “I’m not racist, my wife’s from Singapore” back in the day.

Don Brash, during his brief run in politics, accumulated a series of bad images — “poor optics” as the lingo goes. Walking the plank, struggling to climb into the racing car, scooping mud out of his mouth at Waitangi, and so on. This image — of Brash big-noting to Māoridom, if you’ll excuse the phrase; showing them who’s got the Benjamins, or the Apis — should be one of the enduring memories of the campaign. Brash probably thinks it’s a smart symbolic play, but it calls to mind a bunch of things he doesn’t want to call to peoples’ minds — his own wealth, the extent to which he’s economically out of touch with those he claims to want to represent, and perhaps most of all an almost unspeakably flawed sense of political and historical reverence, which places him out of touch at a deeper level; a level of shared sentiment and aspiration, of common culture and values.

In television, the rule is: don’t tell, show. No matter how often he tells Aotearoa that he shares our views and aspirations, we won’t believe it unless he shows us. Since storming the lofty heights of the ACT party Brash is busily telling us that what we stand for what he stands for, despite 98.3% of the evidence contradicting that assertion. And now he’s showing us exactly the same.

L

Shame on the Herald

datePosted on 08:36, March 17th, 2011 by Lew

… 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:

  • Most obviously, the suggestion that the marchers are gang members, with the implication of violence and public menace that creates, despite the fact that the march was peaceful having been mentioned in the opening sentence of Trevett’s article;
  • Creation of a general equivalence between Māori protesters and gang members, with all the racism that implies;
  • The suggestion that opponents of the foreshore and seabed legislation are acting on a separatist “black power” imperative, when the article makes clear that the opponents mentioned in the headline are an ideological grab-bag consisting of the ACT and Green parties, and Hone Harawira;
  • The suggestion that the marchers are literally blocking roads, when the article makes clear that the roadblocks referred to in the headline are metaphorical, and little more than the usual sort of procedural delaying tactics employed in Parliament to drag out the progress of a bill — in this case until next week, when the hīkoi reaches Wellington.

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)

L

The Biggest Losers (Middle Eastern edition).

datePosted on 21:07, February 27th, 2011 by Pablo

The wave of unrest that has shaken the political foundations of the Middle East is a watershed moment in the region’s history. Although it is still too early to determine if the much hoped-for changes raised by the collective challenge to autocratic rule actually result in tangible improvements in the material and social conditions of the majority of Middle Eastern citizens, it is possible to ascertain who the losers are. Some are obvious, but others are not.

Among the obvious losers the biggest is Muammar al-Gaddafi, whose regime will topple regardless of whether he hangs onto control in Tripoli for an extended period of time (which is unlikely, since he faces not only internal opposition bolstered by defections from the military and government and does not have control over the oil fields that once made him someone to be reckoned with, but also UN-led international sanctions and a host of asset freezes on the part of individual states. Worst yet, his Ukrainian blond nurse has upped stakes and left for home!). Desposed presidents Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt are also obvious losers, as are their cronies and sycophants, although the regimes they led have weathered the worst of the crises and they have managed to exit office with their lives (something Gaddafi is unlikely to do). Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh is also a loser, since he has been forced by public unrest to announce that he will step down from power in 2013, a timeline that may accelerate as a result of defections from within his government and among influential tribal leaders that used to support him.

The al-Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain is another loser, as it will have to agree to significant political concessions to the Shiia majority opposition in order to quell unrest. The same is true for Algeria, Jordan, Oman and Syria, which have moved to pre-emptively announce political reforms that may or may not be cosmetic but which indicate increased regime preoccupation with public accountability and governmental performance. In seemingly stable Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, royal families are also working quickly to stave off potential unrest via the institution of preventative reform packages which, however minor in nature, are nevertheless acknowledgement that their rule is not as impregnable as they used to think. In all of the oil oligarchies there is a realisation that they must cede some power in order to stay in power, which opens the door for more substantive change down the road.

Beyond these obvious losers are others that are not immediately apparent. These include energy and weapons firms that struck deals with Gaddafi, who may find the terms and conditions of said contracts voided or renegotiated on different terms by his successors (this includes BP, which is widely believed to be behind the release of the Libyan Pan Am 103 bomber in exchange for Libyan concession rights as well as Chinese investors). They include a number of Italian businesses as well as the government of embattled president Silvio Berlusconi, who enjoyed warm relations with Gaddafi that now may turn into liabilities once he is gone. They include the Iranian regime, which has seen its crushed opposition resurface to claim the same rights their Sunni Arab brethern are calling for, thereby giving the lie to the official claim that the Ahmadinnejad-fronted theocratic regime enjoys universal support. They include the US government, which reacted slowly, clumsily and viscerally to the wave of protests, engaged in a series of quick policy shifts and contradictory pronouncements, and which has been shown to have a limited ability to predict, respond or influence events on the ground in that strategically important region even as it pontificates about its newly discovered commitment to democracy and human rights in it (it should be noted that other great powers such as China and Russia did not engage in public diplomacy about the unrest, which may be more due to their own authoritarian records rather than a respect for national sovereignty and preference for private diplomacy but which in any event does not leave them looking like hypocrites on the matter). They include Hamas and Hizbollah, whose hopes for region-wide intifadas never materialised. They might include Israel, should the post-Mubarak Egyptian regime take a less cooperative stance towards the Jewish state in response to public pressure in a more open and competitive domestic political environment (should that materialise). This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should provide food for thought about others who may have benefitted from their support for Middle Eastern autocracies who may now find that their fortunes have changed for the worse as a result of the regional crisis.

But the biggest loser by far in this historic moment is the one actor that only gets mentioned by fear-mongerers: al-Qaeda and the international jihadist movement. In spite of repeated calls for the Muslim masses to join them in their struggle, after years of sacrifice of blood and treasure, international jihadists have seen few echoes of their views in the Middle Eastern uprisings. Rather than call for the establishment of a regional caliphate or even Sharia governance in individual nations, or embrace jihad against infidels at home and abroad, the vast majority of the protests in every single country where they have occurred are about bread and butter issues (mainly jobs, food and public services) and demands for increased political voice, representation, government accountability and official transparency. As it turns out, these purportedly Western and anti-Islamic notions resonate more on the Arab Street than do appeals to martyrdom. Thus, the standard canard that democracy is inapplicable to the Middle East due to cultural preferences rings as hollow for al-Qaeda as it does for the autocrats who parade it as an excuse for their rule.

The picture is clear. Fevered warnings of fear-mongers aside (who now believe that Libya will fall into jihadist’s hands should civil war ensue), after years of fighting and preaching, the ideological appeal of Islamic fundamentalism has gained little traction with the Arab majority, who instead have voiced their preference for forms of governance that take their inspiration from the infidel West, not Usama bin Laden. Not only is al-Qaeda and its allies being militarilly degraded bit by bit all over the world, in a process that may be long but where the outcome is inevitable. More importantly (and which contributes to their inevitable military defeat as a global armed actor capable of challenging for power in all but the most miserably failed states), they have been utterly defeated in the battle of ideas in the very region from whence they originated.

That makes jihadists the biggest losers of all.

UPDATE: I spent a week on holiday out of IT reach thinking about this issue, and a day after I get back and post about it the NYT decides to follow suit.

The Other Learning Curve.

datePosted on 20:31, February 15th, 2011 by Pablo

Media coverage of events in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East display a willful ignorance of the realities on the ground. It is one thing for the participants in the Egyptian and Tunisian demonstrations to see themselves at the vanguard of a revolutionary moment. They are, after all, immediately involved in the process, and have felt the intensity of the moment with visceral awareness. But because they are the participants, many do not have the objective distance required to see the bigger picture at play.

Foreign governments have utilised the moment to pursue their own agendas in the Middle East: witness the US calls for demonstrations in Iran to be allowed to proceed unimpeded and Iranian calls for more uprisings in the Sunni Arab world, both of which clearly have geopolitical motives beyond support for democracy (if even that). Media outlets may see themselves not so much as disinterested reporters of events as accelerators of the revolutionary sweep. By constantly calling events “revolutionary” and emphasising the new and apparently “uncontrollable” networking possibilities of social media, the media make themselves protagonists in their own stories, in a meta replication of the micro reporting of events on the ground. First-person accounts of the likes of Anderson Cooper are designed to give personal “feel” to “real time” reporting even if it is consumed in immediate minutia rather than the bigger picture. This is a variant on embedded journalism–now it is the crowds rather than military units into which reporters are seconded. More broadly, traditional print and visual media run stories about the role of Facebook and Twitter while interjecting their own opinions about the impact of the new media. In effect, the media are more than participant observers–they attempt to be shapers not only of opinions but of the events themselves.

It is understandable that those involved in the demonstrations see themselves as revolutionaries and it is laudable, in some measure, that corporate media outlets want to contribute to the revolutionary momentum, such as it is. But there is another side to the story, one that involves interests and actors with objectives that are directly the opposite of the “revolutionaries.” That is the dark side of the crisis learning curve.

Across the Middle East and elsewhere, authoritarian leaders have received a wake up call about ignoring popular discontent. But what they have learned does not necessarily mean that they will give up their autocratic ways and open up their political systems in a democratic, much less revolutionary direction. To the contrary. What they have learned is that they must get out in front of incipient or embryonic protests by using a mixture of inducements and constraints (carrots and sticks, if you will), that allow them to reform-monger around the edges of their rule but which do not, as Gramsci noted long ago, “touch the essential” of the regime–to wit, its economic foundations, class base and power distribution.

Already, the response to demonstrations and protests in Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan and, in the wake of Ben Ali’s exile, Tunisia, has been a mix of selective repression and preemptive reform. The repressive aspect is designed to prevent large scale mass mobilisations that require mass-scale repression. Instead, via the selective targeting of would-be protest leaders, the monitoring and censoring of social media networks, restrictions and controls on movement, to include access to food, health care and other public goods, authoritarians hope to pre-emptively decapitate the opposition before it is well organised. Let us remember that at its height the Egyptian protests amounted to 300,000 people in a country of 80 million, so the selective targeting of incipient leaders, to include more than their mere arrest and detention, sends a chilling message to all but the most hard-core opponents of the regime. Since most disaffected people are more interested in immediate things such a more employment, lower or stable food prices, reducing crime and having regular access to everyday public services rather than revolutionary regime change, they will see selective repression for what it is: the use of force against those who would directly challenge “the essential” for goals that are not immediate but ethereal. For the majority uninterested or unwilling to challenge the essential, avoiding being a target becomes a major concern. Individual fear of persecution, in effect, becomes a debilitating constraint on collective action.

For the carrot and stick approach to work, the repressive apparatuses of the state must remain loyal to the regime. But something else must occur as well. There must also be inducements offered that mitigate public anger. That requires the offering of concessions regarding political participation, which can be granted via cooptation into existing political structures or the incorporation of new ones. More importantly, immediate material concerns need to be addressed in order soften the context in which discussions of political reform are engaged. The more material concerns are immediately satisfied, the more amenable to regime initiatives the population will be, which in turn will impact on the political opposition’s strategy and demands. It will also help isolate the hardline elements in the opposition from the majority, thereby making the former easier to repressively target while reinforcing the context in which “reasonable” opposition demands will be heard.

Confronted by such a mix of incentives and disincentives, it will be hard for the non-militant majority–who are rationally risk adverse, as are we all–to not abandon support for radical regime change in favour of a more reformist option.

This is what Middle Eastern autocrats are contemplating at the moment. It is not about democratic opening but about controlled manipulation of popular unrest to ensure continuation, even if in changed garb, of the status quo. To this can be added one other factor in their favour: the attitude of the international community.

For all the rhetoric about democracy, freedom and human rights, the international community as a whole (by that I mean nation-states, international organisations and private transnational actors) abhor two things–power vacuums and instability. If the prospect of democratisation in the Middle East brings with it the risk of radicalisation and the destabilisation of the regional balance of power, which in turn raises the potential for war, then the international community, albeit behind a veil of crocodile tears, will quietly work to ensure that the status quo is preserved in one form or another. Individually and collectively it will publicly speak about freedom and quietly work for accommodation. And if that fails and conflicts become violent (particularly if they are fueled by foreign sponsors or irregular transnational actors), it may preferentially side with the forces of repression rather than change. That may not be a nice or ethically superior choice, but for the powers that be in the Middle East and beyond, it is the only choice, made out of self-interested necessity.

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