Posts Tagged ‘symbolic politics’

Underclass Redux

datePosted on 02:05, February 5th, 2011 by Lew


Campbell Live tonight returned to McGehan Close (see the report, by Tony Field, here). This street in Mt Albert — on the boundary of Helen Clark’s and Phil Goff’s electorates — was visited by then-opposition leader John Key before Waitangi weekend 2007 for a particularly cynical stunt. This was Key’s first big symbolic play as leader of the opposition, and it was a hum-dinger. He had already singled out the residents of this street in that year’s State of the Nation address at a whitebread rugby club in faraway Christchurch, branding them archetypal members of the New Zealand ‘underclass’, and the visit saw him glad-handing and patronising a bunch of poor brown people who’d already been used as shot in the National party propaganda cannons.

The purpose of the speech, and visit, was to install one of the core planks of the National party narrative about the Clark government — that it was at best unconcerned with the plight of said underclass; and at worst, actively cultivated such a demographic, which would be permanently dependent on Labour’s welfare policies and would therefore be a permanent source of electoral support for the Labour party. (So the ‘bribing the bludgers to breed’ theme goes, rarely uttered by anyone with authority in public but a commonplace among the usual proxies; check almost any General Debate thread on Kiwiblog from around that time for instance.) This is absurd in more ways than it’s feasible to explain here, so I won’t bother. Let’s just leave it at ‘the underclass doesn’t really vote’.

Nevertheless, the visit was a roaring success. Key, bearing smiles and gifts and wearing a tiki t-shirt, charmed the residents of McGehan Close and evidently persuaded them both of his party’s goodwill toward them and of its social and economic plan to lift them from their grim circumstances. The event culminated in Key taking 12 year-old Aroha to the Waitangi Day celebrations — a move full of potent symbolism, even if it was seen to be somewhat exploitative. Drawn out over a full week of coverage (at the time a rare commodity for Key, who had replaced Don Brash as leader just before the Christmas break) this was a highly successful stunt and should have been an early warning of Key’s great talent for making cheesy set-piece events ‘work’ and feel human. The sentiment he evoked in the people of McGehan Close was certainly real.

It’s just a pity the ‘ambitious’, ‘aspirational’ policy programme Key promised them wasn’t.

Joan Nathan, Aroha’s mother, remains on the DPB (having been let go from her hastily-arranged job working for National MP Jackie Blue) and struggles more than ever to cope, now with a sixth child. Aroha, now 16, is living in the care of Child, Youth and Family, which Joan says is the best thing for her, since she is unable to provide a decent life for her daughter. Nathan and others, although they believed in and voted for Key, are now disenchanted and universally express the sentiment that the government’s policies favour the rich, not the poor, and that they haven’t been helped one iota by the change of government; in fact, things have gotten worse. Not much of this is different than it was this time last year, when the Sunday Star Times visited the Close.

So far, so obvious, you might say — and it is; indeed this sort of outcome was very widely predicted at the time. But this is important because it is as strong a counter-narrative as exists for the opposition in this election year. It reframes Key as a faker, a charlatan, an opportunist who’ll exploit whatever circumstances will advantage him, without loyalty or the willingness or ability to follow through on his word; as someone whose focus is on boardroom issues rather than on peoples’ wellbeing. Discussing and reading around the topic on twitter this evening I’ve seen considerable criticism of this Campbell Live story as a cheap human-interest stunt, as opportunistic and exploitative (or moreso) than the original event. I couldn’t agree less. It is a clear, unambiguous example of an investigative journalist simply revisiting a story where much was promised, and measuring it against what has actually happened. This is crucial to its narrative value: these events reframe Key by measuring his own defining stunt — his signature trick — against the objective reality of lived experience. Theory and rhetoric versus real people, living in the real world governed by the policy built from that theory and rhetoric. It is a reality check in its purest form.

There are disadvantages to this narrative line, also, and the virulent responses to the Campbell Live report this evening — I believe I saw presenter Rachel Smalley shudder a little whilst reading some of them out — hint at them. One is the obvious suggestion that Joan Nathan and the other residents of McGehan Close could have done better for themselves, but have chosen not to; the victim-blaming routinely visited upon the poor by the less-poor. A more serious and related line of critique is that there’s a recession on, and everyone’s hurting. Or that it’s only been three years, and change takes time.

But hang on a minute — wasn’t the point of the whole point of electing a Key-led National government to take advantage of the resulting step-change which would boost economic growth, job growth, provide better opportunities, an end to welfare dependency, safer communities and a general increase in general socio-economic mobility and wellbeing? Key made all these promises quite explicitly, not just in person to the residents of McGehan Close, but to the whole nation throughout the campaign and at almost every opportunity since. There are no jobs. There are no higher wages, and without these things you can’t exactly buy shares in SOEs. There is no greater social mobility. The ‘underclass’, as exploitatively defined by Key, still exists.

Having failed McGehan Close, John Key has failed all of us. Quite apart from the fact that we were all promised these things, or things like them, and by and large have yet to receive them, a central theme of the ‘underclass’ policy argument was that by lifting people out of poverty and bringing then into the ‘overclass’ (? — this shows just how meaningless ‘underclass’ is except as a propaganda term), the government would make society better for everyone. This is a noble goal, and one I agree with in its idealistic entirety. I think you would go a long way to find someone in a position of any political credibility who’d publicly disagree with it. The first order of business for any opposition should be to hold John Key to those promises, and demand of Key the wealthier, more mobile, and socially healthier society we were promised.

But the most vicious response will be the one which the initial stunt in 2007 was meant to evoke — the notion that the ‘underclass’ are breeding in order to get more welfare from the Labour party. The core of this line of reasoning, if I may call it that, will be attacks on Nathan herself as a mother, having had a sixth baby and having had Aroha, the subject of the initial stunt, removed from her care. The attacks will be highly personalised, racist and gendered, and they will be lashed closely to Labour party policy and doctrine. But, assuming a competent and spirited opposition, that’s ok — the National party aren’t in opposition, 18 months out from an election; they’re in government in election year. Having been elected on a moderate, sympathetic platform with strong support from women and Māori, and looking to consolidate that platform into a strong and honestly-won mandate means that the government no longer has such freedom to dog-whistle. Particularly given that an opposition counter-narrative would cast doubt on all those sympathetic characteristics, the resort to the divisive tactics of 2008, such as trying to wedge ‘hard-working kiwis’ against the ‘underclass’, and so on, would be extremely risky for the government.

In light of my last post, perhaps it is a little glib to assume a competent and spirited opposition, and in perfect truth I don’t really think Labour has this fight in them (although Grant Robertson saw the Campbell Live piece and seems to have had a similar response to mine, which is heartening). But it is an argument waiting to be had, and one which must be had sooner or later. The boundaries are drawn up; media interest is already piqued, and this is a bread-and-butter social and economic justice issue for Labour. There’s a wealth of symbolic material and slogans to employ — ‘reality check’ and ‘by failing McGehan Close Key has failed us all’ are two they can have for free, and if a Labour party can’t base a campaign around ‘underclass‘ then they’re not worthy of the name.

Time to engage.

L

John Key either has very poor PR advice, is grossly insensitive or has some darkness in his heart, to say nothing of his small head, when it comes to women. I am less concerned by his choice of words when describing models and actresses that he lusts after. It might have been better for the Prime Minister to refer to the objects of his sexual fantasies as “attractive” or “pretty” rather than using the adolescent term “hot.” But getting a bit horn doggish on a blokey sports talkback show is not the worst of sins.

A slightly worse sin is to reveal admiration for a sports star because he makes “heaps of money” and gets some “fringe benefits” on the side. Talk about revealing your core values! For the PM, money grubbing–admittedly driven by unique talent– and serial adultery–which did not have much to do with talent of one sort or another–are positive traits worth coveting. Crikey! But that is just his shallow venality surfacing, not a mortal sin.

What is a far more serious matter is his apparent condoning of spouse abuse, as exemplified by the poster-boy for putting ass-kickings on women, Mr. Tony Veitch. Not only did Mr. Key agree to sit down for an interview with Tony the Tough Guy on his radio sports show, which legitimates Veitch in areas far outside the blokey sports-minded demographic. Mr. Key has now agreed to do regular spots on Mr. Veitch’s show. If one interview legitimates Mr. Veitch, then subsequent regular interviews symbolically condones what he did.

It was bad enough that a sports radio outlet would see fit to re-hire a spouse abuser who escaped jail time because he paid off the victim and wept crocodile tears at a series of staged press events. Here we have the PM of New Zealand, who should be fully aware of the intimacies of the abuse case as well as the allegations of drug use and other anti-social behaviour by Mr. Veitch, agreeing to grace his show on a regular basis. This, at a time when Mr. Key has terminated at least one guest spot with another radio news show focused on hard news rather than rugby, cricket and league. What is the message Mr. Key is trying to convey here, and on what assumptions does that message rest?

Is it his assumption that most Kiwis think Veitch is a good bloke and he was hard done by the back-talking wench? Is it his assumption that Mr. Veitch did wrong but it was a minor transgression? Is its his assumption that the NZ public do not care any longer what Mr. Veitch did and bygones are bygones? Is it his assumption that sporty blokes at best do not care or at worst condone Mr. Veitch’s behavior, and in an election year connecting with that crowd by engaging in some good-natured letching will increase Mr. Key’s chances of re-election? What, exactly, is the rationale that says that it is OK for the PM to grant privileged regular interviews to an unrepentant spouse-basher while canceling similar interviews with other news shows?

And what message is Mr Key trying to convey here? That he is a sporty bloke? That he is a sporty bloke who sees nothing wrong in the occasional bitch-slapping along with letching, adultery and money grubbing? That he is a sporty bloke who does not give a darn about the high incidence of spousal (and child) abuse in the country he leads? That he is sporty bloke that simply does not care if he objectifies women and symbolically condones spouse-bashing? That he is a sporty bloke who is insensitive to women’s concerns about being objectified and victimised in their own homes as well as in the streets? Or is his message simply that in the run-up to elections catering to the lowest of the low is acceptable? What next, a guest spot with Mongel Mob, Black Power or Headhunter media outlets? After all, they are also sporty blokes who know something about how to treat uppity women.

Maybe I am just a prude. Perhaps it is perfectly acceptable for the PM of an advanced liberal democracy that is not Italy to see nothing wrong in publicly letching, to express admiration for greed and adultery, and who symbolically condones spousal abuse by voluntarily and preferentially associating with a spouse-beating coward who happens to be a celebrity. But if that seems a  bit untoward for a PM (or anyone else), then he and his PR minders need to be made aware of that fact. Boycotting advertisers who buy time on Vietch’s show when it features the Key interview is one way to convey that message. More importantly, and specifically for those women and other decent people who do not condone such behavior and who crossed over to National in the last election, the best way to deliver the message is to do so on November 26, at the ballot box. Of course, it if could get a clue, Labour might make a point of pointing out to the electorate Mr. Key’s apparent lack of regard for the feelings of his female constituency or any others who might think that engaging in egregious sexual innuendo with a spouse abuser is not fitting behaviour for a sitting Prime Minister (or anyone else with a modicum of sensitivity to the issues involved).

After all, not all of us are sporty blokes.

Hard rain’s a-gonna fall

datePosted on 00:14, February 3rd, 2011 by Lew


The past week has illustrated in clear terms the New Zealand Labour party’s decline as an effective opposition party. In the opening moments of election year 2011, John Key has stepped up to demonstrate the full extent of the National government’s apparent impunity. He has done this in three ways.

First, by fronting Morning Report, Nine to Noon, Campbell Live and other tier-1 hard-news media to outline his intention to partially privatise SOEs. Privatisation, since the Fourth Labour Government, has been a ‘third rail’ issue; one the NZ left is unequivocally opposed to. By going into bat for privatisation personally, and in considerable policy detail, Key confounded criticism which has been (justly) levelled at him throughout the electoral term so far that he often refuses to show up on hard media, while continuing to keep regular spots in soft formats like Breakfast, and on less rigorous media such as Newstalk ZB. He also invested his own (considerable) political capital in the enterprise, making privatisation a matter of his own judgement and credibility.

Second, he sought out and is revelling in the controversy caused by his “Liz Hurley is hot” stunt, undertaken on Radio Sport with convicted back-breaker Tony Veitch. In political terms, the first bit was no meaningful risk; Key has played the ‘frankly, I’m a red-blooded Kiwi bloke’ card several times before, always to good effect, and most notably when he informed a press scrum he’d had a vasectomy. The decision to undertake an interview with the disgraced Veitch was a considerably more risky proposition because of the nature of Veitch’s offending against his partner, combined with the subject matter of their conversation, and the fact that Key’s political appeal to women has been considerably stronger than previous National leaders. This seems clearly calculated to demonstrate what he can get away with; and the gamble has in fact paid off so well that Phil Goff today felt compelled to follow suit, suggesting a slightly sad “me too, me too” narrative.

The third of Key’s big moves was today’s dual announcement that the election would be held on 26 November, 10 months away and following the Rugby World Cup; and that he would not consider a coalition arrangement which included Winston Peters. Coupled with ruling out working with Hone Harawira outside his present constraints in the māori party, this declaration will provide considerable reassurance to National’s traditional base, and will scotch any possibility of wavering conservatives casting a hopeful vote for Winston Peters as an each-way bet. It is a risky proposition, though — Peters remains a redoubtable political force, and it is not beyond possibility that he returns to parliament. However I think Key has read the electorate well; he knows that while a small number of people love Peters, and a small number loathe him, many of those in the middle are vaguely distrustful of him. As Danyl points out, he’s managed to link Peters to Goff in a way which emphasises both leaders’ worst attributes: Peters’ polarising tendency, and the general unease and disdain with which voters view Goff. The decision to call the election so early is also bold. It means relinquishing the incumbent advantage of being able to control the electoral agenda; being able to determine when ‘government as usual’ ceases and ‘campaign season’ begins. This is an intangible but valuable benefit, and it has been traded off against another piece of reassurance: the sense that Key and his government are “playing it straight” with the New Zealand public; that they intend to run an open and forthright campaign and to seek an honest mandate for their second term. The choice of election date isn’t entirely selfless, of course — the All Blacks are odds-on favourites to win the Rugby World Cup, and even if they don’t, the tournament, its pageantry and excitement and revenue boost will bifurcate the campaign. The traditional campaign period will mostly be drowned out by this event, save for the last few frantic weeks.

In most election years, swapping agenda-setting rights for a “playing it straight” feeling would be a poor tradeoff. In most election years, a sexist stunt with a known and publicly reviled wife-beater would be a poor start. In most election years, running a campaign based on privatisation would simply be a non-starter. While the paragraphs above read somewhat like breathless praise of Key’s status as a political playa, that’s not my intent. I think he’s good, but mostly John Key just knows what he can get away with. The reason he can get away with all of these things is because there is no credible opposition to prevent him from doing so. Anyone half-decent can look sharp when playing against amateurs.

It has been Labour’s job to prevent the government from reaching the state of near-impunity they now enjoy, and their failure to do so means there is now a real danger that Key will get the genuine and sweeping mandate he seeks. To a considerable extent they were doomed in the task of preventing this from the outset, because they didn’t think it was possible that he’d ever achieve it. Clark Labour throughout 2008 fundamentally misunderestimated Key, writing him off as a bumbling lightweight, and this was a crucial error. Since well before the election — this example is from July 2008 — I’ve been arguing to anyone who’ll listen that instead of taking easy pot shots at Key based on his weaknesses, any critique should focus on his strengths. Quoting myself, from the above:

Key’s strengths [per the Herald bio], which enabled him to succeed as a currency trader: Decisiveness. Determination. Patience. Ice-cold calm under fire. Willingness to risk it all. Ability to follow through. Remorselessness.
If you want to attack John Key, draw attention to what might happen under a Key government. Given his history, he’s not some motley fool who won’t make sweeping changes – he hasn’t gotten where he is today by being timid. I think he has the wherewithal to roll out a sweeping programme of political and social change the like of which we haven’t seen since Lange, but I think that, unlike Lange, he won’t get cold feet. If you don’t like Key’s politics, I suggest you begin thinking about what might happen if the guy is given the power he seeks.

The delusion that John Key is a hapless fool who’s somehow mysteriously gotten his hands on the reins of power remains very much alive within New Zealand lefties; this was the tired old line I got spun as recently as this afternoon, by one of the internet’s best-known Labourites (with a nice dollop of ‘if you don’t praise Labour, you’re a rightie’ for good measure).

But this tendency to misjudge and underestimate Key is only part of the problem. Denizens of The Standard aside, anyone within the loop who has a modicum of reason has figured out that Key is not the lightweight he was — quite willingly — framed as. But now the narrative is set: it’s That Nice Man John Key, who drinks beer out of the bottle while tending the barbecue with Prince Harry, and thinks Liz Hurley is hot. They don’t have a credible counter-narrative, but they have to say something against the health cuts, education cuts, tax cuts, ACC cuts, pending privatisation and so on — and so they fall back on their usual tired old cliches, which, while superficially looking like what an opposition is supposed to do, lack cohesion and run counter to the established wisdom about Key and his government — wisdom laid down, in the first place, by the Labour party in its 2008 campaign.

The lack of narrative cohesion is so dire that the party claims that privatisation of SOEs is repugnant to the voting public of New Zealand; and almost simultaneously puts out a press release saying that it’s a cynical ploy to “cling to power”. The manifest incompatibility of these two propositions — cynically promoting an unpopular policy to retain power — speaks for itself.

If the inability to construct a viable narrative is symptomatic of a wider lack of ideas and direction within Labour. Election-year spin aside, their policy offering is weak as well. Their big blockbuster kicking-off-election-year policy of a $5000 tax-free zone was big enough to draw plenty of criticism about cost and targeting (including from people like Brian Easton), but timid enough that nobody was made to sit up and take notice for any other reason (sidenote: when Brian Easton, John Shewan, Chris Trotter and I all oppose something, I think you can be pretty sure it’s not a winner).

This is just the most recent example of what we’ve seen throughout the past two years: Labour’s vision, and its execution, simply aren’t up to scratch. I have no internal knowledge of the Labour party, and I don’t know whose fault this is. I guess the leadership blames the strategists, the strategists blame the policy wonks, the policy wonks blame the spin-doctors and the spin-doctors blame the MSM™. All that’s just excuse-making for losers. There are no socially-just power-redistribution schemes in politics, and if there were they would be rorted. There is no fair. The job of being in opposition is to win despite the odds being stacked against you; to do and say things worthy of the news media’s time, worthy of the government’s concern, and worthy of the electorate’s endorsement. If you’re not doing that, you’re not up to the task.

As the title implies, the political weather this election year is not going to be a warm drizzle. John Key wants a mandate; he wants a strong and broad mandate which will permit him to wreak widespread social, economic and political changes upon New Zealand’s landscape, and he is prepared to put a lot on the line to gain it. He is playing for keeps, and my instinct is that an opposition who couldn’t keep pace with ‘smile and wave’ is going to be crushed by the rampant beast which is currently girding for war. What’s more, by all accounts Key is actually, genuinely coming to the New Zealand electorate with a transparent policy offering in good faith, keeping his promise that nothing would be privatised without his first having sought a mandate to do so, which robs Labour of their strongest symbolic weapon: the “by stealth” bit of their catchcry “privatisation by stealth”. Time will tell if this holds, but at present the Key government is doing exactly what it says on the box. Labour can’t claim they haven’t known about this all along. Privatisation has been the bogeyman about which they’ve been warning the New Zealand public for at least a decade, which makes the incoherence of their recent response all the more unforgivable. That National would consider running an election campaign on this cornerstone issue, loathed and feared by so many New Zealanders, is surprising. That they can expect to do so without trying to get their agenda through on the sly is shocking. That they reasonably expect to do all that and win is unthinkable. Let there be no doubt: if Key wins this election on these grounds, it is because Labour, by failing to adequately discharge their role as a competent opposition, have permitted him to do so.

Perhaps it is not too late. Perhaps Key has overplayed his hand; perhaps Goff has a secret weapon. Perhaps a young Turk is fixing to roll Goff and his cadres and make a break for it. I do not think any of these are likely. So it may be that the one good electoral thing to emerge from 2011 is a heavy and humbling loss which would see the Labour party reduced to a meagre husk. An exodus of the lively and creative thinkers of the party to another vehicle; or the enforced retirement of the deadwood responsible for the present state of affairs; or both would clear the way for a thoroughgoing rejuvenation of the movement’s principles and its praxis and its personnel. While it would be cold comfort to the generation of New Zealanders who will bear the brunt of the Key government’s second and third-term policies, it would be a crucial and long overdue lesson in political hubris, never to be forgotten, and infinitely preferable to another narrow loss and the moribund hope that next time it’ll be different.

L

Bloody liability

datePosted on 10:41, January 19th, 2011 by Lew

Sarah Palin, as has been clear for some years now, has an unmatched talent for drawing the spotlight. A week after the infamous ‘blood libel‘ video she’s still at it today, pouring more fuel on a fire which should never have been started. ‘Blood libel’ and the American Right’s shrieking, paranoid victim complex are now a bigger story than the (attempted) murder of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others at a political rally outside a suburban supermarket. That takes an awful lot of doing.

But she simply doesn’t know when to shut up. Let me be clear: I’m by no means saying that she must shut up, or even that I want her to shut up; nor am I attempting to curtail her First Amendment rights or impinge upon her cherished liberty — let there be no persecution fantasies regarding the humble analysis which is to follow. Palin’s conduct is a matter of political strategy for her PAC, the wider Tea Party movement and ultimately the Republican party. If they want to keep pursuing a strategy which, politically, is a hiding to nothing, then far be it from me to stand in their way. But I am arguing, as are plenty of Republican-oriented strategists, including former Bush advisor David Frum — that as a matter of strategy she should just shut the hell up and resume her place on the fringes of this topic, because there’s nothing to be gained and an awful lot to be lost by continuing to fan these flames. Frum is hardly a bleeding-heart liberal; he invented the ‘Axis of Evil’. He is also Jewish, as is Rep Giffords, so one assumes the misuse of ‘blood libel’ by a renegade WASP like Palin has special salience to him.

Let me also say that Palin and the Tea Party had some right to be angry at the invective levelled at them and their movement in the immediate aftermath of the Tucson shooting. I generally agree with Pablo’s previous points, that Palin and the Tea Party must bear some responsibility for the climate of discourse they have created; but I’d also say that they have not created such a climate on their own. While disproportionately on the elephant side, warlike imagery and symbols of political violence are a commonplace in both camps of US politics. Influential US liberal commentators, notably Keith Olbermann, jumped all too gleefully upon the chance to all but blame Palin (and Beck, etc) for pulling the trigger, although at best there is only a tenuous link between Jared Lee Loughner’s anti-government sentiments and the Tea Party. (Although it is often overlooked that Olbermann’s rant also called strongly upon the American left to repudiate (not refudiate) violence in word and deed). The extent of the speculation and the attempts to pin the murders on Palin and the Tea Party before the dust had settled were unmerited and, as I say, the objects of these accusations were justified in a certain amount of self-righteous indignation.

But one of the defining characteristics of the Tea Party, and of libertarian-oriented small-government revivalist movements in general, is their utter lack of perspective, and Palin simply went too far. These are people who genuinely believe taxation to be armed robbery, after all. So, like the white supremacist who blames all misfortune on immigrants; like the misogynist who bemoans the PC feminazi dykocracy; or the wealthy white elderly Sensible Sentencing Trust supporters who believe themselves to be the most vulnerable victims of crime, when, objectively, the reverse is true — the Tea Partiers and Palin simply can’t see past their own trivial victimisation to the actual and genuine victims of the Arizona tragedy, those who are dead, wounded or bereaved. IrishBill, writing at The Standard recently referred to these sorts as Right Whingers, and the persecution narrative is a feature of modern backlash movements: when elites come under such threat that they feel as if they no longer command the fields of cultural battle, they claim to have been victimised. And they go on and on about it. “Help, help, we’re being repressed!

Nobody likes a whinger or someone who talks a big game but can’t play, especially in US politics. One of the Republican party’s strongest symbolic assets through the latter 20th century has been the sense that it’s a party of rugged individuals with the thousand-yard gaze of their pioneer forebears, while the Democrats are a bunch of preppy sissies with excuses always at the ready. To an extent there’s been some truth to this narrative, but the “all hat and no cattle” label attached to Bush did his party’s political fortunes considerable harm, and Palin has already weakened her own pioneer and Mama Grizzly credentials immeasurably with the now-infamous ‘hunting’ episode of Sarah Palin’s Alaska. In it, despite her claim to being a life-long hunter, she appears unfamiliar with her rifle (“does it kick?”), is unable to chamber her own rounds (daddy does it for her); and takes five shots to hit a large animal standing on a skyline 120 yards away (and then there’s the estimate that a hunting trip in her home state cost $42,000 — not very pioneerish, that).

Likewise, the emergence of the Tea Party and its rather more extreme rhetoric has seen the erosion of the traditional, conservative pioneer narrative in favour of a more excitable tone — perhaps a shift from ‘pioneer’ to ‘revolutionary’ would be the metaphorical change. This shift in itself is not a weakness, except when its less favourable characteristics come to the fore, and it is these aspects of the Tea Party movement which the Democrats and other liberals have been emphasising: its crazed extremes and frightening rhetoric; the cultish, heightened emotionality of leaders like Glenn Beck, which verges on the religious; its lack of concern with details like grammar, factual accuracy and proportion; its brittleness and temporary, ad-hoc nature as opposed to the reliable stability of the Grand Old Party.

By resort to the strident ‘blood libel’ line, Palin has fallen into the trap of confirming — and defending — key aspects of the liberal narrative about her and by extension about her movement: she lacks any sense of perspective or proportion, public decorum or decency or compassion; she is an attention-seeker with a persecution complex who thinks it’s always all about her; she doesn’t know what the terms she uses actually mean; that they’re desperate cranks rather than serious statespeople; and most seriously, that she can dish it out but not take it. This last will be the master narrative going into the 2012 Presidential election, in the increasingly unlikely event that Palin is the nominee, and Democrats and liberals the world over relish the prospect of a proven big-game player like Obama against a scattergun show-pony like Palin.

The decision to release and then defend the ‘blood libel’ video is a double tragedy for the Republican party, who took a strong lead in the November mid-terms, and have now missed the best opportunity in a decade to consolidate that lead by looking like the calm, sober, conservative adults they claim to be and to represent. Palin’s decline may be better for them in the long term; many commentators are now confirmed in the belief they held before the mid-terms that she had outlasted her usefulness as an energising agent, and is now simply a liability, a distraction from the serious business of government to which the GOP must now turn its attention.

L

Enemies like these

datePosted on 22:04, October 28th, 2010 by Lew

I’m getting used to being vilified by the orthodox Marxist left, such as in the latest round of debate with Chris Trotter and some of his commenters, and to an extent in the response by Scott Hamilton. I don’t mind all that much, but it’s rather aimless. The critique that I’m not orthodox enough, not a proper red; that my sense class consciousness is atrophied — it all misses the point somewhat. I’m not a socialist; never have been. I’m a liberal social democrat, with strong emphasis on the “democrat”.

I’m a trade unionist because of this commitment to democracy. Unions, properly run, are strongly democratic — and their democracy enhances the more usual parliamentary and representative forms which govern our society. The question in the AE case, the matter over which I disagree with Chris and Scott and the orthodox Marxists is: from what does a trade union derive its moral authority? From the democratic mandate granted it by the workers it represents and the extent to which its actions serve their interests, or from its ideological rectitude and adherence to Marxist doctrine? I’d argue that both are necessary; the movement’s activities must be informed by a class analysis, but fundamentally the union exists to enact the wishes of its membership. The job of union organisers and so on is to educate and motivate that membership to commit to class struggle. The argument Chris and Scott are making, as if it’s an irreducible truth of trade unionism, is that the ideological rectitude on its own is enough. The quality or value of a union’s actions must not be assessed or tested against their workers’ stated needs, they say; if whatever a self-declared union and its handful of activist representatives decides to do passes the Marxist sniff-test, then anyone who fails to fall into lockstep behind it is a scab, and mandate be damned. (I’m not sure they even believe this, really; I think there would be some things even the most die-hard socialists would balk at — which would mean we’re simply disagreeing over the merits of AE’s case, which I think is a much more useful argument to have. I posed a hypothetical question to this effect on Bowalley Road this morning, but have received no responses at the time of writing this.)

But falling automatically into lockstep behind a union’s actions without consideration of whether they’re any good, or whether they serve their industry’s stated needs is bad for society, and it’s dangerous for the unions.

In our liberal democratic society, the right for workers to join a trade union and bargain collectively derives from the democratic nature of union movements; the fact that they enact workers’ wishes. This is the basis of the strong and very legitimate democratic Marxist critique of corporatism; that businesses in a democratic society ought to be democratic. It is also one of the chief arguments deployed in unions’ defence, and it is a very good one in a social and political context where the idea of democracy occupies such a powerful symbolic position. Unions do not enjoy any legitimacy by virtue of their ideological rectitude; in fact, their commitment to Marxist ideological doctrine is a considerable disadvantage in terms of their survival. Because of this, the trade union which relinquishes its commitment to democracy also risks relinquishing its claim to legitimacy, and if trade unions as a whole start to cut corners on democracy, then the movement as a whole risks granting anti-union governments a pretext to weaken and outlaw unions on the basis that they don’t actually represent workers’ interests. This is quite apart from the points I made in my last post on this topic, to the effect that non-democratic institutions tend to make bad decisions because they lack robust internal processes for developing and enacting their agendas.

So my overarching problem with Actor’s Equity acting without a mandate is that they risk the legitimacy of the trade union movement at large. (I initially predicted, in comments at the Dim Post, that the fallout would be contained by the wider movement — how wrong I was.) I try never to give my allies a pass for incompetence. Doing so breeds more incompetence. I didn’t give Labour a pass for the Foreshore & Seabed Act and I’m not giving a pass to the māori party as they look to be supporting a similarly expropriative replacement bill. So there’s no way I’m going to overlook the real and serious damage caused to the trade union movement and the cause of workers’ rights by this upstart union who took excessive action without a mandate. They’ve done real and genuine harm to the trade union movement and they’ve made industrial relations — which should have been a Labour’s trump suit — an easy source of tricks for the government. And this at the very time the union movement was beginning to gather strength again! There was an anti-union protest on Labour Day — how much worse do things have to get? Sure, blame the Tory government, or the ‘right-wing media’ or the falsely-conscious running-dogs; and to an extent this is justified. The government must bear sole responsibility for the legislation they’re passing, for instance; the details of that bill cannot be blamed on AE. But AE provided them the cover to pass it without much controversy; and indeed, none of these agencies enjoyed the political and symbolic freedom to unleash the sort of anti-worker tirades they have in recent weeks until AE’s egregious overreach — all with the full blessing of Trotter and Hamilton, almost everyone writing and commenting at The Standard and all those orthodox Marxists who claim to be champions of the worker. With enemies like these, Key and his government — and their ideological fellow-travelers — have no need of friends.

L

Coming this Fall: the Battle for America’s Soul

datePosted on 09:17, October 20th, 2010 by Lew

Imagine that title in scary-movie-narrator-voice. Via Pascal’s Bookie, a simply magnificent piece of propaganda from Personhood USA.

This two-minute ad is superbly done. It frames Colorado’s 1967 abortion law as the beginning of the end, and Amendment 62 in Colorado, which aims to declare that personhood begins at the moment of fertilisation, as the beginning of the battle to save America. Amendment 62 is up for the vote at the mid-term elections in November.

What we have here is clearly not the work of amateurs, nor of itinerant cranks in trailer parks, as many (including myself) have mocked the Tea Party movement. It draws together all the conventional Tea Party wisdom about what’s wrong with America into powerfully truthy narrative: start with a misappropriated Jefferson quote; follow up with Semitic “men in black robes” who hate truth, justice and the freedom and “legislate from the bench”; portray the fringe radical rump of conservative white folk as a valiant oppressed minority group; intolerant millennial-cult hypervigilance as the American Way; Obamacare as morality and human life being bought and sold as a commodity (oh, the irony!); and most crucially, Obama himself as the Grim Reaper, the lynchpin of it all, with the caption “Then the Angel of Death arrived, and Hell followed with him”. The whole thing is capped with fireworks and the Statue of Liberty, a Daisy-esque girl fading to black and a fist-pumping don’t-tread-on-me baby. And the soundtrack really just speaks for itself.

The whole thing is absolutely barking. In the cold light of day it’s nothing more than a Dan Brown plot. It’s fevered stuff, wound up to eleven to inflame passion and suppress reason. But that’s the whole point: this ad is basically the movie trailer for the upcoming battle for America’s soul, coming soon to a screen near you. Just sit back, let it wash over you, and marvel at what that country has become.

L

Drawing Blood from a Stone.

datePosted on 19:59, October 8th, 2010 by Pablo

The government’s decision to file a civil suit against the “Waihopai 3” is vindictive and a gross waste of taxpayer dollars. Much like the Zaoui case, which could have been concluded years before it actually did at far less cost than the amount on the final bill, this is a classic example of a vexatious state litigation. Vexatious state litigation, to coin a phrase, is an instance when the state (exemplified here by the Crown) continues prosecutions, appeals or defenses long after legal defeat is obvious and, as in the case here, judicially administered. Even so, there are a few aspects of the case worth reviewing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post titled “Political Idealism Trumps the Law,” the Waihopai 3 expertly exploited the claim of right defense to defend their direct action against the eavesdropping station. Contrary to most direct action proponents, they did not admit their crimes and accept their due punishment, but instead used the claim of right defense to argue their innocence based on moral grounds. Among other things that defense states that even if mistaken in their motives, people who honestly believe that their acts will prevent a greater harm are exonerated of responsibility for the consequences of those acts. Thus, although I (and presumably the government) believe that they are mistaken in claiming that the Echelon station at Waihopai facilitates torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights violations, the important point is that Peter Murnane, Adrian Leason and Sam Land were found by a jury of their peers to be innocent because they sincerely believed that their actions were helping to prevent a greater harm. So long as the claim of right defense exists in the law and juries are willing to accept that defense as legitimate, then the verdict should stand and, in the absence of irregularities in the administration of the case, no appeals or civil lawsuits filed. In other words, that should be the end of the story.

If the government does not like the claim of right clause in the law, it can work to change it. But suing for civil damages to the tune of 1.2 million dollars, including the cost of pies, beer and savories for repair workers, smacks of imperial hubris. Moreover, the claim is unrecoverable even if the Crown were to win the lawsuit. Father Peter has no tangible assets, and since neither the Dominican Order or the Catholic Church were party to his actions, they cannot be made parties to the suit. As for Land and Leason, what is the Crown going to do–confiscate Land’s organic farm and repossess Leason’s house while garnishing his salary, thereby throwing their families onto the street (and dole)? Even if it did so, the amount recovered from the sale of the assets of all three men would not come close to paying the full bill. So what is the point if the full costs are not anywhere close to recoverable?

The Crown also has not thought through the consequences of its lawsuit. The GCSB refused to front up at the original trial in order to refute the defendant’s allegations. That pretty much left their claims uncontested, which was instrumental in the jury’s verdict. Is the GCSB now going to show up at a civil trial and be prepared to re-litigate the original claims under the claim of right defense? If not, then there is no case for damages because a verdict of innocence under the right of defense absolves defendants of financial liability stemming from their acts. To put it bluntly: a verdict of innocence under the claim of right defense means full absolution from liability. That is why the right of defense is such a dramatic line to take and so difficult to argue successfully, which is why most direct action militants do not even bother with it and opt to plead guilty and ask for judicial mercy citing mitigating factors. But in this case the right of defense was made and it prevailed. Unless the GCSB wants to testify as to the merits of the claim of right defense as well as to the extent of the damages incurred (which I believe have been exaggerated) then there is no case to be made. If there is no case to be made, the pursuing the lawsuit is a waste of time and public money.

If the government allows this civil suit to continue it will be another example of politicians and state bureaucrats playing loose with taxpayer money in order to prove a vengeful point regardless of the merits of the case. The suit is clearly designed to be a warning to others who would dare to use the claim of right defense for direct actions, and therefore not only a form of vexatious state litigation but also an act of official intimidation against those who would dare speak (their) truth to power. For a supposed liberal democracy, that is a bad look.

Frogs, toadies and tadpoles

datePosted on 11:22, September 20th, 2010 by Lew


There’s been a long and turgid discussion about the Greens’ support for the Canterbury Earthquake Response & Recovery Act (CERRA) on Frogblog, with commenters including many of the usuals from around the blogosphere, Russel Norman and Kevin Hague, and someone called BJ Chip (who I assume is a comms flack) running defence for the Green party. (I can’t figure out how to link to individual comments, sorry). Another commenter, Geoff Fischer, makes a persuasive case against the Greens’ newfound pragmatism, both on the Frogblog thread and on his own site. Whilst I don’t entirely agree with Geoff (I’m a pragmatist at heart) I think his critique is a good one, particularly for the Greens (who aren’t). But there are also strong pragmatic grounds to attack the Greens’ decision to support the CERRA; grounds which, if the Greens are serious about their new realpolitik posture, they’d do well to consider.

I’m often disappointed by the Greens’ persistent — even pigheaded — reliance on the ‘principled stand’ in politics. While valuable among a suite of tactics, it’s overused as a one-size-fits-all response which pigeonholes them as idealistic zealots who don’t compromise and can’t be worked with. But although I think its consistent use is a poor strategy in the general case, it gives the Greens a valuable trump card: the ability to say “these are our principles; if you don’t like them, go ahead on your own”. While it all too often results in other parties abandoning the Greens as irrelevant and going ahead on their own, it does build a powerful narrative about the Greens which speaks to characer and reliability and permanence. Principled politics, as Geoff says in other words, has an objectivity about it which is often lost in modern pragmatic discourse where what often passes for ‘true’ is whatever you can argue. When all the other parties in parliament — even the other parties who (however unjustly) appeal to the ‘principled’ brand, such as ACT — are falling over themselves to betray their principles, it’s all the more important that you stick to your own. Put another way: when your political strategy is to be principled, refusing to act on principle is not a pragmatic decision.

Most obviously, taking a uniquely principled stance at the time when the pressure is greatest to cave in hugely strengthens that narrative mentioned above, ensuring the long-term strength of the brand. It’s easy to be principled when nothing is on the line — the measure of a party’s commitment to principle is how it performs when the stakes are highest. That measure has now been taken.

Secondly, principled politics is what the Greens know. It’s their realm of competence. An idealistic stance would have given them the ability to critique whatever misdeeds the government undertakes in the name of this act with a clear and objectively indisputable line (“we voted against it”), whilst the best they can muster at present is the equivocal, inconsistent line which Norman is running in the Frogblog thread (“we objected to it and we don’t like it but we voted for it anyway because we thought it was the right thing to do”). BJChip demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding how public-sphere political communication works with (her or his, I’m not sure) defence: “if they give us such idiotic cr@p [as “you voted for it”] we can give it back chapter and verse”. I replied with the following:

And not a word after “but you voted for it” will be worth a damn out there in the cold, pragmatic world of realpolitik which the Greens have now decided to enter. In that world “but you voted for it, so STFU” is the super-hero version of the “Nine Long Years” gambit which paralysed the Nats from 1999-2004 and has paralysed Labour for the term so far. You can’t beat it; in the battle of the soundbite, it’s political kryptonite because when they say it, they’re right. You voted for it: it’s your law, you swing by the same rope as the rest if and when it all comes apart. And so you should.

As much as they might believe themselves to be big-game players, the Greens have never even made a serious attempt to master the complexities of pragmatic politics, preferring to leave the cut-and-thrust to others. In the realm they have now entered they aren’t so much frogs as tadpoles. Judging by Norman and Hague’s statements and the spirited defence of BJChip (and others who use the pronoun “we” on behalf of the party), it seems they will attempt to defend the decision to support CERRA as they would any principled stance, with a clear restatement of the whys and wherefores behind the decision, omitting any discussion of the political consequences. This is impossible, because it is clear to even the most casual observer that the decision was a pragmatic one based on the politics.

Third and most importantly, at the electoral sharp end a uniquely principled stand positions the party as a ‘safe harbour’ for voters from other parties who are disillusioned by those parties’ too-enthusiastic embrace of pragmatism. This is where I think the Greens got their political calculus most badly wrong. The Greens’ own membership and support base was not going to be unduly turned off by the fact the party refused to support a bill granting dictatorial powers to Gerry “sexy coal” Brownlee; they may have taken some sort of hit, but the risk was not as dire as it is being spun. But a principled stance against this manifest assault on the constitutional framework of the country would have permitted the Greens to position themselves as the last line of defence against Shock Doctrine authoritarianism; a rallying point for liberal values. “Even if you disagree with our policy orientation,” they might say, “at least you know where we stand, and can rely on us to stand against the worst excesses of government impunity.” Coupled with the ideological moderation signalled by the departure of Sue Bradford and Jeanette Fitzsimons, I believe the Greens stood to gain considerable support from disappointed Labour voters, particularly those who wanted the party to act as a functional opposition to the government — and they might have even picked up a little bit from the other parties, as well.

So the decision manifestly fails on grounds of principle, and because the Greens are a self-declared party of principle with neither a strong history nor any particular skills in the exercise of realpolitik, it is doomed to be a failure in practice as well. One silver lining, though: since the Greens stand to gain nothing from it, their support for CERRA doesn’t really indicate that they’ve sold their principles out for power as “Tory toadies”; more that they simply lost their nerve. This stands in contrast to Labour, whose support for the act was obviously based on pragmatic grounds of political calculus, and principles of good governance be damned. This is especially the case for Christchurch-based MPs like Brendon Burns, who is leading the red team’s defence in a particularly distasteful fashion. They are complicit in the power grab. The Greens and their principles are just casualties of it.

L

Fighting like you mean to win

datePosted on 07:05, September 13th, 2010 by Lew

I had meant to write something substantive on the politics-of-not-playing-politics evident in all aspects of the Christchurch earthquake and its aftermath, but circumstances have conspired to prevent me from doing so. I also have two deadlines in the coming week. So just a quickie, via George Darroch: What climate activists need to learn from the NRA and the gun-control wars.

fail

I’ve made the argument before that climate change, having as it does the weight of scientific orthodoxy behind it, should be an easy win in the battle of ideas. That it isn’t, I believe, is due less to the powerful business cartels and their conspiratist minions arrayed against it, and more down to poor strategy and coordination on the part of those responsible for ensuring that the findings of the science are adequately promulgated throughout society, and for ensuring the policy responses to the problem are appropriate.

fail

As gun control advocate Robert Walker argues in the linked post, those people — both the scientists and the political actors — can learn an awful lot from the NRA. Despite being pretty far out on the lunatic fringes even in the US political context, the NRA has simply phenomenal support both among gun users and those for whom the specifics of the debate have no direct relevance. They have this degree of support largely because they have succeeded in propagandising that issue to the point where its symbolic aspects matter more than its functional, material aspects. Doing this — breaking your topic from being a policy matter to being a symbolic matter in the public consciousness — is hard and complicated work, and you have to fight as if you mean to win; to not underestimate your enemy or permit your campaign to be hijacked by incompetence and vainglory. But if the NRA can do it with an issue like gun ownership, arguing for which on rational policy bases is deeply problematic, then surely those responsible for climate science can do as much. How they might do so is sketched in Walker’s article.

L

Sometimes the duty of the free press is to not report.

datePosted on 01:55, September 12th, 2010 by Pablo

The on again, off again Koran burning planned by a small time evangelical preacher in Gainsville Florida has received world wide coverage and raised serious concern among the US military and foreign policy elite that it will cause a murderous reaction against US citizens living and fighting in the Muslim world. The issues has dominated the news in the US for days (I am currently located about 120 miles southeast of Gainsville), played out in a perverse media tag team with the so-called 9-11 mosque controversy. Official concern is so great that President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and ISAF commander General David Petreus have denounced the planned pyrotechnics, while Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made a personal call to the preacher to ask him to cease and desist.

So far, the preacher has said that he will stop the burnings only if the 9-11 mosque supporters agree to move it someplace else. Which means that on top of the provocation and outrage he intends, he has now added blackmail.

Fueled by right wing media led by Fox News TV and Radio outlets, the issue has been debated on a free speech grounds. It is generally accepted that the wacked out preacher has a right to burn Korans, but division is over whether he has a responsibility to not do so given the larger consequences of his actions. Some officials have tried to find a way to stop him using hate speech legislation, saying that his obvious intent is to spread hatred towards all Muslims and the faith itself, something that is not protected by the first amendment. Others have responded that he should be allowed to do as he please and that the US should not kow-tow to “terrorists” just because Muslims react hysterically to the desecration of the holy book or images of the prophet.

I shall leave aside the obvious greater harm argument that clearly demonstrates why the Koran burning is a bad idea. I shall also avoid addressing the fact that Islam is not the only religion where its adherents respond violently to perceived insults to their faith. I will leave aside the argued to death free speech aspects of the case. Instead, I will address two aspects of this affair that appear to be underplayed.

The first issue is a matter of perception of the event in the Muslim world. Like it or not, most people living in Muslim nations cannot fathom the concept of a separation of church and state, or that the US government and local authorities do not have the power to just physically stop the preacher from holding the event. That is because most live in authoritarian states where religion and politics are deeply intertwined and governments regularly intervene in matters of religion (to include prohibitions on certain types of religious activity, regulations on marriage, etc.).  As a result, most citizens in the Muslim world cannot conceive of  such an event being carried out without government approval, so see it as an officially sanctioned statement of how the US views Islam. That may be ignorant or confused on the facts, but it is the reality of the context in which the Koran burning is perceived in the Muslim world. (Note to those who may take offense: this is a comment about the deeply ingrained authoritarian nature of power structures in the Muslim world rather than about the content of its faith, and refers not to the educated classes but to the broader mass of people who do not have access to the facilities and vehicles that would allow them to make discerning judgements on international issues. The same can be said about other political cultures as well).

The second issue is the reckless role of the US press. The preacher in question leads a 50 person fringe fundamentalist congregation that has in the past protested against gays and threatened to torch a copy of the Torah (since he believes that Judaism is also a “dirty” religion). He clearly has delusions of grandeur, if not being a few cans short of a six pack. The national press paid no mind to his previous antics, so why is it doing so now? Why not just ignore him? Why is this event considered front page news when his other antics were not?  In sum: why give this nutbar oxygen?

Given the sensitivities at play, the national press could have buried the story in the “odd news” section or not covered it at all given its marginal nature. To their credit, outlets like the NYT and WP have limited their coverage to the reactions and not played the story on the front pages of their respective publications. But, led by Fox and a network of Christian radio and TV outlets, the US press has covered the Gainsville Goober as if he were Sarah Palin’s running mate.

That is where they fail their obligations to the public. As with any democratic entity, the press has responsibilities along with rights. Those responsibilities include not inflaming or otherwise causing small events to bocome international incidents that have the potential to cause great harm to US interests and its citizens. It has an obligation not to stoke the fires of religious and ethnic hatred. And yet the right-wing media in the US has done exactly that, aided and abetted by conservative politicians like Newt Gingrich who see political gain being made off of the scapegoating of Muslims and (with regards to immigration and future demographics) Hispanics.

This helps explain why the tone of public debate in the US has become so vulgarised and debased. There is a large element of the press that has become “Murdochised,” (sic), that is, it will report on anything that can cause scandal, outrage and division in the interest of profit and political advantage. It has eschewed its responsibilites to the larger public interest in the pursuit of partisan gain. It is, in other words, unworthy of the constitutional guarantees under which it cloaks its behaviour.

All of which is to say that if there is a nasty fallout from this stunt, whatever blood is spilled is not only on the hands of the religious provocateur and his small band of intolerant followers, but also on the hands of their media and political facilitators who turned a backwoods hoe down into an international incident.

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