February 22, 2005

What do you really mean?

Mister Neil Falloon writes progressively, with liberal, gay abandon....

ACT social welfare spokesman and amateur etymologist Dr Muriel Newman has started a new campaign. Her goal: ” to end political correctness as we know it”.

One could simply cynically write off Newman’s new PCFreeNZ ‘campaign’ as a blatant election-year ploy to raise her profile with ACT voters who will soon decide the order of the party’s list. But let’s take Dr Newman at face value.

Her PCFreeNZ campaign comes complete with a website (yes, it's taxpayer-funded, for those who enjoy noting such things). There are even tee-shirts for sale from Dr Newman’s husband Frank. (A quick question: why is a man’s shirt $10 cheaper than a woman’s?)

Dr Newman’s primary concern is that “certain words have been hijacked - stolen from our English language heritage - for political gain. It is not hard to see the objective here, creating a new veneer of legitimacy for what [sic] a failed social, economic and political philosophy.”

Dr Newman provides examples:

Think about the word "Liberal", which used to mean 'Libertarian', but is now often misused to mean 'Socialist'. "Gay" used to mean 'Happy', but is now 'Homosexual'. "Progressive" was symbolic of economic and technical advancement, but is now applied to those espousing the collectivist ideals - and 'progress' toward them.

Yes. Let’s think about the word ‘Liberal’. It did not mean ‘Libertarian’ when it was first used as a noun in a political sense by the editors of the Spanish constitution of Cadiz in 1812: they were not trying to install Lindsay Perigo as president, but simply opposed the absolutist power of the Spanish monarchy. Today there are many strains of philosophical thought laying claim to the mantle of the original 19th century Enlightenment doctrine, from American liberalism to neo-liberalism. Dr Newman’s desire to eradicate some definitions of the word seems just a little authoritarian.

What about Dr Newman’s other examples?

Well, perhaps political correctness started earlier than the MP suspects: the word ‘Gay’ has had a sexual meaning since at least the nineteenth century, and possibly earlier. In Victorian England, female and male prostitutes were called "gay" because they dressed in bright, happy clothes. Eventually "gay" became a term for any male homosexual. In the United States, the term may have arisen from the hobo community: a young hobo, a "gay cat", often had to befriend an older more experienced hobo for education and survival. Such a relationship was implicitly sexual, hence the term "gay cat" came to mean "a young homosexual".

Then there's the word 'Progressive'. Dr Newman seems to have genuinely never heard of the Progressive movement in United States politics, or the (admittedly short-lived) political party by that name. Let’s not disturb her tranquility.

Dr Newman’s PC campaign is about more than just words. She recently expressed her outrage when a newspaper article pointed out (in a very tabloid manner) that some early childcare centres no longer provide playdough because some cultures, including Maori, consider playing with food inappropriate. Dr Newman wrote:

“In the playdough case, political correctness has been used as a weapon to silence and intimidate opposition. By claiming the use of food in play is culturally offensive to Maori, [they...] can call anyone who speaks out in opposition, a racist. It is a classic example of the modern-day tyranny that is constantly being wreaked by minority groups over the majority of New Zealanders, through the use of political correctness.”

Muriel is not a racist but nor, it seems, is she a close-reader. She appears to have missed the principle of the story. The playdough incident shows that individual childcare centres, run autonomously by boards elected from the parents of attending children, are doing exactly what a freedom-and-choice-loving party like ACT should hope for: responding to individual community needs.

It would be a completely different story if the government issued a blanket order to every school or kindergarten saying Thou Shalt Not Play With Food. But that’s not what is happening. Some independently-owned (so-called ‘for profit’) early childhood centres have implemented the same policies. This is an example of communities choosing the environment in which their own children will be educated. Another name for this sort of activity? School Choice.

Sure, the communities involved have different values from Dr Newman. But it’s a bit rich to prize Freedom and Choice only when people make the same choices that you would.

This drama has been played out before. Let's flashback to an ACT national conference from many years ago. The crowd applauded a highschool principal who said that “there is no such thing as ‘Maori science’, there is only science". Yet at the same conference, a focus group on education was incensed that Christian parents had to fund schools that dismissed out-of-hand Biblical creation myths. They were enraged because “parents should be allowed to choose” the education their children received.

There is a tension within ACT - an undercurrent of unresolved conflict between competing claims. One might be tempted to say “a dialectic”, but then one might be accused by PCFreeNZ of being a communist sympathiser.

It seems odd that the campaign 'against political correctness' has been chosen as a personal platform in an election year. In many ways it highlights a gap between the conservative beliefs of Dr Newman and those officially espoused by the party.

The Institute for Liberal Values (a ‘classical liberal’ thinktank with Rodney Hide on its board of directors) wrote last year that Dr Newman was “the most hard core conservative in the ACT Party caucus”. Some might suggest Stephen Franks should hold that title. Regardless, the Institute says of Dr Newman, “this basically means she is a member of a party that stands opposed to her own basic ideology.”

In fact, Muriel’s repeated invocation of “liberal” and “choice” to further her own (opposed, and very basic) ideological position could itself be characterised as doublespeak.

These arguments always tend to degenerate into discussions of who is being more petty and unreasonable. But a rule of thumb is that the benefit of western society and enlightenment is we can choose what we are going to do within very broad parameters, but that also includes choosing not to do things.

Perhaps the problem is one of perspective. The Western philosophical and cultural tradition which Dr Newman wishes to see defended against the barbarism of 'political correctness', is distinguishable as an entity in toto from edible children's putty. The corollary of being able to choose to do things is the right to choose not to do things.

Perhaps Muriel and her conception of Western enlightenment need to be reminded, like some kindergarten children, that just because you have some playdough, you don't need to put it in your mouth.


February 18, 2005

The Near Dismissal of Ben Thomas

Everybody from DogBitingMen gets together for a chat…

Olivia: Ben...don’t take this personally, but we all have some serious concerns about your input to the site.

Ben: But I just wrote a three-fricking-thousand-word article about youth suicide that was well-argued and thorough, and even earned me a spot on the wireless talking as a pundit. And I “fisked” Rodney Hide but good, when he nodded off at Waiheke Island resort.

Olivia: Mmmmmmm, and that’s really… interesting. But – no offence, Ben - you are turning readers off. You’re dull. You're dreadful. You're killing our readership stats.

Neil: You’ve got to Dumb it Down, Ben. I should know – I work for Close Up at Seven as fluffer for Susan Wood. Speaking of which: we need a Poll Question. Something like: ‘Should a woman with a moko be denied 111 service?’

Ben: Our demographic doesn’t care about polls. They’re only interested in unmitigated wank about other bloggers. That brings us dozens of links and shoots our readership up by 400 percent. As Lindsay Perigo said, this format is braindead.

David: Perigo was talking about television. And he now works on the Holmes Show, tending saplings.

Olivia: There’s a moral there somewhere.

Neil: Lindsay’s an objectivist – he probably missed it.

MediaCow: I'm just a pseudonym, which is why I'm not talking.

David: Let’s be constructive. What can we publish that will bring punters running?

Neil: We could tell that brilliant story we heard about Dick Hubbard and his cereal company.

David: We’d earn the opprobrium of the National Business Review, whom I’m sure will run it eventually. I wonder what their headline will be: “We Told You So”?

Olivia: It’s careless use of words like “opprobrium” and "whom" that got us into this mess.

Neil: What about that saucy story we got emailed about SIS buggery?

Olivia: I think it was bugging. Or bungling. Bugling?

Ben: I’m surprised nobody’s suggested we publish unmitigated wank about other bloggers.

David and Olivia: That’s a brilliant idea, Ben!

(Ben cradles his perfectly sculpted head in his fine-boned hands and lets out an anguished sigh).

David: Let’s write about David P Farrar and Russell Brown!

(Neil quivers, just like Mayoress Hubbard, at the mention of the Kingpins of Kiwi Blogging)

Olivia: We could reveal that the P in David P Farrar stands for Priapus - I found that on the electoral roll. This was when I had inapprpriate feelings toward that little man. I went to great lengths to stalk him dressed as a schoolgirl, before discovering it was easier to check the online 10-minutely updates of his diet and movements.

David: So, let’s just steal the best bits from Farrar's Kiwiblog and Russell Brown's Public Address.
Olivia: The best part of KiwBlog was definitely the Count the Corks Game. That set the internet on fire.

Neil: I almost wet myself when I discovered that there were 392 corks! Here's how we could recreate the same buzz: we could take a picture of some grass and get people to guess how many blades there are!

Olivia: Nifty – the blog readers will love it!!!! We'll call it Tally The Tussock! But first we will need two more squares of grass, already counted, as a reference point for our readers. Ben, you like research, and don’t have an important job in television or communications...

Ben: But I'm the serious one...

David: Count the grass or we will expel you from the blog like Matt Nippert from a “no shoes, no service” bar. Now, we need to copy other masters, too. What is it that Russell Brown does best?

Neil: Humour

(Contemplative Silence)

Neil: Oh. Forget about him, then. That leaves New Zealand’s other great online humour site, the extremely mysterious damianchristiehatesnz.blogspot.com.

David: Nobody knows who is behind that site though, so it would be hard to plagiarise directly.

Neil: What about converting DogBitingMen into a livejournal?

Olivia: What the hell is a livejournal?

Neil: It’s like an online diary. People write about what they have done that day, how they are feeling, and how their latest roleplaying game adventure went.

Olivia: Like Philosophically Made? Or Constar?

Neil: No, those are “political blogs”. Livejournals are where you cry about how unloved you are and how crap your life is. Which of us should write the first depressing entry?

David: I am an award-nominated Listener writer and a highly-paid corporate communications manager.

Neil: I have three cars from Te Wananga O Aotearoa and I am New Zealand’s only world famous right-wing blogger.

Olivia: I am very, very pretty.

(pause)

Neil: Ben Thomas, stop counting that grass. And wipe that bloody mud off. We’re going to let you write again.

February 17, 2005

Radio Free Nepal

MediaCow goes international....

Two weeks ago Nepal's King Gyanendra sacked the nation's government and assumed power. He said this was necessary because the politicians had failed to hold elections, and civil war with Maoist rebels had escalated.

Media reports from India said the king had taken power for three years, and some politicians were under house arrest. Sher Bahadur Deuba, the deposed Prime Minister, denounced the King’s actions as a coup, accusing him of exploiting the intensifying Maoist insurgency to snatch power in a violation of the constitution.

At the time of the bloodless coup, a weblog was created by what appears to be a collective of journalists within Nepal. (Of course, there's no way to prove that it's not an elaborate hoax from somebody living somewhere else. But by that token, perhaps MediaCow lives in Copenhagen...)

The weblog, called Radio Free Nepal, states:

King Gyandendra of Nepal has issued a ban on independent news broadcasts and has threatened to punish newspapers for reports that run counter to the official monarchist line. Given that any person in Nepal publishing reports critical of "the spirit of the royal proclamation" is subject to punishment and/or imprisonment, contributors to this blog will publish their reports from Nepal anonymously.

Since February 1, Radio Free Nepal has (sporadically) published articles that mainly focus on the media's response to the coup. An email interview with the author can be read here. It's one weblog that is worth bookmarking: Radio Free Nepal.


February 15, 2005

Worlds Apart

Ben Thomas writes...

The
winding up of the Yellow Ribbon Trust has caused little fanfare, with most attention focused on the Trust’s relationship with Dean Lonergan’s Fight For Life.

(Time for the indulgence of a bitchy aside? Good. Lonergan, who talked himself up as a tireless supporter of youth suicide prevention, slammed
articles about suicide I published in Craccum magazine in 2000. He called them irresponsible and immature in – curiously – an issue of Brass magazine. Then came the fracas about whether macho aggressive posturing was the best way to prevent youth suicide. Rather than revamp the concept, Lonergan shifted the circus sideways, into raising funds for meningococcal disease. Glad to see he was always sincere. End aside.)

A couple of years ago, I would have been outraged about the decision to call it quits (no tasteless jokes about Yellow Ribbon taking its own life – that can get you into trouble). This is a victory for Associate Minister of Health Jim Anderton. In 2003 Anderton and minister of heterosexuality, John Tamihere, wrote to schools formally discouraging them from cooperating with schemes like Yellow Ribbon (and threatening future regulation of such programs).

This is because of a worldview Anderton shares with the Ministry of Health: discussion of suicide causes it.

Anderton consistently misrepresents research which shows media reporting of a particular method of suicide increases the prevalence of that type of death as a proportion of the whole.

Anderton is quoted in the Herald’s story on the closure of Yellow Ribbon saying:

"The literature is very clear - if you raise the profile of youth suicide you get a higher rate of suicide. That's why the media briefings are on the basis that we don't want the method of death being publicised."

Even the Ministry of Health’s polemical Suicide and the Media: the reporting and portrayal of suicide in the media doesn’t go so far as to support Anderton’s position. It posits that some research “demonstrates” (a cynic might say “suggests”) a link between the reporting (actually, the de-contextualised reporting) of specific cases of suicide and an increased incidence of suicide. The link is clearest in cases of geographical proximity (sometimes leading to suicide “clusters”, which account for around 5% of all suicides) or celebrity suicides. Discussion of the issue shows no demonstrable link, but is thought to increase risk where such discussion “normalises” suicide as a response to emotional difficulty.

The research surrounding depictions or reporting of the method of suicide shows quite clearly that well-publicised methods of suicide will gain in popularity, but at the expense of other methods. For example, a televised drama showing suicide by jumping in front of a train increased the number of suicides by train jumping in Berlin. The Ministry’s guidelines are ambiguous, but studiously avoid claiming any increase in the total number of suicides.

So, a couple of years ago, it would have been tempting to label Anderton a liar and a fraud. But one mellows with age, and more saliently, becomes better acquainted with the nuances involved. There was a remarkable drop in the rate of youth suicide in New Zealand in 1999 (around 25%); a further big drop in 2000 (20%), and lesser falls in subsequent years until a slight rise occurred in 2003.

My reading of these events is that they followed the foundation of the Youth Suicide Awareness Trust in 1998. The next year, Yellow Ribbon (an arm of the YSAT) launched its schools programme and over both years Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury devoted many hours of radio time on (then new and exciting) Channel Z to promoting Lifeline and suicide awareness. In 2000, Craccum created a contagion of media caterwauling, which was followed by the Herald's publication of
a full page feature on a Ministry of Health report into suicide methods, complete with a self-congratulatory editorial lauding the newspaper’s own courage. Fight for Life made the issue truly mainstream after steadily increasing coverage. Greater awareness led to more support for at-risk youngsters. Media mentions of the issue of suicide skyrocketed after 1998 and the number of deaths tumbled: a real-time experiment putting the lie to Anderton’s belief that if you raise the profile of youth suicide you get a higher rate of suicide. (The MoH’s guidelines were published in 1999, before the drop in suicide rates was observed)

Of course, that is how I would tell it.

Another narrative, perhaps just as plausible, is that the youth suicide prevention strategy was signed off in 1998, and has worked superbly. Suicides are down, in spite of – rather than because of – callous assholes who just don’t have enough respect for Jim Anderton. Callous assholes like Bradbury and Yellow Ribbon’s Marco Marincovich and even myself. My limited (and indirect) experience with the government-funded programmes is that they have helped a lot of people. Most are geared towards those identified (rightly) as particularly high risk – attempted suicides and the family of successful suicides, rather than general prevention.

A third explanation is that the Labour government’s impending election turned the tide. There was an explosion in numbers starting in 1984, and only falling appreciably in 1999. Although this theory doesn't explain the rise in 2003, it remains a 900-pound gorilla in the room that has to be faced by all dedicated free marketeers.*

The epidemiology of suicide is so imprecise as to defy answers to any of the questions that people desperately and sincerely want addressed. You can never know another man’s mind, particularly not in the grip of a pathology powerful enough to override the biological imperative towards life itself. The statistics banked up by researches quickly lose coherence and composition if you stare at them hard enough – suicides, attempted suicides, para-suicides (where death was not really intended), failed para-suicides, where a cry for help goes horribly wrong. It’s like discerning green from turquoise from aquamarine from blue on a spectrum. And that’s only where the subject obviously embarked on self-harm, making it apparent they wanted to die. The missing category is so-called “accidental death” – youths fished out of waterways for example, or poisonous levels of alcohol or drugs.

The ultimate answer that comes from the experts in this country is that many suicides stem from mental illness, but the fact is that the same experts diagnose one fifth of the adult population as having said mental illness. Moreover, biologically at least, there is nothing to suggest depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are any less prevalent in countries where the suicide rate is significantly lower than in New Zealand.

Which is the problem. One can point out that Anderton is wrong in his precis of various studies, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that Yellow Ribbon should be publicly funded, particularly at the expense of other programmes. We don’t know what caused the remarkable drop in suicides in the last 6 years. But then, that seems as good a reason as any to make no sweeping changes.

New Zealand, if I may generalise and romanticise for a second, is an introspective, self-harming culture. Barriers on American motorway overpasses were erected as much to stop malicious thrill-seekers throwing bowling balls and stray rubble into traffic, as to stop anyone throwing themselves. Here the former is unthinkable; the latter,
accepted wisdom. It’s a piss-poor suicide prevention strategy, but it’s an interesting insight into our culture.

A digression I shouldn’t have allowed myself, either. Romanticism of an ugly reality is a definite negative, no matter what your worldview. The MoH will point this out with abandon: films romanticise suicide, books romanticise it, apparently Craccum romanticised it. But the MoH is also guilty of romanticism – its media guidelines treat the “S” word like Demogorgon, a medieval demon whose mere name was meant to bring disaster and ruin. The taboo, much dismantled now, but ironically perpetuated by the MoH, lends just as much unreality to the issue in public consciousness as the beautiful, inscrutable Kirsten Dunst character in the Virgin Suicides.

So to end with some broad value judgments: Jim Anderton was wrong to demonise Yellow Ribbon, to demonise the Fight for Life and (in a startling admission of lack of authorial detachment) to demonise me. It is unfortunate that Yellow Ribbon has folded, and even more unfortunate that such a worthy cause could not manage to find sufficient funding without rugby players beating up each other to entice the crowds. And unfortunate that the media still insists on debating whether we can talk about suicide instead of actually talking about the damned thing itself.

* Which is not to say it can’t be faced: there is a difference between ultimate causes and proximate causes, and every policy has consequences downstream. Neo-liberal champions could easily point to lives saved by the economic rescue of New Zealand. But an overall estimate of lives saved versus lives lost would involve a utilitarian calculus that would be, to understate the matter, fraught with difficulties of perception.

February 04, 2005

Blogging, NCEA-style

With ispiration from real-life events, Mr Neil Falloon writes...

A note about cheating… Cheating undermines the integrity of these examinations. We already had to ask Rodney
to sit outside after he was caught copying Peter’s policies. We hope that there will be no such incidents in this examination.


When you are ready, turn over your papers….

(For this question, refer to drawing of an anonymous white man wearing glasses). Imagine you are a 21st century National leader who fires his only female front-bench MP. Write an essay explaining the challenges facing a political party (the “natural party of government”) that still doesn't have any members who can talk to girls.

BONUS: Argue for or against the statement: “Silly tarts shouldn’t wear purple lipstick on big news days”.

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Imagine you are the editorial executive who told employees that the Herald on Sunday would be just like Britain’s Independent. Explain what you meant. (Starting sentence: “Both newspapers do use black text on white pages… and they are both in English…”)

BONUS: Argue for or against the statement: “Based on his weekly columns alone, Michael Barrymore should be cast out of New Zealand”. OR Discuss the question “Michael Barrymore’s weekly column is better than Kerre Woodham’s”. Hint – your answer should make mention of the principles involved in arguing from false premises.

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Imagine you are the police officer who chose not to arrest Tame Iti for brandishing a shotgun. Your logic was that arresting him would draw public attention to Mr Iti and turn him into a martyr for people sympathetic to his cause. Now the ACT Party has drawn attention to Mr Iti and turned him into a martyr for people sympathetic to his cause. Use colourful language to describe your opinion of the ACT Party.

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Imagine you attended the NZNOG Conference, made famous by a
reference on David P Farrar’s weblog. Write a creative story about what happened there. (Starting sentence: "Hello Nog," a conference-goer shouted to David P Farrar. "Do you plan to stand for parliament?" )

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(For this question, refer to obviously fake, computer-generated image of an imaginary politician.) Imagine you are the leader of a moderate centre-left party intent on retaining power at all costs. The leader of her majesty’s opposition makes a series of keynote speeches promising conservative-style reform of areas such as race relations and welfare reform. Summarise, in your own words, the key points of these speeches. Then explain how it is established Labour policy, and has been in development “for some time”.

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Imagine you are a popular left-leaning political commentator, with a sweeping expertise in foreign affairs, information technology, welfare policy and popular culture. Write a detailed manifesto unpicking the previously insoluble problems of the Middle East, income disparity, and balancing environmental concerns with economic growth. (Hint: Your answer should be no more than 800 words)

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