Saturday, 12 May 2018

Banal and Dangerous: Clarke Gayford versus the Journalists

New Zealand's journalists are complete rubbish. They're awful.

I remember this one time Heather du Plessis-Allan claimed to have found a loophole in the law. The police immediately launched an investigation. You know why? It wasn't at all a loophole.

I remember this other time Enoch Powell wrote this piece on the disasters of immigration centred on an experience shopping for undies at Kmart. No, wait, it was Duncan Garner. Rivers of Blood. Weird snake metaphors. Or something. Easy mistake. (That crap was weeeirrd; at least Powell could competently articulate his point, you know?)

I remember a time when someone writing for the Herald compared pay cheque to pay cheque existence with keeping up with the Joneses. I didn't write it down to my deep regret but it did happen. I took the opportunity to try and rip a similarly dumb-thinking post to shreds later, though, in State Charity (read it, see if I succeeded).

And let's not get started on Ben Mack. (Actually, just so you know, they still have a career, so don't feel bad. I think they switched from the Herald prior to the WSJ affair,)

I know what you're thinking. I've managed a character assassination on NZ Journalism without once mentioning Mike Hosking. That's how bad the field is.

Actually, Hosking helps clarify that a lot of our journalists just do journalism... they're practising not disciplinary journalists. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it probably doesn't help.

It's actually really hard to think of any journalistic output that I'd recommend to people as think pieces. That shouldn't be the case. Look at all the movies that are made about real life journalism. Look at all the fictional characters who are journalists. Some of them get killed by the bad guys. Why? Because the Fourth Estate. We haven't got that here.

I guess I'd mention Tapu Misa's Long Brown Tail of Failure from 2009, but she doesn't seem to work as a journalist anymore. And I'm not even sure that was the name of the article (I read it for social studies, so I have a copy glued into a book somewhere... if I remember I'll look for it). There should be more than this! And it's not like I only remember that article because I read it for school or because I was young and naive. I read a lot of articles in those circumstances.

For instance, someone else I remember from my early years of reading the NZ Herald's website is Deborah Hill Cone. She's still around. And the cause of a hooha.

It's... not a good article.

Hill Cone has an opportunity here to engage with a really rather serious topic. She doesn't. She actually dismisses it. Literally. Dismisses.
  • 2.0 -- Treat as unworthy of serious consideration.
  • 2.1 -- Deliberately cease to think about.
Not sure which kind of dismissal is happening, but it's one of them:
No wonder Gayford seems to be enjoying the whole political circus so far. Possibly a little too much.
Political commentator Claire Trevett notes the past female spouses of our prime ministers did not get as involved in the Chogm spouse programme as Gayford has, and they very rarely did interviews. The women had a background support role, but Gayford seems to lap the attention up, like the political equivalent of manspreading.
But forget all that. Here is the real reason I find Gayford problematic.
This is a legitimate criticism. It's actually a really important one when you have people writing of Gayford in terms like:
  • Clarke Gayford writes for The Spinoff about his first days as first gent
  • There’s something about our First Bloke that keeps nagging me every time I see his cheerful face.
  • etc.
There are four layers to this problem.

The Sheer Idiocy of the Idea of a "First Spouse"

NZ's a monarchy. Actually, we have two different monarchs running around. There's the Queen of NZ who lives in the UK and then there's the Maori King. The point is that we're used to institutions which many people claim are anti-egalitarian.

In the US, they have a thing called the "First Lady". This is just bizarre.

The whole point of democracy is that there's no difference between Donald Trump, Brad Pitt, James Holmes, David Hogg or Lebron James. Politician, actor, murderer, survivor or basketballer... all of them have no greater claim to political relevancy than any other. I'd mention some random ordinary Americans but I don't know any.

Calling Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, Hilary Clinton or any other president's wife the First Lady cuts right across that. It promotes the idea that there is something other and above about being (a) the US president and (b) the US president's wife. That cuts totally across what that institution is about.

But the Americans actually take it further than this. To them, it's entirely normal for the First Lady to be a kind of political figure. Not just in the sense that you send wifey out to talk to charities but that they should have some sort of mission themselves. Hence, the much maligned cyberbullying thing.

This is very different to a peoples' princess or whatever. In NZ's system we're actually asked specifically to not listen to and prevent political involvement of non-political figures, i.e. the Queen. Watch To Play a King (series two of the superior House of Cards) to gain some insight into this. The charitable involvement of the wealth and leisure classes is, well, it's their thing, right? We're not holding them up as part of the democratic system. We say they're outside of it.

I include this as a layer because you have to understand the problem with the referent to be able to understand the problem with making the references to it.

Oh, and not one of us expects anyone else to care about the Royals. Except republicans. But they're not very bright.

Words Matter

This sounds pretty stupid, right? But it's actually quite profound.
“Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
Now, I don't want anyone thinking that Clarke Gayford's secretly Voldemort. That would be absurd. But his apparent refusal to stop people calling him "You Know What" is deeply problematic.

Let's mention Mike Hosking again. He's really fond of the saying "Middle New Zealand". Well, cool. Except, it's not. Middle New Zealand doesn't exist as a Thing. Hosking just uses it as a way to say "people who think like me" without drawing attention to the particularity of Hosking. It's very devious.

When you set up a concept and talk about it like it's a Real Thing, you force people to create the mental space for your concept. Whether that's Hosking and Middle New Zealand or NZ's journalists and the "First X" description of Clarke Gayford, it happens. And it happens in other realms as well. Think about "Reverse Racism"1 or "TERFism"2 .

One of the big ways that this happens is by normalisation. Every time you see Middle New Zealand, it becomes much more normal to you that this is an idea. You might start out thinking that it's not a real thing. And then one day you realise you're arguing that Middle NZ is real but isn't who Mike Hosking thinks it is. Even vehement disagreement can't save you from a paradigm shift. But ridiculing it can..

That being said, using the First Spouse Concept (FSC) in a playful matter isn't ridiculing the idea. A joke made at Trump's expense which relies on Melania Trump's being First Lady doesn't ridicule the FSC... it relies on people believing in the FSC. That kind of humour... say the endless parade of articles about how she won't touch Trump in public... says there's something meaningful here, that you should know and believe in the FSC. It's the FSC  itself that deserves ridicule.

This is one of the layers for very simple logic. Basically, "you're creating a bad idea". After all, we just established that the FSC is undemocratic above. And now we've established that all you have to do to bring it about is use the words.

Personalising Politics

Politics should be for people, not about people.

I think most people are against the personalising of politics. They see it as getting in the way of productive discourses and as obscuring what actually matters, i.e. the policies that actually get enacted.

On the other hand... John Key was widely condemned for being all about the personality and now that Jacinda Ardern does exactly the same things there are no more rebukes. Where is Planet Jacinda? (Always Jacinda, never Ardern... interesting, no?) How about the US Electoral College was wildly unpopular before 2016 and now Republicans will throw themselves in front of bullets for it? It's almost as if peoples' opinions generally relate to whatever is convenient for their other opinions.

There are three key (closely related) problems with emphasising personality:
  • It makes it really hard to hold politicians to account.
    • Politicians who are about personality tend to be able to throw up another distraction. Smile and Wave Key is quite possibly the greatest political operator to have ever lived. This is a man who was nicknamed the Smiling Assassin in his pre-political life, who oversaw eight years of reasonably incompetent government and rode from scandal to scandal without a scratch! You shouldn't be able to do this. But being just goofy enough, just dad enough, just blokey enough, just friendly enough etc. etc. John Key became Teflon John.
    • The reason this works is also related to the old "style versus substance" argument. It's hard to challenge people on substance when they're not offering any. If your criticisms seem irrelevant, it's hard to make traction with them. And if, on top of that, you come across as being incapable of deviousness of the highest order, you're never going to face a scandal that sticks... people lack the mental space for that. You're not too good to be true, you're too fallible to disappoint.
    • Oh, and before I forget, tu quoque is a fallacy. People recognise that attacking the people themselves is wrong/it vibes ill with them... but that's all that style leaves to attack. Quite the fix, right?
  • It helps divorce the people from their rule/it's undemocratic.
    • The way elections work, in theory, is that political parties offer up a set of politics, a vote is held, and the combination of political parties whose platforms seem the most relevant to the electorate ends up in power.
    • When you hold elections which deal a lot with contests between personalities, where is "the common man" in the cut and thrust of the campaign? No where, right? Their concerns aren't what the election is fought over and hence they're not what the politicians have to care about. And if they care about other things it follows that what the politicians actually do reflects those other concerns. Hence, elections don't facilitate the rule of the people.
    • From a slightly different tack:
      • Look. We can spend all day quibbling about whether or not people actually make the kinds of choices in elections which we assume they do. We can complicate matters by wondering if, perhaps, sortition is the best articulation of democracy (which implies that random voting is desirable). We can argue until the cows come home about the credibility of political promises. We can do all this stuff. But the fact remains that it's really rather difficult to distinguish between functionally identical things. Indeed, the difficulty is discouraging.
      • One of the things to note about personality politics is that it works. Like, it really works. Get it right and you're John Key. Get it wrong and... you're Donald Trump (who still managed to win). So the point is that you either bring another personality to the table or you run vapid anti-personnel campaigns (remember when instead of attacking immigrants or threatening to sink boatloads of people3 Labour was the "not John Key" party? God, I hate that I miss that). Once the first person "cheats" and goes to personality, everyone has to. That's the Nash Equilibrium. And, as in most cases, it's not a social optimum.
  • It creates dissonance between institutional design and operation.
    • I'm not sure how obvious this is or not but institutions like laws, systems (e.g. transport or education) or organisations (the traditional kind of institution) are set up based on a set of assumptions. Sometimes these assumptions reflect idealisations... design an institution for the way things should work (perhaps to encourage that reality, perhaps out of idiocy, perhaps out of hope other programmes succeed, perhaps for whatever else). 
    • Likewise the actual operation of these institutions is based on behavioural assumptions, e.g. you design a court system that should work but in practice you operate it to streamline "waste of time cases" (e.g. divorce) which choke up more important things.
    • These assumptions can occur at all levels, both high (e.g. a government telling how (spitals to compete with each other) and le.g. a teacher bringing shareable breakfasts to their classroom in the morning).
    • When institutions aren't working properly they are usually being under-funded, deliberately shackled or burdened with wrong assumptions. Electoral systems are no different. 
    • Imagine that you set up something like MMP which lets you vote your heart. The idea is to work based on policies, right? Except it doesn't work that way. There's nothing in NZ's Electoral Act which stops the National Party from putting out advertising which says the idea of a particular coalition is bad. Not the outcomes thereof. Not even the vibe. They literally attack the very concept. (Note: Labour and NZ First are hardly more -democratic... and if the Greens actually let them go ahead with the anti-Waka Jumping legislation all the bad crap National did for democracy will be overshadowed.) 
    • Where personality politics comes into play is that it works with MMP. In fact, in many respects, MMP exacerbates it. In the old days a personality like John Key or Jacinda Ardern only had a direct effect on votes in Helensville or Mt. Albert, i.e. the seat being contested. The "hangers on" (er, the other party members) just reaped indirect benefits. But with the party vote, being smile and wave (or generating nothing personal life stories detached from present political scandals) helps you out with the entire electorate.
    • That is, in a nut-shell, we designed a political system which is meant to allow somewhat more niche political viewpoints a place at the table, but ended up creating a situation where competing based on personality (always a strong strategy) is optimised.
In a similar vein of thought God forbid we reach a point where a politician's relationship status is seen as relevant to what they do. And, unfortunately, this is exactly what the journalists' attitudes towards Clarke Gayford are doing. He's not relevant. He is irrelevant. He's not a politician and he has no real place in our newspapers outside of when they want to talk about fishing shows or brief biographies of his (much more successful and famous) partner. He's a WAG, and we all know that reporting about WAGs is a bad idea. But the truth is, if you're going to compete based on personality, who exactly you're living with is a natural way to play things... it's a facet, after all, of your personality. And if you're not living with anyone? Well now, what does that say?

The Americanisation of Political Discourse in New Zealand

New Zealand and the USA are different countries. That should be obvious. It is also probably obvious that in different countries things work a little differently. Or very differently. Quite often both at once. There are, after all, quite a few similarities between NZ and the USA. But they're very different countries... in NZ, "black" people are few and far between, Asians and Pasifika are different ethnicities and people have ethnicities not races. In the USA the reverse is true in all cases.

It should hopefully be equally obvious that analysing different things as though they are the same is problematic. As a quick example, you'd probably lose a game of draughts pretty quickly if you attempted to play it as a game of President. In fact, I'm not sure how you'd actually do that. Which just further demonstrates the point, right? Rules (abstractions) which are appropriate in one situation may or may not be appropriate in another. We might go as far to say that it's complete luck when concepts derived in one circumstance apply in another. That may not be true, but it's certainly more true than closing your eyes, sticking your head in the sand and pretending that you could just use [whatever] [wherever].

With respect of Clarke Gayford and the Journalists, the issue is that using terms like "First Bloke" just help normalise facets of American discourse. If it's appropriate to see the PM's spouse/partner as being like the US president's spouse then maybe it's appropriate to see the PM as being like the US president. It's not. They're extremely different positions. Similarly, given the politicised and semi-official part of the system of the US presidential spouse, the terminology introduces the idea that maybe America's system has some parallels with ours. It doesn't. They're not wholly different (we're representative democracies) but the American system is so screwed up and so backwards it might as well be... Iran or North Korea.

Already we have some problems introduced by Americanisation. I think this is the route cause of why John Key and Jacinda Ardern (these personalisers extraordinaire) were able to reap success... we can't just watch US elections without picking up some ideas about what elections are meant to be. Back in the day it was much easier in NZ to not receive coverage of American politics but the world has shrunk. Similarly, look at the way Labour and National behave... to them minor parties can just be excluded. That we have debates involving only two parties is disgusting. It would, in fact, be better to not have debates at all. And I blame Americanisation for this. Not necessarily that these started but for the absence of outrage over this.


Clarke Gayford needs to look in the mirror and realise that he's the one who's got to say no. He's got to come out and put the journalists in their place. They're not going to. Deborah Hill Cone literally wrote a column dismissing the relevance of the relationship of the journalists and Gayford is problematic (ironically, "the Fourth Estate's" blissful ignorance/rejection/denial of observer effects has been remarked upon with regards to the Comey letters). That Gayford doesn't do this is a black mark against him. And it's not something that's going to go away with some cutesy glib response of the like that Ardern, Key and, increasingly, Gayford have become famous for. Not because those won't work, but because it's the underlying truth. Believing fervently in A doesn't mean B isn't real. Unfortunately, truth isn't relevance. Let us not delude ourselves... no-one will ever read this and no-one is going to actually sit up and notice that between them the journalists, Gayford and Ardern are letting something really rather bad happen.

The truth is out there. All I can hope for is that someone else realises it and publicises it better than I can. I've tried. And I've failed. Which is more than can be said for Gayford and the journalists.

1 "One of the biggest barriers to understanding seems to be the ubiquitous presence of ‘reverse racism’. Trying to explain to outraged Pākehā people that racism and hurt feelings aren’t the same thing is… tiring" In other words, reverse racism's idea is real but it's not actually racism. The reality is that it is JUST RACISM. Reverse Racism is a totally pointless idea.

2 "I’m not defending TERFS and SWERFS; I’m asserting that the acronyms to describe them need to be rethought because feminists who exclude trans women and sex workers from the equality they’re allegedly fighting for aren’t radical at all. (I would go as far as to say they’re not feminists at all, but that’s another piece for another time.)" Same idea but it's harder to see due to the confounding influence of definitional debate. Here's the only definition of feminism worth a damn.

3The article I originally read was from the Herald and didn't include a line about making sure people were off the boats. To be honest, my contempt for Labour is such that I don't see how you Radio NZ manages to believe Ardern means the people were off the boat. Scuttling ships, sure. But when you say destroy you are doing something very deliberate, you're taking a hardline against the boat people (or "people smugglers" ... Ardern actually had the audacity to claim that capable ships are risking peoples' lives... is she also anti-cruise ships??). Notice how they also don't mention whether people are on or off the boats with the destroy line (and I missed it in the video? going crazy here, I think). If it sounds like murder, it's meant to sound like murder... even though Radio NZ is probably correct that it's not the intent. But politicians can't get credit like that. The action for them is putting the words out. They want it to sound like murder. And that is disgusting.