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Thursday, 9 November 2017

When You're Not Like Trump

Back in September there was a discussion about a Tweet that appeared on The Wall Street Journal's page (whatever they call it on Twitter) which ran, "Meet New Zealand's Justin Trudeau—except she's more like Trump on immigration." I defended that comparison. Both in the sense that it was on a specific area where there was policy alignment and in the sense there were other things we could say. I could also have talked about (and should have) talked about the restraint shown by the Tweet's author. Today I read a Spinoff piece about an actual article published by the Wall Street Journal entitled, "How the far right is poisoning New Zealand". I'm not going to defend this comparison.

In History there is an idea that I remember as, "Show me the historian and I'll show you the history." That's a corruption of the advice given by E. H. Carr, "Study the historian, before you study his facts." It's an interesting idea but it is problematic as Richard Evans has written,
[...] it is perfectly in order to point to historians’ origins, upbringing or personal circumstances to explain how they have reached the conclusions they have. [...] However... engaging in this exercise does nothing in itself to tell us whether the arguments the historian in question puts forward are right or wrong. They have to be taken on their own terms. [...]
And you see, I actually have some experience with Ben Mack. Now, a cynic might argue that repeated publication in the NZ Herald is a problem but the Herald has published the likes of Gwynne Dyer on several occasions so appealing to the clearly skewed thinking of the editors at the Herald can't be said to say much. But if you've read anything published from Dyer or Mack you'll see quite a stark difference in both what they normally talk about and the quality of the discourse. The main reason for this is that Mack is a lifestyle columnist as opposed to a journalist. Reading their stuff indicates several things:
  • Mack's not very perceptive. In this piece they spend a while talking about American media, they even mention American cultural imperialism. What Mack doesn't mention is that it is literally impossible to avoid American cultural productions in NZ. At least, if you speak English. It actually crowds out our own media and is probably one reason why we don't produce much. Perception is about recognising you have grasped an idea and seeing the whole of it. Mack doesn't.
  • Mack's often wrong. Is it because they're not well informed or don't do proper research or are clearly writing for an angle or some combination of these things is unclear. You can see that clearly here. Notice how they have no idea what "winning" an election means?
  • In lieu of research Mack ties together talking points from several discourses, but doesn't notice that this isn't really logical. Analogies are problematic because they're about correlation... something that shares similarities without necessarily sharing a fundamental cause. In this one there are again some ideas but the reasons for uniforms are obvious, not at all inconsistent with the talking points Mack raises and require research to be linked to uniforms. For Christ's sake, choosing clothes is a well known stressor!
  • Mack's neither a complete idiot nor idiomatic. That is, Mack's neither a moron nor really in tune with the way things are in New Zealand. Indeed, that last bit seems to pervade their writing. It is as if Mack is unable to escape it. That's fair (Mack is an immigrant) but it's a problem if you want to provide commentary about what it really going on. Having outside perspective is useful only, I argue, if you also know how the asylum thinks.
  • Mack is very definitely a lifestyle columnist. All the above examples are all just conversation mint type things. That's what Mack is paid to write and that is what Mack has written. But you can write about these topics in different ways. And Lifestyle-columnism doesn't excuse the errors of fact that exist in, for instance, their election piece.
  • Mack's body of work bodes ill. It is an ad hominem argument to say that someone is wrong because of [personal characteristic]. It is not an ad hom to suggest that Mack's life's work (well... as judged by these publication in the Herald, although I didn't read the whole list, anyway) indicates their inferences tend to be off or that if multiple interpretations of some phenomenon/object/event exist the one Mack will run with is likely to reflect an inappropriate sensibility. If we're looking at predicting model, we need to know about that model. I suggest that this is a surprising appropriate analogy for what people making evaluations do.
There isn't really much that I can add to the Spinoff's criticisms of Mack's work on a factual level. Which does beg the question of what I am doing here, right? I mean, I could continue with my character assassination but I don't know anything else about Mack so I've already run out of material. Which leaves, what? Well, I think I can extend the Spinoff's response in the sense is that there are some places where I think Mack has chosen...  the wrong interpretations. As a reminder, here's the link to the article again.

Place One
A shadow is poisoning Middle-earth.
I absolutely loathe these comparisons of NZ to Middle Earth. Why do we insist on the association just because there are these movies? This is the kind of thinking that leads people like Duncan Garner to say crap like this. It leads to really cringey meme-ified nonsense from Air New Zealand. It has played a massive role in NZ's apathy towards our environmental record. And it's a ludicrous image of NZ. The images below from various places I've walked in and around Auckland is the place I inhabit more than this is.

Graffiti

Synecdoche

Rush Hour

Station

Also, pick up the books... they are classics of the fantasy genre for their world-building not the quality of the work... and all that world-building? It is seriously English. Tolkien was literally a professor of Anglo-Saxon. My nationalist sentiments find this an affront both from the perspective of NZ and England.

Place Two
the fact that the heads of the three branches of government are all women.
This is actually an ad hominem. The women-ness of Ardern, Reddy/the Queen or Elias has absolutely nothing to say about their appropriateness for the role. But more to what I was doing with the bullet points is that this isn't the first time this has happened in New Zealand. Mack has chosen to talk about a facet of contemporary New Zealand that is way more mundane than Mack, as an American, could possibly be expected to appreciate. Mack, as a thinker, needs to appreciate this.

Place Three
Led by veteran politician Winston Peters — who has made racist comments toward immigrants and people of Asian descent and Trumpian abuse of the press — New Zealand First has traditionally been an afterthought in New Zealand politics. That all changed this past September, when the two largest parties finished close enough in the general election that whichever party New Zealand First decided to enter a coalition with would control enough seats in New Zealand’s German-style MMP (mixed-member proportional) parliament to govern. In other words, a far-right party that received just seven percent of the vote had the power to decide who would rule.
The reality is that Peters isn't Trumpian. He is basically as establishment as it gets. In fact, many people think (and the Spinoff agrees here) that Peters is ultimately a Muldoonist. State intervention is, to be sure, a reality of many far right positions (or, at least, those in the vein of Fascism, e.g. Nazism)
but Trump? Well, his rhetoric does appear to have big government elements to it... at least scanning these four links suggests that... but he was part of a campaign to get rid of the exact kind of "government looking after people" stuff that Peters loves, i.e. govt. supported healthcare. So, maybe, in this sense NZ First is far right... but we'd expect this sort of thing from centre-leftists! Or, you know, the largest party in NZ's governing coalition. What makes NZ First far right? Is it its position on immigration? Well, White Australia was a socialist position back in the day. And Labour were basically just as anti-immigrant as NZ First was this election... I have lamented this many times. NZ First clearly has a populist agenda and has been a key part of politics in NZ for more than twenty years. Mack doesn't say why NZ First are far right... they seem to rely on us thinking NZ First are Trumpian to make that leap. The reality is that NZ First, in NZ to NZers, isn't Trumpian... here, Trump is somewhat reminiscent of NZ First.

The way Mack talks about NZ First deciding who would be in government is also off. Yes, it appeared that with 7% of the vote Peters was basically dictating what was going to happen. The reality was everyone was talking about who'd give him the better deal: National or Labour. It was a weird situation. NZ First had to be bought, but it was being bought by two opposing blocs. Peters never had more power than the 9 seats NZ First won in the election. Not when it came to making a deal, he could always push too far, and not now that the deal is in place (logically it reflects the deal that was made... and because he is drowned out by 46 Labour 8 Green seats). Well, okay, he had more power than 9 seats strictly deserves but that was because there was no other option. In a world where Peters was on 6 seats and another party with 3 seats (2.5%... about what TOP got) were required (and National had a few seats less) a fairer representation of what those seats were worth would have eventuated. This is part of the issue with the 5% threshold. But Peters is a 9 seat man, and while he might be Deputy PM, does Cabinet make it look like Peters won more than 9 seats? No, it doesn't. And Cabinet is enormously powerful in NZ.

Place Four
The effects of the far right’s influence are already being felt. Amid pressure from New Zealand First, the government has vowed to slash immigration by tens of thousands
At this point, Mack links to an article from 20 October... talking about the enormous power of Cabinet, not imminent policy. Here's one from the other day, headline? "Ardern: No cuts to immigration coming just yet". Probable cause? We're wondering if maybe the brain drain is back. Or, you know, the immigration issue that occupied our thinking back in those ancient days when Key was elected the first time. Or maybe because Peters has always cared more about Grey Power than immigration and thus dogwhistles about immigration were vote winning tactics for both parties. It doesn't really matter. For now, it's not a concern. Trump jumped straight in with #immigrationban if you're wondering.

Place Five
All this flies in the face of Ardern and her “more compassionate” government’s outward progressiveness. But Peters — who took the roles of deputy prime minister and foreign minister as a condition of working with Ardern — and New Zealand First can end the coalition agreement, which would trigger the need for new elections. Put simply, while Ardern may be the public face, it’s the far right pulling the strings and continuing to hold the nation hostage.
I'm not sure we'd have to have a new election, but that's actually the point of the system... that snap elections and changes within parliament prompt a return to the electorate. Imagine if, in the US, the Obamacare-Repeal failures or all the cock-blocking by the Republicans during the Obama years or the reveal of the WMD lie had led to another election? A general election, i.e. getting rid of everyone at once? These kinds of mass changes in the way their government is being run ought to be subjected to electoral approval. And here's the kicker... if they were the parties would face different incentives. Were Peters to throw a hissy fit odds are he'd be blamed... and this would be reflected at the polls. The non-starter of a sex scandal with Len Brown blamed the whistle-blowers and Peters was thrown out of parliament entirely only a few elections ago after being blamed for its problems. An idiomatic commentator would understand how these points are different... and thus, unlike Mack, they would come to a different conclusion about what they mean.

Place Six
Appealing to ethnically homogenous, overwhelmingly cisgender male voters with limited education and economic prospects who feel they’re being left behind in a changing world is nothing new for the far right. 
Mack should know that Peters' voters are old people. I don't think this is the group NZ First targets at all...
But what is new is its savvy at exploiting democracy by doubling down on these voters while mostly allowing larger political parties to attack each other on their own, thus positioning themselves as “kingmakers” who can demand concessions from those larger parties before carrying them into power.
Of course, what actually happened was that in different electoral environments the big parties have explicitly refused to work with Peters (another problem with the previous place). And, on top of that, a good amount of thought was put in about Peters in the run up to the election. This part of the paragraph only makes sense in a very specific way... if you work from the same flawed premises of Mack, i.e. that NZ First are far right, generally neglected in NZ politics and that immigration was made a concern by NZ First, not Labour.



Now, it's pretty obvious that Mack is way off the mark here. But there were some trivial points of similarity. I mean, Trump and Peters really are both (elderly) political opportunists and populists. That's quite a reasonable comparison to make. It works. The problem with taking it further, and it is fairly big, is that Trumpism is all about rejecting the establishment... Peters has been a politician for decades. The problem with taking it to "far right" is that it's been done by an analogy, right? Peters is anti-immigrant and attacks the press. This is like Trump. It's like Trumpism! Well, yes, but it doesn't make it Trumpist. Everyone should attack NZ's press. It's bad at journalism and even worse at spelling. Winston Peters was making a specific criticism of the way the media covered the build up. Hell, parts of the media agreed with him! And being anti-immigrant isn't just motivated by racism... even here it is motivated by racism through house prices, which is quite different to the kind of anti-immigration rhetoric you get from Trump. NZ's election was, really, quite mundane. The immigration stuff was concerning but there is no bigger picture to link it too... except previous elections in NZ.

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