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Duds and Demons: Which Attacks Work, Which Don’t & Why, Part One

October 12, 2010 1 comment

For the first time in my blogging career, I am changing names to protect the innocent. And by innocent, it goes without saying, I mean guilty. (I am also evading self-Googlers — Fran Wilde, I’m looking at you). To help readers, I will place an asterisk  next to any piece of information that has been altered. Beyond that, I will leave it to the reader’s imagination.

The year was 1998* and I was helping out on the campaign of Dan Parker* in the middle suburban seat of Pineleigh* in Melbourne’s northwest*.

The incumbent Liberal (which means conservative in Australia, true story) was a talented* man* by the name Bruce MacHill*. The swing required to unseat MacHill* was around 4 percent from my hazy recollection. In the wider context of the ’98 election*, Pineleigh* was both a must-win and bloody-hard-to-win seat for Labor. Anyway, I was flicking through MacHill’s* files at the Parliamentary Library one lazy afternoon when I stumbled upon a report from an official overseas trip he* had taken during the previous term.  Accompanied by his wife*, MacHill* had embarked on a whirlwind tour of Rome, Paris, LA and the like, reporting breathlessly on each location as if he* were writing for Lonely Planet’s Junkets edition. No doubt MacHill’s trip took in a couple of official meetings to provide some skimpy justification for this stupendous rort, but MacHill* was too dumb or entitled to bother mentioning them beyond a perfunctory sentence or two.

I sat in the library frowning, not at all punching the air*, thinking to to myself “I can’t possibly use this. This isn’t gold”*.

A few hours later, I had produced a three panel leaflet made up simply of photos of the cities where MacGill* and his wife* had gallivanted, along with direct excerpts from the Parliamentary report itself.  The tagline read simply:

Hey MacHill!  Pay your own travel bill!

A day or so later, the leaflet had found its way into the letterboxes of Pineleigh, and MacHill’s outdoor signs were plastered with stickers that similarly requested that he take care of his own holiday expenses in future.

A week or so later, MacHill* was bleating at election night TV cameras  that his much-worse-than-expected loss was the result of dirty tricks and Labor Party hacks.

I had no idea about what or whom he spoke*.

___________________________

A current flap in the US midterm election campaign has brought this old war story back to life.  Pundits in the US are currently in a tizzy over the Democrats’ decision to target the US Chamber of Commerce over using foreign money to fund attack ads.  Obama spoke at length on the topic at the Philadelphia rally I attended on the weekend, and the issue was debated endlessly on the Sunday talkshows, including by the President’s chief strategist and grumpybum-in-chief, David Axelrod.

It is inevitable that the political gabbery in the US, who all live and work within a few blocks of each other, tend of coalesce around a singular point of view.  In the case of the Chamber and foreign donors story, it has taken the form of self flagellation.  Let me sum it up for you:

This is a non-story out there in real America, where real Americans live, work and raise their real American families.  This is a process story from inside the beltway that only assholes like us give a damn about.  Honest, decent folk don’t care about these inside-baseball stories.  Obama and the Democrats have dropped the ball on this one. They should be talking about jobs, jobs, jobs.

Right, left or centre, this is the overwhelming consensus among talking heads of this latest Democratic campaign ploy.

To quote Colonel Sherman T Potter, “Horse Hockey!”

Sure, the pundit assessment seems like a clever argument – and, in fact, it has the benefit of often being true.  The media and political elite often misread what interests the public in favour of what interests them, a sizable gulf.  Take the Valerie Plame/Joe Wilson/Niger uranium/Scooter Libby story.  While this intriguing DC scandal is such that it warrants a movie treatment (starring Sean Penn and Noami Watts), it is unlikely to have shifted a single vote among punters in the great American midriff.

But the same cannot be said of the foreign donors story and this brings me full loop back to MacHill and his travel bill.

The Chamber of Commerce taking money from foreign corporations and using that money to try and influence the election is precisely the kind of inside-story that resonates beyond the elites for the same reasons MacHill’s silly parliamentary travel report did:

  • It fits and amplifies an existing negative preconception among voters, i.e. MP’s are corrupt nest-featherers and travel rorters, and the perfidious business lobby favours foreigners and destroys US jobs.
  • It aligns with existing narratives:  MP travel rorts had dominated the headlines in Australia in the late nineties, and the political influence of the super-rich has  been in the spotlight since the US Supreme opened the floodgates with the Citizens United ruling.
  • It is gettable in a breath or less.  MP rorts travel.  Foreigners Corrupt Elections.  Easy, compelling, viral.

The Chamber of Commerce yarn works precisely because, to American voters, it is about jobs, jobs, jobs.  Jobs lost to outsourcing and sacrificed at the altar of corporate profits.  It is not much of a leap for a jittery populace to make the connection Obama wants them to make.

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The Age “Dirt Unit” Story Breaks My Heart

October 5, 2010 Leave a comment

From my current base in New York, I make a point of staying in touch with events back home, by which I mean both Melbourne and Wellington. I read voraciously, and social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter fill in the gaps. To invoke a geek-chic phrase from The Social Network, I consider myself “wired-in”.

But, in important ways, I cannot avoid the tyranny of distance. For one thing, all the surfing and tweeting and Facebooking in the world won’t replace the experience of actually being in a place when it comes to the important art of vibe-reading. Take the example of the Paul Henry scandal in New Zealand that I wrote about yesterday — despite reading blogs, newspaper articles and Twitter feeds on the subject, I know I am missing how the story is really playing; how it is interacting, so to speak, with the zeitgeist. This is a good example because the story revolves around allegations of racism, so it is inevitable that the published vibe is at odds with the actual vibe because everyone is tiptoeing around the subject.

This zeitgeist-reading problem is worse in Australia than New Zealand, I suspect, because their news outlets are far more interested in manufacturing the vibe through pushing particular political agenda and editorial judgments. Take Murdoch’s Australian newspaper which, if I were to read it at face value, would lead me to believe that the predominant concerns of everyday Australians are:

  • The conspiracy among climate scientists aimed at sending Australia back to the economic stone-age;
  • The plot to socialize the world by Obama and his henchmen on the Australian left;
  • The strategic shortcomings, tactical mishaps and endemic corruption of federal and state Labor governments;
  • Noel Pearson’s awesomeness.

This doesn’t match at all with the top concerns of Australians which are:

  • Housing prices
  • Footy
  • Master Chef

When I arrived in Australia in 1998, I thought the Age newspaper in Melbourne was spectacularly good. To this day, it is my default paper of choice — this is all but demographically pre-determined since I am an inner-city leftie with decidedly homosexual leanings. But, like all Age readers I have ever met, it breaks my heart every single day.

There is not enough capacity on the world-wide-web to contain the full extent of my disappointment at the Age newspaper, but Tuesday’s lead story by Royce Millar does a neat job of summing it up:

Labour unit digs up dirt

VICTORIAN taxpayers are footing the bill for a secretive operation run out of Premier John Brumby’s office aimed at discrediting Coalition MPs and Greens candidates in the lead-up to next month’s state election.

Shock! Horror! Call the Governor! Prorogue the Parliament! Ready the handcuffs!

I don’t want to dwell too much on this point because I trust it is obvious: conducting opposition research within a political office is not a crime and it is not even remotely newsworthy. If the public service, and not a political office, were using taxpayer funds to research opposition politicians, then Royce Millar would have a genuine scandal on his hands. If the Premier’s office were using resources to dig dirt on enemies within his own Labor Party, then stop the presses by all means. But accusing political staff of — what? corruption? — for undertaking run-of-the-mill opposition research should be of no greater news value than reports of birds flying, fish swimming or paint drying.

Millar has spiced up his piece admirably by the tabloidesque use of inflammatory language and sentences like this:

[The Premier’s Office] uses expensive corporate investigators to probe the affairs of political opponents, in particular Mr Baillieu. It is not clear who pays for this work, taxpayers or the Labor Party. Another possibility is that it is done free of charge as an undeclared donation to the Labor cause.

That last sentence is so naughty that the News of the World would hesitate. Another possiblity? He could add the sentence “a further possibility is that the work is being funded by narcotics and human trafficking” without making it substantively worse journalism than it already is.

As a taxpayer in a parliamentary democracy, I hope that all sides spend a good deal of their time and resources checking up on the other side. Perhaps if Royce Millar and his colleagues at the Age spent more time holding politicians to account, rather than “exposing” politicians for practicing politics and fluffing bullshit non-stories like this one, political staff could direct their focus elsewhere.

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Bolt Case and the Culture of Umbrage

September 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Am I the only person of the left who finds this kind of litigation chilling?

Fair-skinned Aboriginals are suing Melbourne newspaper columnist and prize tool, Andrew Bolt, for blogs and articles where he suggests they are less authentically indigenous than their darker-hued brethren.

Understandably, they find these comments upsetting…but a court-case? Seriously?

Andrew Bolt is a bombastic fool and a racist to boot. His “by-the-numbers” right-wing diatribes are more offensive to me for their lack of original insight than anything else. Each week, he resurrects some tired old reactionary trope and bashes its carcass to a pulp — femo-nazis, the PC ‘police’, indigenous politics, law and order, blah fucking blah. He is interminably boring and utterly predictable. If he must be sued, please make it for bad writing and stale thinking.

Suing Bolt in this fashion is misguided and dangerous because (a) it is a twin assault on freedoms of speech and the press, (b) it awards Bolt martyr points and fires up his ditto heads and (c) it seems to concede that the so-called victims can’t beat Bolt on the merits of his specious and self-evidently idiotic argument.

This culture of umbrage will envelop us all, and the left must disentangle itself from it. It is a dead weight dragging us under.

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Pell Pill Punditry, cont.

September 25, 2010 11 comments

Cardinal George Pell sits somewhere between “irresistible” and “too easy” on the ridiculometer. Like many gay men and/or virgins of his advanced years, he is a silly and fussy and anachronistic person. When you consider his outlandish costumes and fetish for arcane rituals, Pell, like most of his priestly colleagues, is not an actual person at all: he is an elaborately manufactured persona. He is an avatar in a carefully crafted other-world: Vaticanland. Like Hogwarts or Narnia, Vaticanland is an brilliant fictional construction, with its own rules and shared history, its own myths and shibboleths, its own secret rituals. By grasping this, we can begin to understand how Vaticanland fanboys, in glorious regalia, can debate for days — with straight faces if not inclinations — how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, or how long a dead, unbaptised newborn must linger in purgatory.

Mocking Pell, therefore, requires all the imagination and effort of teasing Dungeons and Dragons fanatics or making fun of Trekkie conventions: tempting, for sure, but hardly satisfying.

But Pell will insist on engaging in the “public discourse”, as if he feels bound to speak out on behalf of the “Australian Catholics” he “represents”. This tips his delusion status to extreme.

Australian Catholics, like their counterparts in other country’s where literacy prevails, are no more aligned with Pell on matters of philosophy, morality and politics than I am. Even on “deal-breaker” issues like abortion and pre-marital sex, Catholics in the US, Western Europe and Australia are slightly less inclined to support Catholic teaching than non-Catholics. They are more politically liberal, less prone to fundamentalism, and more respectful of science and reason than the general population. A survey reported in July that 57% of of Latino Catholics in the US support same-sex marriage compared to just 22% of of Latino Protestants. This suggests that “mainstream” Catholics are quite capable of adjusting to the real world when the lights come up on the once-weekly screening of Vaticanland. Pell himself acknowledges the daylight between Catholic teaching and mainstream Catholic opinion, but does nothing whatsoever with the insight.

Pell has a new ghost-writer — I am guessing male, quite young and easy on the eyes — and he has found in Murdoch’s Australian a newspaper willing to publish his little fictional forays. Pell should thank god that god does not exist. After his craven little effort on Saturday, Pell would surely be destined for an eternity in that corner of hell reserved for the rhetorically dishonest.

I will leave it to well-credentialed feminists to demolish the central argument — that the contraceptive pill has actually deprived women of economic and political power, based on a single article in a Vaticanland fanzine of no apparent credibility — and will comment instead on an area where I am feel amply qualified: Pell’s fraudulent presentation of polling data.  Here is the key sentence:

A May CBS News poll of 591 adult Americans found that 59 per cent of men and 54 per cent of women believed the pill had made women’s lives better.

This poll result is clearly presented to support Pell’s argument that, despite what you may think, the pill has been bad for women — because, he uses this finding to assert, women themselves acknowledge this in greater numbers than men (thus the 5 percent gap between the sexes). This is brazen bullshit:

  1. The poll itself concedes a margin of error of 6 percent for the sample of men, and 5 percent for women. With this taken into account, the percentage of men who believe the pill has been good for women is anywhere between 53 and 65 percent and, for women, between 49 and 60 percent. This is the dictionary definition of a statistical tie. It is sad and revealing that Pell’s ghost-writer would cling so gamely to such insignificant findings.
  2. Pell’s ghostwriter has mysteriously reported only the percentage who support the Pill — odd, given his overall argument. When you examine the poll, it is soon clear why: only 6-8% of women, and 9 percent of men, believe that the pill has made women’s lives worse; the rest say it has made no difference.  By failing to account for the “no difference” crowd, this was a misleading attempt to present the findings as if the public are quite evenly split on support for the pill, when nothing could be further from the truth. The CBS poll (in full here) is exhibit A in the case against the Pell critique, and his audacious and selective use of the findings is staggering. This is the intellectual equivalent of very loose morals indeed.
  3. Other findings of the CBS Survey neglected by Pell’s ghostwriter include: 99 percent of women believe it has either improved or made no difference to their career prospects, and 84 percent believe it has either improved or made no difference to their family lives. Both these data points are utterly devastating to the Pell-ghostwriter thesis, and go unmentioned in favour of one statistically insignificant half-finding.

It is pointless to ask the shameless to hang their heads in shame — and this goes for Pell, his twinky ghost-writer and the the opinion editor at the Weekend Oz who made the decision to publish this nonsense without questioning it even slightly.

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Pell on Pill a Piss-take?

September 24, 2010 1 comment

Has the Australian newspaper lost any sense of decency or has it been concealing a wicked sense of humor all this time?

In today’s Australian, they publish a piece by Catholic Cardinal George Pell’s ghost-writer arguing that the contraceptive pill has been bad for women over it’s 50-year history.

I will address the substance of the matter tomorrow by seeing whether exactly five minutes’ research on Google is enough to debunk each and every lame argument used by Pell’s ghostwriter.

In the meantime, there is a glaring judgment issue here: on what basis does the Australian think its readers need a lecture about sex from a Catholic priest, let alone sex involving females, let alone females old enough to menstruate?

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The Hardest Hard-Arse of Them All

September 13, 2010 1 comment

When told that certain muffins are as bad for you as ice-cream, the idea is not to eat more ice-cream.

Wrong lessons have been troubling me of late, since Saturday night’s Bledisloe Cup especially. I was struck by the extent to which Wallaby supporters were willing to infer from their humiliating defeat at the hands of a sub-par All Blacks all kinds of things except the glaringly obvious. It is canine-testicles to a non-Aussie that the result was a searing indictment on the Wallaby team’s myriad weaknesses. It further struck me that the whining about All Black infringing, and bluster about injuries and poor fortune, are more than just helpful fibs to salve the sting of defeat. They are actually inhibitors to improvement.

The ALP is undertaking a review into the recent campaign which is either (a) recognition that it was atrocious, and therefore an encouraging development or (b) window dressing and, thus, pointless.

If rumours that Robert Ray will head the review turn out to be true, then that is a tremendously good sign. Robert is by far my favourite former employer. He possesses both the most well-tuned — and the least tolerant — bullshit detector I have ever witnessed. His toughness is legenday — but, unike other former factional “heavies”, this is not the product of careful image management and self-instigated myth-making (think Richo, Conroy, etc.) To the contrary, Robert has not the slightest interest in having a public image at all. In the place where politicians usually keep their tender and enormous egos, Robert seems to store an extra brain.

A former Defence and Immigation Minister, as well as a devastatingly forensic and effective Opposition Senator, Robert Ray treats the media with unbridled disdain (except in the rare instances where he finds them useful). In stark, stark contrast to his snivelling and obsequiois colleagues, he never panders to power or patronises voters.

Steve Bracks, another erstwhile boss and former Premier of Victoria, is the other name bandied about. He is a smart and steady fellow — but he is Jimmy Stewart and this is a horror movie. Nice guy, wrong genre.

If the campaign stunk only midly, Bracksy would do nicely. But the scale of the debacle is such that it will take a person in possession of rare qualities: a peerless political mind, unwavering integrity and a gigantic pair of steel balls.

Since one of my many unwritten books is “Robert Ray: Mind, Integrity, Gigantic Steel Balls”, it seems obvious that if Labor want to learn the hard but necessary lessons from its dreadful campaign, then he — and only he — is the person for the job.

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The Lawyer

September 12, 2010 2 comments

If a team of Martian anthropologists ever wanted to study the habits of middle-aged and middle class white men, they could do a lot worse than observing corporate hospitality at an Australian sporting event. These shin-digs are like socio-cultural time capsules, and last night’s Legends Room function for the All Blacks-Wallabies game at ANZ Stadium in Sydney was a fine example.

Corporate boxes show us what the world would be like if it were exactly how wealthy white sporting enthusiasts wanted it — which is, of course, not entirely unlike how the world actually is. Women are barely present, except for the occasional second wife or pushy middle manager. Ethnic minorities exist only in servitude. Red wine flows like an angry, flooded river; food is simple, meaty and fast. This is a world where jokes never get old, and where sport, not politics or religion or gravity, take its rightful place as the central organising force of the universe.

It was here I encountered a man of such abject and unrelenting ridiculousness that no radio play could possibly do him justice — but I can only try. I shall call him Lawyer. He was on our table, and sat directly behind me once we took our seats in the stand.

Through the course of 80 minutes of rugby, he sledged for 78 of them. Nasty, incoherent, unfunny sledging, revolving around the following meta-themes:

  1. The referee, a South African, is eager to secure a favourable roster at next year’s World Cup and was therefore favoring the All Blacks because the head of the international referee panel is a New Zealander.
  2. Richie McCaw ought to be imprisoned due to his constant and flagrant infringing; the only reason that this doesn’t happen is (refer to 1).
  3. All ethnic stereotypes are essentially accurate, especially when applied to the All Blacks who only remain competitive because (refer to 1)
  4. Homosexuals are surprisingly well represented among New Zealand’s rugby elite
  5. Despite what you may think, New Zealand’s relatively poor performance in international cricket has an immense bearing on proceedings.

Other themes were less explicitly addressed, most notably:

  • I am a miserable, self-loathing alcoholic

It is not good form to counter-sledge a fellow guest on a corporate table so we resisted the Lawyer’s provocation admirably. Until, that is, the All Blacks had secured the most unconvincing kind of victory, winning by a solitary point. It was then my brother decided to collect his dues.

Corporate box hubbub, clinking and laughing, murmurs of disappointment, a touch of mourning.

BRO: So, how does if feel to watch your team lose a game in such a humiliating fashion?
LAW: What do you mean?
BRO: Well, you never should have lost that. We were shit, but we still won. I can only imagine how humiliating that must be, for you and everyone like you.
LAW: What’s your point?
BRO:
Humiliation is the point. Not to mention the inalterable fact that the All Blacks have beaten you on ten consecutive occasions. Do your ruddy cheeks burn with shame, or is that just too much grog and high cholesterol?
LAW: No at all. I mean…

Smug guffaws

LAW:  Do you know how many one-dayers the Kiwis have lost to Australia?
BRO: One-dayers? Are you talking about cricket?
LAW: Yes, of course! How many one-day defeats?
BRO: What? I don’t even follow cricket. It’s completely irrelevant.
LAW: Ha! See, you guys can’t face it!
BRO: Face what exactly?
LAW: NZ’s shameful cricket record.
BRO: I am talking about the rugby we have just finished watching. during which time we listened to you rant and rave  without pause for 80 minutes —
like an insane person.

LAW: What’s your point?

BRO: Take the pain, man.
LAW: What pain? I mean, what about the netball? The hockey! The Commonwealth medal tally! The better climate and greater resource wealth! Our comfortable lead on the alphabetical list of nation-states!
BRO: You are in denial. Just learn to live with the pain.
LAW: What pain? How many World Cups have you won?
BRO: What?
LAW: How many?
BRO: Well, we all know the answer to that — but it’s not even vaguely relevant. The point is you squandered an unbeatable lead to crash to your TENTH CONSECUTIVE LOSS.
LAW: Why are you avoiding the question?
BRO: What question?
LAW: About the World Cups! We have won twice as many World Cups as you. Why won’t you admit it?
BRO: The Wallabies will never improve unless you face up to your own weaknesses and stop clinging to past victories.
LAW: What’s your point?
BRO: The point is, the Wallabies are shit.
LAW: I know you are, but what am I?
BRO: Are you for real?
LAW: I can’t hear you!
BRO: Are you sure that you’re not a fictional creation; more archetype than anything else?
LAW: Sorry, I have to go to the loo. Still can’t hear you!
BRO: If you’re just going to the loo, why have you put your coat on?
LAW: I can’t hear you!
BRO: And why are you calling a cab?
LAW: Lalalalalalalala!
BRO: You bring shame to your people.

THE END

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