PMs just wanna have fun …

Lord Acton - 'Power tends to corrupt ... ' even horsing around?

Lord Acton – ‘Power tends to corrupt … ‘ Even horsing around?

According to John Key it was all just innocent “horsing around“.

It wasn’t, of course – as John Armstrong in the New Zealand Herald understands.

And Key knew that too. All his protests to the contrary amount to him pulling our collective leg.

So what was it?

As I’ve commented before, Key presents himself as someone who just loves to ‘muck around’. He’s such a relaxed, ordinary guy with so few airs that he doesn’t mind having a joke, pulling a prank and having others on.

That, at any rate, is the euphemistic self-description he – and his defenders – routinely trot out.

But there’s much more to his behaviour than that. And what the ‘more’ is tells us a lot about not only John Key but also our world in general and the New Zealand political environment in particular.

The Prime Minister’s supposed love of ‘fun’ actually has many aspects – pulling hair, pulling pranks, pulling rank and ‘pulling power’. It’s also now about ‘pulling a swiftie’. Continue reading

Posted in Democracy, Human Nature, National Identity, New Zealand Politics, Political Polls, Political Psychology | Tagged , , , , | 17 Comments

Seven Sharp, Campbell Live and TV Ratings – The ‘Nudge’ Factor

University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein  wrote a generally well-received book in 2008 called ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness‘.

It was an accessible assemblage of very well known work in psychology and related disciplines on the biases in human thinking. Interestingly, Sunstein worked for the Obama administration in the ‘Office of Administration and Regulatory Affairs’.

One of the biases highlighted in the book is the so-called ‘Status Quo Bias‘:

This is when people are very likely to continue a course of action since it has been traditionally the one pursued, even though this course of action may clearly not be in their best interest. An example of the status-quo bias at work would be when magazine companies offer trials of their magazines for free, but then, after the trial has ended, continue to send magazines and charge the customer until he or she actively ends the subscription. This leads to many people receiving and paying for magazines they do not read.

In the prime time television business, networks take advantage of this bias by vying for the ratings poll position for their evening news bulletin. ‘Lock in’ of the evening audience at this point flows on through the evening viewership (presumably with diminishing returns as the evening progresses).

Of course, historically the status quo bias also can be seen in what are termed ‘viewing habits’. In New Zealand, Television One (TVNZ) and its corresponding evening news, has had the advantage of establishing itself as the ‘status quo’ option simply because it was the first ‘kid on the block’ (or ‘cab off the rank’), historically.

In that light, it’s interesting to examine the latest TV Ratings (9 April) to compare the extent to which the two competing current affairs shows – TV One’s ‘Seven Sharp’ and TV3’s Campbell Live’ – have done in relation to taking advantage of the ‘status quo’ bias.

Raw ratings figures are from ‘Throng‘ with my own calculations of ‘Retention Rate’ (The inverse calculation might be the ‘Bleed Rate’):

  • One News 652,280
  • Seven Sharp 474,570
  • Retention rate = 72.76%
  • TV3 News 256,100
  • Campbell Live 214,870
  • Retention Rate = 83.9%

From the most recent figures at least, it seems that Seven Sharp has greater trouble taking advantage of the ‘status quo’ bias than does Campbell Live.

There must be something about Seven Sharp, in comparison to Campbell Live, that provokes its channel’s viewers to turn away – or turn off – in greater numbers and proportions.

When it comes to the ‘Nudge’ factor, Seven Sharp seems to excel at nudging viewers away from TV One.

I wonder why that is?

Posted in Economics, Free Market, Human Nature, Political Psychology | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

The politics of the empty tomb – Part II

[In Part I of this post I suggested that – even for the non-religious – there’s some interesting social, economic and political insights to be gained from considering the ubiquitousness of religion. More specifically, I claimed that the myth of the ’empty tomb’ in the Christian tradition provides particular insights. I argued that organised religion coordinates the activity of large groups of people and, perhaps as a side-effect, leads to the ‘symbolic self’ coming in to its own. Part II looks at the consequences of that enlarged role of the ‘self’, how modern societies further increase that role and what, therefore, the myth of the empty tomb might tell us about the way forward for a humane society.]

There’s a recurring ‘unintended consequence’ of giving the lead role in life to a ‘self’.

Mark Leary – one of the palaeoanthropologists I mentioned in Part I of this post – put it simplest in the title of his book on the subject of the ‘self’ – ‘The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life‘.

As the blurb for the book says,

Although the capacity for self-awareness is an essential aspect of human nature, self-reflection comes at a high price. Self-awareness and its accompanying egoism profoundly affect people’s lives, interfering with their success, polluting their relationships with other people, and undermining their happiness.

It should be added, of course, that some societies – like hunter-gatherer societies – actively deflate the self. Others actively enhance it and, as they do so, enhance the problems it causes.

There’s little that is new in this observation. But what kinds of societies enhance the ‘self’?

Well, I’ll cut to the chase. Societies in which individual fortunes are made through trade and exchange rely, fundamentally, on people having an intense sense of self.

It’s telling that when the famous philosopher and social psychologist George Herbert Mead was developing his characterisation of the self in his book ‘Mind, Self, and Society‘ he drew inspiration from Adam Smith’s analysis of encounters between individuals in markets. What Mead realised is that markets are essentially games in which individuals adopt roles (‘seller’, ‘buyer’). For markets to work each ‘player’ must come to understand the view of their role from ‘outside’.

In short, when two people are engaged in trade or exchange a basic skill is to be able to see ourselves as others see us – to take, as Mead put it, the perspective of the ‘generalised other‘ upon ourselves through understanding the general nature of the ‘game’ we are playing:

For Mead, if we were simply to take the roles of others, we would never develop selves or self-consciousness. … A role-taking (self) consciousness of this sort makes possible what might be called a proto-self, but not a self, because it doesn’t have the complexity necessary to give rise to a self. How then does a self arise? Here Mead introduces his well-known neologism, the generalized other. When children or adults take roles, they can be said to be playing these roles in dyads. However, this sort of exchange is quite different from the more complex sets of behaviors that are required to participate in games. In the latter, we are required to learn not only the responses of specific others, but behaviors associated with every position on the field. These can be internalized, and when we succeed in doing so we come to “view” our own behaviors from the perspective of the game as a whole, which is a system of organized actions.

Mead’s analysis of the self – and how it arises both in individual development and over evolutionary time – is fascinating and subtle. But the important point here is that selves are essential for playing the ‘games’ each society produces. And the more vital those games are to our survival the more we have to fine-tune our skills at being reflexive, self-aware selves.

The ‘game’ of the market is perhaps one of the defining games of our particular society – and it wouldn’t work without heavy reliance on the self. And the more the game of the market penetrates the social world the more the self dominates and leads the actions of individuals (as Mead argues, and as should be obvious, the self is not the same as the individual).

Further, Mead’s analysis shows that fundamental to the self is awareness of the view that the generalised other adopts to us in our roles (as, for example, mother, brother, shop assistant, captain of industry or criminal). To put it starkly, the self only exists by virtue of the judgments made of it by others. It is inherent in the very notion of the self to be under the microscope of the other.

And that’s not always a comfortable place to be.

Adam Smith – the original analyst and advocate of the capitalist market – was also clear about the fact that the pursuit of status through the accumulation of ‘wealth and greatness’ was a fool’s errand; but one for which he thought the rest of us should be eternally grateful.

As I highlighted in a previous post on Smith’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’, after a passage in which Smith details the delusional nature of the “pursuit of wealth and greatness” through the parable of a “poor man’s son“, he concludes that:

It’s just as well that nature deceives us in this way. This deception is what starts men working and keeps them at it. It is what first prompted men to cultivate the soil, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts that make human life noble and glorious, having entirely changed the whole face of the globe, turning the nature’s primitive forests into agreeable and fertile plains, and making the trackless and barren ocean a new source of food and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth. These human labours have required the earth to redouble her natural fertility, and to maintain a greater number of inhabitants.

I quoted the tale of the poor man’s son in that previous post but it is worth repeating here, slightly abridged:

The poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, when he begins to look around him, admires the condition of the rich. [What some call ‘benign envy‘] … He sees his superiors carried about in machines, and imagines that in one of these he could travel with less inconveniency. He feels himself naturally indolent, and willing to serve himself with his own hands as little as possible; and judges, that a numerous retinue of servants would save him from a great deal of trouble. He thinks if he had attained all these, he would sit still contentedly, and be quiet, enjoying himself in the thought of the happiness and tranquillity of his situation. He is enchanted with the distant idea of this felicity. It appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings, and, in order to arrive at it, he devotes himself for ever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness. To obtain the conveniencies which these afford, he submits in the first year, nay in the first month of his application, to more fatigue of body and more uneasiness of mind than he could have suffered through the whole of his life from the want of them. … With the most unrelenting industry he labours night and day to acquire talents superior to all his competitors. He endeavours next to bring those talents into public view, and with equal assiduity solicits every opportunity of employment. For this purpose he makes his court to all mankind; he serves those whom he hates, and is obsequious to those whom he despises. Through the whole of his life he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquillity that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it. It is then, in the last dregs of life, his body wasted with toil and diseases, his mind galled and ruffled by the memory of a thousand injuries and disappointments which he imagines he has met with from the injustice of his enemies, or from the perfidy and ingratitude of his friends, that he begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility, no more adapted for procuring ease of body or tranquillity of mind than the tweezer-cases of the lover of toys; and like them too, more troublesome to the person who carries them about with him than all the advantages they can afford him are commodious.

A fairly damning portrayal of personal ambition.

Yet, social and economic inequalities and hierarchies encourage just these sorts of ‘self-ish’ cognitions, feelings and behaviours. They encourage, that is, ‘ambition’, ‘aspiration’ and – if Smith is correct – a life spent in an ill-fated pursuit of the “mere trinkets of frivolous utility” known as “wealth and greatness“.

Work on human wellbeing supports Smith’s analysis. Materialism (the pursuit of ‘fame and fortune’ aka Smith’s ‘wealth and greatness’) is routinely correlated with lower happiness. The self – ‘fit for purpose’ when it comes to enabling personal ambition – suffers as a direct consequence of its activity.

Yet, such pursuits are just what selves – in the context of large aggregations of people structured into highly explicit status hierarchies – feed upon. They – and the psychological capacities associated with them – enlarge to the point that they can crowd out other less self-focused capacities. Such societies are like agar plates for selves.

Consequently, they are also agar plates for human anxiety and misery.

Intriguingly, the opposite is also true. The much-valued experience of ‘flow’ involves, amongst other things,

  1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. merging of action and awareness
  3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

The “loss of reflective self-consciousness” pretty plainly is the loss of the ‘symbolic self’ itself. There is also little room for the symbolic self when concentration is on the present (rather than the future) and where action and awareness are one.

These experiences that involve the loss of self are not just valued but, for some people, become the focus of their lives. And not all of those avenues to the loss of self are the positive kinds of experiences described as ‘flow’. From ‘blobbing out’ in front of the TV, through the glass or three of wine, getting ‘blotto’ and stoned all the way through to attempts (successful or otherwise) at suicide the modern pantheon of means to the end of the “loss of reflective self-consciousness” is quite remarkable.

In the economic language of the market, there’s a lot of demand out there for means to escape the self.

But, as they say, you might be able to run but you can’t – ultimately – hide. At least, many of us can’t.

The debates over the increasing rates of depression and anxiety (and other mental disorders) – which are not disputed – today tend to revolve around whether or not there is current ‘over-diagnosis’ (rather than historic ‘under-diagnosis’) and the possible psychopathologisation of ‘normal’ human experience. (Here’s an interesting summary of those arguments.)

What is largely left unsaid, however, is that ‘normal’ human experience has recently got grimmer. Not in ‘traditional’ terms, of course (e.g., absolute material wellbeing) but in more personally important terms.

In 1998, Martin Seligman (now known as the Professor who established ‘positive psychology’ but was then President of the American Psychological Association) had this to say:

Starting about 20 years ago, we began to do surveys of how much depression there had been over the century.  And we discovered two astonishing things about the rate of depression across the century. The first was, there is now between ten and 20 times as much of it as there was 50 years ago.  And the second is that it has become a young person’s problem.  When I first started working in depression 30 years ago — more than 30 years ago now — the average age of which the first onset of depression occurred was 29.5.  Essentially middle-aged housewives disorder.  Now the average age is between 14 and 15.  It is green [sic].  It has become a teenage disorder.  So the two facts about depression we need to keep in mind is that there is vastly more of it among Americans, particularly among American youth.

And the first thing I want to say is the existence of an epidemic of depression among young Americans is a serious paradox.  The hands on the nuclear clock are farther away from midnight than at any time since Bikini.  There are fewer soldiers dying on the battlefield today than at any time since the Boer War [This was pre-9/11].

There is a smaller percentage of children dying of starvation in the world.  Every statistic we have on the, quote, objective, unquote, well-being of young Americans is going north.  And every statistic we have on their demoralization, on depression, is going in the other direction.  There is more purchasing power, more books, more records, more education, and so the question is: How do we explain the worst demoralization we’ve had since we’ve been able to measure it among youth against a background of strong objective statistics on well being?

It is something of a paradox (and results in very hot debates between those on the right and the left of the political spectrum). Is life getting better all the time (and any increase in our experienced misery is, therefore, perverse of us) or is it, in some deeper sense, getting worse?

Closer to home (with a focus on Australia), Richard Eckersley has highlighted the same paradox in his article “Separate selves, tribal ties and other stories: making sense of different accounts of youth“. He also mentions the extra paradox that, while young people have a generally negative view of the fate of the world as a whole, they have, on average, a positive view about their own prospects in life.

Interestingly, both Seligman and Eckersley point the finger – in different ways – at selves.

The title of Eckersley’s article speaks of ‘separate selves’ and – interestingly in the context of the Göbekli Tepe discussion above – ‘tribal ties’.

Briefly, he argues that young people respond to the increasingly complicated and threatening world they find themselves in by, simultaneously, asserting their separate selves (and life trajectory) and increasing their ‘tribal ties’ to their peer group (e.g., through social media and large face to face aggregations). As he says,

We have barely begun to grasp the extent to which the world has changed, and how much globalisation and the media have expanded our spheres of awareness and so the range of influences on our wellbeing. As Australian psychologist Amanda Allan says, our relationships with time and space have changed markedly (Bradley 2003). ‘People are referencing themselves more and more in relation to global events, and social cultures beyond their immediate context.’ In Western societies, she says, there has been ‘a disembodying of what we consider to be our intimate frame of reference’, resulting in a reorientation of who we are in relation to others.

He could have been writing – with slight modification – at the time of the construction of the first site at Göbekli Tepe which may have been the first time at which Homo sapiens experienced “a disembodying of what we consider to be our intimate frame of reference“.

And these changes lead to complex outcomes:

For example, the Life Patterns study, which has followed a large group of young people since they left school in 1991, has found that as they approach thirty many still lead unsettled lives: changing jobs, renting, unmarried, childless (Dwyer et al 2003). The traditional pattern of a linear transition from education to work to marriage and children no longer applies. The break with the past is not sharp; rather the group is attempting to blend or balance traditional expectations with new life circumstances.

According to study director, sociologist Johanna Wyn, the post-1970s generation has made a realistic adjustment to an unstable world (Horin and Moses 2003). They value a multidimensional life based on self-discovery, personal autonomy, fitness and continuous learning; they are self-reliant and self-focused. ‘This is the new way of being an adult,’ Wyn says. ‘This generation is showing the rest of us how adult lives will be lived in the future.’

The positive aspects of this more prolonged journey include more time to explore and assess the demands of adult life, to sort out and balance for themselves their priorities for the future. Most – about 90 percent – express ‘real satisfaction’ with their personal development, believing they have made appropriate choices. But, as I’ve already argued, such findings can’t be taken at face value. Whatever the pluses of the ‘new adulthood’, the study also shows it comes at cost to many young people.

The young men and women in the Life Patterns study are a ‘success cohort’ (with most undertaking further education), but by 2002 they themselves had concerns about their health; less than 60 per cent regarded themselves as physically healthy, and a similar proportion as mentally healthy. They admitted the need for constant reflection, reinvention and flexibility required a lot of effort, toughness and self-confidence. There is sense of constant movement, ‘almost like treading water’. Maintaining the right balance in life remains a real challenge; life is still a struggle with uncertainty. And one of the consequences is a weakening of links with collective causes and identities.

Seligman delivers a different but related message when he considers the first of three proposed ’causes’ for the ‘depression epidemic’:

So first, the “I-we” balance.  America has always been an individualistic country.  But by the measures of individualism we have today, the “I” is maximal.  All our measures of individualism are sky high among kids today.  Now, there is nothing wrong with individualism. And it brings delicious freedoms in its wake.  But depression is, by all of our lights, a disorder of individual failure.  It is what commonly happens when you’re thwarted.  And the individual fails at the goals that are most dear to the individual.  Now, if you’ve got a big “I,” if you believe that “I’m the only important thing in the world,” “my successes and failures are monumental,” it sets you up for depression. At the same time, if you have a small “we”, — and that is what I believe has happened in the last 50 years — then you don’t have good buffers against depression.  Our parents, our grandparents had relationships, had comfortable spiritual furniture to sit in when they failed.  They had their relationship to God, their patriotism relationship to a nation, relationship to a large community, and probably best of all,a large and stable extended family.  All of these larger factors, all of the spiritual furniture, has in the last 50 years become threadbare. So I believe that the combination of a huge “I” and a small “we” is the first factor in making our young people such a set up for depression.

If you’re wondering, the second factor is the direct – and, for Seligman, misguided – ‘injection’ of ‘self-esteem’ into young people. The phrase says it all – increasing the ‘esteem’ with which one regards one’s ‘self’. Perhaps necessary in a world with so little ‘spiritual furniture’ as he calls it (’embeddedness in life’ might be another way of saying the same thing).

The third factor he calls ‘victimology’ – and guess who the victim is? (hint: the usual suspect). [I’m aware of the danger in the rhetoric of ‘victimology’ – that it legitimates structural victimisation of groups of people. For now I’ll let it go.]

As a psychologist, Seligman inevitably individualises the causes but a more direct way of characterising the process is through emphasising the social changes that lead both to the elevation of the self and to its immiseration. The ‘self-esteem movement’, as he calls it, did not arise from nowhere. It was part and parcel of the same social changes that have, generally, elevated and then psychologically crushed the self.

Through myriad means our world increasingly demands the pumping up of the self – and hence each person’s need to focus on their own self.

(Some of those means are quite deliberate. If you haven’t seen it yet, then the BBC series ‘The Century of the Self‘ is a must-watch analysis of the rise of PR and the engineering of the focus on the self, particularly the self as consumer – an especially modern variant of the symbolic self.)

As every bookstore testifies, we increasingly seek out help to ‘achieve our potential’, to become ‘highly successful people’, to ‘motivate’ ourselves, to gain ‘wealth and greatness’, to ‘set goals’, to ‘accomplish dreams’. Who we are and what we have is never enough.

We seek inspiration from business leaders and ‘motivational speakers’; we seek enlightenment and peace from spiritual masters in eastern traditions; we seek health and fitness tips from athletes and celebrities.

We want to know how to ‘live life to the full’ how to be ‘vital’, ‘energised’ and ‘productive’. Our lives, we believe, should be full of challenges, experiences, projects and passions so we set about creating and collecting them. Without them would ‘we’ even be alive?

In short, we live as if life were little more than being a self.

Yet, at the same time such a focus on the self and its interests can be life-destroying; especially in a world riven with inequality and social hierarchies.

The last forty years of global economic ‘reforms’ – including, notably, in New Zealand – have seen the latest ratcheting of our human world towards one that squeezes people further into psychological reliance on an independent – rather than interdependent – ‘symbolic self’.

As a result, we spend half our time trying to forge our way ahead, to fight – through considerable effort – to succeed, to ‘win’. We spend the other half recovering from the effort, immersing ourselves in consumerist consolations then trying to find new ways to motivate ourselves to climb back into the ring.

During those last four decades the rhetoric of the self has grown and we’ve been encouraged to see pursuit of its interests as the best guide to living life – think ‘aspiration’, ‘ambition’, ‘self-reliance’, ‘celebrating success’, etc.

A clear aim of the economic restructuring has been to reduce the opportunity for collective responses (political and otherwise) to our social and economic ills; there’s been the undeniable production of a more unequal world and the consequent turbo-boosting of the individual’s struggle to find themselves on the right side of that inequality equation.

All of these developments make life hard for the very selves we conjur up in order to survive in this world. The kind of self that our society creates in us (for its own purposes) is also the self that is most acutely aware of its social standing, of the effort to advance itself and of every failure to achieve in the eyes of the world and, therefore, in its own eyes.

It’s clear from mental health statistics and reports that for some selves – for some of us – life is not so much ‘hard’ as it is ‘tortured’.

Throughout history but especially now, we have, it seems, called forth ‘selves’ through our social and economic arrangements only to crucify them.

But it is not how it has to be.

And this I think is partly what explains the appeal of the ’empty tomb’. Our ‘symbolic selves’ understand the symbolism in the resurrection myth all too well – they are watching their ritual deaths.

What, metaphorically, dies on the cross is the all-suffering self. The resurrection myth is simply the promise that the death of self is not the end, that the self is not all there is in us.

All, in fact, very buddhist – all life is pain and the only release is to see through the illusion of the self.

[Strangely enough, as this BBC documentary presents, there’s apparently even a tradition in Kashmir that Jesus, between the ages of 14 and 29, was brought to ‘the east’ to be trained as a buddhist monk. He then returned to Palestine to preach, was crucified but survived. He travelled back to Kashmir and lived out his days until he died at around 80 years. His grave is supposedly in a village there. Fortunately, the doco dispenses with the rival ‘theory’ about the possible survival of Jesus – for that now debunked account just read Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code‘ or its slightly less fictional predecessor ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail‘.]

While many people interpret such religious myths in terms of personal salvation that’s not my interest here. In fact, if the notion of resurrection became purely seen (by each of our ‘selves’) as a get out of jail free card – i.e., the ability to keep being the all-consuming ‘self’ our society tempts and coerces us to be not only while alive but for eternity – then the myth will have failed in its principal task, to show us life beyond the self.

My interest in the ’empty tomb’ is in its clear political message whose origin goes right back to Göbekli Tepe when humans first started to organise themselves in these over-sized aggregations that now almost all of us live in.

The capacity to be a self is part of being human, of being a member of Homo sapiens. But like all evolved systems, those capacities don’t behave the same in every environment.

The political project, amongst other things, is to allow individuals to make use of those capacities in ways that produce a sustainable and humane human society. The ability to reflect on our thoughts and feelings makes us the exquisitely unusual social beings that we are but, in the wrong conditions that same ability can turn against us.

Being a self should, at most, be a part-time job not a full-time one.

And, politically, there’s only one way to ensure that – create economic and social arrangements that have little need for selves as we’ve come to know them.

Who knows, the myth might even be true – when we collectively kill our ‘selves’ we may just be able to get up and walk out, together.

And leave our current society behind  – as an empty tomb.


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The politics of the empty tomb – Part I

An advantage of a few days holiday is that it allows time to let the mind reflect and run free from the routine daily tasks it has to perform in work-a-day life.

Given the last few days holiday (‘Holy-day’) were about Easter I took the chance to think about religion, humans and politics. I should make it clear that I follow no religion and have no supernatural commitments but am not at all hostile to the religious sentiment. I find it intriguing – and very human.

One of the most intriguing things about religion is that it has been around for a very long time.

It has also been present in just about every (maybe, in fact, every) society and culture for at least the last ten thousand years.

That, in itself, makes it very interesting.

What makes it more interesting still are the many attempts to answer the general question ‘why have religions been so omnipresent in the human world?’.

Further, when it comes to Easter itself, the specific variation on that interesting question is ‘why is the myth of the empty tomb so appealing?’ (I accept that it is, and has been.)

But the question I’m interested in here is yet another: What might the myth of the empty tomb (and resurrection) tell us about contemporary society and politics? Continue reading

Posted in Freedom, Human Nature, Human Wellbeing, New Zealand Politics, Philosophy | 3 Comments

‘And then she goes and spoils it all …’

[I’ve awoken from my summer slumber and find I have a lot to write. Apologies about the length.]


” Then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like …”

Well, what was that all about?

As Colin Peacock said when he introduced the Mediawatch item on it, what exactly “put a Catton among the pigeons“?

Can it really just have been about a perceived lack of gratitude?

Was there really outrage over a supposed ‘Taxpayer funded middle finger‘?

Was it even remotely reasonable to call Eleanor Catton a traitor?

The answer to all these questions, so far as I can see, is ‘No’.

So – again – what was it all about?

Maybe this?

That is, did Eleanor Catton just ‘spoil it all’ when she said what she said?

If so, what did she spoil?

Continue reading

Posted in Democracy, New Zealand Politics, Philosophy, Political Psychology | 9 Comments

‘Everybody knows …’ the politics of dissimulation

“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died.”

Leonard Cohen

There comes a point in politics – and I think we’ve reached it in New Zealand – when it’s clear that political tactics and rhetoric become so cynical that they entirely part company with reality.

When that happens argument and facts ineffectively dissipate their energy in the face of the cynicism.

And, when that starts to happen, the best way to step back from the brink is not to argue detail and facts but, instead, to touch base with reality.

Simply, it involves re-stating, very plainly, and very firmly what ‘everybody knows’.

Or, even more simply, it involves saying, as Andrew Little said to John Key in Parliament, ‘Cut the crap‘.

Continue reading

Posted in Democracy, New Zealand Politics, Political Polls, Political Psychology | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Drawing the poison

It’s – more or less – thirty years since Roger Douglas’ faction gained control of the Treasury benches. It’s even longer since it latched its fangs onto the Labour Party jugular.

The bloody leadership struggle within the Labour Party since the election is pretty much an anniversary reminder that Douglas’ legacy lives on.

That’s because the poison that the Douglas faction injected into the Labour Party has never fully worked its way out of the Party’s system – for a simple reason: It has festered in the huge, dry crack the Douglas faction opened between the Labour Party caucus and the Labour Party itself.

That’s still the fracture that won’t heal, the wound in Labour’s flesh in which the bitter poison pools.

What we’re seeing is proof that the infection that was held at bay for a few elections (in the 2000s) by heavy-duty medication and tight bandaging has relapsed, spread and now is working its dark effects to the point of fatally sickening the party’s internal organs and, at some point, no doubt draining its lifeblood (members).

Perhaps it’s finally time for the poison to be drawn and for full-spectrum antibiotics to be administered.

Who knows? The patient may not even die. Continue reading

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Blowholes and memory holes

When whales were hunted in previous centuries, the old method was to spot the intermittent bursts of spray that were shot into the air when a whale came to the surface to take a breath.

The time gaps between these massive spurts from a whale’s blowhole depended upon the length of time a whale could spend under water. The longer the hunt, the more tired the whale, the shorter the time-gap between blowhole eruptions.

Here, then, is a ‘flash from the past‘ – one of the few times that this particular ‘whale’ clearly rose to the surface of the murky depths he normally inhabits.

My aim in this ‘retrospective’ is simply to make sure that what has been blown out of the ‘Whale’s’ blowhole in the past does not go down our collective memory hole. Continue reading

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We no longer have a Prime Minister

Having just listened to an item featuring John Key on Checkpoint (National Radio) I now have to announce that New Zealand has no-one at present performing the proper role of Prime Minister.

John Key could not have acted less Prime Ministerial if he had tried. Sadly, it’s becoming a habit for him.

Beginning at about 1min25secs in the audio (just below or in the link above) John Key manages to both trivialise the seriousness of the broad allegations that surround his government and turn these serious issues into the pettiest of political point scoring and the weakest and – because of what it says about his capacity to take responsibility – the most alarming of ‘challenges’ to David Cunliffe.

“But I think this sort of quaint little notion, but that there’s a lot more going on or that the left of politics don’t talk to bloggers, don’t do things, all the rest of it, it’s a lovely little notion that might be running around David Cunliffe’s head but it ain’t reality”

If Mr Cunliffe wants me to hold an independent inquiry into the actions of the Labour Party between 1999 and 2008 he should let me know. If he wants to do that, if he wants to do that, that’s all cool.

An inquiry into the actions of the Labour Party between 1999 and 2008?? What is John Key on about? Does he have some documented evidence (e.g., a well-researched book and a swag of emails) that suggest the need for a full inquiry into that period?

Of course he doesn’t have any such evidence. So what on earth do the nine years of a previous government have to do with the current allegations against the operation of the government he heads – apart from being the most transparent attempt to deflect attention and spread the dirt around?

It is argumentation at the level of the schoolyard – and it is coming from our Prime Minister.

And this was not a one-off lapse. It was part of a clear and disturbing attitude that John Key brought to this issue from the very start when the book was released and it is one that he continues to demonstrate.

In response to a TVNZ Colmar Brunton poll that found an increased proportion of voters believe the allegations in Nicky Hager’s ‘Dirty Politics’ book Key was quoted as saying:

The left have sat there and they’ve said we’re not going to win if we talk about the economy, law and order, health and education so let’s illegally hack into a computer and throw a bomb in.”

This is either a worrying turn to paranoia by John Key or an ill-thought out and completely incorrect and misleading utterance. “The left? “They’ve said”? “[S]o [let us] illegally hack into a computer“?

What is this monolithic ‘left’ monster in which John Key appears to fervently believe? What huge conspiracy does his fevered mind believe is plotting against him? Is it hundreds of foes? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Where do they meet? How do they communicate their wicked plans?

In short, where is his evidence that there is some combined and coordinated plot against him and his government? In fact, where even is his evidence that the person who hacked Cameron Slater’s blog is part of  this ‘left’ that he seems to see everywhere?

And what’s this claim about ‘the left’ having said to itself that “we’re not going to win if we talk about the economy, law and order, health and education“?

Has he already forgotten about the recent Leaders’ Debate in which, according to John Armstrong of the Herald, “[c]rucially, [Cunliffe] scored better than Key on the one subject where Key had the advantage – economic management.

Further, hasn’t John Key been taking any notice of what his opponents have actually been saying during the last two months?

In fact, just about all that the Labour and Green Parties have been doing is to announce policies over a wide range of areas.

Here’s Labour’s conservation policy announcement, its health policy announcement, its transport policy announcement, its family violence policy announcement, its NZ Power plan announcement, its tertiary education policy announcement, its plan to change secondary taxation arrangements, its policy to end homelessness, its animal rights policy announcement, its climate change strategy announcement and here’s Key’s own Minister, Simon Bridges, showing that at least he has been keeping his ears open as he responds to Labour’s ‘unemployment policy announcement‘.

All released in the last two months – most in the last two weeks.

Then there’s the Green Party – but do I have to go on?

It is not that his political opponents on ‘the left’ have been cowardly running away from talking policy (the ‘issues that matter to New Zealanders’) it’s just that John Key and his government have become embroiled in a continuing scandal that has turned into an extremely poorly managed crisis of his leadership and his Prime Ministership.

It is not ‘the left’ but, instead, the media who have been talking about – and asking Key about – these issues that have been swirling around and, clearly, swirling within his government.

And they’ve been doing it for one simple reason – they smell something rotten. As the poll linked to above indicates, so do more and more New Zealanders.

There is an evasiveness and complete unwillingness to acknowledge the seriousness of these allegations that now almost completely dominates John Key’s response to this continuing crisis.

John Key’s failure to acknowledge what is obvious to so many is completely to the fore in his embarrassingly ineffective evasiveness in this interview with Guyon Espiner (extreme evasiveness starts about 6mins10secs) on National Radio:

Is it OK?” Espiner asks repeatedly and simply; yet John Key refuses – repeatedly – to proffer a direct answer.

And, unbelievably, we hear the same evasiveness again in this interview with Guyon Espiner (starts about 4mins into interview) a mere two weeks later:

Was he your source for that story?” Espiner – again – repeatedly and simply asks. No answer from Key.

Let me summarise the point I am trying to make.

In all of these utterances the argument – for want of a better word – that John Key has been running in order to avoid answering questions about the allegations in the Nicky Hager book ‘Dirty Politics’ is so lacking in seriousness, so undignified and, most damningly, so evasive that it amounts to a dereliction of his duty as a Prime Minister.

The argument I’m referring to amounts to (a) ‘the left’ (whatever amorphous but apparently hegemonic grouping that amounts to for John Key) are conspiring in tight unison against the National government, and (b) ‘the left’ do all the things ‘we’ (i.e., the National government) have been accused of so let’s talk about them instead, and (c) this is all just a big beat up.

This argument, in all its evasive glory, shows that John Key no longer has the instincts of a Prime Minister.

I want to be very clear about this: These allegations that Key appears to want to avoid addressing are of the most serious kind. They are accusations about the use and abuse of power in our government.

Given that – and especially if they are entirely false – it was imperative that  John Key, as Prime Minister, should have immediately acknowledged – and still should now acknowledge – their seriousness and then address them directly and thoroughly.

These allegations go so directly to the heart of all that our governance arrangements are meant to be like that they have to be comprehensively refuted or, if true, entirely expunged from the operation of the government.

It is all about public confidence in the processes of government at the highest level. And, clearly, that confidence is swiftly declining.

It is not enough for John Key simply to dismiss these allegations with some kind of ‘nothing to see here’ and ‘it’s just a ploy by ‘the left” kind of wave of the hand. There are very serious, prima facie ‘cases’ to answer here.

John Key is, nominally at least, still the Prime Minister – and because he is it is imperative that he take charge of the process to respond to the entire set of allegations. To do anything less is to abandon what is perhaps the most important aspect of the role of Prime Minister – to maintain public trust in our system of governance.

What is most upsetting, and what John Key himself doesn’t seem to realise, is something that is becoming clearer and clearer by the day. It is also what may well be the most revealing and condemning aspect of his evasive responses and sweeping accusations, even smears, about ‘the left’:

He is sounding more and more like Cameron Slater and less and less like a Prime Minister.

Posted in Blogging, Democracy, Media, New Zealand Politics, Political Polls, Political Psychology | Tagged , , , , , | 31 Comments

A Tale of Two Tracks. Part II – Something new under the sun.

[This is the second part of a two-part post. In the first post I argued that our modern world is susceptible to ‘two tracks’ arising in all areas. In this post I argue that it is wrong to claim that what has been revealed in the book ‘Dirty Politics’ is just ‘politics as usual’.]

How is it ‘wrong’?

As I said, there’s a kernel of truth in the insight that ‘two tracks’ are a significant potential in our modern world.

But those two tracks aren’t inevitable.

‘Two tracks’ are more likely the more that politics runs along lines analogous to market activity. But they are also more or less likely depending upon the nature of some other important features of modern politics that can be changed.

First, the emergence of ‘two tracks’ depends upon distortions and/or interruptions in the flow of information.

And that’s where journalists – the media – come into the picture. I’d also hazard a guess that that is why journalists have dropped down the ‘trustworthiness’ rankings.

Most people have no first-hand information about political events or politicians. The modern media is the medium through which that information flows.

The information is ‘mediated’ by the media in the same way that knowledge of the world is ‘mediated’ by the senses and perceptual systems in Descarte’s view of how minds come to know the world. Information is selected, represented and transformed to produce ‘inferences’ (media ‘narratives’) about how the (political) world is.

Just as Descartes sceptically speculated on ways that his sensations, perceptions and, ultimately, beliefs about the world could be ‘delusions’ so have we all become suspicious about how the media represents the world to us. Yet that is our only representation of so much of the world that affects us.

All of which means that how the media report politics will, in part, determine the extent to which ‘two tracks’ can viably be established. More investigative journalists, for example, would increase the risk of detection of these ‘two track’ systems, should they be established.

By contrast, fewer journalists working to multiple tight deadlines to produce ‘copy’ in opinion columns, news articles, websites and appearing – incestuously – as ‘commentators’ on other media, or even their own, is likely to provide favourable conditions for the incubation of ‘two tracks’.

The book ‘Flat Earth News’ makes it pretty clear that, unfortunately, modern journalism, globally, is looking more and more like this. As an inevitable consequence it’s therefore becoming fertile ground for the operation of ‘two tracks’.

Harried under-resourced journalists who are stretched for time, encouraged by their managers to be entertaining and provocative in their ‘columns’ and to become mini-celebrities in their own right (which makes the profession appeal to quite different people than it used to) are less and less likely to forego the easy option of facilitating the ‘two tracks’. After all, the ‘two track’ set-up makes for easy copy, access to ‘leaks’ (aka ‘scoops’) and, as I said at the start, probably provides quite a personal buzz and ego boost from being ‘inside the tent’.

Second, ‘two tracks’ are most likely to be established in the first place when the costs of their discovery are low. Put simply, if ‘two tracks’ are discovered the reaction to that discovery determines the ‘cost’ associated with them being detected.

Perhaps the most practical response ordinary people can make to the establishment of ‘two tracks’  in politics is to condemn it with a passion whenever there are signs that is present.

This is one of the most obvious reasons why simply accepting that ‘this is just politics as usual’ is exactly the wrong reaction. It’s actually irrelevant whether or not politics has always been like this or not. Whenever the practice emerges into the daylight we have to punish it.

In evolutionary terms, deceptive ‘signalling’ is like an arms race between the would-be deceiver and the deceived. ‘Honest signalling’ only emerges where the potentially deceived evolve mechanisms of vigilance which, ultimately, make it too ‘expensive’ for the would-be deceiver to deceive.

That’s presumably why humans have apparently evolved a so-called ‘cheater-detection‘ mechanism: To identify those in the social world who try to get something (e.g., electoral advantage) for nothing (e.g., the risk of a backlash from negative campaigning) in instances of social exchange.

The most obvious outlet for that condemnation and punishment is the ballot box. It’s a crude instrument but, as with everything, you can only use what is to hand.

Third, a media required by statute to represent the public interest could ensure that journalists in the news media have less (commercial) incentive to participate in the dual world of the ‘two tracks’. This may not be possible to impose on private sector media outlets.

If that’s the case then it’s a very good argument for extending the number of, and funding for, independent public broadcasting and other public media. This could include supporting local and regional public – or at least ‘not for profit’ – media.

Unfortunately, such independent, non-commercial media have reduced over time in New Zealand. When I was young there were extensive and varied state-run radio networks (ZB, ZM, YA and YC – all operating out of regional bases). The ZB and ZM networks have all been privatised  leaving only Radio New Zealand National (the old YA) and the Concert Programme (the old YC). Radio New Zealand operates under a Charter.

Television New Zealand – while state-owned – is now run as a commercial enterprise (State Owned Enterprise) with, solely, commercial imperatives. It used to have a ‘Charter’ but that was removed in July, 2011.

Fourth, if, indeed, representative democracy is now morphing into some ‘market-based analogue’ of democracy then one option is to put the reinforcing rods of participatory democracy into its internal structure.

The more people organise themselves into neighbourhood, local and regional groups (enduring or ad hoc) to address the political issues that arise at those scales, the less likely it will be for a ‘two track’ political system to gain traction. People who organise themselves in this way inoculate themselves to the negative attack politics for which the ‘two track’ system is designed.

The reason for that is simple. People involved in this way have a more direct knowledge of political events and persons. They themselves become part of a ‘counter network’ (see below) that has its own informational pathways. That means they are less vulnerable to being swayed by the smears and negative politics that are regularly ejaculated from the second track of the ‘two track’ approach.

They know better – or simply know otherwise.

But there’s another reason why critics of Hager’s book have got it completely wrong when they claim that this is nothing new or, as Steven Joyce declared so quickly after the book’s release without reading it, “I don’t think that’s news“.

It is news, and it is new.

‘Two Track’ Politics

What is new about ‘two track’ politics is that it actually operates on three tracks.

As well as the division that Hager clarifies in the Preface to the book (quoted at the start of the post) between the leader who is ‘above politics’ and the covert, negative attack politics there is an additional track.

This is how it works.

The negative attacks (track two) are run initially in the ‘informal’ media. Here in New Zealand that includes unacknowledged ‘third party’ campaigning such as was tried by the Exclusive Brethren in the 2005 election (and is apparently being repeated this year) but also, as focused on in the book ‘Dirty Politics’, blogs such as Cameron Slater’s ‘WhaleOil Beef Hooked’ blog and David Farrar’s Kiwiblog.

These continual attacks, however, are run through these informal media vehicles in the expectation that they will enter the ‘third track‘ – the mainstream media. Even today it is this third track that has the most influence in setting the political narrative.

The mainstream media represents, then, the middle-layer in the representation of the political world to ordinary people. Politicians can do their own PR, put out press releases, do photo-ops and the like. The mainstream media dutifully report such PR efforts.

The ‘two track’ system Hager describes, however, jumps – informationally – from the politicians and political informants such as party operatives (‘hacks’) directly, and covertly, to the ‘informal media’.

The ‘informal media’ – in this scenario – has two functions. First, it ‘launders’ the information so that it’s origins are completely opaque. It ‘appears’ to come from the ‘informal media’ outlet itself – out of unspecified sources of ‘tips’ or through sterling, solo investigative work by the blogger. But, as detailed in ‘Dirty Politics’, very often that claim or impression is false.

Second, the ‘informal media’ outlet must have cultivated a network of contacts in the ‘official’, mainstream media (as well as a network in the political world). Without that network of contacts the informal media outlet would struggle to reach those people and voters who must be reached and who are the final targets for the information.

It is the overall network – a word repeatedly used by Hager – that is the embodiment of the ‘two track’ system. But, to repeat, it has three distinct areas within which, and between which, the information flows: The political world/government; the ‘informal media’ outlets; the mainstream media. (There’s also the business and, in particular, corporate world but, following John Dewey’s definition that politics is merely the shadow cast over society by big business, we can probably treat politics and business as broadly in an alliance built upon a co-incidence of interests.)

These days we hear a lot about ‘networks’ in all areas of life. It’s a bit of a buzz word, in fact, and it is the social version of the notion of ‘systems’. Networking can spell the difference between a successful project and one that barely makes it off the drawing board.

These kinds of networks are characterised by multiple, overlaid webs of interlinked actors (people), often informal in nature. They are fluid in membership (unlike some older networks like the ‘old boys’ network’). The new networks often comprise transient players leveraging off each other as they ascend (‘scramble up’) the status ladder towards some ill-defined goal associated with ‘winning’.

Given their fluidity, these networks can also dissolve and then reorganise using some old connections and some new ones.

It’s the kind of ‘network’ that underlies the ever-morphing and regenerating terrorist entities like Al-Qaeda. It’s also like the web of opportunistic links that happen in the business world as deals get hatched, people are introduced to each other and, then, deals get sealed.

Such networks, such ‘systems’, are quite resilient over time and so can serve many different purposes and actors as they fluidly reorganise.

Formal institutional processes don’t have the same flexibility and so can be repeatedly outmanoeuvred by these informal networks which can respond, almost instantaneously, as they react to new information and challenges.

The emails and other communications brought to light in ‘Dirty Politics’ give us a glimpse into these opportunistic political alliances that make use of these networks between politics/business, right-wing blogs and media. The traces are ephemeral but, like animal trails in long grass, the signs of their repeated use are clear to the trained eye.

This, then, is what is new.

This is why what is described in ‘Dirty Politics’ is not ‘politics as usual’. There is something new under the sun: The ‘three track’ network, enabled partly by new technologies and partly by the increasing insularity and interweaving of the world in which its participants operate.

It’s the emergence of a coordinated, rather than merely accidental, politico-media in-group whose lingua franca is gossip, leaks and petty stratagems. But, more importantly, it is the systematic operation and strategic use of that fluid network across the three layers of politics, mainstream media and informal media that is innovative.

That coordination and systematic operation has given us – consistently – a seemingly unending series of mini-scandals, almost always involving political opponents of the government. It is that consistency of target and similarity in modus operandum that flags the new mechanism.

One incident mentioned in ‘Dirty Politics’ but which Hager sees as a lesser example of ‘dirty politics’ actually is very suggestive of how extensive this informal network that generates negative attacks has become.

That incident involved an email sent inadvertently to Amy Adams’ office (Minister of the Environment) (pages 48-49 in ‘Dirty Politics’):

The executive assistant had sent out the invitation at 12:55 p.m. The papers show that Adams’s senior private secretary printed out the e-mail and only 10 minutes later, at 1:05 p.m., someone scanned it on the photocopier on the Beehive building’s fourth floor, home to Adams’s office, e-mailing it directly to ‘AJA’ (presumably Amy Juliet Adams).

Question time in Parliament intervened for the next three hours, then just after 5 p.m. ‘AJA’ forwarded the Labour Party e-mail to Judith Collins in her ministerial office two floors above. Notice that Adams chose Collins as the recipient. Collins had had it for only two minutes when, at 5:09 p.m., she forwarded the scanned document to Slater. By 5:21 p.m. the e-mail was posted on Slater’s blog. ‘David Cunliffe’s team isn’t off to a good start,’ Slater wrote.

As Hager writes, “Notice that Adams chose Collins as the recipient.” Why?

Were the two just ‘giggle-buddies’ who might share such schadenfraude? Or did Adams, presumably along with many other Ministers, understand perfectly that Collins was the direct conduit to Slater? If so, that suggests that the network for sourcing ‘dirt’ threaded throughout the Cabinet.

So how widespread is this network? How coordinated? How resilient?

In my view, ‘Dirty Politics’ exposes a thoroughly embedded network that threads like a mat of Convolvulus rhizomes through the body politic, the media and parts of the corporate world.

Time to apply some weedkiller.


And as I finish this post what happens?

John Key announces Judith Collins’ resignation. Why has she gone this time rather than before?

In a 2011 email from Cameron Slater to a group of people he ‘updates’ all on his organised campaign against the Head of the SFO (Adam Feeley). He speaks of Collins ‘gunning’ for Feeley who is her CEO given her position as Minister of Justice.

In that one email (included in the link just above – but also here) there is more fulsome evidence of the network I’ve just described than in any one incident reported in Nicky Hager’s book ‘Dirty Politics’. It mentions several journalists who are ‘running’ Slater’s ‘lines’ and describes clearly the coordination of an ongoing smear.

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