Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Extreme Rhetoric

Today in an interview [audio] with Radio New Zealnd's Brent Edwards, Helen Clark complained about the National Party's use of extreme rhetoric in its attacks on Labour. She then launched into an outright attack on National Party leader Don Brash:

Labour regards Doctor Brash as a corrosive and cancerous person within the New Zealand political system. From the time he became National party leader, he started his polarising, extreme attacks and behaviour. He tried to divide New Zealand down the middle on race relations issues. He was prepared to stoop to involve the extreme moral right in an election campaign. He has thrown around words and language which are simply unacceptable and have no place in the New Zealand body politic, and it is very hard to deal with such a person.

All of which is basically true. But "cancerous"? You can hardly complain about "extreme rhetoric" when you go around using language like that. Clark would no doubt hide behind the principle of "you give it out, you get it back" - and National has given out plenty over the last few months. But if the aim is to calm the political atmosphere and prevent a further degeneration of politics into new depths of viciousness, this isn't going to help.

Unfortunately, we're likely to see more of this. With Parliament basically deadlocked and neither major party able to enact substantive policy, frustration levels are rising. And as Chris Trotter pointed out back in March, this leaves them little to do other than tear strips off one another. Barring a major political realignment (which I really don't see happening), they're just going to continue to bite and savage and claw at one another for the next two years. And they wonder why politicians are held in such low regard...


I find Helen's words fairly hard to stomach on this issue. I would say that Brash has been justified by labelling the Labour Government corrupt. He said it outside of the House to ensure that Labour could take him to court if they knew they would win the case.

The Foreshore and Seabed issue and the Maori Party did more to split the country on race relations than Brash ever could.

As for the "it's hard to deal with a person like this" comment, that cuts both ways. Clark was grinning like a Cheshire cat when Mallard went personal and only got angry about it once rumours started up about her husband. Also Clark has been quite happy to sling accusations about the National Party without evidence and to try and intimidate the Auditor-General. I imagine it would be very hard to deal with someone like her.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/20/2006 11:59:00 PM

It makes me wonder whether some event has occurred to bring about such a u-turn, or whether she's just completely losing the plot.

Posted by Psycho Milt : 9/21/2006 07:43:00 AM

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator. Posted by dc_red : 9/21/2006 08:38:00 AM

Without wanting to play the "but you started it game", the one comment that stands out for me is Brash during one of the election debates, susggesting that Helen Clark was not a "mainstream New Zealander" and by implication neither was anyone who supported Labour. It is hard to imagine a more divisive comment.

Having said this, Clark should shut up now.

Posted by dc_red : 9/21/2006 08:40:00 AM

I think the word "cancerous" does aptly describe the angry right at the moment. This is the level of debate that has been prevailing since DB took over as leader of National and has deapened since the last election.

Just look at the comments on the DPF blog, many of them from National party members to get a feel for what she is talking about.

I heard Brent Edwards on the radio give an example of an image on the young Nat's web site describing Clark as a Darth Vadar Lesbian Overlord. Whilst this might be a funny prank in isolation it unfortunately represents the tone from what one would expect to be more mature figures.

Oppositions will often attempt to label a Government "corrupt" but in this case, by refusing to acknowledge their own very dirty hands during the election campaign National just look stupid and do nothing to further an issue that is in fact very important to us mere voters.

In reply to psycho, I think the u-turn will come when National ditch Brash which does not seem far off. The other day we had Brownlee claiming National had never called the government corrupt...

"accusing her government of being corrupt and telling lies. Well we haven't actually done either of those things..."

Don Brash this morning re-iterated that he thought the Government was the most corrupt in 100 years.

Not sure who Gerry's "we" refers to but it obviously excludes Don Brash.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/21/2006 09:28:00 AM

I think this signals that the attacks on her husband has signalled that Helen Clark has simply run out of patience with the U.S. style attack politics of the post-Orewa National Party. She has clearly had enough of the holier-than-thou pious hypocricy of whispering Tories and she is fed up - like the rest of us in the reality based community - with the exceptionalism of the vacuous self righteousness and simplistic bumper sticker sloganeering of right wing pundits.

Which brings me an interesting pause for thought. One of the difference between now and two and a half years ago is the growth of the blogsphere. Whilst the likes of this site (in particular this site - I have nothing but admiration for the effort and time that is put into this blog) and etc etc have contributed thoughtfully to debate from a liberal perspective, How much is the bile filled right wing blogsphere to be blamed for the current atmosphere? Lets look at the most mainstream right wing site, kiwiblog. Chief national party spinmeister David Farrar carries on like but butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, yet his widely read blog has a comments section in which he allows the most appalling comments to go unmoderated. It makes him look like an internet Ernst Rohm with a flock of S.A. style keyboard brownshirts who are allowed to spread destabilising and hate-filled mayhem in the virtual streets of the internet. He ought to to look at his own site and he should hang his head in shame at his part in the deterioration of political debate in New Zealand.

Posted by Sanctuary : 9/21/2006 10:07:00 AM

Noddy: there's no question that National is pursuing US Republican-style tactics of raising the stakes in order to whip up their base (to the detriment of our political system as a whole, I might add). That is a corrosive influence - but I'm not sure that calling the leader of the opposition "cancerous" helps to stop it. Quite the opposite, I'd have thought.

And OTOH pointing out just how vicious the rhetoric from National has been over the past few years is a good thing. But I really think this isn't the way of doing it. Point people in the right direction, point out that it is a vicious Muldoonist hatefest, and I think people will draw their own conclusions about whether they want it in our political system.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 9/21/2006 10:24:00 AM

Sanctuary I have been having similar thoughts myself, in regard to the role of the blogosphere. I note that there have been a number of bloggers who have continually raised concerns about this stuff, but to no avail - there's an ever increasing number of blogs I have simply stopped reading (or at least stopped reading the comments on) as a result of this culture - Rodney Hide's was the first I dispensed with, I don't often bother with Kiwiblog now and Just Left I don't read the comments on. Not to mention many of the smaller RW ones I dropped off my reading list at disgust with the endless accusations that Helen Clark is akin to Stalin and we live in a corrupt communist country. Even though I don't support Helen Clark or Labour myself this bile is stupid and unnecessary.

I keep thinking about the NPC final between Harbour and Auckland back in 1994 at Onewa Domain. It was the worst game of rugby I've been to - the violence off field fed the violence on field and vice versa until it became a very horrible place to be. But this political game has no clear end in sight, and with the blogs fulfilling the role of the drunken and violent spectators I suspect the egging on will sadly continue for some time to come :-(

Posted by Span : 9/21/2006 10:45:00 AM

Deane I have in front of me a copy of an article from the Manukau Courier dated Friday 25th August 2006. It shows a picture of Judith Collins and Allan Peachey, and two others who are not MPs, in front of a billboard put up out in Botany (east Auckland) with Helen Clark depicted as a "communist military dictator" according to the journalist. The billboard was removed by the Manukau City Council as it was put up on a reserve without permission. The picture that has been used is the same "Helengrad" picture frequently used by right wing bloggers and websites, including the Young Nats, and at one point during the election campaign last year I also spotted it on the main National party site itself.

This is just one of many many many examples of personal attacks by National people on Clark and other Labour figures. Yes there have also been Labour attacks too, but it is completely false to claim that only Labour have been making attacks. Do you not recall the National party TV ads last year that attacked various Labour MPs, including making fun of the speech impediment George Hawkins' has as a result of a stroke?

Labour may not be squeaky clean but National certainly has dirty hands too.

Posted by Span : 9/21/2006 11:23:00 AM

Span: Four years ago even the most mainstream of weblogs and online communities in this country were little groups of the like minded basically talking to each other. Geeks, specialist interest groups, the socially mal-adjusted, people with an axe to grind etc could find a little virtual community and say their piece without much regard for who else might be looking in on their quasi-private public space. The web has matured now, and it seems to me the key players like Mr. Farrar have to recognise the extraordinary mainstreaming of their sites means they have to shift their paradigm as to what they allow to be said online in their comments section. Everyone knows that a lot of MSM journalist read the likes of kiwiblog - Don Brash has posted on it himself - and the disgraceful postings of some of his contributors must have an impact on mental landscape of mainstream debate. Jordan Carter is another real life player who valiantly tries to allow totally open discussion on just left, but his comments section has been ruined by an infestation of extremists. David Farrar has done well with his blog. But he needs to take responsibility for his site, recognise it is read by a wide range of people and makes a contribution to at least beltway debate and clean out the lunatic fringe, they should be told to go and find another site. And if he doesn't, it would seem to me just another piece of evidence that the National Party has quite deliberately decided to introduce U.S. Republican party wedge politics as an organised tactic in the New Zealand political landscape. "Owning the electronic battlefield" is exactly what you would expect from people who look to Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter for inspiration.

Neil Morrison: I associate Farrar with Rohm because the online tactics of the U.S. - inspired right wing keyboard commandoes in this country bears a striking and uncomfortable similarity to the right wing street thug tactics, only brought into cyberspace. Its not acceptable for the person who allows that behaviour to Pontius Pilate like wash his hands of the consequences or get upset about the comparisons people draw. OK so there is some hyperbole there - but after all, you are known by the company you keep. If I sound excessively critical of David Farrar it is some sense a compliment - his site IMHO is important, and that gives his a greater duty of care than 99% of other bloggers to be mindful of his responsibilities.

Posted by Sanctuary : 9/21/2006 11:29:00 AM

Sanctuary: [DPF] allows the most appalling comments to go unmoderated.

That's not quite true. He moderated to protect Don Brash when the latter's affair was announced - but not for anything else (and certainly not over Wishart's story, or the regular references to those rumours in his comments section). It's his blog, and he can do what he wants - but people can draw their own conclusions from that about how happy he is with the poisonous atmosphere that prevails over there.

(And I allow my comments to go unmoderated. Mainly because I can't be bothered wasting the time on it. Fortunately, with the odd exception people here work hard to maintain a civil atmosphere - something for which I am quite grateful).

And to address the substantive point: I'm not sure that its blogs as such, though they definitely help. The demographic that National is pandering to and channeling has been with us for years on talkback radio, though broadcasting standards and station concerns about defamation kept us from hearing the worst of it. And the most objectionable themes used by National in recent years ("corruption" and "non-mainstream") have all been frothing away on talkback for years. Blogs remove the limitations (allowing the extreme right to give full vent to their rage), and add permenance (you don't need to be tuned in at a particular time), and make it hot and new. They also add the ability to get feedback, which National has used (remember the test run of the "iwi / kiwi" billboards?). We're definitely seeing an erruption of rhetoric from the sewer onto the political stage, but I think its being driven by a conscious decision by National to hype its base by appealing to extremists (which blogs give a better voice to), rather than pressure from below from the right blogosphere.

(While its tempting to say "yeah, blogs!", we have to keep in mind the stark fact that almost no-one reads them. Other than the big sites like DPF and Public Address, the total readership of the entire NZ political blogosphere is less than 5000 people (and that's probably being a little generous) )

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 9/21/2006 11:36:00 AM

I/S: 5000 readers? That hissing sound is my online ego deflating.

Posted by Sanctuary : 9/21/2006 11:47:00 AM

Like others I have stopped commenting on DPF's blog. One of the reasons the debate on sites like this one are normally much saner and more rational is because of the way the blogger (I/S) frames the debate.

Not only has I/S established his credibility as an independent voice he does not frame posts in a way that invites a strong and virulent reaction. This is not to ignore the fact that I/S is "Irredeemably Liberal" but it is possible to make a contradictory point without fear of being drowned out by a barrage of ridicule and invective...which I would call corrosive.

Blogs like Sir Humph and kiwiblog are set up to run like Talkback radio, provoke attack, invite an outrageous response. Does nothing really to forward sound political and policy debate.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/21/2006 11:52:00 AM

By the way, the minor parties are making hay. Good on them! Butter wouldn't melt in Winston's mouth ATM.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/21/2006 11:55:00 AM

This clip is timely...

The final quote "you're like a cancer on my life"


Posted by Anonymous : 9/21/2006 12:18:00 PM

I/S wrote:
That's not quite true. He moderated to protect Don Brash when the latter's affair was announced - but not for anything else (and certainly not over Wishart's story, or the regular references to those rumours in his comments section).

Um, let's draw our own conclusions about you from that comment. DPF shut down comments entirely, and considering the number of flat out actionably defamatory comments being made in a very short time (and not all defamatory of Brash by any means) what was he supposed to do?

And with all due respect, I think the tone and substance of politics would dramatically improve if there was a lot less finger-pointing and excuse making, and a lot more honest self-reflection. Own your own shit people, because as far as I can see you can't fit a cigarette paper between the loony left and the rabid right. And while I/S wouldn't agree, I don't think Labour and the left came out of a very ugly election campaign with entirely clean hands.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/21/2006 12:44:00 PM

Sanctuary: That's about the size of it - check out some sitemeters; other than DPF and Public Address, most blogs get very little traffic (I'm considered large, and I get ~750 a day ATM; the sewer gets ~1200. And most blogs do a hell of a lot worse). When you consider overlapping readership, the total size is quite small.

OTOH, there's a disproportionate number of politicians, flacks, activists, journalists and policymakers in that readership. Blogs have become part of the "beltway" I guess (not that Wellington has a beltway - unlike Washington DC where the term originated).

Noddy: actually, I think its just that I have lower readership, and therefore lack a critical mass of bile-spewers to drive everybody else away.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 9/21/2006 01:25:00 PM

Trouble: one of the problems is that the Parliamentary National Party is in part playing to that chorus of "barrackers and other hangers-on". And they have been explicitly egging things on - the infamous "Helengrad" picture was in the sidebar of the National Party website for some time. Now, imagine how loud they would scream if someone portrayed Don Brash in an SS uniform...

Craig: I'm not questioning DPF's decision to moderate his comments (and he did; after shutting down he switched briefly to moderation, meaning he approved each comment before it was posted) - I'm questioning his consistency. He does not tolerate defmatory material about Don Brash. At the same time, he tolerates (if not encourages) it about Helen Clark. Now, it's his blog, and he can do what he wants - but its hardly a principled position.

And contrary to your assertion, I do agree: Labour came out of the last election with very dirty hands. They violated the Electoral Act by overspending, and committed a corrupt electoral practice, and only escaped prosecution because of the laziness of the police. Unfortunately, the time limit for prosecution has expired, and the best we can do is fix the law to make sure that it does not happen again.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 9/21/2006 01:45:00 PM


Taking my own advice, please accept my unreserved apology for misrepresenting your views. I do, however, stand by the substance of my earlier comment.

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 9/21/2006 02:29:00 PM

Just as far as blogs go, I think any trend we're seeing is a result of two things: first, internet access is completely mainstream now rather than being the province of a more intellectual few; second, the the Greater Internet Fuckwad theory.

As far as DPF's comments go, I think it's unfair to blame him. There are a great many of them, and he's a busy guy. If he DID want to correct the poisonous atmosphere, and I agree it is pretty poisonous, it would be a great deal of work.

Posted by stephen : 9/21/2006 07:02:00 PM

I've been blogging for some years now under a psuedonym. I'm giving it up with this last post here.

I agree with Sancutary above. The right-wing has imported it's tactics direct from the Karl Rove playbook, it is poisonous and deeply divisive. We now are getting demneted posts on DPF's blog openly approving of the idea that someone should assasinate the PM. At this point I'm out of there.

What we need to do is consider how to counter it. Overseas left wingers and Greens probably have accumulated some real experience about what works and does not work, we should be tapping into their experience.

This is Logix's last post. I have come to the conclusion that anonymity is more of a liability than a benefit on the net.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/21/2006 08:44:00 PM