Monday, May 17, 2004
[A bi-weekly column critiquing student media]
Apologies in advance for those who got up before 9am on Sunday, and to those who listen to National Radio. I'm sure there's not too many of you in either category, let alone both. This column is derived mostly from a discussion on National Radio's Mediawatch programme where a rare glance was cast on student media by its professional counterparts. Not a long glance, but certainly a critical one.
Discussion swirled around the rebranding of Critic down in Dunedin, from newsprint to gloss. Their website even received a pretty makeover, including flash animation. Salient, part way through 2003, also upgraded their production values. All these improvements cost money. The topic for discussion: is this investment in appearance undermining the spirit of student media?
Salient editor Sarah Barnett, myself, and Chris Trotter, left-wing columnist for the Dominion Post and the Independent (the pro-business New Zealand version, not the liberal British one) were hauled out to discuss the issue. Trotter was editor of Critic in 1981, when 5,000 students graced the campus (compared to close to 20,000 now).
Trotter argued yes, student media has gone down the critical gurgler, albeit symptomatic of wider social changes. I argued no. Trotter had history behind him: The glory days of protest during the Vietnam War and the Springbok Tour. Taking a flick through the archives in any editor's office, and you'll find treaties urging Pacific decolonisation, even editorials against the war - the Second World War. (You'll also find potty-mouth-poetry, and reams detailing the joy of LSD.)
Judging from the response the week following Critic's shiny relaunch, Trotter may have a point. A vast majority of letters to the editor decried the new format. (Although, predictably, most complaints concerned how poorly the new version served as toilet paper.)
I guess the real issue is the potential of the medium. The constraints and pressure of commercial publishing means content needs to be popular, or else ratings decline along with income and bankruptcy results in silence. But student magazines aren't in a position to go bust. Their financial outlays are relatively minor, no plush buildings, few travel expenses, practically no paid staff and no exorbitant management board. (There's always students association subsidies to fall back on - and at around $4 per student per year, this is hardly a severe burden if spread amongst all students.)
Therefore there's real potential, on those pages, to push commercial constraints and boundaries. A recent letter to Craccum said they liked the 2004 edition because 2003 only aspired to be Listener-lite. While commercial media is required to be entertaining, student media can also be informative. Which is preferable: a Listener-lite, or amateur FMH? Or more pointedly; which is best for students?
It is important to provide interesting content, but the of raising what should be interesting but isn't right now shouldn't be underrated. The political issues (and dare I say it, the politicians) of tomorrow will come from campus discussion. Are dangerous dogs really our biggest problem? Is the Treaty irrelevant? Student media pages are a good a place as any to hammer these issues out.
Will a reliance on advertising, and a ramping up of production values, ultimately undermine what is an amateur forum where ideas drive the publication, not an eye on the bottom line? Let's take a look at the last two years:
During World Cup season last year, Critic, stonewalled by All Black media handlers, instead chose a foreign team to cheer, interviewing the captain of Uruguay. Craccum talked to John Pilger following his incendiary interview with Kim Hill. Need I mention the Helen Clark feature in Salient last year?
This year, after only nine issues, there has been some entertaining and encouraging signs of alternative commentary and dissent. A review in Latin of the Passion of the Christ in Salient. A strident (although raw) critique of the increasing commercialization of Auckland University in Craccum.
While the Sunday Star-Times took a simplistic approach towards explaining the rise of Don Brash in running a 'Don Brash-Pauline Hanson: Spot the difference' front page, Critic talked to a former leader of the New Zealand National Front – about why he liked the National leader so much. Brent 'Snake' Gebbie, Lower Hutt panel beater, was annoyed because he’d formulated racial policy long before the Brash "ever even thought of it." (Brash even responded with a letter to the editor - a sure sign student media is hitting a nerve.)
There is, however, less activism on campus, less call for revolution from student organs, and even less response from students these days. Chaff editor Anne-Marie Emerson says that "Today's students, the majority of them, have grown up in the post-Rogernomics era. A lot of them are cynical and seem to believe things like protesting are pointless." Trotter does seem to have a point. The great political battles seem to lie in the past.
Has the fire gone out of student bellies? Has the sea of commercialism washed over and eroded the revolutionary barricades of years past? Perhaps the last word is best left for Nick Henry who wrote in a guest editorial for Salient last year that Trotter and other "left" branded mainstream columnists have "taken on a particular function, to act as proxies for the establishment, the kneecapping heavies of the corporate media."
I guarantee the Dominion Post doesn't take that line. I'm not so sure about the Independent.
Friday, May 14, 2004
There has been a "slasher" roaming the streets of Cambridge in the last week. According to police, he rides up to women at night, using a knife to cut them across the face before riding off. Students at my college, Clare Hall, were sent an email earlier in the week advising us to be careful. It read, in part:
You will be aware of recent stabbing incidents in Cambridge and may know that an arrest has not yet been made. While not wishing to cause alarm and panic I believe it is prudent to think carefully about your personal safety at this time. Avoid walking or cycling alone at night - take a taxi or go with friends.Meanwhile, the Cambridge Union was holding what it had hoped would be a "controversial" debate last night on the topic, "This house believes Islam is the single greatest threat to gay and women's rights."
LP: Lord Periwinkle of Woodville, a suspected Cambridge academic, debating enthusiast, concert-goer, and friend of High Court judges. He is a corpulous, pompous-looking man, wearing a penguin suit with an ornate fob chain and a yellow, silk pocket hankerchief. He is holding a dangerous looking umbrella.
MA: Michael Appleton
Just outside the Cambridge Union building, last night, at around 7:30, half an hour before the debate was due to start. Skies are clear.
LP: [Walking out of the Union Building] The debate's been cancelled.
MA: Oh, really?
LP: They could have let us know earlier, and spared me the hassle of a taxi ride with a less than pleasant taxi driver. There are probably only two English taxi drivers left in Cambridge, who understand English ways and know to drive on the left side of the road. You know, I never used to be a racist before, but I find myself getting angry and racist. I'd really like to be able to conduct my day-to-day business in Cambridge with speakers of the English language who understand the British way of life.
MA: Uh-huh. So why was the debate cancelled?
LP: According to that little girl [pointing inside] with the big wine glass, they couldn't spare any police for security - they're all out looking for the slasher. A couple of them [the attacks] have happened in the Madingley area, where I live. I am getting a taxi home tonight, so it doesn't matter, but I have this [pointing to his umbrella, with a metal ring and stopper at the end] just in case. Though, he's supposed to be on a bicycle, and he creeps up on you really quietly, so I might not even have time to give him a whack. A couple of times it was just women alone, but there has been also one time when he went after a man who was walking with a woman.
MA: Uh-huh. So what does he do, just cut their faces?
LP: Yeah, all the people attacked have had to go to hospital. It has never been fatal, but it could easily be, if he got you in the neck or in the back. I was at a concert last night - and they were describing him as tall, wearing dark clothing, skinny, with a bandana around his head or his face - and the woman next to me said, "That describes my middle son." He sounds like a drug dealer, but the strange thing is that he doesn't do it for money or anything. So it must just be a real nutcase. But, yes, if he came up to me, and I had time to, I would definitely have a go at him [Gestuting to the umbrella].
LP: Actually, there's a funny story behind this [umbrella]. I have this friend who is a high court judge [said smiling]. But this was about twenty years ago, so he was a very young high court judge. We were having dinner down in London and I had this with me, and he said "Is that a defensive weapon?" He said he had recently sat on a case which was precisely about this - whether one can use an umbrella as a defensive weapon! He told me that when the case was published in the Law Reports, he would send me a copy. So when I received this case, I made a couple of copies - one copy went straight to my lawyer, and one went in my private papers. My judge friend said that if you use an umbrella like this as a walking stick, like I do, because you are disabled, then you cannot use it as a defensive weapon. Look at this [gesturing to the umbrella]! You can open it right up and sit on it. But of course my fat arse can't fit on it! I said to my friend that if I ever had to use it against someone who was attacking me, then I would just tell the court that it wasn't a walking stick, but a defensive weapon. It defends me against the rain! And, in England, that's a little every day.
MA: Nice to meet you.
LP: Yeah, nice to meet you. Have a good night.
Tuesday, May 11, 2004
I arrived at the station and joined the crowd hanging out around parliament. As it happened the battery on my camera ran out well before the whole march arrived (there were plenty of other photographers anyway) but I still have photos where the park in front of parliament looks full. In the end it was overflowing - there was no indication of what the police like to call "incidents" but my sympathy goes out to whoever has to tidy up the lawns and hedges.
It was big. The estimated numbers I've heard, compared to my amateurish guesstimates, vary from the high to the ridiculously high, but it was big. There was that community-mindedness you get on marches, knowing that a decent number of people agree with you about something, though in this case it was closer to town-the-size-of-Te-Awamutu mindedness. It's difficult to be with that many united people, even watching from the popular spectator spot in front of Parliament's church, without thinking they might have a point. I suppose that if I wasn't inclined to be influenced I wouldn't have been there in the first place, but in the end it really did feel as if the entirety of Maoridom had turned out to politely knock on the nation's front door and ask for their lawnmower back. It was big.
It was spectacularly Maori. I realise that won't surprise anyone, but this Dunedin boy was impressed by such a huge display of cultural vitality. In the circumstances it sounds patronising, but my generally sluggish patriotic pride was stirred by the uniqueness of a protest with haka going on all the time. Someone should cut a track of the call-and-response hikoi theme song, but my favorite chant was the charmingly maoringlish "Tahi Rua Toru Wha / What do we think about Parakura? / Hoha! / Hoha!"
And while we're looking at this from a whitey point of view, I'll also mention that I never felt personally threatened at all.
After a while I went and did some shopping.
By the time I made it back the crowd was breaking up in the rain but there was still a lot of them. I was also able make out what one of the speakers was saying, for the first time since the people in front of the march got down from their truck. As it happens, he was advocating that great bugaboo called Maori separatism. The idea of Maori publicly declaring that they've been betrayed by the current system and want one of their own must be a National strategist's wet dream.
Now, I was pretty sure the foreshore legislation was an alienation of people's real if unestablished rights for the unclear promise of probably insufficient compensation, basically unnecessary, unnecessarily complicated and tending to quasi-legal concepts like the lost and unlamented "public domain". Part of my ambivalence about actually protesting was the influence of Labour's communication strategy on the issue. Not the one about how we should move on and stop obsessing about victimisation and injustices such as, for example, how I'm grabbing your land right now. I didn't really buy that. The other ones, about how it's the best that the electorate will accept, and how one should consider the alternative. Previous Hikoi had an opposition more in line with their views. This one has National.
On the first point: this morning National Radio's Linda Clark (God bless her but she does have some interesting guests) spoke to James Flynn. Jim Flynn is Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at Otago, a former Alliance parliamentary candidate, mesmerisingly academic and enough of an expert on IQ issues to have the Flynn effect named after him. After the same discussion about IQ and genetics that (based on my experience) he often has with interviewers, Clark asked him for an opinion on the foreshore debate. He proposed an eerily simple solution.
Let the land court handle the claims. Legislate so that, if the court finding would confer the right to bar public access or to sell the land, that must be ratified by Parliament. That satisfies the public positions of everybody this side of National, and probably some people on the other side as well. Since National seems to think that the idea of customary rights under the common law was made up by the Labour government to satisfy their iwi masters, getting their backing on this one is pretty much out of the question.
And it wouldn't, of course, satisfy the recently-arisen political necessity of combating uppitiness wherever it appears. Sigh. Sometimes I wish we had actually had a debate about the Treaty rather than a bitch session followed by the government caving. I like to think it might have made a difference.
Monday, May 10, 2004
As part of the play I'm in this week, it's been my task to seek out old newspapers from the time and place - Australia, 1960 - the play is set. Unable to find actual, real Australian newspapers, I've had to settle for copies of The Weekly News, a Christchurch-based paper. One piece caught my eye:
FIRE AND RATS EAT HISTORYOn the one hand, the sentiment behind the Waitangi/Magna Carta comparison has a gravity and earnestness sorely missed in today's debates. On the other hand, the "eaten by rats" part kind of offsets the whole thing just a smidge.
Our greatest historical document of all, the Treaty of Waitangi, was lost for many years and found at last in some obscure drawer, well on its way to being destroyed by rats. We were more fortunate than we deserve. For although rats throughly enjoy a meal of parchment, it seems that they possiby do not like ink and only the edges, not the actual writing, had been nibbled away. And so, at least so far, we still do have the New Zealand Magna Carta.
- Celia Manson
It's also fascinating comparing the house styles of this old tabloid-size publication and modern papers, particularly as the Weekly News, on the whole, is a far more professional and well-put-together piece than Chch's daily paper. (Their cartoons, for instance, may be the sort of cryptic-crossword "satire" - "satire", in this case, being as defined by Dave Barry as "not funny" - lampooned in vintage Onion issues, but at least they're not the kind of vile shit that I have to force myself to ignore on a daily basis).
Seguing nicely from the above, the New Yorker has a fairly comprehensive (by which we mean, fairly graphic and unpleasant) rundown on the Abu Ghraib abuses, while Whiskey Bar has managed to dig up a firsthand diary from Joe Ryan, an interrogator versed in interviewing, golfing and euphemism.
There is nothing wrong with being an occupying force; that is what we were in Germany and Japan....Foreshadowing - ain't it grand?
Pay attention over the next few days. There will be some changes over here and we may be showing our "big stick."
And, in the interest of a fair and impartial cross-section of reportage:
After the prisoner began throwing rocks at the so-far unidentified soldier at a detention center last September, the GI defended himself by shooting his attacker, according to the New York Post.- Fuckin' commie pinko faggot nazi political correctness.
Still, in fit of political correctness [sic] that has hobbled the U.S. military almost from the outset of the Iraq war, the soldier was put on trial and convicted of using excessive force.
If this is three or more hours old when you read it, NZ will have a new Idol. Good for us. He’ll either be Ben or Michael, and he’ll have been voted for by thousands and thousands of "people", by which I mean "kids wasting cell phone credit they didn't even pay for". The Edge will start playing his version of the new single "Can't Take That Away", and it will probably go to number one for a couple of weeks. There'll be an album, complete with in-store signings at a Sounds near you. Then, suddenly, nothing else will happen. Like TrueBliss, he'll fade into the recesses of our fair nation's CD collections, and soon find his way into the dusty racks of Cash Converters with a permanent $5 sticker slapped on his cover.
Pop music in New Zealand will return to its old ways: the shelf space briefly dedicated to Ben/Michael (delete whichever doesn’t apply) will give way to imported crap, the NZ Idol TV timeslot will go to American Idol (because, you know, we need another one of them), and only a quota will keep anything local on our airwaves. The NZ Idol experiment will pass out quietly in the corner and leave nothing in its wake, except a bunch of smug music geeks quietly congratulating themselves on having predicted the whole collapse. I'll be there, but I won't be the only one filing away yet another historical example of shit music failing, proving once again that "real music" is better than, y'know, fake music. Then we'll start arguing about what real music is. And agreeing that it's great that we've still got genuine NZ music like Gramsci and Phoenix Foundation happening without a bunch of primetime hype. And arguing about whether we should take hiphop seriously, who's better out of The White Stripes and The Velvet Underground, etc., etc.
But something won't quite feel right. While my groupie-wannabe mates and I discuss obscurities only reviewed in the student media ('by ourselves', we won’t admit), we'll be willingly ignoring the basic truth that kids are idiots who like crap music. And, more importantly, they pay for it and they make it big business. It's true that there will be thousands of little punks out there that'll know every word to "Can’t Take That Away" and won't have a clue who Chris Knox is or what Flying Nun ever did for them - but just because it's true, it's not important. To assume that the presence of Ben/Michael takes attention away from decent kiwi tunes is somewhat ill-founded. If Ben/Michael wasn't being high-rotated on ZM, it’d be some fat black American with a shiny necklace, a big number on his singlet, and a hot chick singing the choruses.
It's not a bad idea to have grossly over-manufactured, cynically produced and entirely disposable NZ pop stars for the very simple reason that the other option is grossly over-manufactured, cynically produced and entirely disposable US pop stars. So while we’ve got a local equivalent out there, we might as well support him. Enjoy the little idiots shelling out for "Can’t Take That Away". At least a little more cash will stay in Aotearoa. Don't hold any grudges against Mr. Moment when he's performing in a shopping mall near you, instead rejoice in the fact that if he was to sing "Can’t Take That Away" in his real accent, he'd be censored from the first word. Look at the joy on the faces of the sheepy children's faces as they look up to someone from their own country for a change. Face it – pop music is fucking terrible, but it's here at least until compulsory military service from the age of 10 to 17 is introduced. So we might as well have fucking terrible kiwi pop music infecting our youth. And when it dries up some time in mid-July, watch the flocks turn stateside again, and remember how much better the days of the NZ Idol really were. Then email me with your opinion of which Pink Floyd album is the best, and what Greg Johnson has to do to crack the US market.
Postscript: I would pretty much be asking for death if I wrote an NZ Idol post and didn't let you all know about this here song, by an Auckland home recorder calling himself PDMJ. Don't be scared, it's actually good.
Wednesday, May 05, 2004
WELLINGTON - A defiant Helen Clark startled political observers Monday by calling hikoi protestors "hataz and wreckaz" and "bitch-ass niggaz".
"Playa hataz just frontin'," the Prime Minister told a press conference, before asking, "Can I get a 'hell yeah'?"
When her requests for a 'hell yeah' and her exhortations for the assembled journalists to throw their hands in the air failed, Clark went on to say she would refuse to meet marchers when they reached Parliament.
"They better chiggidy-check themselves before they wriggedy-wreck themselves."
Adding that meeting with protestors would cause "a great deal more distress to most people who want to see the issue moved on", Clark said, "The Prime Minister ain't about that."
Asked if he intended to "wreck the mic" upon arrival at Parliament, protest organiser Hone Harawira said Clark's comments were deliberately provocative.
Harawira also denied suggestions hikoi marchers were just hating on Clark because she is "top dogg".
On a more serious note, here's a prediction: Tariana Turia's sacking and resignation (despite reports, it wasn't an either/or situation) will re-ignite the 'debate' on scrapping the Maori parliamentary seats. (I write 'debate' rather than the standard, non-quote marked debate, because the discourse on the topic has previously been more like the swiftly automatic rejection of a suggestion than an actual discussion.)
So far, Turia's departure has mostly been discussed in the context of whether Labour will be able to hold Te Tai Hauauru and how the formation of a new Maori party will affect the Government's grip on power. For Labour, it's a 'rock and a hard place' deal: the rock being the 10,000+ hikoi marchers (photos here) and the people they represent, and the hard place being National's Orewa-driven rise in popularity. On one hand, you've got aggrieved Maori, on the other you have people who think Maori are getting too good a deal. In that climate, if Turia had resigned from a general electorate seat, her chances of returning would have been nowhere near as good as they are now. Obviously, the Government is already sweating, but if they manage to keep the confidence of the house (a notion National has struggled with) through the Budget, then surely National will use Turia's departure to highlight Brash's Orewa claim that the Maori seats are an anachronism, out of step with the times and with the feelings of ordinary voters.
Side note: Half a year before the last election, Winston Peters suggested indolence had "become the norm" in the Maori seats.
There's an amusing game I've seen played with NZ First and United Future whereby people have to name as many of their MPs as possible. The point being, of course, that people stuggle to name any of United Future's eight and NZ First's 13 except for Peter Dunne and Winston Peters. At first I thought a similar game might work for the seven Maori electorates, but it turns out that a majority of those MPs have a real profile, which probably means they're not indolent any more. For the record, the full list is Dover Samuels, Parekura Horomia, Mahara Okera, Nanaia Mahuta, John Tamihere, Mita Rurinui and, of course, Tariana Turia. (Here's a real challenge though: name the Maori electorates. Nah, forget it. Too hard.)
Sunday, May 02, 2004
Something strange happened to Lyndon and I on the way to review a movie. It was a bright afternoon, and the Sunday drive down Great North Road was brought to a halt by four tonnes of African herbivore. Dumbo, Auckland zoo's sole elephant, had torn down a tree and used the fallen timber to bridge a moat and cross an electric fence. Dumbo was free, running on the road, and eyeballing my Morris Minor like the autmobile was in heat.
As it turns out, we eventually made the film (although the usher didn't seem impressed with my excuse for lateness), and my encounter with Dumbo makes for an excellent intro. Shattered Glass tells the story of Stephen Glass, a writing prodigy in the US magazine industry. Glass had a flair for words, and a knack for finding colourful stories. He'd probably have liked the story of Dumbo, maybe have written something himself along the same lines. And, like me with this piece, he'd probably have fabricated the whole thing.
I don't have a car, I wasn't in Auckland, the elephant isn't named Dumbo (it's Burma) and hasn't escaped since January. Shattered Glass is based on the events of 1998 that saw cracks appear in the work of the uber-writer, and led to the most significant media plagiarism case of the 1990s. The issue has gained added poignancy after the recent affair of Jayson Blair at the New York Times and, to a lesser extent, USA Today's Jack Kelley. (Incidentally Blair was commissioned to review this film for Esquire, before word got out and editors pulled the plug on their "joke".)
Playing in two parts, the first gets into the head of Glass, played by Hayden Christensen. Yes, he is best-known as a young Darth Vader, but this role proves he won't need an encassing suit and James Earl Jones voiceovers once he grows up and escapes the Star Wars franchise. His portrayal of Glass nails self-pity, unchecked ambition and deep insecurity all at the same time. You want to believe him, and you can see why his colleagues backed him for so long in the officer cold war politics that built with suspicions over his work.
The second half sees the film change gear into thriller, as rival journalists sense there's something fishy, and begin digging into details. "There is one detail that checks out," says Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) who looks into a Glass story after his editor berates him for missing a scoop, "there actually is a State in the Union called Nevada." Unpopular editor Chuck Lane (played to understated perfection by Peter Sarsgaard) tries to cover his writer, but eventually has to move against the office favourite.
From journalists as warriors for the public-good in All the President's Men, to journalist as cynical fraudster in Shattered Glass. It only took one generation - and two very good films.
Wednesday, April 28, 2004
On Monday we had Gavin Ellis, editor of the Herald, in to talk to us. He started with Socrates' allegory of the cave, making the point, I think, that you can't get the Herald delivered to your cave unless you have a proper mailbox. Or maybe he was talking about most people seeing the world reflected in the media, like Socrates' cave-dwellers saw it as shadows on a wall. I forget. More memorably, he went on to talk about laudable ideas like not emphasising ethnicity in a story unless it is strictly relevant and being prepared to back up every assertion or statement in your article with evidence or reasoning (which sounds obvious, but try going through an article sentence by sentence), and then to touch on well-worn but still worthy topics such as the pursuit of objective truth. I don't mean to sound condescending, but it was nice to see that he thought cogently about principles, even if his paper often fails to live up to them.
In sharp contrast to Gavin was our previous guest, Clive Nelson of the Sunday News (who has the amusing traits of being English and named Clive. Y'know: it's like being an Australian called Bruce). He was speaking to us as part of a different class and on a different topic (the effect of layout on shifting units, as opposed to the elements of news reporting), but even so, his strictly pragmatic attitude towards his paper couldn't have been further from Ellis' highfalutin ideals. 93% of Sunday News sales come from casual buyers, Clive said. That makes the paper highly unusual in a marketplace dominated by subscriber-supported publications. What sort of thing appeals to the younger, browner, poorer Sunday News readership? What front page will convince them to make that casual purchase at the Pak'n'Save checkout? Something featuring "local celebrities in the shit", apparently. Or in lieu of that: NZ Idol and rugby league.
Clive was honest and open about the Sunday News, and to the suprise of some in the class, was not in the least bit ashamed of it. Among serious journalism students - some of whom, if they don't go into PR, will end up working at the Sunday News - Clive's paper has a reputation not much better than that of the NZ Truth. His attitude was refreshingly direct. Which isn't to say that Gavin Ellis wasn't direct; as I said, Gavin and Clive were invited to speak on different topics, so it's no surprise that they emphasised completely different parts of the business. If Gavin had been asked to talk about attracting subscribers he may well have taken a much more practical tone, and I suspect the very entertaining Clive may not have fared as well if asked to discuss abstract principles of reportage or the role of the fourth estate in relation to NZ Idol and the Warriors. Even so, it was fascinating how closely the two men mirrored the personalities of their newspapers. Gavin was much more solemn and dignified than Clive, who in turn was much more prepared to acknowledge the grubbier side of the industry.
And on an unrelated note:
Pet hate update: A little while ago I patted myself on the back for not confusing Armageddon with the end of the world in my feature on this year's pulp culture expo. TVNZ, I smugly said, had demonstrated themselves to be not as clever as me. This week I was further dismayed to read Alistair Bone's Listener piece, 'Geek Gods', which concluded with this line about the Salvation Army band:
This very band will play when Armageddon (the real one, with the four guys on horses), arrives like night.They would be the four horsemen of the Armageddon then, would they? Any relation to War, Famine, Pestilence and Death, the four horsemen of the apocalypse?
Update: This from Max:
Since I'm a philosophy grad who did a dissertation on Sacrates, I feel obligedWell if you're sogreats, how come you spell Socrates Sacrates? Sorry, that was lame. I was under the impression that because Socrates didn't leave any writings, we only know his thoughts through the reportage of Plato. Isn't there some confusion about which thoughts are Plato's and which belonged to Socrates but were written down by Plato?
to point out that, no matter what the editor of the NZ Herald says, Socrates
didn't come up with the shadows-in-the-cave analogy. It never really impacted
upon the moral and linguistic philosophy he spent his years annoying people
with. It was Plato's deal. Plato who used a character called Socrates to do all
the philosophising in his writings, but Plato nonetheless.
Update update: I am reliably informed that I am wrong on several counts. There is consensus on which thoughts belonged to Plato, and the caves are firmly his. And apparently, we also know about Socrates from Xenophon.
Tuesday, April 27, 2004
Machiavelli enjoys a reputation as an advocate of unscrupulous cunning which has been enshrined by the award of his own adjective, machiavellian. He's also a good paternity candidate for modern political philosophy. The latter description does him more justice, but it probably doesn't take much thought to realise that the two are not entirely unrelated.
Because Machiavelli, unlike certain predecessors who he does not name, took as his subject of discussion the way things are and what works, rather than the way things should be and what is morally right. If you listen closely you can still hear the echo of those fourteenth-century eyebrows rising.
Most people quote from The Prince, which contains most of the famous bits and is about being a monarch. I smugly prefer The Discourses, which covers republics, monarchies and tyrannies. Actually I only have an abridged version of both in one volume, but The Discourses is easier to navigate through because of the more informative chapter headings (for example, from book three: "Chapter XVII. A man should not be offended and then assigned to an important governmental post","Chapter XXVI. How a state is ruined because of women","Chapter XXXVI. The reasons why the French have been, and still are, considered braver than men at the outset of a battle and less than women afterwards").
Selective reading of the facts and the author can of course get you any conclusion you want. The Nazis had an enduring success demonstrating this with Nietzsche. More recently, one site that enlisted Machiavelli's support for the invasion of Iraq had previously concluded the Immanuel Kant would have considered Howard Dean "imprudent".
As to why we care, I'm not sure. It is of course nice to have someone famous for being clever agree with you. But Machiavelli's advice wasn't perfect even for the tortuously conspiracy- and war-ridden climate of the Italian city-states. And I don't think he has much to add to a discussion of the Iraq occupation that hasn't already been said. A quick skim of Machiavelli reveals that there were some things people knew even in the 1500s (I quote from the first book of The Discourses):
Chapter XVI. A people accustomed to living under a Prince maintains its freedom with difficulty if, by chance, it becomes free...Chapter XVII. A corrupt people which acquires its freedom can maintain its freedom only with the greatest of difficulty...Chapter XVIII. How a free government can be maintained in corrupt cities if it exists there already; or, how to establish it there if it does not already existI also include this admonishment from book two:
... But because these institutions when they are suddenly discovered no longer to be good have to be changed either completely, or little by little as each (defect) is known, I say that both of these two courses are almost impossible...
As to changing these institutions all at once when everyone recognizes they are not good, I say that the defect which is easily recognized is difficult to correct, for to do this it is not enough to use ordinary means, as ordinary means are bad, but it is necessary to come to the extraordinary, such as violence and arms, and before anything else to become Prince of that City, and to be able to dispose of it as he pleases. And as the re-organization of the political life of a City presupposes a good man, and the becoming of a Prince of a Republic by violence presupposes a bad man; for because of this it will be found that it rarely happens that a (good) men wants to become Prince through bad means, even though his objectives be good; or that a bad one, having become Prince, wants to work for good and that it should enter his mind to use for good that authority which he had acquired by evil means. From all the things written above, arises the difficulty or impossibility of maintaining a Republic in a City that has become corrupted, or to establish it there anew.
Chapter XXXI. How dangerous it is to believe exilesThe most famous Machiavelli quote is more of a traditional mistranslation: "the ends justify the means". What he was getting at (in chapter XVII of The Prince) was that sometimes a leader, though generally good in the traditional sense, must do bad things to maintain the state; and that, as long as the leader appears to be virtuous in all things, any actions will be judged by the populus on whether or not they succeed.
I know a president who's fast beginning to look far worse than machiavellian.
Update:I've just recieved an email from a "supporter of the misled and coerced" pointing out a very different Machiavelli reference.
I also remembered I'd missed out a bit from The Discourses (From book one again. Can you tell I haven't read the whole thing?):
Chapter XXXIII. WHEN A PROBLEM HAS ARISEN EITHER WITHIN A STATE OR OUTSIDE IT, IT IS SAFER TO DELAY DEALING WITH IT THAN TO ATTACK IT
... because those who try to do away with it almost always increase its strength and accelerate the harm which they feared might come from it.
Sunday, April 25, 2004
In what has to be the most daring piece of journalistic burrowing since Woodward and Bernstein, TV3 on Saturday delivered a hard-hitting, objective piece on American and British reactions to the 48 Hours item featuring new pictures of Princess Diana taken moments after the car crash. 48 Hours, of course, being the current-events arm of CBS News, who - that's right, it's time for a punchline! - produced the report 3 News aired.
Consequently, viewers were treated to justification after justification of CBS' actions, with neat little sidelines in ragging on the British tabloid press (which, really, is just shooting fish in the proverbial barrel) and pointing out the inquisitive nature of Britons who, apparently, will be gagging to read all about the whole affair once the fuss has abated.
Which, to concede CBS a valid point (if nothing else so they'll keep sending me Letterman), they most likely will.
While the debate raises many obvious questions about journalistic integrity and standards, not many conclusions of note were reached due to Americans being suddenly and somewhat violently distracted by an unauthorised-picture scandal of their own. While, by all accounts, the circumstances surrounding the controversial photograph were entirely above-board, and the photo taken in a spirit of respect and honesty, the same questions are being asked as in the Diana case. Are the families being respected? Is this journalism or sensationalism? Is the emphasis here on the human tragedy of the event in question, or the political ramifications?
The link above being to lefty-pinko-commie rag The New York Times, readers may have started formulating predictions as to where this post will go with these questions. And, yes, it is difficult to imagine the Bush administration not politicising the whole affair (of course, politics is an integral part of the whole debate; but there's asking, "Are we being disrespectful to the families of soldiers killed in combat?" and meaning it, and then there's The White House's version of the above).
The difference in the two cases, of course, is that while the Al-Fayeds may continue to attempt to prove a conspiracy in the Diana case, graphic images of the immediate event really serve no purpose so much as to satisfy morbid curiosity regarding international icons. It can't be easy taking the ethical high road knowing full well that as long as the images are out there, someone will publish them sooner or later, but as they used to say round my old high school, "the easy path is the easy path to hell". (Yes, it was a Catholic school, what tipped you off?).
The coffin photos, meanwhile, may well be painful for many (and they have my sympathies, for what that's worth), but as media coverage attests, many more families and loved ones of troops killed in Iraq want the images made public - for the same reasons anyone else in favor of publishing them would argue. Because we can't look back in five years' time and remember the war only as seen by the Embeds: wherever it is that the US (and the world) has got itself, only honest reporting, discussion and reflection on the situation will yield a positive outcome.
Saturday, April 24, 2004
I hate admitting it, but we owe Winston one. Now that “public domain” has been dropped from our shiny new foreshore and seabed legislation, he can take a bow. For those who’ve had their heads buried in the (somewhat contentious) sand over recent months, “public domain” was due to replace the Crown ownership that Labour wanted to ensure at our nation’s edges. It was designed to grant all New Zealanders access to beaches, but the difference between this and Crown ownership is minimal. The benefit of “public domain” was that this less colonial-sounding phrase would hopefully placate opposition to the policy. But it was either (a) a pseudonym for Crown ownership, or (b) entirely meaningless. And legislation, believe it or not, is never meaningless. This was a political dodge developed to put Turiana and co. off the scent – Look! It’s something so fantastic it’s got a new name! Remember when they replaced Mt. Cook with Aoraki, but it was the same mountain all along?
So the Government got its Crown ownership wish, with the added benefit of having Winston to blame. What we need now is for another semantic bun-fight to be settled, but this isn’t one NZ First is likely to jump at. What’s the difference between marriage and civil union? It seems that 2004 is the year we all suddenly realise that gay people form lasting bonds between one another. Welcome, finally, to a new dawn. Now what?
Marriage, of course, originated as a religious ceremony way back before anyone, even the Pope, can remember. These days, after the ceremony, the two parties swap signatures and suddenly what’s his is hers, the hierarchy of next-of-kins gets a quick shuffle, and so on and so forth. But all anyone really cares about by then is the cake. In fact, if you live together for too long, you miss out on cake and go directly to shared property. And you thought it was only drunk pop stars with fading celebrity that married by accident. If God’s not your cup of tea, of course, you can skip the bells and priest and just sign up for the rights and responsibilities. Thanks for dropping by the office, once the ink’s dry you may kiss the owner of half your stuff. What’s optional is marrying in the eyes of the Lord - it’s the eyes of the state that you have to be seen by.
Marriage, as far as the state goes, is little more than the signing of a contract and re-jigging of a few rights and responsibilities. The word may have other connotations, but they have nothing to do with law, and result from its religious origins. Now, it’s entirely fine when churches decide who is and is not allowed to be a part of their club. I never liked it when Mum told me to play with people that I didn’t like, either. But what isn’t fine is Government denying people rights that others can access at will – or have thrust upon them after a few years’ cohabitation – unless you’ve got a good reason. There’s no traction in the “real marriages beget children” argument, nor in some sort of flighty “sanctity of marriage” complaint. And “eww, you kiss other boys” doesn’t quite cut it either. So it’s pretty tough to sensibly deny gay people these rights. Recognising that, someone came up with the idea of civil unions, a sort of marriage-lite whereby the legal side of things gets cleared up and you’re allowed to act all married and stuff, just so long as you don’t go around telling anyone that you’re married. Hey presto #1: Gays still can’t marry – the sadly large stupid bigot proportion of the population is happy. Hey presto #2: We’ve all got the same rights, no-one can complain about discrimination, so the gay population should also be happy, right? Newsflash: this is as stupid as trying to replace Crown ownership with public domain. Allowing people to act as if they’re married and giving them the rights of a married couple makes them the equivalent of a married couple, no matter what words you use. Marriages and civil unions are, effectively, one and same. Just like the foreshore and seabed mess, the only benefit in using the new phrase is political.
So right now gay couples can gather crowds of friends, make promises to each other, swap jewellery, do whatever they want except sign up for marriage. Civil unions are a proposed fix, designed to not offend anyone overly religious, old, or stupid. This is a democracy after all, and religious, old and stupid votes are plentiful and predictable. But civil unions would be a guarantee of all the stuff marriage would guarantee, minus a contentious word. Just like “public domain” takes the “Crown” out of “Crown ownership”, this takes the “marriage” out of “gay marriage”. Pretending there’s a material difference is pointless. It’s time for someone to seize the legislation and get the simple words into it, regardless of PC bollocks. But with the old, stupid vote to be lost, this probably isn’t one for Winston.
Tuesday, April 20, 2004
Been reading. One of the perks of being in the media is browning noses with publishers, and I've been fortunate enough to land a hard-to-find copy by a book by one old (92 years old and counting) geezer; Studs Terkel. If his name alone ain't cool enough for you, this intro and interview in The Onion AV Club might persuade you to look him up sometime:
Chicago fixture Louis "Studs" Terkel has worked as an activist, a civil servant, a labor organizer, an ad writer, a television actor, and a radio DJ, among many other occupations. But since the 1960s, he's been particularly well-known as a world-class interviewer, a writer and radio personality who draws celebrities and, far more often, average citizens into sharing their oral histories and revealing the complex commonalities and differences that define human existence.A superb oral historian, his books from Working (which I made first year management students read to understand what work is really like), to Hard Times (stories from those who survived, suffered and even prospered in the Great Depression) and the Pulitzer-winning The Good War (the Second World War told by actual participants), describe wide social trends and movements through the experiences of those who lived through them.
But, as always, the joy is in the detail, the little stories that help flesh out wider themes seem to be worth a book to themselves. It's probably a reason why his interviewee monologues are often used by actors as audition pieces. Will the Circle be Unbroken, the title I'm presently devouring, tackles the subject of death and dying (suggested to Terkel by Gore Vidal). He talks to hospice workers, AIDs and cancer sufferers, ministers and cops. This, a gem from Tom Gates, a retired New York firefighter, formerly a policeman:
I hate guns. I wasn't a good cop because I used to walk around with no bullets in the chamber. I used to have them in my pocket and kid around saying if somebody starts in, I'll just throw the bullets real hard. [Laughs]Speaking of fire, I was reminded when talking to Greg Proops for the Listener (interview is off-line, sorry), that it often accompanies smoke. Before this segue, truly scraped from the bottom of the barrel, puts you off I'll throw in some lines from the headliner of the Comedy Festival that didn't make it into print. This, on California's anti-smoking laws:
A few times I pulled my gun on guys. One time I went on the roof of this project and there's this big black guy, about six-seven, on top of the stairs. He had his back to me. I said, "Hey, fella, turn around." He said, "Yeah, wait a minute, man." I said, "Turn around and put your hands against the wall." He said, "Yeah, yeah, wait a minute."
It dawned on me he had a gun caught in his belt and was tryin' to take it out. I said, "Holy shit..." So I took my gun out and said, "You fucker, I'm gonna shoot." He threw his hands up against the wall.
He had his dick out and was tryin' to zip up his fly, and there was a girl standing in the corner, which I couldn't see. So here was a guy gettin' a hand job and maybe a lot of guys would have killed him.
I said, "Holy shit, I coulda killed ya." He started shaking, and the gun in my hand was shaking like a bastard. I said - I musta been cryin' - I said, "Just get the hell outta here..."
That's when I decided to quit the force and become a fireman.
You can't smoke in a bar in Los Angeles, which is fairly ironic, considering how difficult it is to breathe outside the bar in Los Angeles. You don't want the door of a bar to fling open and let all that bad air go outside. It's a gradual noxification of our civil rights. I understand that it's bad in certain places - like a cancer ward. In a bar it seems to me you've got a lot on your plate. You're getting drunk on poison, and trying to have sex with someone you don't know. It's probably not the chiefest of your health concerns.And this, on the 9-11 commission :
This has been a PR disaster for the Bush Administration. I find it humorous their whole presidency is based on how great their response has been to an event they may have been able to prevent. It's like saying, "Remember when I drove the care into the lake? I was the first person to say we should pull the car out of the lake, right afterwards!" It's not winning me over.And for my next post: behind the scenes of investigative journalism, how you too can negotiate your way through and to interesting statistics. Such as: did you know 44% of all prisoners are Maori, while they constitute only 15% of the population? It makes you think.
UPDATE: The Onion has a decent interview with Rickey Gervais of The Office. And the Herald site finally put up my prison story.
Monday, April 19, 2004
I know a guy who collects old video games. Every time I see him, he proclaims loudly the latest archaic 1980's goody he's picked up, or if he hasn't found any, he reiterates how his collection of NES games now stretches around his mantelpiece. And he has some good fuckin' games, man. He's got Digger T-Rock. He's got fuckin' Excitebike. Thanks to my diligent digging styles, he's even got his very own Super Nintendo, which, in addition to (infamously) being the basis for something Sony made a minor impact with a whiles back, is unquestionably the Best Games Machine Ever.
But I digress. This fella, he loves him some old-school gaming, and good on 'im. He also, he's proud of proclaiming, culturejams as a hobby.
My boy's seen Culturejam. He's a radio student, where he's getting well schooled in the politics of the media.
So when people bemoan the current stagnant state of New Zealand media, I say to them, I sit them down and I say, "Listen. It's not all Paul Holmes and it's not all Mikey Havoc. There's a new generation out there, a bunch of hungry kids who're growing up fast, and won't be happy with Mike King Tonight and cheap crap produced by Touchdown for much longer. These kids, they're too media-aware to make the same mistakes as we're seeing made now. This new generation," -- sometimes I'll put my fist to my heart and stare achingly at a spot just above the horizon as I say this bit -- "they're gonna make a difference".
And I'm talking about my buddy when I say this. This guy who says he culturejams for fun, and what he means by this is he likes to sit in his room and change the logos so they say "Bugger King" and "The Whorehouse", while his main jazz is in paying good money to further someone else's brand far past its theoretical sell-by date. (Of course, if you're going to fork over your mindshare to anyone, Nintendo is a fine choice).
And ay, as some white guy said one time in some play about identity dysfunction among privileged white folks (with a nice sideline in Whitey's mad skillz in narrative-hijacking), there's the rub.
Because the whole image-colonisation, guerilla warfare, battle for the mind, memetic warfare thing, what good does it do either side if you keep it in your head?
Hell, forget my buddy. He's small potatoes. He's shooting at targets in his back yard and he'll probably never see real action, but at least he doesn't pay >$20 for a copy of Adbusters, right? At least he (as far as I'm aware) has not paid for the DVD, the poster, the t-shirt reminding everyone that he is not his fucking khakis. (Though it is a very nice digipak you get it in).
You can't, in this town, read your Chomsky or your Klein or even your Moore or Franken on the bus without being approached by people trying to get you to join their hare-brain revolutionary scams, which is usually just a segue into mundane talk about the weather, talk about the Government. Everyone has those fucking Hallenshirts with witty variations on popular corporate logos: "Enjoy Crack"; "Motherfucker - Every Time A Good Time"; "Fuck Motors". (Let's not start with the Che thing).
You blinked, and a nice idea - take back our voices and our eyes and ears and minds - became another ice-breaker at parties. (About the best thing you can say of "culturejamming" as the average citizen experiences it is that every "jammed" shirt on the street is one less You're Been A Very Bad Girl - Go To My Room or You're On My List Of Things To Do Tonight - hell, I guess jamming is blocking out at least one avenue of unwanted noise). And meanwhile, serious organs of media criticism had started getting really barbed (oh, the humanity!) in their characterisation of their opponents.
Yes, yes, it's just another truism - The Man Steals A Brother's Ideas And Runs With Them. It was inevitable, of course, and you don't have to be incredibly clever to spot it - hell, I can point it out, and I have trouble with how one guy can formulate the theory of relativity and do those dope movies with the baby prams running down the steps and shit.
But let's close with a final, much-lamented juxtaposition: The poet laureate of the 1960's protest scene, shilling unmentionables. Wouldn't it be the best Dylan lyric ever, if reality hadn't beaten him to it? I mean seriously. At this rate, it's looking like the revolution will be advertised.
So when I say that I feel some thematic connection between my personal attitude to the Lower Hutt produce market and sweatshops, you might have to bear with me.
I will, I admit, take any opportunity to disparage Lower Hutt in general conversation. Thursday night, for example, is late night shopping (as in, "and not Friday"), and the way it closes on Sunday. It suffers in comparison with Wellington, which is both inevitable (it's just down the harbor) and unfair (they're really just different parts of the same beast).
It's actually quite nice.
And one thing it does have is the Riverside Market, which sets up at the Weekend (in a good chunk of the area which on workdays provides all the parking that Lower Hutt could possibly want) and supplies fruit and veg to the masses. Apples and pears are 99c a kilo at the moment, though there was somebody selling huge bags for two dollars out the back of a ute. It's busy from early in the morning, there's a range of snack food and bric-a-brac available, but the thing that sticks in my mind, apart from "vast amounts of vegetable at wholesale prices", is the cosmopolitan mix of people.
I mean cosmopolitan in the sense of "from all parts of the world", but without the overtones of urban-ness or european-ness, and or course not in the sense of vodka with lime, tripe sec and cranberry juice.
The observation that gave rise to this descriptor was, "Wow. What a lot of brown people."
I should note that I recently moved up from Dunedin. There is a food market in Dunedin. It's called the Farmers' Market, held next to the Edwardian railway station and most notable for supplying locally-produced specialty food — boutique stuff at not unreasonable prices. It's mostly patronised by Dunedin's core population of white folks.
Not so in the Hutt. The crowd, the merchants, the vegetables and the snack food all show a real ethnic mix. Brussel sprouts, puha, taro, daikon, lemongrass and chillis in bulk. Maori breads, Island-style fried stuff and some people with a huge wok steaming pork buns. People drifting past chatting in languages I don't even recognize.
If this is any indication then the Hutt is just close enough to Wellington to attract people and just far enough out that immigrant communities can afford to develop there. The is borne out by the variety of ethic events I've seen since I arrived. In one weekend there was the annual Italian community celebration in Petone and in Lower Hutt the annual but eerily named "Racial Unity Day".
Now, I've never really understood what the beef is with immigration. I hold to the idea that interacting voices and ethnicities are what keeps a culture lively, and the more of those the merrier. My lingering liberal niggle is the sense that I'm only enthusiastic about it all because it means I get to go to all these interesting ethnic restaurants.
And at the market it took me a few visits to stop feeling like an interloper. My wife and I do feel financially restricted, but that's mostly caused by moving to the more expensive (apart from the fruit and veg prices) climes of Wellington. Basically, standing in the market I feel white and rich. But I technically local, it's not as if I'm getting any surly looks and my money really is as good as anyone else's. I'm supporting something I approve of and having an experience I enjoy at the same time as saving money. It is, in fact, a triumph of capitalism.
Although I have to admit that I don't have the faintest idea where all of this produce comes from. It's obvious some of it is imported, but it's unlikely that the ya pears were assembled in unventilated factories with no fire exits by people working for 18 US cents an hour.
It's a huge strain to suggest that the Dunedin market is a bit like buying local and the Hutt market is like having goods made overseas. It's probably just that I've been reading No Logo while under the effects of an infection (someone suggested I had all the skills for branding so I got a bunch of relevant books out of the library).
There's really another, far better-research post in this thought, so I'll just give you the punchline. New Zealand is gearing up to negotiate a free trade agreement with China. The Prime Minister has been said that labour and environmental standards will be raised in negotiations, Trade Negotiations Minister is optimistic that environmental issues will be included in any deal. I'm not against free trade per se, but unless China enforces labour standards in its export processing zones we will be competing with sweatshops. And until it recognizes a number of human rights, as of free speech and assembly, its labour market cannot be described as "free". It seems to be agreed that China wants the deal as an entree to the world trade community. I don't imagine they want it that bad.
Sunday, April 18, 2004
At Fighting Talk we're pretty brazen about self-publicity. As a twentysomething with very little gold and no pager, I consider it practically my duty to namedrop myself whenever possible. But when I do so, I'm open about it.
Guess where this is from:
Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings: "ham-fisted, shallow, bombastic, and laughably overrated," says one critic. "But don't get me wrong" ... moreThe 'one critic' was Denis Dutton, in the Herald, the Press, The Austalian, and the LA Times. The quote above is from Arts & Letters Daily, a website edited by ... Denis Dutton.
Why the anonymity? Even if Dutton didn't write that particular intro (judging by who readers are invited to email links to, it was probably managing editor Tran Huu Dung), why introduce an article by the site's editor as being by 'one critic'? The inference I draw is that A&L Daily would like Dutton's column to have 'must-read' status, and whoever posted the link thought that identifying the author would undermine that by making it look like naked self-publicity. Which it is.
Of course, it's not a major transgression - but it is a little odd. Amusingly enough, another of Dutton's articles - World's Worst Editing Guide - is listed among A&L Daily's 'Classics'.
On an unrelated note, one young journalist seriously underestimated the sheer commerce of this weekend's Armageddon pulp culture expo. Virtually the entire Aotea Centre was for sale. Still, at least I managed to avoid the cliches TVNZ used in their Friday night news coverage. Early on they employed a "not the end of the world" gag, which is a lazy reference and also plainly wrong. I was prepared to forgive that though - it's a common mistake, even if it is the same joke they used last year - but then the reporter concluded with the truly, madly, deeply lamentable pun "Armageddon outta here". As a member of the key demographic, I was aghast.
Which brings me to Serial Killers - did you see it? (If not, you won't have understood, but that last seque turned clevely on the word 'demographic'.) It was genuinely funny. It's great to see old Lionel back on TV (in a show that isn't Spin Doctors), and even the usually wet Dean O'Gorman was put to good use as half of a hilarious conversation about the narrative-enhancing possibilities of a jeep. After one episode, they've got a fan in me.