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Saturday, 14 July 2018

The Rule of Law

It's been said that there are as many definitions of the rule of law as there are lawyers, or, at least, constitutional lawyers. But everyone agrees it is a really important thing to have.

As I understand it, the principle of the rule of law is that everyone and anyone is subject to the same framework of justice and expected to live up to the same set of rules. That framework and those rules, obviously, are the Law. And because everyone and anyone is subject to the Law, we can say it rules.

So what about some other definitions of the rule of law? Being a layman, I shall compare my idea with Wikipedia:
The rule of law is the "authority and influence of law in society, especially when viewed as a constraint on individual and institutional behaviour; (hence) the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes".[2]
That seems... pretty much the same. It's got a very important bit in it about "publicly disclosed" (which I take to mean no secret courts and secret laws) and that's what I mean by "same," but it's probably important to explicitly state that transparency is part of the rule of law.

How about the misinterpretation of Magna Carta? The Rule of Law is often traced back to Magna Carta you see..
XXIX. NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.[228]
The problem with taking this to mean a rule of law was established by Magna Carta is that "freeman" had a very specific meaning in the 13th Century and the meaning was quite different to that we have now where it basically just refers to anyone. This is a generally important point, though. The way the Law works is that it is written and produced by a legislative body, it is followed by agents and the executive (part of government) and it is enforced by a judiciary. The process of enforcement generally means having to decide what a law means... and there is a fair amount of scope there. In New Zealand these interpretations are meant to follow what is termed the purposive approach:
5 Ascertaining meaning of legislation
  • (1) The meaning of an enactment must be ascertained from its text and in the light of its purpose.
  • (2) The matters that may be considered in ascertaining the meaning of an enactment include the indications provided in the enactment.
  • (3) Examples of those indications are preambles, the analysis, a table of contents, headings to Parts and sections, marginal notes, diagrams, graphics, examples and explanatory material, and the organisation and format of the enactment.
I say meant but I really have absolutely no reason to imagine that statutory interpretation doesn't follow this process in practice. Except, I was never really able to figure out how a person could be said to get off on a technicality. If you're reading with the purposive approach, the plain meaning of the text above is saying that the Spirit of the law is, in fact, the Law. Hence, no such thing as a technicality. But I'm probably confused on this point because I did just the one Comlaw paper and this seems rather more appropriate to the questions surely treated in an actual Law education. The real problem (with laws having to be read/interpreted to exist), therefore, is this bit (handy dandy quote from a PDF I've read basically none of that I found literally five minutes ago):
The constitutional importance of individuals being able to understand the law, and order their affairs accordingly, is a key tenet of any legitimate legal system. Lord Bingham relates it to the rule of law which he says requires, among other things, that the law be accessible and so far as possible, intelligible, clear and predictable.8
Unlike a lot of people I really don't think footnotes are optional, so I'll quote that too:
Thomas Bingham “The Rule of Law” (2007) 66 CLJ 67. Professor Lon Fuller, an American jurist, went so far to say that “law” would not be law if it was so unclear that it was impossible to understand: Lon Fuller Morality of Law (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1969). There is an extended discussion of Fuller’s eight criteria of law at 46–91.
Only lawyers could actually say these sorts of things. I think I'm a pretty smart dude but I really couldn't make head nor tail out of British citizenship law. And, similarly, the whole reason why lawyers exist is because the Law requires its own education. And that happens because the Law is its own (very narrow, if you ask me) way of thinking. That's been obvious for hundreds of years. I suppose, charitably speaking, what they mean is that you've got to be able to get a sense of what it says... which is certainly the case with our quote from Magna Carta (which, to be clear, is to a Medievalist a contract not a constitution, to a lawyer  a constitution and to the historians of Early Modern England it's something in between). But it must be said that the purposive approach ought to make the plain meaning of our quote from Magna Carta mean something actually opposed to the legal meaning. Do we have, therefore, the Rule of Law when we've got old laws sitting around?

This is where I think I will move from a half-arsed attempt at legal theorising to making an equally half-arsed attempt at legal-political theorising.

In New Zealand we have a government (the executive) which is part of parliament (the legislature) that we hold to be sovereign. That is to say that there is nothing one parliament can do to permanently bind another parliament and there is nothing the courts can do strike down legislation, at least laws that have been enacted correctly.

To my mind, if parliamentary proceedings have not been followed it is a nonsense to say that parliament exists and hence anything that such a "parliament" did isn't really a law (because it wasn't a parliament at all). Beyond this, though, I am completely comfortable with parliamentary supremacy. Indeed, I would argue that the alternative is forcing the highest judicial bodies to confront political questions. As an example, Brown v Board of Education over in the States was not a legal matter, but a political confrontation framed in "legalese." That's a gross violation of the principles of democracy (although, technically speaking, in the US their supreme court justices don't have to be judges/lawyers, but since they always are they don't get a pass).

Why do I mention this? Well, because I make the political argument that if a parliament has not repealed a piece of legislation that this is a tacit endorsement* of that legislation and, hence, the judiciary must continually understand legislation as it makes sense now. If parliaments are truly to be sovereign and the rule of law is truly to exist, every parliament accepts laws or gets rid of them... and if they accept laws they have a purpose to doing so.

The astute reader is probably thinking that the "sense" of a statute which has already been used in a court case is going to be affected by the way it was interpreted in that court case. Such a reader might also wonder if this means that the judiciary always has some kind of legislative (as in, law making) role... even without the common law. I agree (thus why I call such a reader astute).

The simple fact of one person having decided and stated a meaning of a text colours all subsequent thinking about the same text. From the strongest of disagreements to the most forceful affirmations. Every. Subsequent. Thought. The important bit is that parliament's interpretation is the interpretation (regarding purpose). And because parliament is the people and the people are the parliament old laws are thus not a barrier to the rule of law. So what if it is affected by the judicial interpretations of the past? This is simply the mechanism by which consistent meaning is achieved. No more. No less.

All this swings on that bit about predictability. I have some quite sharp criticisms of the Law and Justice systems, including its opaqueness, so the readability of the footnote is not something I want to bring on board. We cannot predict meaning and hence laws/legalness when we're meant to be reading from some quite alien experiences (i.e. those of the past): meaning is socially constituted (i.e. it's a product of the present moment and continually updating at that). This is simply how reading and understanding work.

When I was younger I was quite sympathetic to the flag change cause and also to the other view... to my understanding, I have presented a "living" statute/constitution argument so the other view would be originalism. These days, obviously, I disagree with both; holding them to be immature and childish... the former motivated by that childish concern with what others think and originalism the classic "but teacher said" immaturity. Hopefully it should be clear that I have implicitly suggested that a problem with originalism is that it is inconsistent with the rule of law, creating caprice and unfairness instead of justice through the availability of unpredictable meanings. It might likewise be said to rely on naive ideas about reading (ignoring the every. subsequent. thought. point quite entirely).

The thing is that as far as I can tell Originalism is an American thing. Which is appropriate because what has motivated this post is the question of whether or not the rule of law can be said to exist in the United States at all. Not because Originalist interpretations occur there (that is, as it were, something I discovered in the course of developing the ideal segue) but because no-one is sure if a sitting US president can be charged with a crime and subjected to prosecution.
It is undisputed, according to legal experts, that litigation over obstruction of justice or defamation could proceed after Trump leaves office. But the question of whether the president can be sued or prosecuted while in office is murkier.
I'm afraid this is just incompatible with the rule of law. If the rule of law truly was a feature of American society it would not be a question but a known fact that the US president could be charged and prosecuted. This is what the rule of law means... and it is what I cam to talk about. The Rule of Law does not exist in United States of America... and they might appoint a dude to SCOTUS who actively argues against it). Mental.

The rule of law should exist. The idea that everyone is subject to the Law is immensely reassuring, it's what lets us know that if we managed to get the coin together we might be able to go to a court and get a just outcome. The rule of law is a fundamental assumption we make in predicting human behaviour, without confidence that it exists it's hard to see the Law as a tool.. a means of getting things done. The rule of law lets is a fundamental presumption about society, and an eminently defensible one. The USA's ambivalence to it is another nail in a coffin that, these days, is surely mostly metal.


* In the common law it is actually assumed that silence cannot mean anything other than silence (there was a case about a horse, I think). This is generally more sensible and you might have seen one of the issues that arises with using silence to infer meaning. Notice how I seemingly want it two ways. Laws can be invalid if they are made by invalid parliaments, but if they aren't subsequently repealed by later parliaments then these parliaments are saying that the laws are, in fact, real. The reconciliation is simply that these were never laws at all. The later parliaments might want to have these laws around but they can't without actually making the Law in the first place. I have started from the premise that a parliament is also the way it says it will make laws; never actually making a law is not one of the ways any parliament has ever said it will make laws. This gives room for a court to come along years later and say, "Woah, hold on guys, that's not a real law, you didn't have a parliament there".

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Feminism's Perspective

In certain discussions you'll often hear people say, "It's always the same with you isn't it? What about the men?" The point being made is that it should be possible to talk about inequalities toward women without considering men at the same time. That sounds reasonable, right?

Changing society is not a particularly easy thing to do. Sometimes you come along and people are just in the mood for change. There's something that's going which is so big and so unpopular that everyone's got a sense that the world's broken. All you have to do then is just show them how. But usually you've got to do more than have catchy slogans and the perfect pictures. Usually you've got to present the thinking and studying you've done to people (because, make no mistake, even when it's "easier" you've got this). And how can you do that if you're always getting distracted by other issues? "What about..."

There is another way of looking at things, though. And that's to say if you don't consider everything then you end up with bad outcomes. A lot of American centred discussions of gender inequality will bring up the CDC's definition of rape. That was changed some years ago to reflect feminist advocacy for change. Unfortunately, what happened is that most male rape victims don't count as rape victims under the new definition: the concept of raping is different when the victim is male or female. Even worse, because the definition was changed, there is far less impetus to change it again because a lot of people, metaphorically, went home, job done. (See pg. 13, column 2, bottom of page.)

I'm not sure how they arrived at their definitions, but you can imagine that their thinking was more marginal than it could have been. And by marginal, I use it in the statistical sense. We might have a joint distribution for two random variables M and F, but we can obtain marginal distributions from this by integrating M or F out. In other words, the marginal distribution describes the behaviour of a random variable when only considering that random variable. This is often sensible. It is also often not sensible.

This brings me to the following headline: "It’s 2018. Could we please stop sanctifying men for doing basic parenting." This is the kind of article that would probably not be published were it about women and written by a man. And if it was published it'd be couched quite differently. It's a thing, if you're confused, that women get to comment without question on men in ways that are now seen as downright odd if men do it. What particular insight into masculinity does a woman have over a man? Who knows, but lots of women write those. But to write about femininity as a man? Yeah... you don't really see this. (The fact is the rhetorical question I just posed is idiotic; the problem is not women writing about too many things but men writing about too few.) Anyway, my point is that a man probably wouldn't also forget that "Dads are babysitters" is a Thing. They'd never let such a headline be written.

(Hell, The Spinoff manages to write this headline a week removed from this headline: "Where are all the baby changing rooms for dads?" Notice also that this article was written by a woman... as I said, that rhetorical question is idiotic.)

Headlines are problematic. I've said before that they set the tone for what's going to be read... they're a vital piece of the contextual puzzle (and we know it is a puzzle). But they're also all that a lot of people will read. That's not a bad thing. It's a big world out there and a lot of stuff happens. Thus, bad headlines are a bad articles. And sometimes the bad headline is made even worse because it's not even accurate. In this case, it is, sadly, accurate.

It's an incredibly naive article. It ignores vital contextual information like the changing facilities infrastructure and wants to have it both ways with other contextual information. Take this point:
Articles like this, no matter how well-intentioned, do no favours for anyone.
The jumping off point always seems to be that a woman’s place is in the home, either as a full time stay-at-home mum or, at the very least, as the primary caregiver of the children.
There's a saying that no is statement can make an ought statement. That's not an entirely unproblematic idea but it's the inverse what's happening here. Cuming wants the ought (that these are non-notable) to be the is, but the reason why the jumping off point is that "a woman's place is in the home" is because that's the reality of what people think... it's why there's a cottage industry of sorts built against the "dads are baysitters" corollary. But you'd only look at this way by asking yourself "What about the women?"

The problem here is not women staying at home. It's not women being not seen as the breadwinner. It's nothing about women.

The problem is that fatherhood is not an attendant assumption about men, when it should be. It's this. And that's a pretty old film now. (Although, of course, it's more similar to babysitting, but ECE isn't babysitting either, and plays heavily into their unfamiliarity but even so.)

Cuming's approach also makes her ambitions worse. The idea she's putting about is that these new stories hurt everyone. Well, sure, they do make the mundane extraordinary. But when you put them in context what it also says is, "Look, men can do this stuff." And if we think about Daddy Day Care again, we're either meant to laugh at them for being so useless at the start... or if we're nodding along saying, "That's so true" we're meant to evolve with the characters in the film so that next time we watch it we're laughing at them at the start.
And finally, this type of sycophantic fetishism of dads just being parents needs to stop BECAUSE IT IS PISSING MUMS OFF. 
Not even hiding her motives... this article is a classic illustration of What Aboutism.
Unless it’s a story about Chris Hemsworth moving to a really hot climate and he has to walk his kids and his dog every morning along the beach with shirt off while making sandwiches for lunch and being spoon-fed muesli by his male nanny, Chris Evans. 
This is an article in need of some self-awareness in a bad way. You definitely can write an article about how "Mummy Bloggers" are a Thing and "Daddy Blogging" is a miracle, but this isn't the way to do it. We don't once see a consideration of the other perspective... it's framed entirely from this what aboutist point of view. I don't want to say that's too wrapped up in her own emotional reaction because, you know, this, but it's too wrapped up in her own emotional response. Let me quote the following line on "hot history":
Whenever contemporary historians go at each other's throats over differences of opinion on current history, their more serene colleagues often offer the following consoling reflection. To their minds, contemporary history is history in which many parties still have a stake because individuals and groups are generally attached  to the image presented of them. And where different interests are involved, conflicts of interest are never far removed. Consequently, a calm and detached approach to the past requires severing the direct link with it, which in turn only happens with the passage of
 time. Temporal distance is in this view a necessary condition of scholarly distance;' hot history must first 'cool off' in the archives for a generation or two before it can be warmed up on paper in an adequate way by historians. For Clio's owl, too, only flies at dusk. (Chris Lorenz, "Beyond Good and Evil? The German Empire of 1871 and Modern German Historiography", Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Oct., 1995), pg. 729)
Emphasis Mine.

Notice also that Lorenz doesn't appear to buy into this point of view... it's just something he's talking about. Indeed, the idea of Hot History above isn't non-problematic. But the hands off approach, mental distancing, is something that is good and useful... depending on your purpose. But even if your purpose is otherwise, writing out your emotional reaction isn't beyond question. Allow me to quote the following at you:
The Link-Up organisations, which work so closely with traumatised individuals, would perhaps respond to the issues raised by stating 'yes, these things are true, Peter, but why talk about them? Let's help our clients to achieve as much as it's possible both in terms of family relations and identity. It doesn't matter about the larger picture.' ( Peter Read (2002) "Clio or Janus? Historians and the stolen generations", Australian Historical Studies, 33:118, pg. 60)
Emphasis mine.

In other words, just because it's true and authentic you're not free from the responsibility of what your output does. And yes that's a terrifying statement to make. But that's a fear that should be held in mind every time anyone sits down to write. We cannot escape that we're not islands. We're not even island chains. (That's an About a Boy reference.)

To be honest, Cuming's article could probably be published safely with only one alteration... some sort of disclaimer or qualifying remark or opposing article being linked to. But, as is, why was it written? What does it do? Does it understand what its backdrop actually is? Because it's not Mummy Bloggers. It's that there is no such Thing as Daddy Blogging... although, let's be real, there is it just has no cultural capital, which is why the capital T.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

"People Don't Like Traffic Jams"

"What we need," he said, "is for the motorway to be some sort of travelator. That way, even when there's traffic, at least you're moving."

"But what about merging? And offramps?" said his friend. "There'd be crashes."

"Hmm..."

The truth is that we already have such a system. Except it doesn't involve cars at all. Cars just aren't efficient.

Truth be told it doesn't actually involve travellators either (geeze, how do you spell that?).

The only way the system that the two schoolboys vaguely quoted above entertained could work is if the entire network worked this way. And, broadly speaking, this is what trains do.

Now I use this conversation as an introduction to my brief treatment today for a simple reason: trains are efficient. If you want to get buckets of people somewhere specific quickly, the best way to do that is by train. This has never not been true. Nothing else even comes close.

Okay, actually a few things do come close. Except, well, they're basically trains themselves. Or, rather, they are trains... just not heavy rail.

The thing is, back in the day, that trains used to be more than just the efficient way of doing things. They used to be the absolutely fastest way of doing it.

It used to be that if you turned up at the station, missed the train and the next one wasn't until the following day, waiting the whole rest of the day was the fastest way of getting where you were going... for even fairly short distances. Basically, anywhere you couldn't walk to. Give or take.

Trains weren't about speed, though. It was freedom, liberation and modernity.

Which is how cars are sold these days.

Hmm.

It's true... cars can go places trains can't. Trains are always going to need rails... it is what makes them work (and by God do they work).

You're never going to be able to have an offroad holiday with a train or even drive out way beyond where anyone wants to go. No-one's ever going to build a railway out that far. The best you're going to get is, say, a train station out to some lake at the foot of a mountain. It'd be a great holiday spot: but the whole point is that everyone would go there... and, well, it is called Lonely Planet, isn't it?

Doesn't say much for cars if their selling point is holiday-making, right?

Oh, but Harry, they don't just sell cars like that, do they?

Well, no. But have you ever stopped to think about just how many car ads rely on messages from outside everyday life? It's a lot. Probably most of them. A lot of the rest don't even try and make you think about how you use the car, it's all about the technology... which is still what the car could do, not what it will do.

People don't like traffic jams.

As a cultural moment I think cars are done.

I look at the world these days and everything seems to be moving on from the car itself. Sure, the second biggest movie franchises in the world right now is about driving fast cars, but it's not. Wait, what? Yeah, the Fastchise actually demonstrates my point perfectly. Trust me... I've seen all of them.

In the first Fast and Furious movie, Dom tries to explain who he is. He lives life a quarter mile at a time. In the third film, the reason he comes to Tokyo is for a race. Both these concepts are out the window by... certainly the fifth and probably the fourth film (the transitional one). By the time Dom actually gets to Tokyo in the seventh film (catching up the parallel events of Tokyo Drift) he's got an entirely new motive and raison d'etre.

Don't get me wrong, if you like fast cars the Fastchise is probably going to be your kind of movie. Even in film 7, probably the most family-centric one, it's got a line about a car kept in a penthouse that goes, "Nothing's sadder than keeping a beast locked in a cage." It doesn't stay in its cage. Let me tell you that. But the point is that the context of the Fastchise has completely changed around this line. It was never just the cars, sure, but the way the movies used to try and connect the audience with the characters was. Not. Any. More.

Unconvinced? How about the hysterics about self-driving cars? People just can't wait until they're a thing. People are so hyped they've convinced themselves Elon Musk is the second coming of Christ... something else people are notoriously hysterical about.

The thing with self-driving cars is... well, look at what we were just talking about. The whole cultural moment of cars is that you are the driver, that you are in control and that you are free. You don't sell cars with traffic jams and it's even rare to sell them with avoiding traffic jams (even ads about driving in cities are about parkour but with cars; well, I'm sure such an ad exists but this Top Gear segment will have to do). You do, however, sell self-driving cars with traffic jams. It might even be their raison d'etre.

The entire point of self-driving cars is to be everything we spent years telling people cars weren't. They take the man out of the machine, and put the machine back in.

Look, cars aren't going to go anywhere. Despite Elon "Look at me I'm a Genius" Musk's proclamations, self-driving cars are a long way away. They can drive, sure, but only in very specific conditions... such as those featured in... car ads. Which, as I've mentioned, basically ignore real human usage of cars. Even a total flip on societal perceptions won't kill cars. Hate-driving will become a thing. And, let's be honest here, trains survived the car age. Not everywhere, to be sure, but they lived. And not just as luxuries.

What's probably more concerning is that motorway mania isn't likely to die with the car. It takes a long time for the human brain to catch up with the reality of its existence. We keep, for instance, asking ourselves about academic arms races or a tertiary education bubble, but what if we're living in an age which assumes a university education? Perhaps Americans too, now, look at Plankton's "college education" lines with the same puzzlement I used to (college is high school in NZ), "But isn't everyone?"

With motorways we have decades of planning, educational and institutional cultures to move beyond. Decades of contracts and business models. It's why we have roads of National Significance in NZ that no-one actually drives on. Roads where you can actually experience what life in a car ad is like.

The car is done. It's time is over. Trains are once more ascendant. Not because they mean anything, but because they work. Although, to be fair, I would say that societal concerns are more Victorian than they've been in a long time. Not in the sense of specific values (which are clearly very different) but in the sense that the markers of having made it now look a lot more like Victorian expectations. No longer do you have gadgets that help you do something, you have technology that does it for you.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Banal and Dangerous: Clarke Gayford versus the Journalists

New Zealand's journalists are complete rubbish. They're awful.

I remember this one time Heather du Plessis-Allan claimed to have found a loophole in the law. The police immediately launched an investigation. You know why? It wasn't at all a loophole.

I remember this other time Enoch Powell wrote this piece on the disasters of immigration centred on an experience shopping for undies at Kmart. No, wait, it was Duncan Garner. Rivers of Blood. Weird snake metaphors. Or something. Easy mistake. (That crap was weeeirrd; at least Powell could competently articulate his point, you know?)

I remember a time when someone writing for the Herald compared pay cheque to pay cheque existence with keeping up with the Joneses. I didn't write it down to my deep regret but it did happen. I took the opportunity to try and rip a similarly dumb-thinking post to shreds later, though, in State Charity (read it, see if I succeeded).

And let's not get started on Ben Mack. (Actually, just so you know, they still have a career, so don't feel bad. I think they switched from the Herald prior to the WSJ affair,)

I know what you're thinking. I've managed a character assassination on NZ Journalism without once mentioning Mike Hosking. That's how bad the field is.

Actually, Hosking helps clarify that a lot of our journalists just do journalism... they're practising not disciplinary journalists. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it probably doesn't help.

It's actually really hard to think of any journalistic output that I'd recommend to people as think pieces. That shouldn't be the case. Look at all the movies that are made about real life journalism. Look at all the fictional characters who are journalists. Some of them get killed by the bad guys. Why? Because the Fourth Estate. We haven't got that here.

I guess I'd mention Tapu Misa's Long Brown Tail of Failure from 2009, but she doesn't seem to work as a journalist anymore. And I'm not even sure that was the name of the article (I read it for social studies, so I have a copy glued into a book somewhere... if I remember I'll look for it). There should be more than this! And it's not like I only remember that article because I read it for school or because I was young and naive. I read a lot of articles in those circumstances.

For instance, someone else I remember from my early years of reading the NZ Herald's website is Deborah Hill Cone. She's still around. And the cause of a hooha.

It's... not a good article.

Hill Cone has an opportunity here to engage with a really rather serious topic. She doesn't. She actually dismisses it. Literally. Dismisses.
  • 2.0 -- Treat as unworthy of serious consideration.
  • 2.1 -- Deliberately cease to think about.
Not sure which kind of dismissal is happening, but it's one of them:
No wonder Gayford seems to be enjoying the whole political circus so far. Possibly a little too much.
Political commentator Claire Trevett notes the past female spouses of our prime ministers did not get as involved in the Chogm spouse programme as Gayford has, and they very rarely did interviews. The women had a background support role, but Gayford seems to lap the attention up, like the political equivalent of manspreading.
But forget all that. Here is the real reason I find Gayford problematic.
This is a legitimate criticism. It's actually a really important one when you have people writing of Gayford in terms like:
  • Clarke Gayford writes for The Spinoff about his first days as first gent
  • There’s something about our First Bloke that keeps nagging me every time I see his cheerful face.
  • etc.
There are four layers to this problem.

The Sheer Idiocy of the Idea of a "First Spouse"

NZ's a monarchy. Actually, we have two different monarchs running around. There's the Queen of NZ who lives in the UK and then there's the Maori King. The point is that we're used to institutions which many people claim are anti-egalitarian.

In the US, they have a thing called the "First Lady". This is just bizarre.

The whole point of democracy is that there's no difference between Donald Trump, Brad Pitt, James Holmes, David Hogg or Lebron James. Politician, actor, murderer, survivor or basketballer... all of them have no greater claim to political relevancy than any other. I'd mention some random ordinary Americans but I don't know any.

Calling Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, Hilary Clinton or any other president's wife the First Lady cuts right across that. It promotes the idea that there is something other and above about being (a) the US president and (b) the US president's wife. That cuts totally across what that institution is about.

But the Americans actually take it further than this. To them, it's entirely normal for the First Lady to be a kind of political figure. Not just in the sense that you send wifey out to talk to charities but that they should have some sort of mission themselves. Hence, the much maligned cyberbullying thing.

This is very different to a peoples' princess or whatever. In NZ's system we're actually asked specifically to not listen to and prevent political involvement of non-political figures, i.e. the Queen. Watch To Play a King (series two of the superior House of Cards) to gain some insight into this. The charitable involvement of the wealth and leisure classes is, well, it's their thing, right? We're not holding them up as part of the democratic system. We say they're outside of it.

I include this as a layer because you have to understand the problem with the referent to be able to understand the problem with making the references to it.

Oh, and not one of us expects anyone else to care about the Royals. Except republicans. But they're not very bright.

Words Matter

This sounds pretty stupid, right? But it's actually quite profound.
“Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
Now, I don't want anyone thinking that Clarke Gayford's secretly Voldemort. That would be absurd. But his apparent refusal to stop people calling him "You Know What" is deeply problematic.

Let's mention Mike Hosking again. He's really fond of the saying "Middle New Zealand". Well, cool. Except, it's not. Middle New Zealand doesn't exist as a Thing. Hosking just uses it as a way to say "people who think like me" without drawing attention to the particularity of Hosking. It's very devious.

When you set up a concept and talk about it like it's a Real Thing, you force people to create the mental space for your concept. Whether that's Hosking and Middle New Zealand or NZ's journalists and the "First X" description of Clarke Gayford, it happens. And it happens in other realms as well. Think about "Reverse Racism"1 or "TERFism"2 .

One of the big ways that this happens is by normalisation. Every time you see Middle New Zealand, it becomes much more normal to you that this is an idea. You might start out thinking that it's not a real thing. And then one day you realise you're arguing that Middle NZ is real but isn't who Mike Hosking thinks it is. Even vehement disagreement can't save you from a paradigm shift. But ridiculing it can..

That being said, using the First Spouse Concept (FSC) in a playful matter isn't ridiculing the idea. A joke made at Trump's expense which relies on Melania Trump's being First Lady doesn't ridicule the FSC... it relies on people believing in the FSC. That kind of humour... say the endless parade of articles about how she won't touch Trump in public... says there's something meaningful here, that you should know and believe in the FSC. It's the FSC  itself that deserves ridicule.

This is one of the layers for very simple logic. Basically, "you're creating a bad idea". After all, we just established that the FSC is undemocratic above. And now we've established that all you have to do to bring it about is use the words.

Personalising Politics

Politics should be for people, not about people.

I think most people are against the personalising of politics. They see it as getting in the way of productive discourses and as obscuring what actually matters, i.e. the policies that actually get enacted.

On the other hand... John Key was widely condemned for being all about the personality and now that Jacinda Ardern does exactly the same things there are no more rebukes. Where is Planet Jacinda? (Always Jacinda, never Ardern... interesting, no?) How about the US Electoral College was wildly unpopular before 2016 and now Republicans will throw themselves in front of bullets for it? It's almost as if peoples' opinions generally relate to whatever is convenient for their other opinions.

There are three key (closely related) problems with emphasising personality:
  • It makes it really hard to hold politicians to account.
    • Politicians who are about personality tend to be able to throw up another distraction. Smile and Wave Key is quite possibly the greatest political operator to have ever lived. This is a man who was nicknamed the Smiling Assassin in his pre-political life, who oversaw eight years of reasonably incompetent government and rode from scandal to scandal without a scratch! You shouldn't be able to do this. But being just goofy enough, just dad enough, just blokey enough, just friendly enough etc. etc. John Key became Teflon John.
    • The reason this works is also related to the old "style versus substance" argument. It's hard to challenge people on substance when they're not offering any. If your criticisms seem irrelevant, it's hard to make traction with them. And if, on top of that, you come across as being incapable of deviousness of the highest order, you're never going to face a scandal that sticks... people lack the mental space for that. You're not too good to be true, you're too fallible to disappoint.
    • Oh, and before I forget, tu quoque is a fallacy. People recognise that attacking the people themselves is wrong/it vibes ill with them... but that's all that style leaves to attack. Quite the fix, right?
  • It helps divorce the people from their rule/it's undemocratic.
    • The way elections work, in theory, is that political parties offer up a set of politics, a vote is held, and the combination of political parties whose platforms seem the most relevant to the electorate ends up in power.
    • When you hold elections which deal a lot with contests between personalities, where is "the common man" in the cut and thrust of the campaign? No where, right? Their concerns aren't what the election is fought over and hence they're not what the politicians have to care about. And if they care about other things it follows that what the politicians actually do reflects those other concerns. Hence, elections don't facilitate the rule of the people.
    • From a slightly different tack:
      • Look. We can spend all day quibbling about whether or not people actually make the kinds of choices in elections which we assume they do. We can complicate matters by wondering if, perhaps, sortition is the best articulation of democracy (which implies that random voting is desirable). We can argue until the cows come home about the credibility of political promises. We can do all this stuff. But the fact remains that it's really rather difficult to distinguish between functionally identical things. Indeed, the difficulty is discouraging.
      • One of the things to note about personality politics is that it works. Like, it really works. Get it right and you're John Key. Get it wrong and... you're Donald Trump (who still managed to win). So the point is that you either bring another personality to the table or you run vapid anti-personnel campaigns (remember when instead of attacking immigrants or threatening to sink boatloads of people3 Labour was the "not John Key" party? God, I hate that I miss that). Once the first person "cheats" and goes to personality, everyone has to. That's the Nash Equilibrium. And, as in most cases, it's not a social optimum.
  • It creates dissonance between institutional design and operation.
    • I'm not sure how obvious this is or not but institutions like laws, systems (e.g. transport or education) or organisations (the traditional kind of institution) are set up based on a set of assumptions. Sometimes these assumptions reflect idealisations... design an institution for the way things should work (perhaps to encourage that reality, perhaps out of idiocy, perhaps out of hope other programmes succeed, perhaps for whatever else). 
    • Likewise the actual operation of these institutions is based on behavioural assumptions, e.g. you design a court system that should work but in practice you operate it to streamline "waste of time cases" (e.g. divorce) which choke up more important things.
    • These assumptions can occur at all levels, both high (e.g. a government telling how (spitals to compete with each other) and le.g. a teacher bringing shareable breakfasts to their classroom in the morning).
    • When institutions aren't working properly they are usually being under-funded, deliberately shackled or burdened with wrong assumptions. Electoral systems are no different. 
    • Imagine that you set up something like MMP which lets you vote your heart. The idea is to work based on policies, right? Except it doesn't work that way. There's nothing in NZ's Electoral Act which stops the National Party from putting out advertising which says the idea of a particular coalition is bad. Not the outcomes thereof. Not even the vibe. They literally attack the very concept. (Note: Labour and NZ First are hardly more -democratic... and if the Greens actually let them go ahead with the anti-Waka Jumping legislation all the bad crap National did for democracy will be overshadowed.) 
    • Where personality politics comes into play is that it works with MMP. In fact, in many respects, MMP exacerbates it. In the old days a personality like John Key or Jacinda Ardern only had a direct effect on votes in Helensville or Mt. Albert, i.e. the seat being contested. The "hangers on" (er, the other party members) just reaped indirect benefits. But with the party vote, being smile and wave (or generating nothing personal life stories detached from present political scandals) helps you out with the entire electorate.
    • That is, in a nut-shell, we designed a political system which is meant to allow somewhat more niche political viewpoints a place at the table, but ended up creating a situation where competing based on personality (always a strong strategy) is optimised.
In a similar vein of thought God forbid we reach a point where a politician's relationship status is seen as relevant to what they do. And, unfortunately, this is exactly what the journalists' attitudes towards Clarke Gayford are doing. He's not relevant. He is irrelevant. He's not a politician and he has no real place in our newspapers outside of when they want to talk about fishing shows or brief biographies of his (much more successful and famous) partner. He's a WAG, and we all know that reporting about WAGs is a bad idea. But the truth is, if you're going to compete based on personality, who exactly you're living with is a natural way to play things... it's a facet, after all, of your personality. And if you're not living with anyone? Well now, what does that say?

The Americanisation of Political Discourse in New Zealand

New Zealand and the USA are different countries. That should be obvious. It is also probably obvious that in different countries things work a little differently. Or very differently. Quite often both at once. There are, after all, quite a few similarities between NZ and the USA. But they're very different countries... in NZ, "black" people are few and far between, Asians and Pasifika are different ethnicities and people have ethnicities not races. In the USA the reverse is true in all cases.

It should hopefully be equally obvious that analysing different things as though they are the same is problematic. As a quick example, you'd probably lose a game of draughts pretty quickly if you attempted to play it as a game of President. In fact, I'm not sure how you'd actually do that. Which just further demonstrates the point, right? Rules (abstractions) which are appropriate in one situation may or may not be appropriate in another. We might go as far to say that it's complete luck when concepts derived in one circumstance apply in another. That may not be true, but it's certainly more true than closing your eyes, sticking your head in the sand and pretending that you could just use [whatever] [wherever].

With respect of Clarke Gayford and the Journalists, the issue is that using terms like "First Bloke" just help normalise facets of American discourse. If it's appropriate to see the PM's spouse/partner as being like the US president's spouse then maybe it's appropriate to see the PM as being like the US president. It's not. They're extremely different positions. Similarly, given the politicised and semi-official part of the system of the US presidential spouse, the terminology introduces the idea that maybe America's system has some parallels with ours. It doesn't. They're not wholly different (we're representative democracies) but the American system is so screwed up and so backwards it might as well be... Iran or North Korea.

Already we have some problems introduced by Americanisation. I think this is the route cause of why John Key and Jacinda Ardern (these personalisers extraordinaire) were able to reap success... we can't just watch US elections without picking up some ideas about what elections are meant to be. Back in the day it was much easier in NZ to not receive coverage of American politics but the world has shrunk. Similarly, look at the way Labour and National behave... to them minor parties can just be excluded. That we have debates involving only two parties is disgusting. It would, in fact, be better to not have debates at all. And I blame Americanisation for this. Not necessarily that these started but for the absence of outrage over this.

Conclusion

Clarke Gayford needs to look in the mirror and realise that he's the one who's got to say no. He's got to come out and put the journalists in their place. They're not going to. Deborah Hill Cone literally wrote a column dismissing the relevance of the relationship of the journalists and Gayford is problematic (ironically, "the Fourth Estate's" blissful ignorance/rejection/denial of observer effects has been remarked upon with regards to the Comey letters). That Gayford doesn't do this is a black mark against him. And it's not something that's going to go away with some cutesy glib response of the like that Ardern, Key and, increasingly, Gayford have become famous for. Not because those won't work, but because it's the underlying truth. Believing fervently in A doesn't mean B isn't real. Unfortunately, truth isn't relevance. Let us not delude ourselves... no-one will ever read this and no-one is going to actually sit up and notice that between them the journalists, Gayford and Ardern are letting something really rather bad happen.

The truth is out there. All I can hope for is that someone else realises it and publicises it better than I can. I've tried. And I've failed. Which is more than can be said for Gayford and the journalists.




1 "One of the biggest barriers to understanding seems to be the ubiquitous presence of ‘reverse racism’. Trying to explain to outraged Pākehā people that racism and hurt feelings aren’t the same thing is… tiring" In other words, reverse racism's idea is real but it's not actually racism. The reality is that it is JUST RACISM. Reverse Racism is a totally pointless idea.

2 "I’m not defending TERFS and SWERFS; I’m asserting that the acronyms to describe them need to be rethought because feminists who exclude trans women and sex workers from the equality they’re allegedly fighting for aren’t radical at all. (I would go as far as to say they’re not feminists at all, but that’s another piece for another time.)" Same idea but it's harder to see due to the confounding influence of definitional debate. Here's the only definition of feminism worth a damn.

3The article I originally read was from the Herald and didn't include a line about making sure people were off the boats. To be honest, my contempt for Labour is such that I don't see how you Radio NZ manages to believe Ardern means the people were off the boat. Scuttling ships, sure. But when you say destroy you are doing something very deliberate, you're taking a hardline against the boat people (or "people smugglers" ... Ardern actually had the audacity to claim that capable ships are risking peoples' lives... is she also anti-cruise ships??). Notice how they also don't mention whether people are on or off the boats with the destroy line (and I missed it in the video? going crazy here, I think). If it sounds like murder, it's meant to sound like murder... even though Radio NZ is probably correct that it's not the intent. But politicians can't get credit like that. The action for them is putting the words out. They want it to sound like murder. And that is disgusting.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Minority Person Claims To Come From Racist Country

I talk about a lot of different topic on this blog. A lot. Even allowing for my label-crazy tendencies. You might remember such classic blog posts as:
I could go on, right? I mean, I am going to go on, but I'm pausing briefly here to point out there's a theme to what I am doing with these posts. They're not so different in subject, the examples I am drawing. In fact, I think they present angles to talk about today's title.
When I started writing this post like this yesterday the above seemed rather clever. I suppose I thought the idea was to get you, the reader (if only a conceit), thinking about how I think about things. That's useful. As I once said, the point of political analysis is actually substantive political argument. If you know the shape of my thinking, you can strip me out and get to the TruthTM of the matter. But looking back at this now the idea doesn't seem quite as sensible. I mean, how well do these links do that job?

I suppose the general themes you get (or could get if you squint a bit) from the above are thus:

  • Context matters to me, a lot.
  • The way we express ourselves is an important thing to consider.
  • I am frequently disappointed in my fellow New Zealanders, including in areas/errors connected to racism.
  • It's not helpful to apply American/foreign discourses to New Zealand.
These are useful ways of approaching Taika Waititi's claims that New Zealand is a racist country. Here's what he said or some of it:
Taika Waititi: Nah, it’s racist as fuck. I mean, I think New Zealand is the best place on the planet, but it’s a racist place. People just flat-out refuse to pronounce Maori names properly. There’s still profiling when it comes to Polynesians. It’s not even a colour thing – like, ‘Oh, there’s a black person.’ It’s, ‘If you’re Poly then you’re getting profiled.’
[...]
Ruban Nielson: I appreciate being Polynesian more than I did when I was there. When I go back now, I find myself being more aggressive when I’m pronouncing Maori names around people who refuse to do it. (laughs)
Taika Waititi: Yeah. Because because they don’t mispronounce French words, do they? They can say fucking ‘Camembert’ properly.
Interviews are like comedy gigs.

What happens in an interview happens only because of the specific circumstances of that interview. Here we've got a three person interview done via Skype. The only one I've ever heard of is Waititi so I'll quickly note he's a director, actor and writer. He's pretty famous. Oh, and he's Maori.

Let's discuss four issues that arise from this.

Number One: Maori Names

I'm not 100% sure what sort of Maori names Waititi's trying to talk about. He probably just means all of them. But the truth is there are three kinds:

  • peoples' names... there is no excuse for deliberately mispronouncing someone's name but it must also be said that sometimes you just can't do it (this shouldn't be an issue with Maori names except with rhoticism).
  • place names... there is a world of difference between how Paris is pronounced in English and French but that doesn't make the English version evil or even wrong... it's just the English pronunciation of a French word, or even a borrowing.
  • random place names... it is inappropriate to mispronounce (not try) place names for places which aren't part of your everyday life, e.g. the Seine or the Kapiti Coast.
When something is really part of English now can be a difficult question. The Kapiti Coast is reasonably well known but it's not like Taupo or Rotorua or Manukau... at least not where I live. But my general point is that the context matters. It's always dubious with peoples' names, but with place names (and Maori words more generally, e.g. kumara) things are a bit different. And which names can be said to be English? Well, now, that depends on where you live.

See? Context.

Part of the issue, it must be said, is that the level of awareness of what is and isn't correct differs. 

Personally, I pronounce Maori as something like Mow-ree. You often hear something not dissimilar to mouldy, Mole-ree. As far as I know that's actually hyper-correction and the real pronunciation is much closer to how I say it but not quite how I do. Yet, a The Mole-ree brigade imagine they have the correct pronunciation.

With things like Whakatane the munters who go around saying Wakatane are just wrong. Everyone knows how to say "Wh" in basically the right way, i.e. "f". So widespread is this is that it's given us the old Whanganui or Wanganui issue... te reo isn't really a written language and the local dialect is more similar to Wanganui, hence why it is spelt like that (except with the river, and why not just use f? clearly there's some complexities here I should have looked into). 

Now, this isn't really what Waititi's talking about. "Flat Out Refuse". It's very, very clear that he's talking about people who are offered a right pronunciation and choose to not take it up. Who knows why? Maybe because they're from Manukau and it's much more part of their life than Waititi the Wellingtonian's. Maybe they're a munter who also says Camembert properly. And if they are, it's probably fair to say, "Hey, you're a racist munter"... why else would they pronounce one foreign language properly but refuse to do the same for another?

Number Two: Profiling

The discussion about profiling doesn't really need much elaboration on. Or, well, it didn't except it's also in the news for a separate reason.

In statistics a lot of what you do as an undergraduate is called model building. Sometimes that's for predictive purposes and sometimes it isn't. The way to go about building models, as Thomas Lumley (quoted in the article) will tell you, differs between these two cases. When we're talking about profiling, I believe we're talking about prediction.

A classic example of profiling is the Arab looking dude getting chosen for a "random" bomb test. Their physical appearance (Arab-lookingness) is the only reason they're suspected to be someone to check out. The problem is that this reasoning is just really dodgy. Very few Arab (looking) people are terrorists or otherwise threats to society. A tiny, tiny minority. I reckon the odds of finding a terrorist are a lot higher if you're looking at Irish and Northern Irish males over the age of 40.

But that would be profiling too.

The line between profiling and not-profiling occurs when you start talking about absolutely high probabilities, not higher ones. When you start taking all the characteristics, feeding them to a model and then acting. Not when you're looking at a person, looking at your profile of a "bad guy" and then deciding they fit it. And let's be honest, normally it's only the one characteristic that makes the profiler go "Gotcha".

The issue is a bit more complex than this, of course. If you had a data set that said French government agents are 74% likely to commit a crime in NZ, would that be sufficient material to deport them? Would it be sufficient material to watch them? If something they're predicted to do happened, it would definitely validate (in my eyes) specifically trying to exclude them (although I'd want a separate team otherwise un-involved with the investigation to do this).

But the truth is that Waititi's often talking more about stuff like Overheard's "get ready to run" controversy... where some random person said if you see Polynesians walking behind you in a group at night (maybe not even at night), it's time to get ready to run. (I believe the post was deleted by the admins, but I assure you it happened.)

Firstly, harden up. New Zealand (and Auckland in particular) is safe. The paranoid among us are paranoid... they cannot find statistics to validate their fears.

Secondly, how is that not racist?

Don't try and answer. It's sort of explained by the harden up point. But you shouldn't even need that much explanation.

Number Three: What does it Mean for a Country to be Racist?

There are lots of different ways to talk about this but I'll quickly bullet point five of them:
  • when racism is an ordinary and everyday experience within the country
  • when the majority of people in the country are racist
  • when there's a non-trivial prior belief that any particular person you might encounter is racist
  • when you find unusual disparities in the lived experiences of people of different ethnicities
  • when you find unusual disparities in the institutional outcomes of people of different ethnicities
All of these are pretty valid except point two. I mean, why would you talk about that?

Number Four: I REALLY Don't Like Using Kiwi as an Identifier


From this article... and yes it is literally the only reason I wrote any of this blog post.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

The Vapid Side of Online Gender Discourse

There was a time where Craccum would regularly publish letters. In 2015, quite a lot of the ones they published were by me.

The editors and I didn't really get along. I think a lot of that was a misunderstanding on my part of what they tried to do with their responses. I'm a... seriously minded fellow and I really should have noticed by reference to Sophie whatsherface what 2015 Craccum did when they were serious about following up on letters. 

On the other hand, 2015's Craccum editorial staff really were dilettantes when it came to feminism. They knew a couple of talking points and just chucked them in wherever. So, there was some substantive room to not get along on.

The insights offered by Craccum weren't well informed. They weren't electrifying. But they were earnest and honest. In short they weren't vapid. At least in this limited case.

The following year's editorial staff were extremely disappointing. But they did make the interesting point that it's often seen as childish to define words. That's true but it shouldn't be. (I think this was, iirc on all counts, Abley's point also.) I think a large part of the issue is that after about 13 it suddenly seems dumb to be unsure of what a word means. And after about 16, it suddenly seems dumb to use small words. So, let's define these words. Dictionary of choice says:
  • Vapid: Offering nothing that is stimulating or challenging; bland.
  • Dilettante: A person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge.
  • Earnest: Resulting from or showing sincere and intense conviction.
  • Honest: (of an action) done with good intentions even if unsuccessful or misguided.
  • Honest: Simple, unpretentious, and unsophisticated.
  • Honest: Free of deceit; truthful and sincere.
In other words, Craccum '15 were honest and sincere dilettantes whilst I was overly earnest. So, what do I think is vapid?


You see a lot of cartoons that look like this on the internet. Some of them are quite good. This one is awful. A complete waste of space and effort... in production, hosting and reading. Let's dive in anyway... and obviously we're assuming this isn't satirising the webcomic genre it belongs to.

Masculinity is Under Attack

Okay, so we're going to talk about notions of being male?. We're going to dive in and engage specifically with the things that people who say this actually think?

Er, no, we're not.

I don't care if your final intent is to mock, abuse or denigrate... if you're going to talk about an observed class, talk about the observed class, not the talking points the observers have about them, If your intentions are more earnest than this, it's a travesty but even here it's still wrong.

You Want to Put Blinkers On and Look at the World in a Completely Self-Centred Way

Liberty is when you're free to do those things which don't restrict other peoples' freedoms.

It seems a completely natural thing to point out that people ought to consider others. Whether we're making an intensely traditional argument like the above one or saying something about, e.g. #MeToo, we come across this idea, right?

But, at the same time, anyone with the slightest awareness of a world where whataboutism is a term should know that the notion of talking about men's issues, masculinity and maleness from a male point of view is only allowed to happen in a completely self-centred way. In every other situation the idea is mocked, ridiculed and dismissed. In other words, this is the deeply ironic statement.

Also... I hate it when I am forced to sound like the lunatics who go on about the Matriarchy.

Can't a Man Just Be a Man?

Far be it from the cartoon to explain where its anguished villains come from.

No, wait, the entire point of satire is to use earnest representations of the satirised object.

Men Must Lead... Tough Guys are Back

I admit, since 2015 I've become completely disenchanted by this subject... it is now, like most things online, no longer stimulating. I find myself bored of the internet. But this doesn't have that truthy sound. It sounds exactly like the old talking points of critics of ideas like fathers' rights or male failure theses or male justice statistics explainers or MRAs or academic feminists etc. etc.

Unfair to Men if We Don't All Keep Playing Along With a System That's Rigged For Us

This is the moment where the cartoonist loses all credibility.

Seriously, read what the alt right think... their central and general thesis is the system is rigged against them. In the particular case of our subject today? They think the CURRENT system is unfair to men.

What makes the alt right an alternative right, rather than the extreme right... given we use the conceit they're different things... is that that the alternative right criticises Social Justice arguments whilst using their premises. You can switch between voting for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump because both times you're against the establishment, pro-gun, anti-globalist (co-operation in one country) and convinced the Man is Keeping You Down. The difference is the Alt Right believes the Man's policies are the key to defeating the Man. Except they call the Man the Deep State.

Why Are We So Threatened By a Level Playing Field?

Yes, it would help to establish that everyone agrees this is what is being created. Clearly, it isn't the case. Remember, we're not talking about people who see the current system being toned down... we're talking about people who see the current system being toned up. Maybe that matters.

Where Does This Assumption Come From That Any Gains For Women Are Losses For Men?

By analogy to child custody disputes and educational attainment statistics. Just a guess.

Maybe this isn't a great format for engaging with complex, if typically conspirational and intellectually fraudulent, arguments. (Analogies are really, really dumb.)

We're Drawn to Alpha Males

This is just nonsensical. The only people who believe alpha males exist are... the alt right.

People are drawn to charismatic people. A lot of the time charisma is not associated with moral goodness. In fact, it's possibly easier to cultivate when you're bad (ever seen Megamind?).

To think that the charismatic are alphas is ridiculous. Grow up. It's pathetic to imagine others are your superiors in life.
  • Pathetic: Arousing pity, especially through vulnerability or sadness.
  • Pathetic: Miserably inadequate.
Actually, the most fascinating insights arise because of our failures to live up to normative standards... this is the chief lesson of Brave New World. (It's not. But it really is something you could call a lesson of said book.)

Strength, Bravery, Power

None of these are bad things.

Well, power gets a bit of a bad rap, but the truth is that it's an increasingly cliched criticism of a text to say it just repeats the cliche of ambition = evil.

Winning At Others' Expense

Can be a bad thing.

When your points rely on clearly false equivalences, you don't have points. You've got memes.
  • Meme: An element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.
This is a pretentious sense of meme, but when you're mindlessly sharing midnless talking points you be meming.

Comfortable in Themselves

Another very ironic section.

What we have here is a cartoon which oscillates between ridiculing and accepting the premises of its chosen bogeymen (i.e. the alt right) that has ultimately reached the point of arguing that strength is about being comfortable in one's own skin.

This is why it would be useful to not start off trying to ridicule the alt right but rather exploring what their end goal is. Does this guy know Jordan Peterson is a self help author? Does he know being comfortable in your own skin is the defining cliche of the genre?
His secret? After watching several hours of his lectures, I think I've figured it out. It can be summarised in a single word: responsibility.
Dr Peterson's message is a hard one to hear: "Life is suffering." Hardship is inevitable and life will always find some way to make you resentful. But don't complain about it, because that'll make it worse. Instead, find some reason to make life worth it, despite that suffering.
[...]
"Why should you feel good about who you are? You should feel good about who you could be," he said. And we actually like that message. It allows us to take responsibility for ourselves and it gives us a goal to strive toward. It gives us direction.
Dr Peterson isn't in the "self-help" business, he's in the "self-improvement" business. Rule number one in his book is: "Stand up straight with your shoulders back." Rule six: "Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the worldis."
Luke Kinsella's summary of Peterson's appeal appears at first glance to suggest comfort is the opposite of what Peterson is after. I disagree. How do you do that stuff in the last paragraph without being comfortable? To me this summary says: accept your reality and use that to move forwards. This is not about anything which wants one to feel diminished and lesser. This is a philosophy that asks one to be in a position to be responsible. That requires comfort with oneself.

We're Taught... I Dominate You or You Dominate Me

Actually, no.

I like sport. I'm the kind of person who people are sometimes surprised to learn this about. But I do. And anyone who went to school with me would know this immediately.

You ever hear of the ball hog? The sore loser? The gracious victor? No I in team? Sportsmanship? It's not about winning it's about having fun? It's about winning the right way? 

The lessons of the sportsfield, the team sportsfield of any sport, subsume the individual in necessity for the team. They allow recognition of individual success but the individuals all complement the whole, the greater part. The domination of one team might be the object, but it's not the point. The point is doing things right and doing it as a team.

We Can All Be Satisfied, Safe and Respected

Yes, this is exactly why you need to listen to these people. They don't feel respected. A lot to nearly all of them aren't responsible in the-Peterson-Kinsellian sense and blame women, feminists and the Man for this. But that doesn't mean they're wrong about not being respected. Look at the train strike. I literally wrote an entire blog post arguing that everyone, including the unions involved, misunderstands why Train Managers matter. You can have the right idea for completely wrong reasons. This is particularly true when we're dealing with society and all its confounding variables.

Men aren't valued as a class. That's a fact. No-one wants to hear about the male view or opinion. It's always assumed that the default societal view is male. But that's not the case. It's elite. And, yes, it's usually an elite male view. But you hear a hell of a lot more about what Emma Watson thinks about the world than you hear about Oliver Twist's view of things. And you get a lot more of Hilary Clinton's views than you do Emma Watson's. And this is true even if normally we're just hearing an endless parade of David Camerons.

I don't want to give the Alt Right "Freudian Excuses" because usually what that means is we valorise and accept the character as "not bad". I don't like the alt right. And I know it seems completely insincere to say this when I'v basically had to take their side and be them. I shouldn't be doing that. My whole point is that these kinds of cartoons shouldn't be squaring off and trying to dominate that which feels fake.
  • Valorise: Give or ascribe value or validity to.
  • Valour: Great courage in the face of danger, especially in battle. (Different Words! Blew my mind.)
More terminology may have been mangled here. I make no apologies. My pet frog died.

Tradition is Also Slavery 

Not here it's not. What kind of insane BS is this? Do you know when slavery was abolished?

It was traditional. But it's not any more.

Mass Land Theft

By which he presumably refers to the New Zealand/Land Wars.

If you fight a war, expect territorial change.

Don't get me wrong, the confiscations were way out of proportion and were sometimes levelled against non-combatants or even quasi-allies... the actual problem was unjust warring (e.g. the invasion of the Waikato).

Also, not really a tradition. Don't see anyone defending it now, do I?

Cultural Genocides

Yes, this literally didn't have a name until the 1940s. That's how long people have been aware of genocide. Until then people didn't perceive a unique thing, and as soon as they did see a unique thing they decided it was bad.

Also, it's just genocide you ninny. Look it up.

Just because lots of examples exist over a long period of time doesn't mean you've found a tradition:
  • Tradition: A long-established custom or belief that has been passed on from one generation to another.
Powered Wigs and Believing in Mermaids

These are harmful how? Not the point? Absurd, then? I mean, maybe? Ever hear of historical empathy? Traditions? Not really.

Also, remember when I said analogies are stupid? They're stupid here too.

Traditions are Things We Used to Do

No, they're things we still do because they were done before.

These 'new rules'

In my experience, when people don't articulate exactly what they mean, there are three options:
  • they tried and failed, finding the articulations didn't line up with their expectations
  • they don't actually have any idea
  • they're waiting to see what's formulated in response to make sure the "official" version is something else
If you want to make an entire and very, very self-satisfied cartoon about something... put it at the front.

This was pathetic. I pity its author. I find it woefully inadequate.

If Masculinity is Under Attack, It's the Shit Parts

See why you need to do some legwork?

Fire Away

I'm tired so I'm just going to call you a loser. But you already seem to believe this.

Now, if I could only draw this up in cartoon form, make the loser thesis the point from the start and get it published on someone else's website (not that a blog should count as someone's website) we'd have put in exactly the same amount of effort.

Toby Morris... if you want to say something interesting and worthwhile, here's a starting formula:
  • there are people who believe X
  • what exactly is X?
  • why do those people believe X? why do they think they do? 
  • what is my response to X?
Or, in cartoon form:
If You Know the Original Source, help a brother out???
aka. it wasn't the medium

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Review: Captain America -- The First Avenger

It always amazes me when I watch the Fast and Furious movies how well they managed to avoid massive retcons. The only one that really stands out is why Dom is in Tokyo; I'm happy to accept the idea that it was a retro tech fad (it does explain why those phones can do some stuff they shouldn't be able to).

As most people are aware, the Fastchise wasn't intended to have the following chronology: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 3, 7, 8 and so on. But it does. And hence the retcon above. But the amazement is more that in every subsequent film the baddie is almost always revealed to be linked with something Bigger. And the way they do that is so smooth.

The Fastchise's chronological ordering and plot ratcheting make it very difficult to decide how to watch the films. You get a similar problem with the the Chronicles of Narnia , Redwall and, thanks to Fantastic Beasts, Harry Potter.

If you engage with the series in production order you recreate the audience's experience. After all, the original moviegoers and readers couldn't decide to watch Furious 6 before Tokyo Drift... that movie wasn't out yet. Likewise, the Magician's Nephew was published well after The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. This ordering also lets you get a feel for the meta-development of the series and characters.

Chronological order is what we might call the fan's order. I say this because it gives the greatest appreciation for the story that the creators eventually decided they wanted to tell. This is something that is most interesting to the fans. And it's the way I watch the Fastchise even though I really couldn't care less about cars or the characters' preferred music genre.

To be honest, chronological order only screws you up if you start off with Lord Brocktree and then move down through Martin the Warrior, Mossflower, The Legend of Luke (part of which predates Martin the Warrior), and so on until you get to Redwall... where suddenly there are horses? The Redwall series is an example of a where important meta-developments create what TV Tropes calls Early Instalment Weirdness. Discworld actually suffers(?) from it too.

In truth, when it comes to the movie-side of the MCU (regarded by fans as the poor brother), these issues arise more than you probably hear about. So let's take a spoiler filled look at...

Captain America's First Movie

It can be fun to essentialise movies in an irreverent manner. It's also a good way of cutting to the chase and revealing the true nature of the film as a piece of entertainment, hence:
James Bond. But American. So he has superstrength. And is a solider in WWII. And has no character flaws.
Captain America is not my favourite character. One of my least favourite scenes in the comics is when a pre-power Tempus is explaining her favourite superhero. It's Captain America. She's Australian. It is very dumb writing. It needs explaining.

The whole point of Steve Rogers is that he's a stand-up dude. Both in the moral sense and that he doesn't like bullies. It's just that this makes him a pretty boring character. It's in the later films when this trait can manifest more as obstinacy where Rogers becomes more interesting. In this film he's just a curio, embodying the traits of good soldiers... bravery, selflessness and intelligence.

What drives The First Avenger along is that we're able to be invested in the circumstances around our curio. It helps enormously that one of the major supporting characters is WWII, without that we'd just never buy into Rogers. But everyone else makes sense.

A lot is often made of Marvel's Villain Problem... the idea that they're not particularly interesting and are ultimately kind of generic. To read this in Red Skull is to miss the point.

As is made clear in Agent's of SHIELD and even in this movie or The Winter Solider, HYDRA is much more than Nazism if, indeed, it is Nazi. But Red Skull's Nazi background is everything in understanding his schemes.

Without WWII, neither Red Skull nor Captain America could exist. What they're motivated by and the things they believe in reflect their early 20th century contexts. Red Skull's a character, not some embodiment of whatever extra-textual message you're looking for.. if to make sense of a character or to invalidate a character you turn exclusively to extra-textual stuff you've missed the entire point. It makes sense for Red Skull to think about blowing up all the enemy capitals because he's from a world where that was a normal way of thinking. It makes sense to be some world conquering madman, because some people really do want to reshape the entire world.

The First Avenger is an entirely serviceable film. It's not bad, so out of ten you'd never rank it say 1-3. It's not "meh" so 4-6 doesn't make sense, which means it's a 7/10 because it's not "actually, that's really rather good" either. Most films are a 7/10. It's hard to convince one person to make a film that sounds bad, it's even harder to convince two people and so on. Anyone who tells you the average film is 5/10 has never really thought about it. Captain America has enough stuff in the background to push it from 6 to 7, but that's true of most films.

Also, Cap works best when you put our curio in fish out of water situations.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Even Stevens? No, Says Amy Stevens

I have a degree in economics.

I'm frontloading this not to show off but to make it plain you really ought to consider what I am about to say. I'm not your usual armchair commentator.

There is a lot of bad economics out there that is promoted as not only good economics but orthodox economics. This actually goes as far as the very discipline itself: what economics is, is very misunderstood.

Economics is a very flexible discipline. It's not quite as adaptable as statistics but the economic frame of mind is highly portable. There are a lot of subjects to which economics goes, "Well, obviously we should think about them this way". It's actually quite rare that you have to coerce a topic into a format understandable via economic concepts.

Education, as it happens, isn't just readily understandable through economics, it's one of economics' favourite subjects. Yes, that's right. Education is just as interesting to Economics as trade. In fact, it might be more interesting. The point is, there's a debate to be had. If this surprises you, you don't know anything about economics.

There are several ways economics likes to understand tertiary education or aspects thereof. It's often seen as a form of signalling, a way of indicating that you (the student) are a good type and worthy of purchase (employment). It's probably more commonly understood as human capital investment; tertiary education improves quality. More obscure angles include bubbles, bundling and bellwetherism. In popular discourse what you often find is things like Amy Stevens' "thinkpiece" entitled, "The millennial problem with free tertiary education."

Let's do a largely paragraph by paragraph take on that... been a while since I've done so.
While typically a National voter, like many I decided 2017 was time for a change. Given I'm at the higher end of the tax bracket spectrum, some might ask what I had to gain from the employment of 'Taxinda'.
If you're a typically National voter you must be voting National's way more than 50% of the time, right? Which would imply that Stevens is old enough to have voted since 2011. Alternatively, this is more likely a misleading way of interpreting the text. That's probably more likely. I went the other way though because because being more precise in the use of language is important. Let's take a look at NZ's tax brackets:
Up to $14,000...................................... 10.5%
Over $14,000 and up to $48,000......... 17.5%
Over $48,000 and up to $70,000......... 30%
Remaining income over $70,000........ 33%
So, we assume that Stevens is pushing $70,000 but isn't quite there? And is paying... not very much on that somewhat less than $22,000? Is this an entry level salary? It doesn't seem like it? What stage of life is Amy Stevens at anyway? Remember this as we skip some paragraphs to get to...
However, one policy that concerns me is free tertiary education, and the extra $50 a week students are getting in their pockets for living costs. 
It hurts that those just out of university - with student loan debts of  $50,000 to $70,000 to our names - are left to foot the bill. 
Okay, I don't believe Stevens for a moment, here. Neither should you.

The typical degree in NZ is three years long. I did a conjoint so it took four. In fact, I did a conjoint purely funded by Studylink and with more courses than required. I managed $42,000-ish. That's quite some way off Stevens' lower range. It might even include what I am doing now... which is a fifth year of study. Let's see some aggregate data.
Students were leaving university with an average of between $16,600 and $17,220 of debt, with bachelor students tending to have the largest volume of borrowing, the report found.
That's like half of what I've got. But the same article also includes:
The average loan balance at June 30 was close to $21,000, the report said, while the average time it takes a graduate to repay their loan is now 8.4 years.
Presumably by average they're reporting means, which they shouldn't be. Mean values are highly sensitive to outliers and skewed data... both of which are to be expected with money related variables. If we go to the actual report, the median is more like $15,000. And if you look at page 32 you'll see that on 30 June 2016 only 6.3% of students had loans of more than $50,000. And that number barely changed for 30 June 2017 (page 38).

Amy Stevens... you are talking out of your arse.

Now, it obviously follows that people are getting hysterical the other way. Student Loan Doom is a feature of the USA a lot more than it is here.

I have $40,000 in debt, yes, but it's interest free. And I am in a small minority... 85% of people have loans of less than 40k and 50% less than 15k. We're not loading up people with debts so great as to cause access problems. And given that these are interest free... well, ask a financial adviser if there's a difference between $40,000 with and without interest.

The access problem that we actually have in NZ is regarding living costs. There are eight or something like that universities in NZ. All of them are in fairly major cities and two are in Auckland... across the road from each other. To go to university you need:

  • to move
  • to live within a reasonable distance of a university (in zone, if you will)
  • to live along a major transport artery and tolerate a long commute (me)
  • have a very, very long commute

Three of these options are burdensome. The first and fourth obviously induce pressures which can compromise the programme of study. That's not good from our human capital perspective. You might even argue that so does the third. To be honest, the train is a drag some weeks and some days.

Fees free education when divorced from compulsory education is the definition of middle class welfare. It makes living life according to middle class sensibilities free for the wealth (middle and upper) classes. For everyone else it doesn't materially impact the burdens that they actually suffer. Notice, for instance, which schools are close to university? High Decile and private schools.
My friends and I all felt relatively well off at university. In fact, we now appear less well off as entry-level workers.
With many of my friends working 'cashies' outside their 9-5 (we wish) jobs, I'm not sure there are enough hours in the day for the echo boomers to subsidise students for their study - or rather, their lifestyle.
A lot of people have a big problem with anecdotes. I don't. I know the actual issue with anecdotes is generalisability.

Most of the data that we talk about is just a collection of lots and lots of anecdotes. I have $40,000 of debt... that's an anecdote. If you add my anecdotal experience together with lots of similar ones in a systematic fashion? Now we have a dataset.

It's kind of okay to use anecdotes, then. So long as you're not talking about evidence gathering and let us know some basic details, the anecdotes can be used to shape a discussion.

Stevens isn't talking about evidence gathering. She's mentioning that her friends feel cash stretched. Well, okay, if we knew any details about you or them we'd be able to do something with this. But there's a big difference between someone who finished uni in 2010 and someone who finished in 2017. We need to know this sort of information. Especially when you've already made very, very misleading statement.

As it is, Stevens' friends have nothing to say.
What’s more, the extra students going to university for the 'free ride' will only devalue our education system and flood the New Zealand labour market. It will become more and more difficult to distinguish between a highly skilled worker and a free rider.
That's not what a free rider is.

In economics the free rider problem occurs when you have someone who is able to claim the benefits of a product without the producer's being able to exclude them. If you don't pay any taxes and your country gets invaded, you free ride off your defence forces. If you catch a train which has no fare control measures without paying, you're kind of free riding... even if that's what you're literally doing. Free riders aren't people who consume products that cost $0.

The jargon that Steven is actually after here is "good type" for "highly skilled worker" and "bad type" for "free rider". And the concept she's after is signalling. The introductory problem is known as the market for lemons (i.e. dodgy second hand cars).

The basic argument is that going to university and paying is something that only good types will do. In the extreme version, the fact of attending university does absolutely nothing other than affirm good type-ness. As long as we make a few assumptions about behaviour, the bad types will always prefer to do something other than go to university. As a consequence, anyone who has a university degree has to be a good type.

If you're paying attention you'll notice this isn't quite the same as saying "highly skilled worker". In fact, it usually means someone that will be a decent (not dodgy) employee.

If we start to believe that university education actually improves skills, then we believe that we can make good types into better types. And hence we believe that we can make bad types into better types too... medium or even good types, right?

Because university is only a signal, when you make it free you stop the good types from being able to indicate their superior quality. As a consequence, bad types are able to enter the market and vie for jobs they would previously have been totally shut out of. Worst case scenario, the good types don't even find it worth going to university any more and the whole house of cards (sorry, market) collapses completely. (Woah, you mean self interest can cause market failure? B-but National said... sorry, mate, National positioned itself as the economically aware party but that was just fake news; they're a bad type.*)

In the real world we know this isn't true.

Going to university doesn't indicate good typeness. Sticking with it for three years and passing courses, does. Making university free doesn't change this. And in the right contexts, we might find that good types and bad types are currently both motivated rationally and selfishly to go anyway. Which is to say, it's unclear if this will change anything.

Furthermore, you don't have to do just the three years. There are plenty of options which will leave you at university for a longer period of time. If university is strictly about signalling and costs, you're able to substitute time for money. This can be seen as a way of interpreting marks as well. Employers aren't stupid. They know that putting in the time is associated with good types only and better marks.

I am also not convinced that universities are nothing more than "signal mills". I believe that I know more and have more mental tools now than when I started this blog. I know for a fact that there are ways of looking at the world that I would never have encountered if it weren't for courses I've taken. And, sure, the content is available elsewhere (online etc.) but that doesn't mean that my awareness of these things didn't stem from uni.

In the ideal world, you start off not knowing anything and by the end of the process you haven't noticed that you know more. If you're doing a PhD, you probably didn't struggle much ever. And it's the people with PhDs who shape our understanding of human capital versus signalling theory more than anyone else...

tl;dr -- a university education has an absolute value, and that's never devalued by others having one too
The free education incentive should be focused solely on industries where workers are needed, for example construction and trade. Perhaps then we wouldn't have to resort to immigration measures and could continue growing New Zealand as a small and open economy.
Irony.

Amy Stevens, you're an idiot. And if anyone doesn't want me to call her that, she shouldn't say dumb things. And by extension, if I don't want people to call me an idiot, I shouldn't say dumb things. I don't think I have. Somehow, I think Amy Stevens thought that too, though.**


* Yes, our analysis does suggest that if a bad type is able to win the most votes in an election, it's very unlikely there are any good types.


**Note... there's another concept related to signalling (i.e. another key idea in the analysis of adverse selection) which I don't recall the name of. I have suppressed such cautionary disclaimers both out of confidence and also as a means of making this link make sense.