Lefty book reviews: Don’t Buy It

books

It’s more Post-It than book, at this stage.

Where to start with Anat Shenker-Osorio’s Don’t Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About The Economy?

This review seems redundant, because literally every person I’ve encountered in the past year has been subjected to my near-evangelist recommendation of it. I don’t know every lefty in New Zealand (despite what Matthew Hooton might think); I just feel like I’ve said this all before.

And I have. Even before I read Don’t Buy It, or developed my slightly unhealthy adoration of its author. If you’ve read many of my posts about narrative and language and rejecting centrism, you’ll hear a lot of the same themes. I flatter myself that great minds think alike.

That’s my bias: I agree with pretty much everything Anat Shenker-Osorio has ever said, and firmly believe that unless the mainstream leftwing movement starts doing things differently, we’re not going to build the mass support we need to fundamentally change our world.

Anat Shenker-Osorio is a strategic communications expert and research from the USA, who’s worked with American and Australian trade unions, our own CTU, and a range of progressive organisations in the US. In October 2015 she ran workshops in New Zealand with commsy-type people from the CTU, trade unions, and the Green Party. That’s where I first met her, and the rest is fangirl history.

The book is fundamentally about language. The messages we send, not just with our policies or campaigns, but the metaphor and subtext of every slogan, speech and press release.

The point is we’re doing it wrong.

Look at the global financial crisis of 2008. A tremendous opportunity to highlight the basic problems of capitalism. A time when practically everyone on Earth was ready to do things differently because the system was clearly broken. What happened? The banks got bailed out. The world kept turning.

Why? Because the content of our messages might have been bang on, but the delivery wasn’t. As an example, Shenker-Osorio addresses the “global financial crisis” itself:

We often think about crises as sudden, unpredictable turns of events. Think of the common usages of this concept, like midlife crisis and identity crisis. These are generally unanticipated alterations of behaviour. … We never saw that coming.

We don’t necessarily look for a solution to emerge … nor are we out looking for someone to blame for what happened. In fact, we might be tempted to believe the situation will right itself …

Thus, our frequent reliance on the phrase “economic crisis” most likely does not establish the necessary idea that this was a long time coming, people in power made it happen, and we need to act deliberately to change course.

It seems pedantic. It’s very word-nerdy. And the kinds of people who always get up in arms when progressives start critiquing language may ask “who even cares?”

It’s true. Most people don’t think this deeply about the language they hear. But they’re still picking up the subtext, and if the subtext is reinforcing the right’s way of thinking about how the world works – that the 2008 crash just happened, that nothing’s fundamentally wrong, that no one could have seen it coming – they’re never going to find our solutions credible. We’re fighting “that’s just the way things are.”

Think about the naturalistic ways we talk about “the economy”: it grew. It shrank. Jobs were lost. Wages sank. All this just happens for no reason. There’s nothing we can do about it.

Think about “the top 10%”. How strongly we associate “top” with “good”. It’s much easier for the right to say the wealthy are more hardworking and deserving when we reinforce the idea that they’re better than us.

It’s not just metaphors. The left loves the passive voice – “inequality must be addressed”, “reforms are needed”, “the policy will need to be reviewed”. We feel like we’ve taken a real stand – yet said nothing. We don’t name the villains – we paint people as victims of a terrible faceless system.

At the end (because language is vital, but it isn’t the only thing) Shenker-Osorio presents a set of four powerful policies to redefine key parts of the economy – and re-set our expectations of how it should work and who it should work for. They’re US-specific, but the idea of putting forward audacious, groundbreaking strategies backed up by strong, coherent messages is immensely important.

Because we’ve been afraid for too long. Buying into the language and framing of our opponents has felt lovely and safe. We want to sound grown-up and mature like those serious businessmen politicians. But that’s why we’re losing, and that’s why we have to change how we do things. As the book concludes:

Progressives must stop humming in a blandly nonoffensive alto. Regardless of what we do or say, our opponents will call us wildly out of touch and wacky, so we might as well have some fun and say what we actually mean. It’s shockingly difficult for us to speak from our worldview, accustomed as we’ve become to walking the fictional middle line. We’re losing so much ground in every battle, it feels scary to “go out on a limb” and come out swinging for what we believe. But make no mistake: continuing to do the same things and expecting different outcomes is a madness we don’t have the time to indulge.

dont buy itFor such detailed and challenging subject matter, Don’t Buy It is an immensely readable book. It’s optimistic, even as it tells us that we’re doing things wrong. It offers a clear path forward. I hope progressives here and all over the world choose to take it.

Bookdepository link here; also available from Unity Books.

More about Anat Shenker-Osorio at her website.

Watch her address to the 2015 CTU conference on YouTube.

Wellington mayoral candidates on The Nation

I dragged myself out of bed at the ungodly hour of 9am* to get the coffee on before The Nation this morning. If you missed this very revealing look at the six (current) mayoral candidates for Wellington City, fortunately @nkean has immortalised the tweetstorm that ensued for posterity. Check out the Storify post here.

*Parents with small children or school kids with sporting fixtures, form an orderly queue to hurl tomatoes at me.

Rugby culture does not have to be a toxic dump of bigotry

Sigh.

Chiefs players also hired a stripper on the night one of them was caught chanting a homophobic slur toward teammates.

Franchise bosses have confirmed a stripper was engaged by players for their post-season get-together at a Waikato hot pool and said he was “Very disappointed” and conceded the two incidents weren’t a good look for the professional sports franchise.

I agree. It’s not a “good look”. But not for any of the reasons Chiefs CEO Andrew Flexman thinks.

Because the problem is not, in fact, “the Chiefs hired a stripper.” Hiring a stripper, taboo and saucy as it may seem, is a very common, dare one say “normal” part of Western culture.

The problem is that the Chiefs hired a stripper, then crossed her professional and personal boundaries – and yes, those boundaries are still valid, even more valid, for sex workers.

And there’s a wider problem, but it’s not “the Chiefs hired a stripper, which is embarrassing and unprofessional, the very same night Michael Allardice was a homophobic git to his teammates, which got bad headlines.”

The wider problem is that the Chiefs in particular, and our rugby culture in general, has been (once again) exposed as a hotbed of sexism, homophobia, and small-minded bigotry.

What we’re dealing with here is the concept of toxic masculinity. No, it doesn’t mean “all masculinity is toxic” or “all men are sexist pigs”; it’s a very specific set of assumptions and attitudes which are incredibly harmful to everyone in a society. A few completely random examples of these attitudes are:

  • Real Men are heterosexual.
  • Real Men are sexually aggressive.
  • The worst thing that could happen to a Real Man is for someone to think he’s weak. Or gay.
  • Therefore, a Real Man will treat women, especially sex workers, as objects rather than human beings.
  • And also deflect attention and undermine other men by implying they’re gay, especially if they engage in non-strictly-masculine behaviour.

selena gomez just saying

Now, people may say “oh, nobody at the Chiefs intended to reinforce awful narrow-minded notions about women, masculinity, sex work and sexuality” but those people need to re-read the excuse Andrew Flexman came up with to excuse his players’ obnoxious behaviour:

But Flexman strongly denied the allegations of improper behaviour, saying the franchise had independent witnesses who saw nothing untoward toward the woman.

“You have got to remember this is one person’s accusation and her standing in the community and culpability is not beyond reproach,” Flexman said.

“Her standing in the community is not beyond reproach.” On what basis does he make this judgement call? Well, obviously. She’s a stripper. Not a real human being who can be trusted to say whether or not her professional and personal boundaries were transgressed.

It’s the basic sexual double standard. Women who strip for money? Deviant, unworthy of protection or dignity. The men who pay money to watch a woman strip? Phwoar, yeah, red-blooded, pure testosterone, etc.

Men who use homophobic slurs and abuse sex workers? Especially when they’re rugby-playing men? Well, look, obviously it’s not a good look or anything but obviously nothing serious happened. They were just doing what Real Men do.

You can see this whole attitude reflected in the article. “Chiefs in hot water” – not “Chiefs players disgrace themselves”. Why? “Over stripper fracas”. Not “Over acting like pigs.” Not “By assaulting a sex worker.” This headline practically screams, “this is not a serious story.” Its subtext is simple: sure, yes, the PC Brigade are going to complain but there’s no big story here, it’s just a little PR boo-boo.

Still, maybe we should hold judgement until that well-known arbiter of sexism in sport, unrepentant convicted abuser Tony Veitch, gives us his two cents on the matter.

Like the headline says: our rugby culture does not have to be a toxic pool of radioactive misogyny and homophobia. It is entirely possible to enjoy sport, or play sport, as a competitive athletic endeavour of teamwork and skill and not act like a pack of vicious insecure bullies. Men don’t have to prove they’re Real Men through aggressively signalling “I AM A PERFECTLY NORMAL HETEROSEXUAL” by groping sex workers and shouting homophobic slurs.

There’s no such thing as one true model of A Real Man.

But if there were, it wouldn’t look like Andrew Flexman or his sad little rugby team.

A change underway in local government?

Things feel pretty bleak on the left these days. It seems like the forces of short-sighted self-centered capitalism reign supreme, that darned mainstream media isn’t asking the questions we want them to (and only the questions we want them to), and those blasted voters just aren’t getting the message.

Besides, it’s a local government election year, and literally no one cares about local body politics. Right?

scrubs wrong

Wrong, apparently. The Spinoff, which is basically my main source of news and great TV reviews these days, didn’t just manage to raise $10,000 to do some honest-to-god active campaigning journalism focused on Auckland’s unitary plan, council elections and housing crisis. They raised it in 17 hours. As of typing up this post they’re sitting at over $23,000.

Turns out “the people” do know good media when they see it, and are willing to stump up the cash. I mean, who wouldn’t pay for regular video content of Shamubeel Eaqub calling bullshit on things?

It makes me feel hopeful. Not just that we’ll get solid, in-depth reporting on the future of Auckland for the next few months, but that this can set a tremendous precedent for political engagement and how our media operate – instead of having to rely on clickbait and churn to get those ad impressions up.

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There’s also a change happening in the capital, with the National Party all-but-outright endorsing a mayoral candidate in the Wellington race. National have always had proxy candidates in the capital – Nicola Young, even Nick Leggett if those much-denied only-Whaleoil-seems-to-have-heard-them rumours about his fundraising are true. In Auckland, the Citizens & Ratepayers group or whatever they’re called these days was always deep blue (and Labour and the Greens have taken the same approach in the big city with united brands like City Vision and Future West.) And it’s perfectly understandable for Bill English to say nice things about Jo Coughlan, given they’re in-laws.

But then you look at what English did say – not just “Jo’s a mate and I think she’d be a great mayor”, but quite baldly, “wouldn’t it be nice if you had the right kind of mayor, and then I could give you aaaaaaaaall this money”. You look at the fact that National have unsubtly asked their members for money for her campaign. You see John Key, a man painfully precise about how his image is used (even if we on the left think he makes terrible choices in that regard) posing for a friendly snap with Coughlan at the flash opening of the new David Jones department store:

This isn’t the usual “if you know Wellington politics you know who the Tories are and who the lefties are, even though everyone calls themselves an Independent” variety of partisanship. Though the field is more crowded by the day, and no cups of tea have been publicly consumed, the hopes of the Right to get a friendly mayor into Wellington are clearly pinned on Team Jo.

It may not be the smartest move. Wellington is a pretty solid Labour/Greens town. But it obviously irks the Parliamentary right to have the city council in their own back yard doing silly things like holding onto assets and not building ALL THE ROADS. They have to unite around someone if they’re going to defeat the incumbent mayor (Wade-Brown) and a well-resourced Labour ticket (Lester) on the preferences. So “go, Jo” it is.

US ship visits are about compliance, not maturity

Via Radio NZ:

On Thursday, United States Vice President Joe Biden confirmed during a meeting with Prime Minister John Key in Auckland that America would send a ship to the New Zealand Navy’s 75th anniversary celebrations.

The US has not sent a naval ship since 1983, as it refuses to say whether its ships are nuclear-armed, as required by New Zealand’s nuclear-free law.

Our law is simple enough. You want to send military vessels into our waters, you tell us whether they’re nuclear-armed. You don’t, you can’t. We’re told officials will “assess” whether this one complies with the law. How? Are they wizards?

I’m not surprised our government is keen to get an American warship here, and act like it’s no big deal. John Key has always been clear that he wants to be Obama’s bestie, that New Zealand is part of “the club” and has to pay its dues and look deferential.

But this is a big deal. So I’m more surprised by David Shearer’s comments:

New Zealand and America could now move beyond that chapter in their relationship, with their heads held high.

It would be easy to work out whether the ship complied with the law, he said.

Apparently David Shearer is also a wizard. But on “moving beyond that chapter”, I have an alternative view.

New Zealand’s rejection of nuclear power, and nuclear ship visits, is one of the proudest points of our history. It’s on the great list of Times We Stood Against The World Because We’re Scrappy Little Fighters Who Do What’s Right along with opposing French nuclear tests in the Pacific, not going into Iraq in 2003, and (although this remains a divisive topic, progressives still take pride in) opposing the Springbok Tour.

The images of mass protests on land and water against US vessels entering our ports are a literally iconic part of our progressive heritage.

nuclear ship visits

I realise that’s uncomfortable for people who have a different stance on our place in the world – that we need to prove we’re mature enough to sit at the grown-up table in our suits and ties, and that our great international achievements should be measured by how many fancy titles our retired politicians can win, rather than how many powerful noses we’ve tweaked.

Or as Kerre McIvor put it:

For the young ones, however, those born around the time the no-nukes legislation was passed, they have far more pressing concerns – like finding a job, paying off a student loan, finding an affordable home. This isn’t their issue. But for those of us who lived through that time, the visit by a US Navy ship is a big deal. And a sign that not only have we grown up. But that the US has too.

I was one year old when our government rejected a visit by the USS Buchanan. Three-and-a-half when the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act came into effect. And I can chew gum and think about our country’s role in international politics at the same time.

This ship visit is a power move. It’s a way for the United States to call dibs on our loyalty, and reinforce to us plebs that they’re our benevolent boss. It’s a way to impose a new narrative on our country’s relationship to the US – a willing member of whatever the next coalition will be.

The world hasn’t fundamentally changed since the 70s and 80s. The USA still wants to spread and secure its influence over as much of the world as possible, to build alliances against its ideological foes. Its allies risk becoming targets.

If the United States has “grown up” in terms of foreign policy, it is only by doing exactly the same thing it’s always done, just with bigger weapons and more massive civilian casualties.

I’d rather stay at the kids’ table.

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By great luck, I hadn’t written this up before I went to the world premier (fancy!) of The 5th Eye, a new Kiwi documentary on … well, everything. Echelon, drone strikes, our military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the raid on Kim Dotcom’s house, our nuclear-free policy, the “attack” on the Waihopai spy base in 2008, Edward Snowden, and yes. Ship visits.

All these threads are tied together with brilliant clarity and our governments – several of them – don’t come off particularly well. About the only person who manages to make John Key look good is Jonathan Coleman, whose cringing obsequiousness as our Minister of Defence is just humiliating.

If you have a chance to see The 5th Eye at the NZ International Film Festival this month, go. You certainly won’t think positively about a US warship visiting our harbours after you do.

Now if only we had a major Opposition party willing to stand up and say “there is an alternative”.

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Here’s a pair of Kiwi tracks to get you in a good mood for Monday: