Monday 31 December 2012

2012: the year in review

2012 has come to a close, and we're still waiting for the doomsday predictions in the Mayan calendar. With all that aside, here's to 2013.

The Mega Conspiracy & Pacific Fibre

Kim Dotcom appears to have started turning the tables on the MAFIAA and its hangers-on. He's won the right to sue the authorities involved, And his latest venture, simply named Mega, is not too far off.

More interestingly still, he's thought out loud of resurrecting the Pacific Fibre proposal, which was abandoned by its original backers due to insufficient capital. One of my customers has theorised, with some justification, that Pacific Fibre was just an elaborate warning shot to Telecom's Southern Cross Cable. Given that NZ's internet traffic is largely global, a second undersea cable is probably a more pressing priority than a domestic fibre network. Dotcom's proposal to enact it in practice remains to be seem.

Journalism vs churnalism

The Leveson Inquiry reported back its findings on the Hackgate affair, and it's recommended a new independent regulatory agency. Needless to say, it's caused some polarisation. Hacked Off, the NGO representing those whose privacy has been invaded by the News of the World and other tabloid outlets, are in support. More interestingly still, support for Hacked Off came from the most unlikely quarter - Salman Rushdie. Reporters Without Borders favours a proceed with caution approach. Closer to home, the Law Commission has explored similar territory but for different reasons.

Critics of the Leveson Inquiry suspect it's a slippery slope to state control of the British media, and therefore, censorship. Such negative reactions have tended to come from those profiting handsomely from sensationalism, who argue they're just meeting public demand. Additionally, they tend to gloss over the incestuous relationship between politicians, law enforcement and tabloid reporters that characterised Hackgate. Kenan Malik has a far more nuanced argument against the Leveson Inquiry - that it attacks the symptom rather than the toxic culture underpinning publications like News of the World. Sir Joh's Queensland is a case in point of what could happen when media regulations are misused for outright censorship.

A free Fourth Estate is vital to holding public figures to account, but Hackgate has exposed the ethical bankruptcy of many media proprietors. In fact, Hackgate was exposed in the first place by Nick Davies of The Guardian, through good old-fashioned investigative journalism. A Press Council/BSA structure with much sharper teeth would be ideal, particularly where rulings tend to be buried on a sidebar in page 9. The closest match would probably be Denmark and Finland, which have been ranked at the top of Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index but still have official statute underpinning it. The rise of the blogosphere adds another dimension into the mix, but chances are it won't displace traditional media just yet.

Gun politics

The spree killing of primary school kids in Sandy Hook, Connecticut by a mentally unhinged young man re-ignited the gun politics debate in America - still raw from the Aurora shootings and the Trayvon Martin incident - with conflicting reports on whether the National Rifle Association was gaining or losing members. It was too much for even Rupert Murdoch. And the Sandy Hook shooter's mother - herself one of the victims - was a 'prepper' survivalist who died in the most ironic manner - her own cache of guns ended up being used against her. And preppers are the very people that NRA president Wayne La Pierre appeal to.

Things came to a head when CNN anchor and former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan went ballistic on Gun Owners of America president Larry Pratt. Morgan isn't renowned for his subtlety or good character, but he wasn't afraid to call a spade a fucking shovel on the Sandy Hook tragedy. Despite a petition to have him deported from the States, Morgan has refused to get cold feet. And if it's anything to go by, Pratt makes the NRA look like Mahatma Gandhi. He's hobnobbed with white supremacists and religious fundamentalists in the recent past, despite denials to the contrary.

Video games and movies have long been scapegoated by gun lobbyists for spree shootings. Yet other industrialised nations play the very same games and watch the very same movies that the Americans do, and still have much lower gun homicide rates - and general homicide rates for that matter. Michael Moore had a point in Bowling for Columbine when he observed that Columbine shooters Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold were ten-pin bowling enthusiasts, so should bowling be banned because it makes people go on spree shootings? The classic Hitler Ate Sugar fallacy never seems to go away.

It's also far easier to kill with an automatic rifle than with a knife. A deranged man in China attempted to stab a couple of dozen school kids earlier this year, yet there was not a single fatality.

So why are automatic firearms legally allowed to be purchased domestically in America, but not other industrialised nations? Certainly not for hunting - even a powerful enough 12-gauge can bring the angriest grizzly bear to heel. And not one of these rifles has known to be used in self-defence - pistols usually have that covered, and even then that's been the exception rather than the rule.
Outside of the battlefields of Afghanistan and Normandy, there's a school of thought that the real purpose of possessing assault rifles is survivalist paranoia. Specifically two reasons: overthrowing a "tyrannical government", which was a real threat when the 2nd Amendment was drafted in 1776, but comes across as conspiracy theory fantasy today; and race war, one of the primary fears of a chauvinist born-to-rule order facing the weakening of its monopoly on power.

2 + 2 = 5

The Novopay debacle continues to leave teachers in the lurch, and for good reason. Already, the Education Secretary Lesley Longstone has resigned, not long after she was parachuted into the role from Britain. Education Minister Hekia Parata effectively continues to deny responsibility, blaming everyone but herself.

In true Orwellian fashion, the ruling Government's promises to reverse the "brain-drain" in 2008 with tax cuts has been double-spoken into a "brain exchange". NZ has always had restless youth visiting and working overseas, and often returning and bringing back valuable know-how. But to imply that taxation alone drives talented NZers overseas is a cynical exercise in saying black is white, given we're at the lower end of the OECD taxation scale. Even if NZ reduced its taxation levels to that of, say, Monaco, NZers would still go overseas. For the simple fact that there are only 2 degrees of separation among us, and we've long been a couple of small islands in the middle of a large natural moat. We'll never be London or Los Angeles or Sydney, and nor should we delude ourselves that we can pray to the cargo cult and become them.

We can, however, carve our own niche in the wider world. The Internet has reduced our distance to the world and fostered innovation somewhat, but it's still at the whim of a cartellised communications sector. And the prevailing economic orthodoxy in NZ goes a long way to explaining NZ's relatively high living costs - it's not really pro-business, but pro-cartel. Those who conspire to keep it in place would do well to read Book I, Chapter X, Part II of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations:
"People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty or justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary."

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Anti-PC gone mad

I've previously posted about my satirical efforts ruffling feathers. Recent complaints about Powershop's latest "same power, different attitude" advert have prompted me to go into further detail on the phenomenon known as 'anti-PC gone mad'. The Powershop advert in question depicts the Pope marrying a same-sex couple, in keeping with the company's irreverent themes of free consumer choice. It's gotten up the nose of the local Catholic Church, Family First, and anti-abortionists, among others. Which is a bit rich, given Family First especially has made its raison d'être to complain about PC gone mad destroying society.

Not too long ago, there were whines about 'political correctness gone mad', in which a reasoned debate couldn't be engaged without accusations of redneckery or wowserism. If anything, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme - it's difficult to engage in a debate without being labelled 'politically correct' or a 'bleeding heart', or words to that effect. It's like an echo of Senator McCarthy's Red Scare witch-hunts, if not a direct descendant.
The anti-PC gone mad brigade have been egged on by reactionary sympathisers in talkback media like Rush Limbaugh - who reputedly made the term 'political correctness' infamous - although the phone-hacking scandal that derailed the News of the World, and the subsequent Leveson Inquiry, could prove a turning point.

To name just a few examples of anti-PC gone mad:

  • Massey university scientist Mike Joy has copped flak simply for being a bit too honest about the state of New Zealand's rivers. PR hack Mark Unsworth has compared him to the 'foot-and-mouth disease of the tourism industry', and blogger turned Truth NZ editor WhaleOil has called for him to be taken to the firing squad for 'economic sabotage'. Talk about attacking the symptom.
  • Actors' Equity official Todd Rippon has been sacked as a tour guide on the basis of rumours alone, in the wake of the Hobbit industrial controversy.
  • Paul Henry's departure from TVNZ's Breakfast in 2011 over his dissing of Sheila Dikshit and Anand Satyanand split the nation down the middle. People either thought Henry was a victim of PC gone mad, or they thought he made the nation look like backwater hicks.
  • A safe sex advert in Brisbane - and a perfectly SFW one too - was removed after a complaint by the Australian Christian Lobby, much to the disgust of almost everyone else.
  • A 7-year-old girl put in the naughty corner because her parents opted out of a fundamentalist religious studies class.
  • A more laughable example of anti-PC gone mad is the American Family Association's Web site filter, which notoriously invoked the Scunthorpe problem by replacing every occurrence of 'gay' with 'homosexual'. As a result, an article on athlete Tyson Gay was instead about 'Tyson Homosexual'.
  • Another laughable example: the reaction of fundies to any billboard by St Matthews in the City in Auckland. They seem to dismiss it as not being a real church, when their own churches are often of the nouveau riche mega-church variety.

Taken to its logical conclusion, anti-PC gone mad has, in very rare cases, gone as far as mass political murder. And when it happens, the usual suspects, in typical No True Scotsman fashion, simplistically dismiss it as the kind of thing only Reds and Koran-thumpers do. Anders Breivik and Timothy McVeigh come to mind.

Video blogger Moviebob has deconstructed anti-PC gone mad in his Big Picture video, "Correctitude". Closer to home, Steve Kilgallon described urban myths being taken as fact - such as Baa Baa Black Sheep being renamed Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep - to the point where "they're all rubbish, but 1984 has finally come to pass: we're all stupid enough to believe them". Libertarian writer Jim Peron, who lived in NZ for a few years and is no fan of political correctness himself, has previously written of a "new anti-PC problem".

So, what do haters of 'political correctness' hold sacred? The most obvious answer is a 1950s utopia which never really existed to begin with. A utopia where petrol grows on trees, everything was stable and whitebread, mum stayed home in the car-dependent suburbs to raise the kids, dad brought home the bacon, everyone saluted the national flag and put their trust in the police and military, society's misfits were out of sight and out of mind, and the 'civilised and savage' were clearly identifiable. More likely, it was some kind of Stepford paradise that couldn't last, as the upheavals of Vietnam, Watergate and economic globalisation in the subsequent decades illustrated. Black-and-white solutions no longer worked in a world increasingly shaded in gray.

If there's one common thread tying the anti-PC gone mad brigade together, it's a sense of preserving the old born-to-rule order at any cost. Anti-PC gone mad, it seems, is the new PC-gone-mad - it has effectively become what it hates.