Memo to Self: Don't Get into Twitter Fights

Touch wood, since I stopped drinking eight years ago, I haven't yet relapsed.  But I imagine the feelings of shame and remorse that would follow such a bender are not dissimilar to how I feel moments after I exit a Twitter fight with someone. I really wish I wouldn't do it – and, to be fair, it's a rare occurrence. Social media scraps unleash parts of my personality that I am mostly able to keep under control. It's an ugly version of me who takes over the keyboard, and it gives me insight into the psychopathology of Internet trolls. 

The latest one involved this guy who posted something about an article I wrote. He did the usual – took stuff out of context, conjured straw man arguments, failed to engage with the substance of what I said, etc. – and I sent him a single tweet in the heat of my objection: fairly bloody dishonest, I said. (I'm not providing the links to any of this because it's not important: the substantive part of the disagreement related to how Labour in New Zealand arranges internal ballots – I support proportionality, he doesn't. BFD, amirite?).

He responded in own defence, to which (sensibly, I thought)  I replied that I didn't want to get into a pissing contest; he prodded me some more, said I was "running away". I should've just sat in the Lotus position and said "yeah, I'm running away. Ommm" – but, no, my stupid male ego got pricked, and off I went. What followed was an extended back and forth of exactly the kind I wanted to avoid – and yet it was at least equally my fault since I tweeted of my offense when I read his blog post when I could've just shut my stupid mouth.  

Once you start a war of words on Twitter, it's hard to stop. He flung the whole lot at me – taunts, petty insults (including the classic "Yawn") imputations of motive, you get the picture. By now, my social media monster had taken over and was dishing it out, too. 

Ugh. How unattractive. 

Must not do that again.  

Essay: Islamophobia in Me

The repudiation of bigotry in the same breath as its rabid espousal — “ I’m not racist, but…” — is a mainstay of human discourse.  “No one could call me antisemitic,” George Orwell quoted a ‘middle-class woman’  saying in 1945,  "but I do think the way these Jews behave is too absolutely stinking.” In his essay,  Antisemitism in Britain, Orwell notes that the tendency to consider ourselves immune makes it harder to grasp prejudice: 

“Since I know that antisemitism is irrational,” [the intellectual] argues, “it follows that I do not share it.” He thus fails to start his investigation in the one place where he could get hold of some reliable evidence — that is, in his own mind. 

Orwell’s essay prompted me to consider whether my exasperation with the term Islamophobia, and with its constant deployment by people who seem to want other people to shut up, has distracted me from examining whether or not hostility towards Islam and its adherents has infected me. Have I fallen into the  “I’m not a bigot but...” trap? Am I — a liberal, progressive, secular, humanist, card-carrying leftie — an Islamophobe

First, my objections to the term itself. 

‘Islamophobia' seems to conflate two distinct concepts: the rejection, or criticism, of Islam as a religion; and animosity towards Muslims themselves. While Neo-Nazi thugs and god-fearing Christian ignoramuses probably hold both views at once, most people have no trouble grasping the distinction: we can reject Islam – in the same way I do all the Abrahamic faiths – without having the slightest problem with Muslim believers. In the same light, I consider Joseph Smith a stupendous fraud, and his made-up religion laughable, but I cannot think of a single Mormon whose company I didn’t enjoy. If there are adherents of Islam (or Mormonism, for that matter) who choose to take personal umbrage at my rejection of their belief system, it is a topsy-turvy moral universe that casts me, and not them, as the bigot of the piece. Iranian feminist and ex-Muslim activist Maryam Namazie  seems to have a point when she argues that accusations of Islamophobia often appear designed to “silence dissenters and defend Islamism as a defence of ‘Muslims’”. 

The term ‘Islamophobia'  troubles me for yet another reason: because all criticism of Islam is construed as an attack on Muslims themselves, and because most Muslims are people of colour, critics are quickly deemed racist. This blurring of religious with ethnic identity is the elegant sophistry that bamboozles large sections of the Left because we live in a society, as John McWhorter  wrote in  The Daily Beast, “where racism is treated as morally equivalent to pedophilia”. By adopting an anti- Islamophobia posture (even if it entails finding excuses for, if not ignoring entirely, the subjugation of women and girls, the persecution of gays and lesbians, and the beheading of nonbelievers), self-identified progressives earn a double-whammy: they avoid dreaded accusations of racism, while accruing the prized right to make the accusation of others. 

All that said, and for all I continue to find the term 'Islamophobia' jarring and imprecise, it shouldn’t prevent me from conducting an honest appraisal of my own prejudices.  

To that end, this is the thought experiment I conducted. 

Imagine a street in a Western city lined with places of worship representing every conceivable denomination.   Say I was to wander down this street, pausing outside every church, synagogue, shrine, temple and mosque as smatterings of the faithful gather to worship.   

Now consider the fact I am gay, and imagine I am not undertaking this unlikely stroll alone — but arm in arm with my boyfriend (who does not exist, but hypothetically might).

Here is my confession: in such a scenario, it is only at the Mosque, instinctively, irrationally perhaps, that I would fear for my safety — and these feelings would strike well before I could summon the intellectual wherewithal to berate myself for religious bigotry. However retrograde or hostile their respective teachings on human sexuality, a Catholic Church, a Jewish synagogue or a Buddhist temple would trigger no such response. I would more likely experience some amalgam of defiance, amusement and smug superiority.  I might even blow a facetious kiss — at least to the Catholics. 

The best course of action might be to banish these visceral intuitions and adopt the more rational-seeming,  certainly politer, belief that the average Muslim is no more likely than people of other faiths to wish or inflict harm on me for my sexuality. And yet I cannot escape the feeling that Islam and its believers present the greater threat.  This is a discomfiting realisation for an otherwise fairly orthodox liberal. 

Are there grounds for my phobia

A University of Amsterdam  study found that  two thirds of the assailants in gay bashing cases in that city are Muslim immigrants, despite making up less than fifteen percent of the population. According to  Pew Research in 2013, only two percent of Pakistani Muslims, and three percent of supposedly moderate Indonesians, support gay rights. When Gallup surveyed 500 British Muslims in 2009, not a single respondent agreed that homosexuality is morally acceptable. Of the ten countries where, in 2015, being gay remains a crime punishable by death,  all are majority Muslim. ISIS fighters cite Sharia law before  hurling allegedly gay men off buildings and stoning them when they fail to die. Aside from images of Mohammed in  Charlie Hebdo, eleven of whose employees were slaughtered by Islamists in January, it was that of  a cartoonist and an Imam locked in a same sex embrace that most alarmed the faithful. 

The preferred path for many on the Left is to look past such travesties and imbibe the dictum that “Islam is a religion of peace”; that atrocities against gays, women and non-believers are caused by geopolitics, socioeconomic deprivation and oil; that Islamist views, however vile to our tender ears, are sincerely held and “deserve respect”. Addressing the rising tide of Muslim violence in Europe, one American journalist and author, Sarah Wildman,  asked, “can’t economic disparity, lack of citizenship, astronomical unemployment, and public transportation that cuts them off at 8 p.m. from the cities they see, but don’t live in, make radical Islam attractive?” To Wildman’s credit, it demonstrates impressive dedication to the liberal cause, not to mention eye-popping rhetorical dexterity, to discern triggers for religious extremism in oppressive bus timetables. 

The price of disavowing such arguments is to risk shaming as an ‘Islamophobe', a cultural imperialist and, god forbid, a neoconservative

Guilty as charged, I guess — at least on the first count.

It is true that I am fearful of what Islam’s true believers appear to have in mind for people like me; and, yes, I’m prepared to concede  if we’re going to insist on the word — that this qualifies as a kind of ‘Islamophobia'.

What I cannot fathom is how turning a blind eye to atrocities against the very groups whose right to a dignified existence has been the abiding cause of the Left for centuries fits any conceivable definition of “progressive”.

I'm not sure Sam Neill knows what 'terrorism' means

Of course I love Sam Neill, the great New Zealand film actor. 

But this tweet has me baffled:

'Terrorist' is not a catch-all term for anyone who commits a heinous act of mass violence. It carries a specific meaning that relates to the motive behind the violence. 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a terrorist as:

A person who uses violent and intimidating methods in the pursuit of political aims; esp. a member of a clandestine or expatriate organization aiming to coerce an established government by acts of violence against it or its subjects.

Neill seems to think that the reason Germanwings co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, is not being called a terrorist is because he is European; and that the (alleged) presence of mental illness is considered an exculpatory factor for a European when it would not be for someone of another ethnicity.

To the extent Neill is saying that many people might quickly deem this a terrorist act if the perpetrator were Muslim, whether or not the individual had a mental disorder, he has a valid point. (Although, we have very recent case in point, MH370, where early rumours of terrorism on the part of Muslim pilots and crew did not withstand the absence of evidence of political or religious motive).  Without any proof, people are wrong, and undeniably bigoted, to assume every crime committed by Muslim is terrorism – just as Neill is wrong, based on what we know so far, to call Lubitz a terrorist.

I am not sure what Neill is really advocating here. Is he saying that, because some people – horrible white oppressors – are too quick to apply the term "terrorist" to Muslims, we should misattribute the term to non-Muslims as well?

A better principle might be to use the word accurately in all instances.   



Piers Morgan's alarmist nonsense contradicted by actual facts about the link between mental illness and violence

I have never cared enough about Piers Morgan to have a strong opinion, but his Daily Mail story about the Germanwings tragedy indicates that the widely held "dickhead" thesis may have some validity. 

He is stoking fear and misconceptions about mental illness. 

A co-pilot with a lengthy history of depression, on medication for his illness, and ignoring a specific doctor’s sick note for the very day he was flying, was allowed to command a plane full of 149 people.

For a start, what I believe we know at this point is that the co-pilot had severe depression six years ago. More information will come out, but this alone does not qualify as "a lengthy history of depression" – it is a single episode. As far as we know. 

Secondly, do we know if the co-pilot was medicated for depression? Is Piers Morgan saying he should not have been medicated? Or that anyone with any history of depression, on anti-depressants or not, represents a clear risk to the flying public?

Does Morgan know that the doctor's note related to a mental health issue?  No one else seems to have this information, including the New York Times whose fact-checking prowess is slightly greater than the former editor of a disgraced tabloid and ex-presenter of a failed talkshow.  This is what the NY Times reports:

The Federal Aviation Office of Germany said on Friday that a medical certificate issued to Mr. Lubitz that allowed him to fly noted that he had a medical condition, although it did not specify whether it was related to a psychological issue.

Furthermore, the Times reports that Lubitz had been twice for "diagnostic evaluation" at Dusseldorf University Hospital, in February and then in March, but that the hospital "but denied reports that the co-pilot had been treated for depression"

So what do we actually know?

Lubitz had a depressive episode six years ago for which he sought and received treatment; he has been evaluated twice for conditions other than depression in recent months; he had a doctor's note for the day of the flight, but we do not know whether that related to depression or any other mental health issue. 

The most egregious aspect of Morgan's rant, of course, is the lazy, implicit assertion that Lubitz's depression, about which he asserts a great deal more that he could possibly know, somehow explains the heinous act of deliberately downing the plane and killing all onboard. 

This is nonsense.

Depression, even severe depression, on its own, does not predict acts of violence, let alone tragedies of this magnitude. 

In 2009, researchers at the  School of Medicine, University of North Carolina, studied the role of mental illness in violence and reported:

The findings challenge the perception some people have, and which you often see reflected in media coverage, that mental illness alone makes someone more dangerous. Our study shows that this perception is just not correct.

The study finds that "only when a person has both mental illness and substance abuse at the same time does that person’s risk of future violence outweigh anyone else’s.” (There is no evidence, at least to date, to suggest substance abuse in the case of Lubitz).

The study finds divorce a greater predictor of violence than mental illness – and, given that some reports estimate the divorce rates among airlines pilots as high as 75 percent, surely none of us should ever fly again. 

After reviewing more than 34,000 cases, the UNC researchers found clear, empirical evidence to reject Piers Morgan-style claims. They concluded their report thus: 

As severe mental illness itself was not shown to sequentially precede later violent acts, the findings challenge perceptions that severe mental illness is a foremost cause of violence in society at large. The data shows it is simplistic as well as inaccurate to say the cause of violence among mentally ill individuals is the mental illness itself; instead, the current study finds that mental illness is clearly relevant to violence risk but that its causal roles are complex, indirect, and embedded in a web of other (and arguably more) important individual and situational cofactors to consider.

In simple terms, Lubitz may have suffered from depression when he set the plane to nosedive, but the suggestion of Piers Morgan (and others, sadly) that his depression means we somehow should have seen it coming – and that depressed people present a grave threat to us all – is simplistic, ignorant, rabble-rousing, scare-mongering, bullshit. 

Gourevitch, somehow, as ever, finds words for impenetrable horror

No-one captures the horror implicit in the revelations about the final minutes of Germanwings Flight 9525 better than Philip Gourevitch in the New Yorker today: 

It’s all there in the sound of Lubitz breathing. The wind of life, the wind of death. That steady soughing tells us all that we know so far, and all that we don’t yet—and may never—know, about this atrocity, the deadliest aviation catastrophe in France in more than three decades. Just as the brevity of the flight, and the apparent spontaneity of the captain’s decision to leave the cockpit—to stretch a leg? or take a piss? or have a chat? We do not know know—tells us that Lubitz could not have planned before he flew that day to crash the plane that way; and just as the locking of the door, and the pushing of the button that brought the plane down, tell us that he acted consciously and deliberately, so Lubitz’s breathing, unbroken by any attempt at speech, tells us that he chose not to explain himself. He knew that he was on the record. What did he think he was doing? What came over him? What possessed him? And why?

Another Round of Jazz Hands for Nick Cohen

As the friend who directed me to the "jazz hands" story said in his email, laughing at student politicians is too easy. It's like shooting bloated, elderly fish in a pint-sized barrel. 

What "jazz hands" story, you ask? Here it is in a nutshell-sized tweet. 

Okay, yes – it's hilarious. It's 'PC gone mad' gone mad. 

What's more, the broader context is worth a giggle as well.

The conference remits include support for:

  • A universal, taxpayer funded income for everyone, roughly equating to £1,500 (or NZD$3,000) per month; and
  • The complete abolition of prisons

As well as admonition for:

  • Gay white men who channel their "inner black women". 

Yes, apparently gay white men are "the dominant demographic within the LGBT community" and it is therefore insulting and offensive for them to adopt mannerisms or language of people further up (or down?) the oppression matrix.  Now, I am not going to quibble about the first assertion – although it did occur to me that whoever thinks gay white men are dominant within the LGBT community must never have seen gay white men and gay white women in the same room – but this insistence on building pyramids of victimhood, with all the attendant finger pointing and identity shaming, seems self-defeating and absurd. 

It's easy – yes, and fun – to mock these extreme examples of PC silliness, but these are the fruits of a deadly tree.  

In yet another brilliant essay in defence of free speech, Nick Cohen attacks the "the tyrannical language of an illiberal intelligentsia so lost in complacency it thinks it no longer needs the rights it once championed". Writing in Standpoint Magazine, Cohen reminds us this culture of dissent crushing and oppressive righteousness is by no means limited to student politicians on an ideological bender. 

Go into the modern university and you won’t hear much about Mill or Milton or the millions around the world who have had to learn the hard way why freedom of speech matters. Instead, you will be fed philosophers far less rigorous than [American legal philosopher Joel] Feinberg. The New Zealander Jeremy Waldron, an Oxford professor from the American university system, which churns out authoritarian philosophers the way Ford churns out cars, suggests speech that attacks the dignity of others should be banned. Stanley Fish of New York dispenses with any pretence that we should respect universal human rights, and descends into power-worship and thuggery. “The only way to fight hate speech is to recognise it as the speech of your enemy,” he says. “And what you do in response to the speech of your enemy is not prescribe a medication for it but attempt to stamp it out.”

As with everything Cohen writes, every word in this essay is worth reading. In particular, I was struck by the clarity with which he defined the problem at the heart of regulating speech – and it's an argument I've never seen successfully rebutted:

Few contemporary theorists grasp that people oppose censorship not because they respect the words of the speaker but because they fear the power of the censor. It is astonishing that professed liberals, of all people, could have torn up the old limits, when they couldn’t answer the obvious next question: who decides what is offensive? 

As we go about scrubbing the world clean of offensive speech, who gets to decide what stays or goes? The National Union of Students? The mufti, priest or rabbi down the street? State-appointed censors? You? Me? As Cohen points out, when it comes to protecting the right to unpopular or controversial speech, majority sentiment is an atrocious guide: 

If it is the representatives of a democracy, you have the tyranny of the majority to discriminate against “offensive” homosexuals, for instance. If it is a dictatorship, you have the whims of the ruling tyrant or party—which will inevitably find challenges to its rule and ideology offensive. If it is public or private institutions, they will decide that whistleblowers must be fired for damaging the bureaucracy, regardless of whether they told the truth in the public interest. If it is the military, they will suppress pictures of torture for fear of providing aid to the enemy. If it is the intelligence services they will say that leaks about illegal surveillance must be stopped because they might harm national security, just as pornography might harm women. Why should they have to prove it, when liberals have assured them that there is no need to demonstrate actual damage?

Maybe what's acceptable speech or not should be determined by how offended the offended party feels:

Perhaps the vehemence of the offence taken is the decisive factor. Maybe if the offended can prove that they are shocked beyond measure, they would provide legitimate grounds to censor. If so, we must give in to Islamists, who feel the hurt of blasphemy so keenly they will murder anyone they deem to have blasphemed. 

As usual, Cohen is unsparing about the failure of many within the liberal-left to tackle Islamism:

In the name of liberalism, they fail to fight a creed that is sexist, racist, homophobic and, in its extreme forms, genocidal and totalitarian. Their political correctness has turned their principles inside out, and led them to abandon their beliefs in female and homosexual equality.

 For his troubles, Cohen will endure the typical battery of personal attacks from the usual suspects, but his clear-eyed, common-sensical, authentically liberal, worldview will remain unchallenged on the substance.  

"The Saudi Arabia of Milk"

UPDATE: A friend on Twitter pointed out that the phrase appeared in  the Wall St. Journal in 2008.  Maybe the blogger should have credited them; maybe it's a coincidence; maybe it's a ubiquitous term that has escaped me until now. In any event, I still like! 

Crooked Timber is a popular centre-left blog run by academics from the US, UK, Ireland and elsewhere. One of their contributors, Daniel, has written a long piece based on his travels around New Zealand (and, briefly, Australia). Unlike some of my compatriots, I am not prone to hyperventilating with excitement whenever I see a non-New Zealander mention the country – and there's nothing here that struck me as especially earth-shattering – but, if for nothing else, the author deserves the link for coming up with the phrase, "The Saudi Arabia of Milk". 

Early Onset Hillary Fatigue

In Business Spectator today, I discuss the latest Hillary scandals – and how they fill me with dread for what's to come. 

With the exception of incumbents seeking reelection or sitting vice-presidents like Al Gore and George H.W. Bush, no candidate of either party in the modern era enters the election season with as firm a grip on their party’s nomination as Clinton. In 2008, it was hers to lose; this time, it's just hers.
Is it just me, or is that an utterly exhausting prospect?
Don't get me wrong: for all I that long for a Warren candidacy, if Hillary's the Democratic nominee, I want her to win. As a matter of fact, I would want her to win so thumpingly that the Democrats retake control of the Senate and capture the House of Representatives on her coattails (the latter's a long shot).
Her Republican opponent next year -- possibly that other Bush, but more likely someone even less palatable like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker -- will scrap Obama's signature healthcare reforms, wind back progress on immigration and gay rights, and stack the Supreme Court, several of whose aging members will undoubtedly retire or otherwise move on during the term of the next President, with cranky right-wingers who will  inflict even greater long-term damage -- on civil, voting and abortion rights, campaign finance laws, environmental regulation, and in countless other insidious ways.
And yet, for all the policy and political advantages of another Clinton in the White House, the return of Clintonism -- "I did not have two smartphones with that woman" -- fills me with foreboding.

Obamacare, a public policy triumph, turns five

Ezra Klein and his army of brainiacs over at Vox covers no subject more keenly or thoroughly than U.S. healthcare policy and politics.

 This is a fascinating piece on the gap between perception and reality when it comes to Obama's healthcare reforms, the Affordable Care Act. In many respects, the evidence is accruing to establish beyond doubt the reform's successes — not only by slashing the number of uninsured Americans, but also by helping constrain healthcare inflation, and thereby reducing the federal deficit. And yet, the unyielding and ferocious opposition of conservatives continue to infect public perception of Obamacare; as this chart shows, only five percent of Americans realise that government spending on healthcare has been less than projected since Obama signed the ACA in 2010, while 42 percent mistakenly believe the opposite.


Louis Menand on "One Dot History"

The best money I spend in any given month is my digital sub to New Yorker. Each week, without fail, the magazine will feature something — more often than not, many things — that take my breath away. This week, intellectual historian Louis Menand reviews '1995: The Year the Future Began', which he uses as an opportunity to explore the nature of historicism itself; in particular, the recent trend of what he calls "one dot history".

Consider this magisterial lede:

History is the prediction of the present. Historians explain why things turned out the way they did. Since we already know the outcome, this might seem a simple matter of looking back and connecting the dots. But there is a problem: too many dots. Even the dots have dots. Predicting the present is nearly as hard as predicting the future.

And how about taking in this sublime passage before clicking through to read the whole glorious piece?

"There are many ways of agglomerating past events, parcelling up old clicks of the clock and endowing them with collective meaning. There is the concept of the historical period: the Age of Reason, the long eighteenth century (which seems like cheating; if you call something a century, you should stick to a hundred years), the Victorian era, the Cold War, the all-purpose and infinitely capacious “modernity.”
"There is the concept of the generation, an empirically specious category (as though the human race reproduced itself just once every twenty-five years) that nevertheless captures an element in everyone’s sense of identity. And, of course, there is the decade. For some obviously bogus reason, presumably because we have ten fingers, we find it natural to imagine that life assumes a completely new character every ten years.
"Centuries, generations, and decades are terms of convenience. They attach handles to the past, they give titles to books, and, most important, they put a spin on a chunk of time and differentiate it from all the rest. They give history some coherence. But the most enjoyable histories to read (and, probably, to write) are “the x that changed the world” books. These are essentially one-dot explanations. They try to make the course of human events turn on a single phenomenon or a single year. Recent works in the single-phenomenon category include books on bananas, fracking, cod (that’s correct, the fish), the Treaty of Versailles, pepper, the color mauve, and (hmm) the color indigo. (All right, who’s the baddest color?) In the single-year category, we have books on 33, 1492 (huh?), 1816 (long story involving a volcano), 1944, 1945, 1959 (even though, without going to Wikipedia, you probably can’t come up with two important things that happened in 1959), 1968, 1969, and 1989."

Shorten's Shrewd Reticence

Back in my Melbourne drinking days (AKA 'the Amber Period'), my favourite pub in the CBD was the Cricketer's Bar at the Windsor Hotel across the street from the Victorian state parliament.  It helped that I lived for a while in an apartment in the laneway on the other side of the hotel. At the time, I was active in Australian Labor Party (ALP) politics, a period of bitter rivalry between sub-factional groupings within the Victorian Labor Unity (or Right) faction. There was an pseudonymous  blogger known as Delia Delegate on the Crikey website who was causing a stir, spinning salacious yarns that, on the face of it, seemed designed to boost the side of the schism with which I was associated. Long story short, Delia was widely thought to be me. She was not. For a start, I was way too drunk, way too often, to kept tabs on what was going on in the way Delia did.  Secondly, everyone in my own camp, being close enough to catch the perpetual whiff of grog, had long since realised I was far from suitable as a holder of secrets or purveyor of gossip. 

Delia was causing particular havoc one week (a wild guess places this around 2002) and I had grown increasingly paranoid about the swirling rumours regarding my involvement – as if my reputation was worth saving. Parliament was in session, and the Cricketer's Bar was bustling during the dinner break one particular night. I had been there for hours, already multiple sheets to the wind, when I noticed the arrival of two factional bosses from the rival Labor Unity group: Bill Shorten and David Feeney. Fuelled by Dutch courage, I confronted the two men to furiously deny the Delia rumour. They scoffed at my denials and told me to fuck off. 

David Feeney is now an Australian Senator from Victoria and Bill Shorten is, of course, leader of the federal opposition. I have no idea what happened to Delia. 

This drunken encounter aside, my only experience of Shorten during my time as an ALP activist and staffer was to hear accounts of what a complete bastard he was. He did nothing to abate my antagonism by ratting on Julia Gillard to restore to the Australian prime-ministership Kevin Rudd, a pathological egomaniac whom I consider dangerously unfit for high office.  

For those reasons, I was pessimistic about Labor's chances under Bill Shorten. I thought he was scarred by his pivotal supporting role in the Rudd-Gillard psychodrama, and the related - and not entirely baseless - perception that he is a factional hack. 

But, fair's fair, I think Shorten's making a pretty good fist of it. Sure, Tony Abbott's spectacular slow motion self destruction has made his job easier – there's a plausible case that Labor's federal MPs, en masse, could take a leave of absence for the remainder of Abbott's tenure without making an iota's difference to the party's standing.

But let's not forget that Labor had been ritually disembowelling itself, in full public view, for five years before it lost office. Even though Gillard is immensely talented and her government can claim numerous substantive policy achievements, Labor's last term in office was as diabolical a political nightmare as it's possible to conceive. But so far in opposition, Labor has stitched itself together admirably. There has been no permanent schism, no surge to the Greens, and Labor has won state elections in South Australia, Victoria and Queensland, the latter two from opposition. 

Federally, Labor's primary vote hovers around the 40 percent mark, more than enough to win government with Green and other preferences. 40 percent! Given the party's dysfunction of recent times, it wouldn't have surprised me if it stood at half that number.  

While it's true that Abbott's bizarre instincts and policy radicalism have been gifts to Labor, it is to Shorten's credit that Labor's made the most of them. Take last year's Budget, which was the beginning of Abbott's soon to be end. Labor's prosecution was impeccable: Shorten, Chris Bowen and Penny Wong were superb in the critical hours and days after the Budget, defining it as an assault on fair-minded Australians in powerful and evocative terms; picking the right issues and sticking to them; making mincemeat of the Coalition.   

Today, Australia's Fairfax newspapers published an analysis of Bill Shorten's media appearances that shows the Labor leader outdoing Tony Abbott's much-vaunted "small target strategy" while he was in Opposition. Apparently, Shorten, in 2014, fronted the media between 200 and 400 fewer times than Abbott in 2011.  By the tone of Fairfax's reporting, we are supposed to take this as a bad thing. 

After counting online transcripts – hold the Walkleys! – Fairfax went searching for a "WTF" reaction from unnamed ALP insiders in the hope of stirring up some leadership tensions, but found mostly "BFD" instead. They did get an ALP member to say "make no mistake, there will be a change of leader on the other side [in the Liberal Party] and then it's a whole new ball game", which is possibly the least explosive unattributed quote in the history of politics. 

Should we really measure an opposition leader's effectiveness by the volume of his or her media appearances? In a word, no; in two, no way! In fact, succumbing to the incessant demands of a rapacious press gallery can derail otherwise decent leaders – the most obvious example is David Shearer, a very promising New Zealand Labour leader whose main failing was his inability to deliver sound bites zingily or often enough.  

Shorten, stick to your guns. Front the media when it suits you, not them. Keep using social media to go directly to your audiences. Don't fall into the trap of becoming a commentator. Keep focussed on rejuvenating the party and building a winning team with a winning message. Stick to your own timetable. Don't get rattled.  

Oh, and I am bloody not – and never bloody have been – Delia Bloody Delegate.  

“The Words of Allah, The Quran, that’s what brain washed me,”

The New York Times features a lengthy account of how young American Muslims find their way to Islamic State (ISIS), and you would never guess what they discover: Islamist religious fervour plays the decisive role. 

The story follows one College kid from Minneapolis in particular, Abdi Nur, now an ISIS fighter in Syria:

Early last year, he began posting stern religious pronouncements and snippets of scripture. By April 2, a day after turning 20, he hailed Islamic fighters: “If the sky would be proud of the existence of the stars, the land should be proud of the existence of the Mujahideen.”
On May 29, the day he disappeared, he posted, “I Thank Allah For Everything No Matter What!” Soon he was in Turkey, rebuffing his mother’s and sister’s anguished pleas to come home. In late July, he declared, “What A Beautiful Day in Raqqa,” the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Syria. Last Aug. 7, he posted a picture of himself online with his finger on the trigger of a Kalashnikov.

If you can discern any geopolitical angst, you're doing better than me. 

But surely Nur was an outcast from society; a victim of the West's socioeconomic and racial oppression? Let's see:

Mr. Nur was enrolled in community college outside Minneapolis and spoke of becoming a lawyer. Then he started visiting a new mosque and dressing in more traditional garb.

Hmm. Then I assume Nur was the exception that prove the rule that ISIS fighters are motivated by factors other than religion? Well, not according to this report: 

Most of the American ISIS volunteers display an earnest religious zeal, usually newfound. 
Ms. Agron also found a young woman who calls herself Chloe, a Muslim convert from San Francisco who appears to have married a Welsh fighter who joined the Nusra Front. Both posted pictures of their cat on Twitter, along with expressions of marital devotion. Chloe’s posts are mostly religious exclamations or lighthearted remarks about her life in Syria, including the niqab, or face veil.

In case there is any remaining doubt about why Abdi now roams Syria as an ISIS killer, here is an online exchange between him and former school friends.

“Who brain washed you?” one asked.
Mr. Nur was unfazed. “The Words of Allah, The Quran, that’s what brain washed me,” he wrote.


Universities Retrofit as Emotional Pre Schools

From the Sunday Review in today's New York Times:

When Brown University in the U.S. planned a debate on campus sexual assault that included a libertarian speaker who was likely to challenge the prevalent notion of "rape culture", Katherine Byron, a member of the school's Sexual Assault Taskforce swung into action:

Ms. Byron and some fellow task force members secured a meeting with administrators. Not long after, Brown’s president, Christina H. Paxson, announced that the university would hold a simultaneous, competing talk to provide “research and facts” about “the role of culture in sexual assault.” Meanwhile, student volunteers put up posters advertising that a “safe space” would be available for anyone who found the debate too upsetting.
The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments “troubling” or “triggering,” a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and “sexual assault peer educator” who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.

The article, by Judith Shulevitz, catalogues many other similar examples of the "safe space" mentality shutting down debate on University campuses in the US and the UK. 

In general, I don't think it helps matters much for a white (albeit non-heterosexual) male like me to rant and rave about the extreme strain of political correctness that appears to have infected university campuses these days (for what it's worth, I am firmly on Team Chait). These are serious issues, and reactionary lashing out at PC culture, while a lot of fun, is as misguided as excessive political correctness itself.

But seriously: videos of frolicking puppies? Play-Doh? At an Ivy League School while a debate took place at which someone might say something to offend you? A debate you were under no obligation to attend? 

Indefensibly, pathetically, precious. 

As one commenter on the NY Times story said:

On almost every page of the New York Times I find information that is troubling and goes against my dearly and closely held beliefs. For God's sake, I just read Ross Douthat's column. Rather than suck my thumb and retreat to a "safe" room full of kindergarten toys, I was glad to read it and learn what conservatives think, because only then can I understand that reality and know how to counter it, or defend myself against it. 


What Labour Could Usefully Do in Northland

Labour could send targeted direct mail to anyone on the general roll who turned out to vote in strong Labour areas at either of the last two elections, and urge them them to vote for Peters. Better still, they could send in volunteers to knock on their doors to convey the same message, as well as make sure they show up on Saturday.  

A few grand, couple of minivans, bit of shoe leather. What a modest investment to help get a key future coalition partner across the line. 

Everyone seems convinced the latest Roy Morgan poll, which has Labour at 31 percent, is a great result. It still looks ten points shy to me – if it's a "honeymoon", it's the third marriage/Dannevirke Motor Inn variety – but if I'm dreaming, and Labour really has become a 30 percent proposition, then it's clear we need NZ First to (a) perform strongly and (b) prefer us to the Nats. Peters winning Northland with Labour's potentially decisive assistance could help on both fronts.

If Labour puts in late push for Winston, and he wins, the party can legitimately claim some of the credit. If Winston still loses, Labour can at least avoid some of the blame, despite its hopelessly muddled half campaign to date. 

Winston has all the momentum but none of National's organisation on the ground. Labour is ideally positioned to close that gap, and the advantages of doing so are many and obvious. 

If Labour are worried about accusations of deal-making and dirty politics from the sanctimonious blowhards of the cyberleftysphere, they should remind themselves how helpful those geniuses have been to date. 

A brilliantly reported, brave & necessary challenge to the hegemony of Alcoholics Anonymous

Full disclosure: I was a drunk for fifteen years, gave up eight years ago, and have adopted a policy of total abstinence ever since. I went to AA meetings for a few months; more than anything, they irritated me for their poorly concealed religiosity. Why I have yet to relapse is the central, enduring mystery of my life; but I can guarantee AA has nothing to do with it. 

Alcoholics Anonymous is sacrosanct among its members – and it's understandable, too. In many cases, their lives have been saved by sticking to AA's twelve-steps. "The program" has worked for a lot of people who are utterly convinced, beyond all persuading, that it will work for everyone else – and that it represents the only hope for addicts. AA's true believers have the zeal and self-certainty of religious zealot. Sadly, in many respects, their claims are no less fanciful.

In a tour de force in April's The Atlantic, Gabrielle Glaser tackles "The Irrationality of AA", explaining how its scientifically dubious 12-step approach has gained ascendancy in the US:

The 12 steps are so deeply ingrained in the United States that many people, including doctors and therapists, believe attending meetings, earning one’s sobriety chips, and never taking another sip of alcohol is the only way to get better. Hospitals, outpatient clinics, and rehab centers use the 12 steps as the basis for treatment.

Glaser critically examines AA's claims for itself, and explores how concerted public relations and lobbying efforts have enshrined its preeminence:

In 1970, Senator Harold Hughes of Iowa, a member of AA, persuaded Congress to pass the Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation Act. It called for the establishment of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and dedicated funding for the study and treatment of alcoholism. The NIAAA, in turn, funded Marty Mann’s nonprofit advocacy group, the National Council on Alcoholism, to educate the public. The nonprofit became a mouthpiece for AA’s beliefs, especially the importance of abstinence, and has at times worked to quash research that challenges those beliefs.

Since AA was founded in 1935 (when, as Glaser writes, "the knowledge of the brain was in its infancy"), there have been great advances in the scientific understanding, and medical treatment, of addiction. Glaser looks in particular at the surprising efficacy of Naltrexone, a drug designed to suppress cravings (a moderate drinker, she even tries it herself), and travels to Finland where efforts to moderate drinking behaviour, as opposed to total abstinence, have proven successful. 

The article won't trick me into experimenting with moderate alcohol consumption – Glaser acknowledges that abstinence is the only viable option for hardcore boozehounds like me – but it should prompt public health officials to examine whether their dependence on AA and its unscientific methods hasn't become a problem.  

A Must-Read Smackdown of Sean Penn and his New Movie, "The Gunman"

There is nothing I can possibly add to Christopher Orr's wondrous, spoiler-filled takedown of The Gunman, in which the insufferably righteous Sean Penn attempts to recast himself as a grizzled action star, a la Liam Neeson: 

Every word is worth reading, but this how it starts:

Sometimes a movie is so manifestly ill-conceived that the best one can do is throw up one’s hands in surrender and acknowledge the truth: It is impossible to indict this film as thoroughly as it indicts itself.

I’ve gone down this road a handful of times before. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening and Jason Reitman’s Labor Day (career lows for both directors) demanded straightforward recapitulations. The Words (starring Bradley Cooper) required a run-on sentence and Broken City (Mark Wahlberg) an actual diagram. Then along came Luc Besson’s Lucy, starring Scarlett Johannson, which in many ways put all the rest to shame.

And so, with another awful cinematic experience—Sean Penn’s new vanity project, The Gunman—comes another prophylactic spoilereview. In brief, the movie is a dull, generic retread of nearly every action movie you’ve ever seen, with the reluctant super-soldier haunted by his past and enmeshed in a conspiracy, etc., etc. But it's made far worse by Penn’s self-seriousness as an actor, by the banal and insulting political pieties that he's grafted on as producer and co-writer, and by the presence of perhaps the most pitifully retrograde female lead role to appear onscreen in the past two decades.

And it only gets better. 

Obama's Sentences

One of the many dumb, baseless and racially motivated lines of attack against Barack Obama is that he's lost without a TelePrompTer.  

Check out the transcript of his Huffington Post interview to see what a crock that is. Every sentence, as delivered extemporaneously, forms a succession of cohesive and coherent paragraphs that brim with substance. And such a refreshing absence of prevarication and hollow rhetoric. 


NZ Labour's Self Inflicted Wounds

A version of this post was published in the NZ Herald

I can't enjoy New Zealand politics for the same reason the rugby-loving parent can spend the weekend glued to Sky Sport but barely watch as their underweight and modestly coordinated child pulls on his boots. I care too much. I feel every blow. It’s viscerally upsetting.

This has been especially true since arriving back in New Zealand last year, a few months before the election, and witnessing my beloved Labour Party conduct a campaign so operatically awful that I wondered at times if it wasn't a performance art piece.

I made this case in a series of pre election opinion pieces and during a handful of media appearances, and was promptly branded a heretic by fellow party members.

“Do us all a favour,” one wrote“and just quietly leave the room. Please…We are nearly there”. Nearly where exactly, I wondered. It turned out the “there” to which we were “nearly” was the worst electoral defeat in ninety-two years of Labour history: we barely limped to 25 percent — after two terms in opposition, the point at which, in the normal scheme of things, we should be banging down the Beehive’s door.

Labour’s electoral problems are not especially complex or mysterious: the party’s appeal has shrunk to a handful of urban and suburban pockets; it has failed to rejuvenate in policy, personnel or organisational terms since its repeated drubbings; and it operates under a set of self-serving delusions, foremost among them the unshakeable belief that the tide will go out on National eventually so shut up and wait our turn.

Maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps it is disloyal to point any of this out. Maybe the key to electoral success lies in never questioning; in mindless devotion to whoever happens to be in charge. There is certainly a plausible case that Labour will win the next election due to the unwritten rule that Kiwis like their governments on a nine-year rotation. The next election will certainly remove any doubt on that point: if this Labour Party, broke, moribund and bereft of ideas, can win the 2017 election then the three term rule will rise to immutability.

Others say that I should take these criticisms inside the tent. In principle, this is correct — but there is a problem in practice. The Labour Party does not tolerate dissent — not just in a cultural or attitudinal sense, but in its rules. The governing bodies of the party are elected en masse via first past the post. Sector Councils ensure that minority groups have a place at the table, but there is no space whatsoever for minority opinions.

Take the recent example of Labour’s stance on New Zealand’s role in the fight against ISIS, where I find myself (not for the first time) on the fringe. For argument’s sake, let’s say five to ten percent of the party’s membership agree with me that Labour should support the deployment of military trainers because, however modestly in scale, New Zealand should do its part in a broad alliance to stop and prevent ISIS atrocities. This is by no means an outlandish point of view — it’s shared by centre left governments and political parties the world over — but within New Zealand Labour, it renders you a sell-out, a secret Tory, an apostate. What recourse do we have? Because members of the NZ Council and other governing entities are elected, clone like, from the same plurality of members, there is no one capable of advocating on behalf of minority views or looking out for the rights of dissenters. This flows through all the party processes, including candidate selection. Damien O’Connor retains a place in caucus not because of, but despite, the fact he represents an important if unfashionable strand of Labour’s constituency. However hard the party tries to alienate voters in regional New Zealand, they can’t stop O'Connor from winning West Coast-Tasman.

Which brings me to Northland. Seven years in opposition to an Auckland-centric Government should have made a by-election in a neglected regional seat an enticing prospect for Labour, especially in light of Sabin’s messy departure — but Northland is way out of reach. Colmar Brunton has NZ First and National tied on 36 percent with Labour on 20; on 3 News, Labour’s 16 percent is in line with its party vote in the seat last year. Faced with these numbers, Andrew Little dropped hints on TVNZ’s Q&A that Labour supporters should back Peters, as if the party’s emergence as a spoiler in Northland wasn't entirely predictable — and avoidable. Meanwhile, the candidate herself continues to believe she enjoys Little’s full backing, and the party is sending emails as recently as today seeking donations to help her. The source of the confusion lies in Labour’s own sanctimonious huff-puffery over National’s deal-making in Epsom where they appeared to espouse the principle that parties are obliged to contest every election at full throttle, even when doing so is against their interests. The problem with casting as diabolical the very practice of politics is that you can't evade accusations of hypocrisy when you try it yourself.

Labour’s amateur hour drags on interminably. Late last week, cameras showed Willow Prime’s supporters heckling Winston Peters as he held a street corner meeting. They were telling him he was too old to represent Northland, including an unkind reference to a walking frame (Peters, at sixty nine, would make a youthful US Senator). When I pointed out on Twitter the absurd misguidedness of Labour members doing this, aprominent Auckland party activist responded that they weren't heckling at all, but expressing an opinion – as if interrupting a speaker to express an opinion isn't the dictionary definition of heckling. Parallel universe.

Heckling Peters, like Labour’s entire Northland strategy, defies common sense, and begs the question: who is in charge of this circus? Where is Little’s chief of staff, the much vaunted Matt McCarten, or the luckiest man to still have a job in politics, General Secretary Tim Barnett? The goal of any opposition is to inflict maximum damage on the government and, in this case, that takes the shape of Peters defeating National in Northland. This was blindingly obvious the moment Peters emerged as a candidate. Labour can't come anywhere but third and, worse, success means failure if it helps the Nats over the line. If Willow Prime — who, by her own account, is still in it to win it — siphons enough votes from Peters to deliver victory to the government, John Key won’t have dodged a bullet; Andrew Little would have stepped into the bullet’s path.