The Subtle Erosion of Mount St. Helens

So, if you follow politics like I do, you probably know all about this whole Crosby Textor thing. (Original on stuff)

While I’m sure I could go on at length about the damage this sort of campaigning does to the political dialogue, (which is oh-so-precious) what I really want to talk about here is the subtle erosion of Helen Clark’s political position and achievements.

Every once in a while you come across something so insidiously harmful, but so marvelously brazen that you have to sit back to yourself and think: “Holy fuck! What a magnificent bastard1.” And Mark Textor, who is largely behind National’s talking points with regards to Helen Clark, is surely among the most magnificent of bastards. Here’s the relevant quote:

Much of the effort went into attacking Clark. An April 2005 Crosby/Textor report described how the focus group questions probed for latent negative “hesitations or concerns” about her. “Regardless of your overall view of Helen Clark,” the moderator asked, “what would you acknowledge are her weaknesses at the moment, even if they are slight or begrudging weaknesses?” The report’s “strategic opportunities” section concluded that the research revealed “an emerging perception that Helen Clark is too busy with `minorities’ and `other people’ to worry about the concerns and the pressures on `working families’.” They developed a “mantra” about an arrogant and out-of-touch prime minister. “It must be stressed that this sentiment is embryonic and must be consistently demonstrated and leveraged if it is to be effective,” Textor wrote. “These perceptions will not exist and mature on their own.”

C/T took embryonic- perhaps even zygotic- gripes formerly restricted to core National supporters about perceptions of Helen Clark and has used them to define public sentiment against both her and Labour. There’s no doubt we have not seen this sort of professional spindoctoring in New Zealand before. Textor managed to turn a leader who was largely respected as strong, disciplined, principled, and intelligent… and frame her as elitist, cold, arrogant, and out of touch. And they did it through two very simple tactics: Repeatedly attacking her for arrogance and elitism, and letting the core supporters reinforce that by dogwhistling sexism into it, which only reinforces poor impressions from strong women. The most impressive thing about it was that nobody noticed it until it was already too late to turn it around. Yowch.

And of course, now they’re called on their performance, we end up with the accusations being deflected back at Labour and the Greens, despite squeaky clean campaigns completely open about their influence and with no spin doctoring.

1Just FYI, this still works if the person responsible is a woman. Yay! My only distaste is with the implicit discrimination based on marital status… apparently I can only juggle so many fights at once.

“I’m a male feminist and…”

So many times I’ve seen the line trumpeted so proudly in discussions related to feminism: “I’m a male feminist and…”

And so many times I’ve rolled my eyes and said/thought: “Here we go again.” Apparently my fellow dudes, some of us need some explaining of what a feminist is, and why men can never be perfect feminists (neither can women, for that matter, but for men it’s even harder) and therefore why those of us who are commited to the cause should avoid trumpeting it so loudly whenever we talk to someone about feminism. (If you’re going to bring out this line, please be self-effacing about it at the very least “I’m one of those mythical male feminists, and…”) Because some of you are letting the side down, making those of us who really buy into feminism appear to be, at best, anthropomorphic personifications. Here’s the checklist of the problems that are usually accompanied by this small statement:

  1. That statement is usually followed by something along the lines of “…but the patriarchy is bovine scatology1!” or “…but I have overly broad criticisms on the concept of privilege!” or “…but you’re taking away credibility from feminism by covering all these small issues!”.
  2. Even when the person saying these words genuinely believes them, they often haven’t really considered just how huge a statement “I am a feminist” really is, let alone “I am a man and a feminist”. You need to be ready to back that sucker up. Being a feminist is about more than just thinking you believe in equal rights, but we’ll get to that soon.
  3. The offender often uses their “but I’m a feminist!” excuse to attempt to drown out the contribution of the women (or potentially the male allies of said women) engaging in discussion. The irony is astounding, but not in the least surprising. Even actual male feminists do this now and then, but at least they usually realise it and apologise.
  4. Introducing yourself into a group with a statement that essentially says “Hi, I belong in this group!”, without actually saying why, is actually quite rude.
  5. Sometimes we get the tragically misleading “but I think X for men is just as bad”. This is not the oppression olympics- comparisons shouldn’t be competitions.

Essentially, it’s as if you walked into a meeting of the Labour Party wearing a business suit over a t-shirt of Che Guevara and well-shined shoes and said “Hello esteemable comrades! I am a revolutionary communist!”. Of course you are going to get laughed at, and mercilessly deconstructed. That’s because you didn’t treat the people you’re claiming to belong with like, well, people. You treated them like stereotypes, and you didn’t take the time to get to know them. Let’s go through the counter-checklist of what you need to be aware of to avoid looking stupid if you’re going to be a guy and engage in feminist discourse:

  1. Consider that the core concepts of feminism are already well-explained, well-accepted, and well-critiqued. If you come up with something blazingly original, please mention it with appropriate caution, but it’s not exactly being a feminist to throw the baby out with the bathwater- don’t dismiss the rest of the widely-accepted theory without a better reason than “because men have problems too.” You are probably speaking from your privilege if you think that the patriarchy is a concept that goes too far, or if you don’t believe in privilege, or if you don’t realise that dealing with a flood of minor sexist problems every day is as bad as dealing with big sexist problems, and that the little problems, if unchallenged, give misogynists and sexists the courage and validity to move on to making bigger problems.
  2. Men as feminists are in a supporting role, even though we realise this is difficult and foreign to some of us. As men who realise that women are a positive force in society that is overall of equal value to men, if you were really a male feminist, you would take some time to merely back up a fellow feminist you were getting to know before trying to introduce your own ideas and critiques, so that you she had a real demonstration that you respect the independence of women and the value of their ideas. In addition to that, commiting to feminism is a huge step. You don’t just get to say “I believe in equal rights for women!” to people who already agree with you and then you’re done. You’ve not really proven yourself until you’ve gone out to bat for women in a difficult situation. You’ve not had it hard until your manliness is challenged repeatedly for what you believe in. Feminists have credentials, too. 🙂
  3. Men as feminists acknowledge the many ways in which they are privileged, which means that we know that if we want to be taken seriously when viewing women as equals, we have to listen harder than we speak. This is because in non-feminist society, women who speak with men on equal terms are viewed as being rude, loud, and arrogant, if men even give them a chance to have their voice heard by being quiet long enough. If you want to call yourself a male feminist, you need to be ready to be a voice among many, instead of the voice.
  4. Being used to being a minority report of sorts, feminists and their allies are largely familiar with labels and the problems they bring about. We know about this sort of thing. We’ve seen the “ex-gays”. We’ve seen the “I’m a woman and I think those feminazis are nuts” conservative frontwomen. Simply, we know all about people who’ll try to adopt a label to hurt us. You won’t be judged by your labels if you approach serious feminists. You’ll be judged by your actions and your words. And if they don’t agree with your identity, we’ll call you on that. You should come prepared to have your privilege pointed out, and if you venture into the deep end, they can be pretty merciless about that.
  5. Unless you are pretty atypical for a man, (f.ex. you are gay, bisexual and unable to pass as straight, or noticably gender-nonconforming) you probably will not directly empathise with most women’s feminist concerns, making it really hard for you to judge how important they are in any objective way. It is best to let the person actually dealing with a problem decide how important it is, unless you have a good reason to mistrust them. Secondly, while men may have problems, we can attack the source of a lot of them by solving the systematic oppression of women, and the other problems that are not effected by protective and demeaning attitudes to women are either very small or have their own dedicated causes fighting against them already.

Finally, look, I know that many of the people saying this sort of thing really do think they’re commited to minority rights like feminism. But in their mind that doesn’t involve anything hard. They think it doesn’t involve being isolated every time they’re supposed to laugh at a joke that shows hatred to women. To them, it doesn’t involve trusting women to make decisions about their own life and body, it doesn’t involve fighting with women for their reproductive rights, for their freedom from religious oppression and for self-determination in otherwise less egalitarian countries, fighting for the assumption that rapists are to blame for rape, not “sluts who asked for it”, and it doesn’t involve any self-examination of their own attitudes, and whether they contribute to sexism. In short, the people bringing up these phrases that we’ve all heard before are armchair feminists.

Most of us don’t have the patience to deal with people who think this way- because feminism is a field deep enough to get lost in, even in fields that might sound very narrow to outsiders like say, native American lesbian feminism. So here’s part of why I started writing about gender issues here: Because although I’m a feminist, I am so patient that I practically belong in a hospital. Because although I’m angry about it, I’m also caring enough that I won’t be merciless. (and male enough to have a little distance from the impact of sexism) If you want to learn about hard feminisms2, then stick around. But you better be ready to have what your father taught you challenged, because in the parts of the ‘net I frequent, we tend to stick to what mother taught us3. And even then, we’re often suspicious that she listened to father too often. 😉

1Yeah, now and then, Winston Peters comes up with something funny. 🙂
2Unlike homers, you’re allowed more than one.
3Unless she was a conservative frontwoman or casual antifeminist. Then we pick an ersatz mother figure.

Geeky open thread.

Laddies and gentlewomen, show me your… browser… extensions.

Yeah, that sounded dirty. Ewww. I’m going to go wash my hands while I wait for replies. 😛

Sidetrack: EFA paralells in America

I know, I know right? Two sidetracks in a week. I’m getting bad at this. But this one is really important. It highlights why laws like the EFA are necessary.

Despite believing passionately in free speech rights, I’m a staunch supporter of the electoral finance act, which includes limits on the amount spent on advertising by political parties, and more importantly, limits the amount of parallel campaigning, (where say, rogue members of the exclusive brethren will launch attacks on another political party so that National doesn’t have to) whether positive or negative, that any third party groups can do during the election season. Some people see this as a contradiction. I don’t.

The really important part of this law is that it prevents third parties from spending very large amounts of money to attack or back a particular political party outside of the usual spending limits, thus effectively opening up a loophole and making the election less of a competition of beliefs and policies, and more of a matter of buying your way into power with as much advertising as possible.

National, the party that benefited from this sort of parallel campaigning last election, is calling the Electoral Finance Act an assault on free speech. Apparently, National don’t understand what free speech is. Free Speech is most fundamentally the right to air your political views without punishment, threats, or detainment by the government. We also understand it as the right not to be prevented from presenting those views in public. However, the type of speech being limited (not banned) is not political views. It is electioneering. Under the electoral finance act, you are perfectly welcome to say “we at the Business Roundtable think it is important that the government collect as little tax as possible”. You just can’t say “So vote for the National Party”, or even “so don’t vote for the Labour Party”1. Given that those sorts of statements have no explicit political message in them, I think there’s little reason to protect them in the first place.

Interestingly, the Obama campaign has just made a very similar move in the USA. In the US, Presidential candidates are able to sign up for federal funding of their campaigns on the understanding that they will abide by federal spending limits. Not only has Obama’s opponent, John McCain, already broken the law by exceeding those limits for his primary campaign, but he is also very likely to benefit from nominally independent groups that will run attack advertising on Obama using money raised by the Republican Party.

So, Obama knows that he can make a lot more money than the federal funding will allow him to spend, even though he supports that funding system. He knows that playing within the rules just gives McCain the advantage, especially as he’s demonstrated that he’s prepared to break them outright, and not just bend them as the Republicans usually do. So Obama has opted out of the public financing scheme, saying that it needs to be improved so that it’s not vulnerable to exactly the sort of parallel campaigning that laws like the EFA prevent.

Typically, McCain is following a similar line to National’s attacks on this matter- he’s portraying it as a cynical attempt to have more campaign finance available. And while it’s true in both cases- Obama’s pullout and Labour’s support of the EFA- that there is some self-interest involved, the public still gets to benefit from a far more level playing field come the election, which is something we can all agree is worthwhile.

1Edited to add: Well, you can’t say that without being subject to spending limits, registration as an official third party, submitting a known and inhabited residential address for verification, and a bunch of other things that basically just ensure you’re a real person/organisation and that you’re okay with not trying to saturate the country with advertising, but rather just want to show a small amount of support for your favoured Party or candidate. Even electioneering is technically protected like normal free speech, it’s just that you can’t spend too much money on it. You are however welcome to doorknock, attend debates, etc… which has the effect of making a good campaign involve really getting to know the voters a lot more personally than before. That can only be a good thing for the country as a whole.

Bioethics strikes back

Okay, that’s a bit dramatic. But Granny Herald does have an interesting story on the bioethics of sex selection. (h/t to The Standard, who promptly mocked them for an amusing grammatical mistake which implied parents should choose whether to have sex with babies)

At the moment, it is illegal to select your baby’s sex during in vitro fertilisation procedures unless you need to do so to prevent a genetic disorder.

The idea of freely allowing parents undergoing IVF to choose the sex of their baby is repugnant to me. It instantly conjures images of the consequences of China’s one child program, where young girls are abandoned by families that want boys to run their businesses and farms.

But… I have to concede that if we only allow parents to balance out the sex of their children rather than simply give them free reign to choose, this could have wonderful social benefits- for instance, families that want both a boy and a girl could go have IVF instead of having to roll the dice for every subsequent child, and potentially ending up with five all of the same sex. 😉

Let’s talk words (in which I am apolitically correct)

Words are powerful things. While the origin of the quote is disputed, back in the annals of history, several people opined something along the lines of “among great leaders, the pen is mightier than the sword”, referring to how the best leaders recognise the power of ideas before they recognise military power. Words fuel discrimination in huge ways, whether we dismiss this fuel or not. And words are one of the most insidious ways we disrespect and disclude women, transsexual, intersex, and homosexual people, even beyond the fact that words are largely classist due to the fact that you need a very good education to understand even half of them. Maybe thousands of years later, we’ll be arguing about who said that words determine the way we think.

There’s nothing political about political correctness- you don’t need to be left-wing to value social justice. It’s about taking away the power of words to dictate the way we think- have you ever wondered why talking about doctors gets people to assume you’re talking about men? Possibly because you’re used to having other subtle indicators in people’s language point out the gender of the person they’re talking about for you, which are largely absent with doctors. Possibly because the way many people use English assumes that male is the norm or default. One of the most wonderful things feminism has brought with it, to my mind, is the idea of English as a language that’s no longer normative, where there are a lot less assumptions about what a word, and therefore a sentence, means.

A prominent example of sexist words is that our pronouns are gendered and binary. Some people insist that you’re a he or a she, or if you’re lucky, a (s)he. (even if you’re intersex or transgendered or genderqueer) Recently we’ve been getting retro and using “they” as a nice ambiguously genderless pronoun, but it’s not catching and the more inflexible grammarians are rioting over plural ambiguity.1

There’s also the whole issue with -man and man-. Mankind? No, I think you mean humankind. Fireman? No, I think you mean firefighter. Chairman? No, I think you mean chair, or maybe chairperson if you like long words. Manpower? I think you mean labour. Manhours? I think you mean workhours. I’m still working on manhole2, however. 🙂

normative sexuality versus pluralistic sexualityThen there’s sexuality- our labels for sexuality are mostly normative, even though our society is becoming a lot more pluralistic on this matter. I think here the teenagers have it right- we like boys or we like girls, or we like both. Saying that we’re gay or straight, hetero or homo, feeds into heteronormativity. Two wonderful new words should make your acquaintance: gynosexual and androsexual, respectively meaning “attracted to women” and “attracted to men”. Not only do these words not assume a norm, they can’t even identify gayness or straightness without you knowing who they’re being attached to. They also join bisexuality in uniting sexuality by the object of attraction- drawing attention to the potential similarities in what women and men are attracted to about men, and what women and men are attracted to about women. The mere existence of terms like this offer a subtle challenge to our ideas about sexuality.

It’s even more illustrative of how easy this type of thinking is that “Maori” can be translated as “normal”, and “Pakeha” as “different”. But I’ll leave the concept of pluralistic racial language to someone much better equipped to deal with it.

1If you’re one of those grammarians, I suggest to you that you attempt to resurrect the second-person familiar pronoun otherwise known as “thee” before you complain about us copying respected literary figures like Jane Austin in adding some general (and not just gender) ambiguity to our pronouns. And if anyone starts talking about gender being a grammatical term and having its meaning stolen by feminism, I’ll whack them over the head with my over-sized German dictionary (it comes with three genders included) as a way of introducing them to the idea that a term can have multiple contexts. Try mentioning the word “jerk” to a group of teenagers, then to a group of physicists, and you might see what I mean.
2Personholes have thus far failed to catch on, especially as they’re often taken to be innuendo. Product development is hard at work fixing this issue. 😉

Sidetrack: Get Firefox 3 this Wednesday

Download Day 2008
I don’t often sidetrack this blog, but I thought I’d give some brief exposure to the gem of open source. This wednesday, (Tuesday US time) Firefox is trying to set the inaugral Guiness World Record for most software downloaded on a single day with the release of the third version of its web browser.

Firefox is a faster, lighter, more efficient, more secure, better-featured, more standardised, highly customisable, and generally just awesome web browser, and it’s even relatively familiar for Internet Explorer users. It introduced a lot of the cool new features you see in IE7, such as the search field, tabbed browsing, and security alerts. Because it is designed by users for users, and anyone can examine the code, Firefox is really pushing forward internet browsing. If you haven’t had a look yet, Wednesday will be an excellent time to!

Here’s the link. You can also pledge in advance to download Firefox on wednesday with an email address, and they’ll send you a reminder.

Update: Their servers are a bit hammered now, so you can find the direct links here for:
Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.

Double update: They’re all working properly now and the most hilariously self-initiated DDoS attack yet is over. 😉