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The Australian government announced it is scrapping a section of the Racial Discrimination Act which had been added by the Keating government in 1995; coincidentally, the one under which right-wing demagogue Andrew Bolt was successfully prosecuted for insinuating that fair-skinned Aborigines were liars and benefits cheats. In defending the government's about-face on this issue, the Attorney-General declared that "people have the right to be bigots". And while the government is, of course, firmly opposed to racism, the dog-whistle is that, as a nation, we're perfectly relaxed and comfortable with a spot of casual racism between mates, as long as it doesn't escalate into a public order offence or anything.
As if to top that, a day later, PM Tony Abbott announced that Australia will be bringing back imperial honours, with those honoured being given the title Sir or Dame (based on biological gender, of course; there will be no funny buggers in Abbott's Australia), overturning one of the Whitlam government's key symbolic achievements; back-handedly, the first recipient was the immediately outgoing, and staunchly republican, governor-general, Quentin Bryce, who is hardly in a position to decline. It's not clear who will be next in line for honours, though there probably won't be a Sir Rupert Murdoch, given that he renounced his citizenship. It may well be that the editorial conference of The Australian will look like the court of Camelot by the time of the next election.
So there we have it; an Australia where the sentiment "haters gonna hate" is actually enshrined in law, and the respect Australians were once obliged to show to those from different backgrounds can now go to their social superiors.
On one level, this looks like a planting of the LNP's unapologetically conservative flag, and a slamming of the Overton window hard to the right; on another level, it seems almost calculated to create a lot of smoke. Which makes me wonder: is this a prologue to more substantial conservative legislation (perhaps a ban on abortion, the privatisation of the ABC, tougher censorship laws or something), or a distraction from something that's decidedly not culture-war red-meat and would give the Silent Majority of (Occasionally Casually Racist But In A Mately And Acceptable Way) Suburban Battlers little to celebrate? Like, say, harsh industrial-relations laws to go with the symbolic feudalism in the imperial honours system?
Benito Mussolini, the World War 2-era Italian fascist dictator, is enjoying a resurgence in popularity in Italy, and not just from the usual extremists either:
The decision by a town south of Rome to spend €127,000 (£100,000) of public funds this year on a tomb for Rodolfo Graziani, one of Mussolini's most blood-thirsty generals, was met with widespread indifference. Other more mundane examples include the leading businessman who proposed renaming Forli airport in Emilia Romagna – the region of northern Italy where the dictator was born – as Mussolini airport, or the headmaster in Ascoli Piceno who tried to hang a portrait of the dictator in his school.There are several explanations: some people are drawn to the idea of a populist strongman in the age of austerity, and compartmentalising all that unpleasantness with racial laws and deportations of Jews and such away from the cozy ideal of village post offices and a leader willing to bloody the noses of the elites in the name of the common man. Part of it is that, unlike in Germany, an admiration for fascism never completely left the sphere of acceptable opinion in Italy: a 1952 law forbidding fascist parties or the veneration of fascism has never been seriously enforced, and there are neo-fascist parties comprised not of shaven-headed thugs and football hooligans but of the kinds of reactionary though otherwise ordinary middle-aged and older people who, were they in Britain, would merely read the Daily Mail and grumble about how the world's going to hell. Though another likely cause in the rise of pro-fascist sentiment would be the dog-whistle politics of the Berlusconi era, in which many of the former pornocrat's close allies actively praised Mussolini and his ideals, and Berlusconi himself, whilst not explicitly doing so, did make light of Mussolini's suppression of dissent, and brought neo-fascists into his coalition:
"Today, Mussolini's racial laws against Jews remain an embarrassment, but people don't care about his hunting down anti-fascists," said Maria Laura Rodotà, a journalist at Italy's Corriere della Sera. "That became one of Berlusconi's jokes."
Admiration for Mussolini is common in Berlusconi's circle. Showbusiness agent Lele Mora, who is now on trial for allegedly pimping for the former prime minister, downloaded an Italian fascist song as his mobile ring tone, while Berlusconi's long-time friend, the senator Marcello Dell'Utri, has described Mussolini as an "extraordinary man of great culture".
In a few hours, Londoners will go to the polls to elect their next Mayor and councillors. The Mayor is that of Greater London, who administers matters above the separate boroughs but below the level of Westminster. The post was held by a younger and more radical Ken Livingstone in the 1980s, before Thatcher abolished it; when the Blair government restored it, Livingstone won it back and held it for a few terms, before being toppled, at the last election, by the floppy-haired, mildly eccentric Tory Boris Johnson.
A number of candidates are running this year; the Greens, the Lib Dems (running ex-police commissioner Brian Paddick), the far right, and an independent who, unlike most of the others, wants a third runway at Heathrow. The main race, however, is shaping up to be a rematch between Boris and Ken. Two likeable and/or loathsome outsized personalities, holding the banners of their respective tribes and ideologies. (A few days ago, Johnson had a lead in polling, though it's said to have narrowed somewhat since then.)
In the red corner, Ken Livingstone needs no introduction. While less radical than during the wars of the Thatcher Era, he still wears his socialist convictions on his sleeve. Which can be good, when it comes to commitment to public transport, forward planning of infrastructure (something the free market isn't all that good at) and attempting to mitigate some of the rising inequality in high-Gini London, though is somewhat more sketchy when it comes to grand sweeping statements on the public dime. Livingstone has, in the past, used his theoretically strictly local seat as a base for foreign policy, drawing the Greater London Authority into a (symbolic) alliance with Venezuela's autocratic Chavez regime, on the pretext of providing free transport to the poor. More recently, he seems to have taken a leaf out of George Galloway's playbook in trying to court the Islamist vote, expounding on Palestine whenever visiting constituencies with large Muslim populations, bashing Jews and making suspiciously dog-whistle-like statements about gays. Oh, and he held down a job presenting on the Iranian propaganda channel Press TV; perhaps we can expect those good honorary socialists, the Islamic Republic of Iran, to sponsor bus passes for the poor if he wins?
In the blue(-blooded) corner is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, a character even more fanciful than his name would suggest, and not without his controversies. Upon election, he did scrap a lot of Livingstone-era public transport plans (such as the cross-river tram), though has avoided the sorts of red-meat pro-motorist culture-war policies some other right-wing mayors (such as the one in Toronto) have pursued. Not only did London's bike lanes remain, but Johnson, himself a cyclist, expanded support for cycling in the city (albeit with the sponsorship of Barclays, though that presumably ticks the piss-off-the-Left box). The Observer's architecture correspondent Rowan Moore has assessed Johnson's record on public works, and found it to be fairly moderate and generally sensible, if leaning a bit towards glitz and spectacle in places. Of course, one criticism has been that a lot of the projects were started by Ken Livingstone, with Johnson coasting by when they were finished for a photo opportunity. That is certainly a valid criticism of some things, such as the Overground and the launch of Crossrail; the case against Johnson's claim to the London cycle hire scheme, commonly known as the “Boris bikes” (though some earnestly right-on types call them “Ken's conveyance”) is less clear, though. While Livingstone did talk about setting up a Paris-style bike hire scheme, there is little evidence of anything having actually happened towards one until Johnson's term. And then there is the new Routemaster bus remake and the proposal for the “Boris Island” airport in the Thames Estuary to replace Heathrow (which is either a brilliant idea or utterly daft, depending on whom one asks).
More controversial are the symbolic statements. While Livingstone has allied his office with the actual and honorary socialist freedom fighters of the world, Johnson's statements have gone the other way. At times, he has taken up the cause of opposition to “political correctness” (commonly a way of ostensibly defending freedom of speech and the ability to take a robust joke whilst also dog-whistling to bigots that one stands with them) perhaps a little too enthusiastically at times, at one point, scrapping a multicultural festival because of its anti-racism message. Johnson has also denounced the Occupy protesters, calling them “hemp-smoking, fornicating hippies in crusty little tents”, a choice of words which, regardless of its accuracy, seems to show a haughty disdain for those who think that rising inequality is a bad thing. (Johnson's professed contempt for the Occupy movement, incidentally, is not shared by other members of the centre-right, including Germany's pro-austerity chancellor Angela Merkel.)
During the last election, this blog came out against Boris Johnson. This time, however, we will not be endorsing, or disendorsing, either candidate; there are good reasons for not voting for either. While Johnson is a Tory, and thus, as the common calculus goes, morally equivalent to Hitler, he is a far more moderate Tory than he looked before the last election. And while Livingstone's policy credentials are a bit bolder (with the exception of fancy buses and island airports, of course), some of his symbolic positions are somewhat concerning. For what it's worth, my first preference won't be going to either of them (the Greens are in with a chance, though).
danah boyd has a new blog post on social steganography, or ways of encoding double meanings in messages one knows will be overheard.
Social steganography is one privacy tactic teens take when engaging in semi-public forums like Facebook. While adults have worked diligently to exclude people through privacy settings, many teenagers have been unable to exclude certain classes of adults – namely their parents – for quite some time. For this reason, they’ve had to develop new techniques to speak to their friends fully aware that their parents are overhearing. Social steganography is one of the most common techniques that teens employ. They do this because they care about privacy, they care about misinterpretation, they care about segmented communications strategies. And they know that technical tools for restricting access don’t trump parental demands to gain access. So they find new ways of getting around limitations. And, in doing so, reconstruct age-old practices.Often these techniques depend on shared cultural references; the fact that one's peers (typically within one's generation) have a shared vocabulary of song/movie/videogame/TV/&c. references has the convenient side-effect of providing a cryptolect that is all but parent-proof. (Which is why teens, i.e. those living in the totalitarian surveillance state of being a minor, are into ostensibly lame stuff like Justin Bieber and Fall Out Boy; few 'rents, even (or especially) those hip enough to know all about Joy Division and the Velvet Underground and krautrock and britpop and whatever, are going to study up on the latest godawful racket the kids these days are listening to just to be able to decode chatter most of which is going to be fairly inconsequential social administrivia. From which it might follow to say that when nostalgic adults listen to music from their adolescence, they are, knowingly or otherwise, revisiting the paraphernalia of strategies for mitigating a lack of freedom.) Anyway, boyd cites an example:
When Carmen broke up with her boyfriend, she “wasn’t in the happiest state.” The breakup happened while she was on a school trip and her mother was already nervous. Initially, Carmen was going to mark the breakup with lyrics from a song that she had been listening to, but then she realized that the lyrics were quite depressing and worried that if her mom read them, she’d “have a heart attack and think that something is wrong.” She decided not to post the lyrics. Instead, she posted lyrics from Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” This strategy was effective. Her mother wrote her a note saying that she seemed happy which made her laugh. But her closest friends knew that this song appears in the movie when the characters are about to be killed. They reached out to her immediately to see how she was really feeling.It's debatable whether Monty Python counts as a parent-proof youth-culture reference. I'm guessing that the example story happened somewhere in the US, where Monty Python still has an aura of counterculture about it, and is likely to not be picked up by one's straight-laced 'rents. (Perhaps it happened in a devoutly Christian community, where The Life Of Brian would be virtually punk rock?)
Of course, nowadays Carmen could just have posted the update to Facebook under a filter, excluding her mother from seeing it, and her mother would have been none the wiser. (Unless Facebook has mechanisms preventing minors from hiding content from their parents, which I hadn't heard of.)
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The Daily Mail specialises in pandering to the unspoken prejudices of Middle Britain; more so than other populist-Right tabloids, it maintains a veneer of middle-class respectability, tutting and curtain-twitching at the decline in public morality and property values, and, whilst officially deploring the BNP and its ilk, putting in the right plausibly-deniable dog whistles that appeal to the proto-fascist tendency. (The fascist tilt isn't just a figure of speech, the Mail notably praised Hitler and his strong leadership of Germany in the 1930s.)
Now, the Mail has outdone itself, publishing an article blaming the death of Stephen Gately, an openly gay boy band member (who, coroners determined, suffered from an undiagnosed heart condition) on his "unnatural lifestyle". The article's author, Jan Moir, almost managed to get away with not being overtly homophobic, by suggesting that the "dark appetites" and "private vice" were some kind of hypothetical celebrity drug culture, though blows any plausible deniability out of the water by saying that Gately's death "strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships.". (What's that you say, Jan? Perhaps had he been socially coerced into a loveless sham marriage to a woman he could never love he'd still be alive?) Anyway, advertisers including Marks & Spencer have pulled their advertising from the Daily Mail.
And here is Charlie Brooker's masterful response to the article.
US Republican electoral strategists' latest tactic against Barack Obama: ads that insinuate that he is the Antichrist, in the hope of getting evangelical Christian voters out to vote for McCain. They're careful not to say outright that Obama is the Antichrist, of course, as that would make them look like lunatics to non-Evangelical voters. Rather, the ad (titled "the One") has an innocuous surface message, ostensibly poking fun at Obama's messianic image, though is peppered with coded references to popular American Christian thriller series Left Behind:
As the ad begins, the words “It should be known that in 2008 the world shall be blessed. They will call him The One” flash across the screen. The Antichrist of the Left Behind books is a charismatic young political leader named Nicolae Carpathia who founds the One World religion (slogan: “We Are God”) and promises to heal the world after a time of deep division. One of several Obama clips in the ad features the Senator saying, “A nation healed, a world repaired. We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.”
Sapp knows that the phrasing and images could just be dismissed as a peculiar coincidence. After all, it was Oprah Winfrey who told an Iowa crowd that Obama was "the one!" But, he insists, "the frequency of these images and references don't make any sense unless you're trying to send the message that Obama could be the Antichrist." Mara Vanderslice, another Democratic consultant, who handled religious outreach for the 2004 Kerry campaign, agrees. "If they wanted to be funny, if they really wanted to play up the idea that Obama thinks he's the Second Coming, there were better ways to do it," she says. "Why use these awkward lines like, 'And the world will receive his blessings'?"
It’s not hard to see how some Obama haters might be tempted to make the comparison. In the Left Behind books, Carpathia is a junior Senator who speaks several languages, is beloved by people around the world and fawned over by a press corps that cannot see his evil nature, and rises to absurd prominence after delivering just one major speech. Hmmh. But serious Antichrist theorists don’t stop there. Everything from Obama’s left-handedness to his positive rhetoric to his appearance on the cover of this magazine has been cited as evidence of his true identity. One chain e-mail claims that the Antichrist was prophesied to be “A man in his 40s of MUSLIM descent,” which would indeed sound ominous if not for the fact that the Book of Revelation was written at least 400 years before the birth of Islam.Which sounds like a textbook case of dog-whistle politics. Speaking of which, has anybody seen Lynton Crosby recently?
I have so far mostly refrained from commenting on the Australian election campaign. In short, it has looked like the Opposition would win by a landslide—much as it has in the previous two elections, in which they got caned. However, now it's looking like the real thing; the much vaunted "Narrowing" of the polls has failed to materialise (the opinion polls, both public and private, have hovered within a margin of error of the 55-45 mark for some months). Even the ABC is biting the hands of its despised master, seemingly confident that the punishment will not be forthcoming.
The Tories, it goes without saying, are panicking. All the rocks they've thrown at the Rudd juggernaut have failed to derail it. It seems that they have been unable to manufacture a "children overboard" or pull any rabbits out of a hat. So now they are resorting to desperate tactics, such as printing pamphlets from a fake, if ominous-sounding, "Islamic Australia Federation" urging people to vote Labor, because of "its support for Muslim causes", such as, say, the Bali bombings:
"We gratefully acknowledge Labor's support to forgive our Muslim brothers who have been unjustly sentenced to death for the Bali bombings," the pamphlet says.
"Labor is the only political party to support the entry to this country of our Grand Mufti Reverend Sheik al-Hilaly and we thank Honourable Paul Keating for overturning the objections of ASIO to allow our Grand Mufti to enter this country."Did you see what they did there? It's not even a dog whistle. They could have hardly been more gormless if they threw in a mention to Labor's multiculturally-correct support for the practices of gang rape and honour killing or somesuch.
The trail for the pamphlets appears to lead straight back to various Liberal Party volunteers, who have been sacked. If anything, it's a sign of their desperation that they couldn't wait to get one of their once-removed black-bag outfits like the Exclusive Brethren to do it.
On the other hand, the election is not over. There is still the possibility that Howard will get back in (or that the Tories will get back in while he'll lose his seat). Granted, it's a lot less of a possibility than before, though if anyone can pull off a dirty victory from behind, it's Howard, the Voldemort of Australian politics. I won't be celebrating his demise until I read his concession speech.
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