Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Bill Henson, "agenda-setting", and the strange malleability of politics

For all the talk of new media changing the media structure, blogs still tend to be more reactive than proactive. It's still the mainstream media and political leaders that set the public agenda of what's discussed, on blogs as much as anywhere else.

I haven't really felt inclined to discuss the Bill Henson situation because I feel like it's an issue that's been dragged kicking and screaming onto the public agenda. I did see some of Henson's work, photos of adolescents' bodies, when doing cultural studies at uni last year. I think it says something about the hysteria around the issue that I honestly cannot remember whether the adolescents in the images that I saw were completely nude or not. Either there was no full nudity, or the context was such that the question of exactly how much clothing was not being worn simply had no reason to stick in my mind.

The only real reason I'm commenting now is because Malcolm Turnbull has recently voiced his support of Henson and artistic freedom, condeming the raids that were done on the art gallery. Meanwhile, the previously linked news article says that the Prime Minister is standing by his initial criticism of the gallery display.

Just to re-iterate: it's the Labor Prime Minister that's currently advocating censorship on the grounds of sexual immorality, and it's the Liberal front-bencher currently defending freedom of expression in the face of that censorship. Weird.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The so-called "emo suicide" in the UK - some more detail

Why is it that I find myself blogging most when I have uni assessments due?

The UK tabloid media have gone all-out on Hannah Bond's suicide. The Sun: Suicide of Hannah, the secret "emo". The Telegraph: Popular schoolgirl dies in 'emo sucide cult'. Even the more upmarket Times is in on the act: Girl, 13, hanged herself after becoming obsessed with 'emo'. I think it's only that last article which points out that the suicide actually happened in September last year. I wonder why it's suddenly news now? Was the inquest into her death only just now completed?

Hannah's profile is no longer on Bebo. Someone else has put up a memorial page using her former username: Looks like the 4chan people have decided to have some fun in the comments section recently. There are other memorial sites there, such as Most recent commenters, those who were genuine friends of Hannah and aren't just there for the lulz, are really pissed at the recent media coverage. Unsurprisingly.

In spite of the ludicrous claims of the media that members of the so-called emo "cult" spend their time "talking about death and the glamorisation of hanging and speaking about “the black parade” - a place where “emos” believe they go after they die", none of that appears anywhere in any of the comments left by any of Hannah's friends. Unsurprising, since the whole idea of it is complete and utter crap. The phrase "black parade" does appear in the comments of the 4chan people who are mocking the death, though. Over and over again. So I expect the mainstream media to do what it does every time it discusses emo, and utterly fail to make a distinction between the genuine and the mocking commentary on emo. I fully expect to see "in-depth investigations" from the mainstream press, which will say stupidity such as "we investigated Hannah's bebo profile and were shocked at the number of times the 'black parade' was mentioned and glorified".

Looks like the emo kids are going to be the targets of a full-blown moral panic yet again. Pity.

Hillary Clinton should not drop out....yet

An editorial from Motherjones is getting some well-deserved linkage around a lot of blogs. The most important bit is where it highlights what Clinton's three options are now, and the ramifications of them:
First, keep fighting like nothing has changed. When their candidate is challenged, Clinton supporters respond with huge monetary shows of support. And when their careers are challenged, the Clintons themselves kick it into another gear. Hillary Clinton can double down on the upcoming primaries in West Virginia and Kentucky (where she leads by large margins), ratchet up the calls to seat Michigan and Florida, make a zillion phone calls to superdelegates every day, and hope that Obama gets caught in another Reverend Wright-esque sandstorm. (It wouldn't hurt to drop the gas tax pander.) Rumors persist about one last piece of truly nuclear opposition research the Clinton campaign has held back about Obama. It could release some such thing; the only danger is that if Clinton does not win the nomination, the Democratic nominee may be fatally wounded. But wounding the nominee is obviously not a concern if the Clinton campaign chooses this option, anyway.

Second, she can drop out immediately. Despite the calls for this that are certain to ring through Obama-friendly parts of the blogosphere today, this may not be the best option for Obama. If Clinton drops out this week, Obama may lose the upcoming primaries in West Virginia and Kentucky to someone who is not on the ballot.

Third, lay the groundwork for a graceful exit in a few weeks. Assuming that Clinton sees the end of the road on the horizon, this choice has several advantages over option number two. First, the Clintons have donated a lot of their own money to the campaign; staying in and continuing to raise funds allows them to retire some of that debt. Second, the last two weeks of the campaign can take a conciliatory tone, attempting to convince Democratic voters who have cast their lot with Clinton that Obama ain't so bad after all. This would go a long way in rehabilitating Bill and Hillary Clinton's reputations within the Democratic Party, and position Hillary for a vice presidential selection, should she be interested. If she hopes to be a future Senate Majority Leader or a candidate in 2012, this route may be the necessary one.

I find myself thinking that option three is indeed the best one, politically speaking. So, I suspect, would most Democratic powerbrokers. Should Obama be the nominee, the realpolitik of it is that he most likely cannot within the general election without the support of people who are currently supporting Hillary Clinton. The terms of Hillary Clinton's exit would have to be such that there is no perception of being unfairly forced out, and that there is a call for Democratic supporters of Hillary to be Democrat supporters first and Hillary supporters second. Ideally such a call would come from Hillary Clinton herself.

The first, not being forced out, requires all remaining primaries to be held. Yes, it's tough, but as someone else once told me, the best way for Obama to win the primaries is to, simply, win the primaries. There must be no doubt who came first overall.

The second, the call for unity, reminds me of just how ugly and dirty a game politics can be. How would it go? The Democratic powerbrokers would be having a little conversation with Hillary, saying something like "you can stay in, frankly we don't think you're going to win, but we're not going to subject you to the humiliation of a lockout. We'll even throw in a nice little earner for you later down the track: how does Senate Majority Leader sound? In return for us being so nice and not chucking you out on your ear, you stop playing attack politics on Obama and start saying good things about him every chance you get. You'll endorse him when he wins, right? Make sure your supporters will back him even though he's not you? Good. Then you can stay in, and keep telling people you're in it to win it, although of course we all know different (*evil chuckles*)."

That last bit was gratuitous, but I do think politics can get that nasty. I'm under no illusions that Barack Obama will magically stop things being nasty, but of course I don't think it's down to him to stop it. It's down to us.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

UK's Daily Mail going for the anti-emo moral panic again

I was wondering why a google search for "emo initiation" was even being made, let alone having the searcher get refered to an entry on my blog. I guess I shouldn't be suprised by the fact that it's the Daily Mail whipping up hysteria about emo and Britain's threatened youth[tm] again.

And how: Girl, 13, hangs herself after becoming obsessed with Emo 'suicide cult' rock band is the headline. My Chemical Romance is given as the prime example of these so-called "suicide cult" bands. I admit to being pleased that, as of the time of writing, every single one of the 41 comments on the article all say basically "you can't blame My Chemical Romance for this!!!"

More disturbing - disturbing because it shows just how crap the Daily Mail's coverage is, that is - is the claim of the existence of an initiation rite into emo subculture that requires a person to cut themselves before they can join. There is simply no such thing. "Emo" is a style of music, and, more recently, a kind of fashion. That's ALL it is. Anybody can "join", since there are no membership requirements to like music and dress in a certain way.

Yes, I'm aware that the poor girl who killed herself told her father that she cut herself as part of such an initiation. Either someone lied to her that such a thing exists, or she lied to her father about the real reason she cut herself. I suspect the latter: from personal experience, I know that the self-hate associated with depression and suicidal tendencies make it almost impossible to explain what you're going through, and why you take actions that seem stupid and self-destructive, in a way that you believe another person would ever be able to understand. I find it entirely plausible that Hannah simply couldn't explain why she did what she did, and came up with that explanation simply as a way of providing an explanation for something that she couldn't actually explain.

My adolescence was spent in what could be considered an "alternative subculture" (grunge, to be exact), and I wish to high heaven that people would stop blaming subcultures for "causing" the problems that their children face once they hit adolescence and start trying not to be children any more. Please, PLEASE understand this: the subcultural identification is not responsible for the problems, the problems are responsible for the subcultural identification.

The music helps people cope with depression, suicidal feelings, the realisation that nobody else can ever know what it is you feel and what you think, not completely, or perhaps not at all. The identification with people of similar tastes help you realise that others can at least partially understand you in a way that adults - who've already gone through all this - cannot. But the process is not perfect, and the fact that it fails sometimes, as it failed in Hannah's case, is no reason to deny that help to the youth that need it.

Cracking down on "emo" tendencies will oppress for no reason those who identify with the subculture. Those who aren't drawn to it for emotional stability will be forced to wear the stigma of falsely being considered emotionally unstable. Those who are drawn to the music and the style looking for emotional stability will only become more emotionally unstable if that outlet is denied to them. It will makes things worse, not better.

*sigh* I wish parents would try to be a little more understanding of their children, especially when they're entering the phase of not being children anymore.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Maybe the Democratic Party ought to split in two....

This is one of my more crackheaded ideas I think, but there's a certain seductive logic to it....

With the Republican Party so discredited in the electorate, and with the reins of power within the Republican Party so tightly held by the far right, is it possible, as I've seen suggested, that the Republican Party is actually dying? Will this be the final election in which they compete as a serious contender?

If the Republican Party is dying, the Democratic Party would be poised to become the only major political party in existence. I instinctively distrust one party rule, no matter which party. I assume that most voters in democratic societies feel much the same way, and would look for a way to redress the balance. A new political party would eventually spring up - perhaps forming when, say, a large and dissatisfied bloc within the existing single party tears away and strikes out on their own.

Which brings me to the rift in the Democratic Party between supporters of Obama and supporters of Clinton. And the crackheaded idea that, if all the above is going to happen eventually, why wait? Divide the party between the two candidates now, circumventing the problem of trying to get the two sides to line up behind one candidate, and get on with it.

The problem of course is that the Republican party is not completely discredited in the eyes of the vast majority of the American voting public. Not yet, anyway. And fielding both Obama and Clinton under separate party banners could, in the winner takes all system of the US Presidential election, very easily hand the presidency to McCain by default.

And yet....I have yet to see a poll which offers people a choice between three preferred candidates rather than two. I wonder if such a poll would paint a slightly different picture to the two-person preferred question that every pollster has been asking. Plus with optional voting, turnout matters, and in the 2008 primaries the Democrats have been absolutely killing the Republicans in turnout, even long before McCain finally clinched the nomination. More democrats are motivated to take part in this election. A lot more.

Interestingly, the rivalry between Clinton and Obama is also at least partially responsible for the massive increase in turnout for the Democrats. If both continued to run under separate party banners, would that still result in increased turnout for both at the presidential election? Enough for both of them to gain more votes than McCain? Could a continuing focus on Obama vs Clinton conceivably turn the resulting lack of media focus on John McCain into a positive for Obama and Clinton, as "lack of investigation of McCain" turns into "McCain's campaign founders due to lack of media interest"?

Like I said, crackheaded, and the actual effect of such an official split would most likely be to end up handing the presidency to John McCain by default (which would at least be slightly amusing given that he only really won the Republican nomination by default when all the other candidates proved too sucky). But still...

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Hillary's gas tax holiday: why she's really pushing it

First, I have to give Hillary Clinton credit for successfully hijacking the issue from John McCain and making herself get identified in the media as the most prominent proponent of it.

But yes, the gas tax holiday idea is economically stupid, not least because, as Harvard professor N. Gregory Mankiw said in this article: "What you learn in Economics 101 is that if producers can't produce much more, when you cut the tax on that good the tax is kept . . . by the suppliers and is not passed on to consumers". Cut the tax and the oil companies will continue to charge what the market can bear, which means they'll jack up the price so that it was exactly the same as it was before the tax was cut.

But it's not at all politically stupid once you figure out what the real goal is: it's not to reduce gas prices, it's to make Hillary Clinton more popular.

So the oil companies will raise their prices if the tax goes away? Then it's not Hillary Clinton's fault that the gas tax holiday hasn't reduced the price, it's the fault of the evil old oil companies for "denying hard-working Americans the relief of the Hillary Clinton[tm] gas tax holiday". The fact that such "denying of relief" is an economic inevitability must be carefully ignored, indeed must be actively suppressed. Hence you see Hillary painting all those pointing out the truth of what will happen as "elitists" who are "working against the interests of ordinary Americans".

The image she's aiming for is one of Hillary Clinton heroically sticking up for the little guy in the face of evil special interest groups that are putting profit before people. The actual result of the gas tax holiday is irrelevant to the effort of painting this image. Criticism of the results of the policy, while important to make, won't make the slightest difference in whether she pushes this idea or not. Indeed, they can be helpful in painting the picture she's trying to create if she can get the objectors identified with the evil special interest groups she's presenting herself as opposing. It's all about the image, not the policy.

What's really disturbing about this is such an image strategy depends very heavily not just on voters not being well-versed in how the gas tax holiday would actually play out, but on making a virtue of ignorance: people must not know what would actually happen and why. The ramifications of that are a little too disturbing for me to contemplate right now.