New Freeland

Does PA System stifle leftist blogs?

Last week Tze Ming Mok gave her farewell to PA System. She is off to Europe to work and cites this as a major reason for her departure from PA System. But a little of her writing and reactions around other blogs reveal a deeper malaise in the “left wing” blogs. Something I would contend is the result of the stifling and virtual conservative nature of PA System, despite its supposed left wing bias. Let’s begin with Tze Ming Mok’s own words about this part of her exit.

… the PA System experiment is large factor in why you’re seeing the back of me. Although it’s been a very successful exercise in online community-building, and although I have had a lot of fun with it in places, it has, overall, been strangely isolating for people like me.

PA System is no doubt successful in its goal to build a sort of online community. But when you read it for a while you do notice the uniformity of the content, despite the range of authors. It is understandable that someone like Tze Ming Mok would eventually feel isolated. Just like any of the whitebread writers on PA would if they were the single white man on an Indonesian site. But that is human nature, as she realizes…

But I always knew that was how communities worked, and I knew even before it started that PA System would be dominated by a certain kind of perspective.

Communities are prone to conformist perspectives, fairly much tautologically. Online communities more so since if you don’t like it you can up and leave with no problems, unlike most real communities. In reality PA System is something of a sheltered world that brings together commenters from the majoritarian side of NZ culture in an area where they feel safe from much more rough and tumble side of other local blogs. The only comparable site was the defunct Sir Humphrey’s, which didn’t shelter anyone and if memory serves even the authors often had altercations on various subjects. The more right wing blogs are apparently far less interested in providing a haven for the majority of commenters and in so doing provide more diversity of thought.

I would argue that there is nothing more important to those “left wing” commenters than this conformance to the majority of NZ’s ethnic and political identity. It is vital to avoid argument and maintain the appearance of good natured community. Subjects that could lead to division and serious argument are complicitly ignored. This is the root of Tze Ming Mok’s isolation, real debate over race, sex and identity are simply not discussed at a deep level. The conversation is instead lead into ancient NZ musicians, Exclusive Brethren and George W. Bush.

Che Tibby, himself an ex-PA writer, says this in his lead into talking about Tze Ming Mok’s farewell.

Since its inception it has increasingly formed an alternative voice to places like Kiwiblog that pose an explicitly aggressive and right-wing dialogue.

Obviously here he is talking about the comments at Kiwiblog, as David Farrar is not aggressive in his writing. No more so than Che Tibby himself anyway. But the interesting way he writes reveals the underlying need for participants at PA, or the PA style of community, to feel sheltered and give the illusion of a romantic community. Why else link “aggressive” and “right wing” in the same breath? The commenting at Kiwiblog is obviously combative very often, but that is NOT just because of the right wing participants. Only and ideologue with a specific need to reinforce the false dichotomy of “left = cooperative, right = aggresive” could write something like that. The left wing commenters at Kiwiblog are just as responsible for the overall tone and aggression as the right. But it is somewhat typical of his writing that Che Tibby often sets up these strawmen in order to pull one of them down while putting lipstick and mascara on the other.

The fact is that there is self-evidently a wide range of “right wing” writing and debating style with regular disagreements, as well as agreements, in which the debate does not descend in to a slanging match. Take for example Peter Cresswell and the team at NZ Conservative. On the other hand there do exist left wing bloggers who are not afraid to hand it out to their “own side”. Tim Selwyn springs to mind here.

Che Tibby does make a series of good points about PA System reflecting real life and eventually comes to the evident conclusion that if you don’t like it you can leave and start up something to give your own voice. All fair enough and sensible, yet he still gives voice unintentionally to the nature of PA System and its natural inclination to provide a sheltered environment for the majority culture of NZ.

[PA System] listens to difference, and gets a bit awkward and uncomfortable when those voices get too loud, too direct, or too challenging.

And when those voices do get too loud, rightly or wrongly plays no role here, then the crowd gets “uncomfortable” and shuts down the debate. Just like the real world keeping down the uncomfortable voices by implicitly ignoring them. Here is how Deborah at In a strange land relates.

A couple of weeks ago one regular commenter made a gratuitously sexist reference to women politicians… and I longed to post something pointing out exactly what the problem was with the phrasing, but I do not have the energy to do it, nor the emotional wherewithal to withstand the rebukes that would come my way.

These women can’t all be wrong in their assessments, unless you subscribe to some weaker-sex idea, and of course if you know that the crowd is going to suppress you if you get “too challenging” you’ll eventually not bother. Naturally PA System is Russell Brown’s creation, it is his to do with as he wants. But to elevate its community to some position of idealist superiority over those “aggresive right wing” sites is fundamentally dishonest. Take Tibby’s closing paragraph.

The number of people who have delurked and posted their first comment to say goodbye to Tze Ming is a strong indication that there where plenty of readers directly interested in feminist and activist writers. If I remember correctly, Russell has pointed out that all Tze Ming’s posts were marked by high numbers of lurkers. This is a fairly strong indication to me that a market exists for these ideas, it just needs to find the right venue.

So whilst Tze Ming Mok was feeling increasingly isolated in the world of PA System her posts were actually read by a large number of people. These commenters felt able to comment only when she left! One has the sneaking suspicion that had these lurkers spoken up with something “uncomfortable, possibly even “direct” or “challenging” she might have persisted and there would still be a market for her ideas. It probably didn’t help that the most striking discussion she did create ended up with her basically being told to “deal with it” about supposed bullying in the System. But before I move on from Che Tibby’s comments let’s take a look at his concluding line.

I, for one, used to go over to Span when I wanted to read a feminist or women’s perspective on issues. And now, I go to In a Strange Land.

I really can only hope he is not as patronising as that in real life. Otherwise I hope that someday someone writes a farewell article for him that concludes with…

I, for one, used to go over to Che when I wanted to read a bogan posing as an intellectual.

If I was Tze Ming Mok, or the departed Span, I would get annoyed with being the amusing alternative view as well. “Look, the wee girl is trying to express and point-of-view. How cute! Now when is Blam Blam Blam playing?”

Whatever, it is evident that while diversity, minority issues and so on are buzzwords for leftist intellectuals the readers and commenters are far less comfortable with openly discussing these ideas. What is typically attributed to the “right” is much a trait of the “left”. The latter just cover it up by not deigning to debate it and find their areas of discomfort.

Another interesting feature of the right wing blogs is that there are strong women there writing. Whether you agree or disagree with them Cactus Kate and Lucyna survive perfectly well on their own account. Possibly this has something to do with them not playing the games of identity politics or feeling the need to be accepted by the “big boys”. Whereas Russell Brown feels an actual need to address a supposed imbalance

And yes, I have an idea about refreshing our gender and ethnic balance too.

The problem Russell is not so much with the balance of your writers, it is the readership and commenters do not feel comfortable giving debate to the minorities you take on board. The intrinsic leftist reflex is to not take such a writer to task, or even seriously debate on the fundamental issues, so any such writer is going to get bored and isolated. The only reason to be part of PA System is to be part of the community and experience the feedback, good or bad.

This is why I would contend that PA System has the ironic effect of stifling the left wing side of the blogosphere in NZ. It has drawn to it the large audience that is uncomfortable with having their views directly challenged into a chamber in which they are not confronted, except in a very superficial way, with anything resembling an alternative to their own brand of self-congratulatory liberalism. In a manner reminiscent of Maoism they comfortable look out on the real world and merely tut while any opposition is derided as rightist (a self-evident evil), quietly strangle dissent within and let their younger fellows battle it out on the rougher blogs to give them a self-satisfied glow about how civilized their world is.

Left wing bloggers who are truly not afraid to take the debate to their own “side” are rare but do exist. Tim Selwyn, in writing about an anthology of NZ essays, sums up PA System well even when writing about the book.

Dedicated to “the bloggers,” media personality and Labour Party apologist, Russell Brown has had his smirk come to life in a shambolically uneven historical homage that would sit smugly with his complacent white middle class acolytes whose ignorance of it’s failure on almost every level is, inevitably, a prerequisite of their membership.

My emphasis. Here is an unashamed leftist who is definitely not happy to sit aside and watch the comfortable majority of NZ be quite so comfortable if he can help it. In Tibbyian terms he is positively rightist in his aggression. However, Selwyn is definitely not the sort of middle-class communitarian like Tibby or Brown who is happy to sit in his self-made echo chamber mouthing platitudes to the minorities while ignoring the injustices of their own favoured party and elites. I would say in passing that it is remarkably indicative that Tim Selwyn is far more appreciated by the right, despite the diametric opinions held, than by the left. Again I think that Selwyn captures the reason when talking about the book.

There is no internal challenge. No rejoinders, no debate as such. There are no working class voices here. No James K Baxter, no John A Lee, no Bruce Jesson or Tim Shadbolt or Warwick Roger let alone Bob Jones or Roger Douglas – and certainly no Maori “militants” who Brown evidently thinks unworthy or perhaps incapable of ideas or “great writing.”

This is equally well applicable to PA System as it is to the dreary book Selwyn is reviewing. There is definitely no internal challenge. All anger and criticism is directed outwards. Remember the vitriolic bile directed at Sir Humphrey’s? As far as I could tell it was because of the temerity of criticising the government in less than polite words, giving a convenient excuse to ignore-by-not-ignoring the site. Even when the unrepentantly leftist Psycho Milt turned up (from Kuwait? Somewhere in the Middle East anyway) there was no expressed solidarity of a kindred spirit, nor enquiry after his experiences in that part of the world. Perhaps because what he had to say sometimes challenged the comfortable quiet existence in our backwater of the world. It doesn’t seem to have changed now that No Minister has reborn some of those writers, Psycho Milt among them.

In another irony, from the point-of-view of minorities or anyone not comfortable as a middle class socialist obsessed with doctrine, PA System is in fact a heavily conservative weight on the left wing blogosphere. There is certainly nothing revolutionary nor progressive there, apart from occasional diatribes against foreign right wing politicians when needed as a distraction from Labour’s problems in NZ. This unfortunately is mostly due to the influence, probably unintended, that Russell Brown exerts. There is no similar personality on the right. No one could really care less what bands David Farrar hangs around with, and he is certainly no more “aggressive” than Brown. Yet Brown does exert a remarkable sway over the discourse at PA System, intentional or not.

This I would attribute to the existing “right wing” bloggers being largely disinterested in personalities as such and being aggressively oblivious to the Wellington in-crowds of public servants or Auckland media personalities which dominate even the blog writers of the left. These same writers naturally have an interest in preserving the comfortable state of PA System (and their own blogs), or at least the illusion of that state which is momentarily cracked from time to time, in order not to attract too much attention from their employers whose time and resources they use to maintain their sites. It would not do for a public servant to contribute too much to real debate and bring reflection on their ministry, nor questions about the use of their paid-for time.

Ultimately I read the PA System comments as little as I do Kiwiblog’s. While the latter interminably descend into baiting and fighting, the former is a dreary round-after-round of predictable comfort with just as little information.

In short I can only agree with Deborah in her summation:

I can see why Tze Ming Mok is leaving.

I don’t think PA System is going to be an interesting influence for those of us outside the public service and media industry until they get some real diversity. And I don’t mean instituting ethnic or gender quotas on writers but the complacent commenters subjecting themselves to some diversity of commenting even if it does get a bit loud or challenging. In the meantime it will continue to stifle much interesting happening on the left side of the blogs in NZ.

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10 December, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 39 Comments