Friday, June 23, 2023

Red rags and bulls: what happened when a leftist VUW academic came to Masterton

I saw both sides of the culture wars last night, and it wasn’t pretty. Both were repugnant and both were inimical, albeit in different ways, to the free, open and civil exchange of ideas and opinions.

The occasion was the monthly meeting of the Masterton branch of the NZ Institute of International Affairs. This is typically a sedate event involving a guest speaker, often from academia. The attendees are predominantly older people – retired public servants and the like – with an interest in (as the organisation’s name suggests) foreign affairs, New Zealand’s relationship with the wider world and politics in general.

Last night’s meeting turned out to be anything but decorous. The guest speaker was Dr Michael Daubs, a senior lecturer in media and communication at Victoria University of Wellington. (The job title might give you a clue about what’s to follow.) His address was titled The Truth About Disinformation. It was a red rag in a room that turned out to include quite a few bulls.

Advance publicity for the event quoted Daubs as saying that the anti-lockdown protests of 2022, climate change denialism and international conspiracy theories were examples of disinformation that could generate discord, create distrust in government and undermine social cohesion. He promised to discuss underlying factors such as misogyny, racism, hyper-nationalism and anti-intellectualism.

These are highly contentious issues, as the evening was to show. The tone was set when the MC read an abusive email sent by someone who had apparently seen publicity for the meeting in the local community paper. Other dissenters (Hillary Clinton might have called them deplorables) had obviously been alerted too. There was a big turnout – I estimated about 60-70 people – and among them were people not normally seen at NZIIA meetings.

Nonetheless the event proceeded relatively smoothly. At the start there was an aggressive interjection from the back of the room from a man demanding to know what Daubs got his doctorate in (it was media studies). Later another man shouted “who’s paying you?” before noisily exiting the room. (“I got a free dinner,” Daubs answered.) Otherwise the audience was relatively quiet and attentive, although restive murmurs from time to time suggested not everyone was in blissful accord with what Daubs was saying.

It was only at the end that the event went pear-shaped. As he reached the end of his talk, Daubs was drowned out by angry interjections from the floor. The MC briefly restored order and asked for questions, quite reasonably requesting that they be put politely.

Faint chance. An elderly man put his hand up and was duly handed the microphone, but without saying a word he passed it to anti-vax agitator and Three Waters campaigner John Ansell, who was sitting close by. Ansell had had his hand up too, but the MC ignored him in favour of someone he presumably thought less likely to cause trouble. The handover of the mike was the equivalent of a dummy pass, clearly planned in advance and slickly executed.

Ansell wasn’t interested in asking questions. On taking the mike, he got to his feet and launched into what can only be described as a rant – a word greatly devalued by overuse, but applicable in this case. I couldn’t tell you exactly what he was saying because he was drowned out when the room erupted in a noisy shouting match, Ansell’s supporters competing with those who had come to hear Daubs and resented the disruption.

Ansell proceeded to stride around the room, shouting into the mike but remaining mostly inaudible due to the hubbub around him. As an elderly stalwart of the NZIIA tried ineffectually to escort him off the premises, up on the rostrum one of Ansell’s allies – I think the same guy who handed him the mike – was jabbing an accusing finger in Daubs’ face and shouting that he was a communist.

All the while, the commotion continued. At one point I heard the MC announce, somewhat superfluously, that the meeting was ended, while around him the shouting match raged unabated. It would be fair to say the Masterton branch of the impeccably proper and dignified NZIIA had never experienced anything quite like it. Neither had the venue, a Masterton funeral parlour.  It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so dispiriting.

Eventually things quietened down, order was restored and the antagonists departed, leaving NZIIA regulars to marvel at what they had just observed.

Let’s turn now to what Daubs actually said.

I thought his talk was both laughable and contemptible. It’s hard to imagine a more vivid example of the leftist elite’s contempt for any opinions other than its own and its determination to demonise the expression of legitimate dissent.

Daubs, who is American (yes, another imported propagandist in a tertiary education sector that’s infested with them), used last year’s anti-lockdown protests as evidence that sinister players are using the Internet to spread disinformation that threatens to undermine social cohesion.

He showed a series of slides illustrating what he clearly regarded as dangerous beliefs underpinning the protests. Yes, some of them were eccentric, cranky and probably wrong. But New Zealand is – or was, last time I looked – a free society. People are allowed to express cranky ideas provided they don’t harm anyone. It’s called freedom of expression.

In a free society, you’re allowed to get things wrong. In a free society, people can assess ideas for themselves and decide which ones make sense and which don’t. But that freedom is exactly what alarms the woke elite. Freedom to make up your own mind is dangerous. The far-Left elite, of which Daubs is an exemplar, don’t trust people to make their own decisions. They claim a monopoly on “factually correct information” and would prefer that the proles take their cue from the academic priesthood.

Anyway, how sinister were the lockdown protests, really? Daubs showed a photo of a banner on a motorway overbridge that read “NZ media shameful”. He showed us messages circulated within the protest camp advertising yoga, massage and Hare Krishna food.

He displayed these images as if they represented compelling evidence of dark, anti-social forces at work. Really? So yoga, massage, vegetarian food and people complaining about media bias are evidence of far-Right agitprop? That was the laughable bit.

Daubs went on to accuse protesters of using “emotional language” in a media statement – clearly an unconscionable act of defiance against those in authority. And what did the press statement say? That the protesters were the victims of an oppressive government. It was routine and unexceptionable, using similar language to thousands of other press statements down through the years.

Another slide showed a message from protest organisers urging the freedom campers outside Parliament to avoid violence, respect the law, stay sober, respect people and “be sensible”. This seemed to defeat Daubs’ own argument that the protest was the work of far-Right extremists intent on stirring up trouble. It made me wonder just who the real conspiracy theorists are. Is it the far-Right, or are the real conspiracy theorists people like Daubs and the shadowy Disinformation Project, which feverishly promotes moral panic over phantasms of its own creation?

If the latter is true, what’s their objective? Is it ultimately to stifle ideas and ideologies that they disapprove of?

Just as laughably, Daubs singled out another post on social media which he said had the potential to undermine confidence in the government. Gasp! Never mind that protest movements since time immemorial have had the object of making people question what their leaders were doing. Since when did Left-wing academics take it upon themselves to defend governments against legitimate protest activity? It’s a striking example of how radically the ideological ground has shifted since the advent of wokedom.

The tone of Daubs’ talk – and this is the bit I found contemptible – was smug, pompous, bigoted and condescending. We were invited to mock anti-5G protesters wearing aluminium foil hats (as I say, cranky but harmless) and misspellings ("awesum") by anti-Covid activists on social media. The implication was that the dull-witted, gullible and uneducated classes were at risk of falling for neo-Nazi and Far Right conspiracies and it was the job of people like him to save them from themselves.

He talked about “the truth” and “false stories”. He used these terms as if their meaning is settled. But who defines what’s true and what’s false? Why, people like Daubs, of course.

Under the pretence of protecting us, he and others of his ilk want to control what we can say, and by extension what we think. The purpose is to extinguish all and any opinion that stands in the way of their radical, transformational agenda.

Daubs engages in alarmism about neo-Nazis and far-Right extremists, but perhaps the most striking thing about his talk was the implicit endorsement of a totalitarian society in which no one can say anything that’s even mildly inconvenient for those in power.  It’s interesting to speculate on how different his talk might have been had a centre-Right government, rather than a left-wing one, been in power during the Covid lockdown.

He outlined a number of possible strategies for countering conspiracy theories but stopped short of advocating any specific action. Nonetheless, a logical inference was that he thinks the state should have the power to suppress the expression of ideas that the ruling elite regards as dangerous. That points to oppressive hate speech laws, which are officially off the table for now but would very likely be revived if a Labour-Greens-Maori Party government comes to power in October.

I had some questions to put to Daubs. Unfortunately, by hijacking the event, John Ansell prevented me from doing so. I’ve had a bit to do with John over the years. He’s a very clever, witty man, but he needs to control his rage. Shouting your opponents down is unlikely to win over the non-aligned; it just gets people’s backs up. That’s why I say that I saw the worst extremes of the culture wars last night. John and Daubs should be locked in a small room together.

Had I been able to, however, I would have asked Daubs the following:

■ He and the Disinformation Project (which consistently refuses to reveal who funds it) operate from the premise that there is a threat to society from the far-Right. But isn’t it possible that a researcher could approach the subject from the exact opposite direction – in other words, from the starting point that dangerous ideas are being disseminated by the far Left – and argue their case just as persuasively? To put it another way, aren’t the disinformation researchers’ conclusions predetermined by their starting premise? (My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the far greater threat comes from the far Left because it’s embedded in all the institutions of power, including academia and the media. The so-called far-Right, on the other hand, is marginalised and relatively insignificant.)

■ Daubs talks about disinformation undermining social cohesion, but isn’t the Disinformation Project and its supporters – Daubs included – guilty of exactly the same thing? Aren’t they promoting polarisation and fragmentation by constantly turning up the heat in the culture wars? In other words, isn’t Daubs part of the problem he purports to deplore? (My argument would be that most New Zealanders are not attracted to extreme points of view. They would be largely oblivious to extremist ideologies if outfits like the Disinformation Project didn’t keep hyping them up. By amplifying the supposed threat from the so-called alt-Right, the Disinformation Project perversely gives it more oxygen. To put it another way, they’re all swimming in the same toxic pool. The commotion that followed Daubs' talk neatly illustrated my point: extremists on both sides rarking each other up.)

Finally, I would have asked Daubs how he reconciles his condemnation of the riot outside Parliament with his rapturous endorsement of the mob violence that forced Posie Parker to abandon her speaking engagement in Auckland three months ago.

On Sunday, March 25, the day Speak Up for Women announced they’d cancelled a Wellington event that Posie Parker was going to address because of what had happened to her in Auckland the day before, Daubs triumphantly tweeted: “Well, my Sunday afternoon just opened up. Well done, Tamaki friends!”

I would have been interested in hearing what made mob violence OK and even laudable when it was used against an anti-trans activist, but not when it involved anti-vax protesters at Parliament.  Or is Daubs, as I suspect, just another rank and shallow hypocrite who switches his position to suit his ideological prejudices?

Footnote: The flyer for the NZIIA meeting described Daubs as a senior lecturer in media communications at VUW, but he appears to have moved on. According to his LinkedIn profile, he's now a senior policy adviser at InternetNZ. 



Anonymous said...

Sounds imported !

Don Franks said...

"Finally, I would have asked Daubs how he reconciles his condemnation of the riot outside Parliament with his rapturous endorsement of the mob violence that forced Posie Parker to abandon her speaking engagement in Auckland three months ago." Exactly. Several veteran protester friends of mine in Auckland to support the Posie Parker rally returned from it shaken by their frightening experience.The much maligned anti mandate protesters at parliament repeatedly called for dialogue with the government, who refused them. Elderly women were not bashed by the anti mandate protesters. It sounds to me like Daubs is absolutely full of it.

Mike Webber said...

The same silly mistake so many make that the nazis were right wing. They were far left, Hitler was a member of a socialist party which later joined with the German workers party and became the National socialist German workers party. Fascism is as left as socialism, just a slight variation.

Andy Espersen said...

Thank you, Karl, for presenting this event the way it ought to have been presented by a journalist from the media - though really, you were attending the meeting as a concerned citizen, fully intending to participate in debating the issue.

Will the main media (i.e. local STUFF in this case) even report on the meeting - and if so, how?? I would be interested in knowing.

Simon Arnold said...

Somewhat more worrying is that I see he says he's a Senior Policy Advisor at InternetNZ, They collect the fees from the .nz domain names and spends it wisely no doubt. It does give him a position to help keep the rest of us safe using the authority of an apparently independent membership organisation e.g.

Who mentioned embedded?

Anonymous said...

They are only mad because the NSDAP and the Fascists were the only Right wingers who ever effectively beat the Left, on all planes of power. They did so democratically and won the masses by significant enough margins that they forced all of their enemies to leave.

By contrast, the conservative always loses and constantly gives in. What these hysterical leftists are upset about, is their waning power and influence. The Gnats and Act are no different now.

Academia is in crisis on multiple fronts, with the replication crisis, the falling student numbers, questionable quality of the academics and graduates etc.

In the same breath, the former media power which the legacy used to enjoy is falling away. The hysteria is driven by a need to keep their audiences. Look back to 2015 prior to the Trump launch where there was a spate of media bankruptcy. Without the Hysteria, without demanding search engines pay them money to keep them afloat and without the cozy symbiotic relationship to the rule of money power via the parliamentary system, these outlets would disappear.

Just listen to the rhetoric that these leftists use, that the 'culture war is imported' yet they have imposed a culture revolution on the country during the course of this government. The Disinfo project is just the soft end of the state abuse, I know many commentators who are a little too hard edged have received Police and SIS visits.

These people are about 5 minutes from liquidating the conspiracy kulaks if they could do so.

Cat Kynoch said...

Great belly laughs for a wet Friday night thanks Karl. I can so vividly picture that Masterton event!
I don't know if I am far right but I know the Truth because I know Jesus and I also know that when I share this Truth I prick people's consciences. Hence, I get their 'prickers up'(mostly middle fingers)
People like Daubs and the rest of the Posie Parker/Parliament protest/Prolife haters have all had their consciences pricked and their reactions are prickdictable!

Anonymous said...

Dear Karl, long time fan of your blog, here.

Worth looking over my Twitter account about who is behind the mis and disinformation industry.

Don’t know whether you are on Twitter, but you should be able to browse through it:

I was tuned into John’s livestream and extremely disappointed that he acted up before recording the question and answer session. But I honk he was the only one live-streaming it, sadly.

Jeff McIntyre said...

Karl - fabulous summary and an excellent dissection of the left’s totalitarian instincts when it comes to free speech. I too know and like John Ansell and controlled, focused questioning by him would’ve achieved far more than the rant that just alienated likely a sympathetic audience given the age demographic in attendance. The surrender of freedoms during Covid has left a massive rift throughout NZ families and society that will take decades to heal if at all.

Odysseus said...

Thank you Karl for a fascinating report. It's a real pity you were denied the opportunity to put your questions, which are right on target, to Daubs by John Ansell's intemperate rant. He needs to understand he is doing the cause of free speech far more harm than good when he hijacks a meeting like that.

Daubs' ideas are very concerning, not least because the government is now moving quickly to give effect to them. The Prime Minister's Department has recently called for tenders for advice on dis/misinformation, a prescription that appears tailored to the shadowy "Disinformation Project". The Free Speech Union has advised it will be putting in a counter-bid presumably in an attempt to expose and derail the process.

Furthermore, and most alarmingly, the Department of Internal Affairs has announced plans to establish a "Regulator" of online speech, who will be able to censor free, legal speech on the grounds that it is dis/misinformation by ordering platforms to take down anything that displeases him/her/it under the threat of severe financial penalties. The extremely wordy and obfuscatory consultation document can be found on DIA's website and the consultation ends on 31 July - do make a submission. If this plan proceeds and Labour are re-elected, we may well all find ourselves gathering outside Parliament in the New Year.

It was most apt your meeting was held in a funeral parlour, a fitting venue to mourn the fast approaching death of democracy in New Zealand.

Doug Longmire said...

This import, Daubs is very much in the same category as hand-waver Kate Hannah, of the Disinformation Project ! This outfit is well named as it specializes in promulgating disinformation, of the kind that Daubs does.

In the same mould is author Byron Clark who recently wrote a book called "Fear". I bought the book out of curiosity, but found it to a long tirade of accusing multiple groups and people of far-right extremism.
The main thrust of this book, and of Daubs and Hannah, is that New Zealand has a major problem with "alt-right, far right, extremist" groups who are becoming more prominent and active.
The problem is that the these authors do not actually define these terms, nor do they provide any evidence that these people or groups actually pose any kind of direct threat to New Zealand.

Clark names a number of specific organisations, lumping them all under the same umbrella term far right/alt-right. But in fact some of the groups he names are quite mainstream:- for example Groundswell NZ which is a grassroots volunteer-driven advocacy group for New Zealand farmers. He also names well known reporters who are not generally regarded as "far-right".
Overall it appears that any group or person who is vocally critical of the current (Left wing) government in New Zealand, or raises any analytical scientific scrutiny of the "climate change" crusade in New Zealand, is lumped into the alt-right/far right category.

As we have seen from racist gang activity terrorising towns and suburbs, multiple retail ram raids, and recent mob thuggery by "trans activists" against a feminist speaker, here in New Zealand,the current track record is that society has more to fear from the Far-Left" than the Right !!

Odysseus said...

I thought I'd take a look at Dr Daubs' bio and research interests on the VUW website. I found this: "He is the co-author (with Peter A. Thompson) of “International Regulatory Frameworks for Online Content”, a research report commissioned by the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs". Daubs would appear to be a contributor to the DIA's plan to establish a Regulator to censor online speech. Given his very unbalanced views, that should alarm everyone.

Alex said...

I think Hugo Boss is in for a nice payday if they get reelected .

Except our uniforms will have the red fern instead of the swastika .

Great reporting Karl , I thought I was aware of the depths of the extremist left, but the bare faced cheek of them to lecture people who pay them is breathtaking . Then again it will also be their downfall.

Kiwis may be quiet and non confrontational but that doesn't mean they are not assessing and deciding.
The privacy of the voting booth is where they will rebel.

Brendan McNeill said...

If there is a substantial ‘far right’ in New Zealand, which I doubt, it will be the product of Dr Michael Daubs and his ilk. What these smug ideologues fail to realise is their toxic ambitions for New Zealand society are bound to produce a reaction.

I did write to the Disinformation Project some time ago asking if they would mind revealing the source of their funding to avoid speculation and the possible spread of misinformation and disinformation concerning the matter.

No reply as yet, so I’m guessing their commitment to fighting the enemy of truth only goes so far.

That said, I believe the Disinformation Project is funded from the Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. They are free to refute this of course.

Trev1 said...

No Marxist plonker from a 2nd rate US university is going to restrict my freedom. Thanks for the heads-up.

ZTS said...

Yeah and how worrying is that. As a senior policy advisor for Internet NZ, he'll be leading the Govt's call to widely censor the internet.