Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Deetch" or "dutch"? Both are capable of being made to sound absurd


(First published in The Dominion Post, October 17.)
 
YEARS AGO, while on a government-sponsored visit to Germany,  I noticed my official guide smirking as he eavesdropped on the conversation of some of our fellow passengers on a train trip between Karlsruhe and Berlin.

He later explained that the group’s accent identified them as coming from a provincial region in the north of Germany. A resident of sophisticated Bonn himself, he clearly regarded them as yokels. His contempt couldn’t have been more obvious.

It lodged in my memory not just as extraordinarily unprofessional, coming from someone employed to promote a newly-unified Germany, but as a striking lesson in how human beings put others down purely because of the way they speak.

Mocking other people’s accents is an age-old way of asserting cultural and social superiority. 

It’s also one of the easiest ways in which to poke fun at other nationalities - a fact cleverly exploited by the scriptwriters of TV comedies such as Hogan’s Heroes and ’Allo ’Allo!, in which the Germans and French were mercilessly caricatured on the basis of their accents.

Fifty years ago, Peter Sellers sold lots of records with his wickedly clever impersonation of Indians. Would he get away with it today? Probably not. Cultural sensitivity would rule it out. Yet some accents are still considered fair game - including our own.

On the American talk show Last Week Tonight, British comedian John Oliver had great fun recently with a New Zealand television news clip about the fuss over the National Party’s alleged plagiarising of a track by rapper Eminem in its election advertising.

Two aspects appealed to Oliver. The first was National campaign manager Steven Joyce’s reaction when journalists asked him whether National had obtained copyright clearance to use the Eminem song.

Joyce’s reply - "We think it’s, um, pretty legal”  - amused Oliver, who suggested the politician would make an entertaining defence lawyer.

But what also attracted Oliver’s attention, perhaps inevitably, was the accent of the New Zealand television reporter featured in the clip. Her pronunciation of “Eminem”, in particular, so amused him that he attempted his own imitation – not once but twice, to the great mirth of his audience.

Fair enough; I cringe too at the pronunciation of television journalists. Some give the impression they’re on a mission to destroy every trace of euphony in the English language.

This particular reporter’s pinched pronunciation of the vowels in “Eminem” was enough to make even me wince, and I’m a New Zealander.

But then, with accents, who’s to say that one is worse than another? All accents are capable of being made to sound ridiculous.

Several years ago, simple-minded Australians (no jokes about tautology, please) hooted with delight at the famous “Beached Az, Bro” video – an Australian-made cartoon in which a beached whale with a Kiwi accent declined an offer of a potato chup because he could only eat plinkton.

It wasn’t terribly clever, but it played to the widespread perception among Australians that New Zealand is a slightly more backward version of Tasmania.

Even an intelligent magazine like the Spectator Australia can’t resist having a dig. In an editorial devoted to National’s election victory a couple of weeks ago, it referred to events across the “dutch”.

But really, can anyone say the New Zealand accent is intrinsically more absurd than one that pronounces chips as cheeps, kiwi as koy-woy, pool as pewel and today as to die? Or, for that matter, ditch as deetch?

I suppose we just have to accept that New Zealand English can sound odd to other ears. What apparently doesn’t occur to most Australians, with their nationalistic braggadocio, is that their accent can sound pretty tortured too.

And what about the Brits? Once, travelling on a train in France, I spent several minutes trying to figure out the nationality of the young men who were sharing my compartment. It eventually dawned on me that they were from England and that the language they were speaking was nominally the same as mine.

No one from a country with Britain’s quaint assortment of impenetrable regional accents is in a position to poke fun at the way other people speak. At least a New Zealander from Kaitaia can understand one from Invercargill, which is not something that can be said for the British.

So perhaps people like Oliver should lay off the jokes about other cultures’ accents. It’s a cheap way of point-scoring, and it often says a lot more about the mocker than the mocked.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

George, George, what were you thinking?


(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 8.)
I’ve always rather liked George Clooney. I particularly enjoyed the films he made with the directors Joel and Ethan Coen, namely O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty.
Both movies bore the Coen brothers’ trademark storyline of greedy, evil or stupid people (sometimes all three) getting caught up in grotesquely complex events that spiral out of control, usually with disastrous and outrageously funny consequences.

Clooney seemed a natural fit with the Coen brothers’ darkly whimsical view of the world. What especially impressed me was that even with his matinee-idol looks, he was happy to play roles that required a degree of self-mockery. He didn’t seem to take himself too seriously – a quality he shares with a similarly suave heart-throb from an earlier era, Cary Grant.
I was less impressed with the over-rated Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney’s directorial debut, in which he starred as a colleague of the legendary American broadcaster Edward R Murrow, and I probably should resent him for his involvement as producer of Argo, which wilfully misrepresented New Zealand’s role in a plot to spirit six American diplomats out of hostile Iran. 

But his best films have been brilliant and even his poorer ones are better than most, so he remained one of the few Hollywood stars I admired.
His efforts on behalf of war victims in Sudan seemed to mark him as a decent man, too – a genuine humanitarian, and blessedly free of the irritating sanctimony and self-promotion that has made U2’s Bono a figure of ridicule.

On top of all this, Clooney seemed endearingly immune to the hype, humbug and glitz customarily associated with big box-office names. Still more reason to like him.
That is, until last week. Then he blew it.

Clooney could have got married quietly and discreetly. Instead, his wedding was the centre of a media event that was extravagant even by Hollywood standards.
We can only conclude this was deliberate. Why else choose Venice as the venue?

It’s hard to imagine any city in the world where there would be less prospect of privacy. In Venice, people get around in open boats. This meant that virtually every move by Clooney and his bride, the Lebanese-born civil rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, would be witnessed and recorded by paparazzi and TV cameras.
Again, we can only assume it was orchestrated with this intent. The media seemed to have been advised in advance of the wedding party’s movements so that they could be on hand to capture every moment.

Certainly Clooney seemed to revel in the attention, beaming and waving like a monarch acknowledging the adoration of his subjects. Not for him the raised hand to fend off prying lenses or the phalanx of bodyguards to keep the press at bay, as we’ve come to expect of celebrity weddings.
On the contrary, there seemed an inordinate amount of very public cruising back and forth on the canals in the company of his illustrious guests, the purpose of which was presumably to ensure maximum exposure.

George, George, what were you thinking?
Journalists, clearly so mesmerised by the glamour of the occasion that they momentarily took leave of their professional scepticism, wittered on about the prospect of Clooney’s female fans worldwide being plunged into despair at the sight of the man they called the world’s most desirable bachelor giving his heart to someone else.

In fact a more probable consequence was that many people who had previously respected Clooney as an intelligent and sensible man, with an admirable disregard for the usual excesses of Hollywood stardom, would be wondering how he could have let them down so badly. Or perhaps, like me, they were quietly rebuking themselves for having so naively misread him.

Several questions arise from the extravaganza in Venice. The first and most obvious is why so many stars feel an apparent compulsion to live their lives so publicly. Is it because they depend on the constant affirmation of the crowd? Does stardom get inside their heads to the point where public adulation eventually becomes the only way they can measure their worth?
Another is why celebrities appear to crave the company of other celebrities. Is this another form of validation for insecure egos? (Matt Damon, Bono, Cindy Crawford and Bill Murray are at my wedding – ergo, I must be up there in the celebrity stratosphere.) Did they have a life, friends, before they became stars?

But perhaps the most perplexing question of all relates to our own fascination with the cult of stardom, without which the Clooney-Alamuddin wedding would have been ignored.
After all, what are actors? They are people who are famous for pretending to be someone else.

We wrongly attribute to them the characteristics of the fictional characters they play. The extent to which we worship them hinges on how convincingly they pull off this feat. Our interest in them is as illogical as our fascination with royalty, whose mass appeal is derived from accidents of birth.
So we’re the suckers, and Clooney is simply taking advantage of our gullibility. But I can’t help liking him less as a result.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Deceived and demoralised


(First published in The Dominion Post, October 3.)
I WONDER, was this the most demoralising election result ever for the New Zealand left?
There was an excited buzz in the left-wing blogosphere and in social media in the weeks leading up to the election. There seemed to be a sense that victory was in their grasp, even when the polls suggested otherwise. But they were cruelly deceived.

Their optimism is easily explained. In the early stages of the campaign, they saw the fallout from Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics dominating the news bulletins night after night.
After that firestorm had abated, the media turned its attention to Kim Dotcom’s Moment of Truth, with its dazzling line-up of high-profile journalists and leakers from overseas, all eager to tell us how morally bankrupt our government was.

Those on the left observed the adulation heaped on Hager, who was lionised at speaking engagements. They thrilled at the big turnouts attracted by Dotcom and his incongruous handmaiden, Laila Harré. And they deduced from all this that an unstoppable momentum was building, the inevitable result of which would be the unceremonious dispatch of the Key government.
They were wrong. It was a massive indulgence in wishful thinking, and it must have made the left’s defeat even more crushing psychologically.

How could they have been so misled? That’s easy to explain too.
Consider the enthusiastic capacity crowd at Dotcom’s Moment of Truth event and the full halls he addressed on his barnstorming campaign through the country. The left interpreted this as evidence of an irresistible groundswell of discontent, when it was nothing of the sort.

Someone as novel and entertaining as Dotcom was bound to attract crowds, especially in provincial centres where not much happens. In any case, there are always enough true believers to fill halls and give the impression something big is afoot.
Alas, it was all an illusion. The great mass of New Zealanders, the Joe Average types who determine election results, were unmoved.  They watched the overheated news coverage on television, read the headlines and marvelled at the unpleasantness of it all. Then, on September 20, they went into the ballot booths and voted National.

Now the left is in disarray, as is obvious from the painful recriminations within the Labour Party. David Cunliffe inevitably became the scapegoat for Labour’s humiliation even though he ran a tolerably good campaign.
Ironically, the controversy over Dirty Politics and allegations of illegal state surveillance, all of which should have been helpful to Labour, deprived Cunliffe of the opportunity to articulate the party’s policies on issues closer to the concerns of ordinary people.  

The question now is whether Labour can recover from its self-evisceration in time to mount a credible challenge in 2017. When a veteran loyalist like Sir Bob Harvey is questioning whether the party should do away with its traditional red and even consider changing its name, there’s clearly a deep identity crisis to be resolved.
Labour still hasn’t determined whether it’s a party of the blue-collar working class (think South Auckland) or of the university-educated, inner city-dwelling liberal left (think Mt Victoria).

The Greens are licking their wounds too. They worked hard to make themselves more palatable to the wider electorate. They mounted an effective campaign and seemed supremely confident that this would be their moment, but the voters had other ideas. The Greens’ message didn’t seem to resonate beyond their core supporters.
They too must now withdraw to figure out how it all went so wrong. Small wonder that we’ve heard barely a peep from them since election night.

Internet-Mana is deservedly history. Never has a new party made so much noise for so little reward.
Will HarrĂ© and John Minto get the message and ride off into the sunset? Somehow I doubt it. Zealots don’t give up easily; they are sustained by an overwhelming sense of righteousness and rationalise defeat by convincing themselves that their fellow citizens are either suckers or knaves.

The net effect of the election result is that the New Zealand left must contemplate the unpalatable possibility that it is now irrelevant. The noisy activists and ideologues who used up much of the oxygen during the election campaign have been exposed as hopelessly out of touch with the reality of most New Zealanders’ lives.
They will of course continue shouting in their own echo chamber. That’s what they do. But after the drubbing of September 20, it will be a long time before they convince anyone that they have a message worth listening to.

Friday, September 26, 2014

This was not in the Left's script


(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 24.)]
What an extraordinary election campaign. And what an extraordinary result.
I am writing this column on the morning after. By the time it’s published, most of the dust will have settled. But even at the time of writing, I think some firm conclusions can be drawn

Obviously the result can be seen as an endorsement of the National-led government. But for me the really significant point was that voters overwhelmingly repudiated concerted efforts by outsiders to sway the outcome.
New Zealanders were emphatically saying this was their election and they weren’t going to have it hijacked by agenda-driven activists, some of them with no stake in the country.

By outsiders I don’t just mean literal outsiders such as Kim Dotcom, the journalist Glenn Greenwald and the security leaker Edward Snowden. I include anyone trying to exert influence from the sidelines.
That means Nicky Hager, whose book Dirty Politics was obviously timed to derail National’s election campaign. It’s not that Hager was wrong to expose the unsavoury goings-on detailed in his book. National deserved to be shamed and Hager was entitled to the scalp of cabinet minister Judith Collins.

But questions remain about his motive, his method and most of all his timing. It’s reasonable to ask whether he was just as guilty of trying to influence an election as the furtive National Party funders he exposed in his 2005 book The Hollow Men.
The media firestorm over Dirty Politics dominated the first weeks of the campaign. When that subsided, it was Dotcom’s turn. But the momentum of the campaign shifted noticeably after the German’s much-touted “Moment of Truth” event in the Auckland Town Hall.

Again, it was a carefully orchestrated attempt to sabotage National. All those high-profile speakers, parachuted in or beamed in by video link from their various boltholes; it all looked a bit too obvious.
It didn’t help that Dotcom failed to deliver on his promise to expose John Key as a liar, and even less that he then angrily turned on journalists when they challenged him. Suddenly the public saw the less benign side of the fun-loving German.

No one can say with absolute certainty why people vote the way they do, but as the campaign went into its final days I sensed a stiffening public resistance to all these finger-wagging interlopers telling us how rotten our government was.
If I’m right, it’s highly ironic that it was the Left, not the Right, that was damaged.  Labour’s support collapsed and the Greens fell far short of the ambitious goal they had set themselves.

This was the law of unintended consequences kicking in big-time. It was not the outcome that the Left had scripted for itself.
Interviewed on Sunday morning, Labour leader David Cunliffe said the firestorms over Dirty Politics and state surveillance had sucked up all the oxygen in the campaign, leaving little opportunity for voters to consider policy issues.

I’m sure he’s right. The issues that the Left had been pushing, such as child poverty and the inequality gap, hardly got a look in.
The biggest irony of all, of course, is that Dotcom’s own party was humiliatingly wiped out, taking with it three-term MP Hone Harawira.

Both men will have learned a lesson. Dotcom will have learned that New Zealanders resent big-spending outsiders throwing their weight and money around (he acknowledged, to his credit, that his influence had poisoned the Mana Party), and Harawira will have learned about the dangers of Faustian pacts.
He was seen as compromising his principles, and his people punished him for it.

I felt a bit sorry for Colin Craig, who was thwarted by the vagaries of a flawed electoral system. The cheerleaders for MMP frequently remind us of the failings of the old first-past-the-post system, but they can’t ignore the shortcomings of one that denies a seat to a party that commanded more than four percent of votes while giving two to parties with less than one per cent support.
You have to wonder, too, whether distrust of MMP explains the marked falloff in voter participation since it was introduced. Voters are cynical about MMP because they realise that the system puts more power, not less, in the hands of the politicians. That was not the promise when it was introduced.

I almost felt sorry for Cunliffe too. He was more convincing by the end of the campaign than he was at the beginning – but given the history of leaders who lose elections, it’s unlikely he’ll get another shot.
What Labour must do now, urgently, is rejuvenate. Too many of its list MPs in the last term looked as if they were merely keeping their seats warm.

The need for a vigorous opposition is never greater than when a government has convincingly won a third term and risks becoming arrogant and complacent. Democracy prevailed on Saturday, but the concern now is whether it will be up to the job of holding the government to account over the next three years.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Key's enemies may have overcooked things


(First published in The Dominion Post and The Press, September 19.)
WHAT A CAMPAIGN. Its most striking feature, apart from the unprecedented viciousness on the fringes, has been the attempt by agenda-driven activists – some of them high-profile outsiders – to influence the outcome.
This may ultimately count in John Key’s favour. His enemies may have overcooked things.

Voters could well look at the role played by external agents five days out from the election and decide it looks too much like a concerted effort to hijack their democracy.
Certainly Kim Dotcom has burned up whatever political capital he acquired as a result of the ridiculous police raid on his home. New Zealanders are over him.

Voters may also feel that the barrage of savage denunciation aimed at Key during the past few weeks went beyond the bounds of fairness. Whether he deserves their sympathy is another matter, since there is ample evidence that he hasn’t been straight with voters. 
The public may also have wondered at the remarkable number of recent events – protest marches by Women’s Refuge activists, highly political Nigel Latta television documentaries, alarm-laden reports on child poverty, teachers’ union attacks on charter schools – that showed the government in a bad light.

That this crescendo of outrage came immediately before an election is, of course, entirely coincidental.
A few other observations:

■ Claims of media bias have been flying from both sides of politics – not from the politicians themselves, who know better, but from their overheated supporters. As usual, the accusations largely cancel each other out.
The one area where the media left itself exposed to criticism was in its generally uncritical acceptance of Nicky Hager’s cloak of moral purity. Hager has yet to explain why it’s okay for him to use stolen emails while he simultaneously condemns state intelligence-gathering.

The obvious conclusion is that the Left reserves for itself the right to decide when illegal acts are permissible because of their high moral purpose. Call it the Waihopai Three Syndrome.
The canonisation of Hager aside, the worst the media could be accused of was getting over-excited. Journalists thrive on drama and conflict, and no election campaign has delivered more than this one.

■ Winston Peters is again under fire for refusing to disclose which of the major parties New Zealand First is likely go with.
But even if he did reveal his intentions, there’s no guarantee he would stick with them. In 1996 he appeared happy for everyone to believe he would support Labour, then went the other way – after first keeping the country guessing for weeks.

If he really wanted to convince us of his integrity, the obvious course would be to guarantee support for whichever party wins the most votes. What could be more democratic than that? But that would deny him the pleasure of playing games and indulging in indignant bluster, which is what he does best.
■ Watching party leaders making their pitches at a pre-election conference organised by BusinessNZ, it was clear that the most philosophically coherent parties – perhaps the only philosophically coherent parties – are two from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum: ACT and the Greens.

All the others – with the exception of Internet-Mana, which is the political equivalent of a pantomime horse – are scrambling for the middle ground.  
Thomas Pippos, chief executive of conference co-sponsors Deloitte, made the point that policy differences between the centre-Right and centre-Left are slight in the context of the overall regulatory framework. The two major parties, in other words, are noisily squabbling over a small patch of turf.

One of the most impressive performers at the BusinessNZ event, incidentally, was Greens co-leader Russel Norman. He was polished, articulate and in command of the policy issues.
In his stylish suit and tie, Norman looks almost mainstream. He personifies the transformation of the Greens from the flaky days of hand-knitted jerseys and dreadlocks.  

■ Will this election be ACT’s last hurrah? At its peak the party had nine MPs and provided a credible voice for what is often pejoratively referred to as neoliberalism.
Jamie Whyte has made an heroic attempt to resuscitate ACT after the dire John Banks era, but he’s too cerebral to connect with voters. His other-worldly quality was cruelly exposed when he had to admit he hadn’t heard of Whanau Ora.

A strong ACT lineup in Parliament would provide a counter-balance to the Greens on the left of Labour and stiffen National’s spine, but it’s hard to escape the feeling the party has done its dash.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Politics isn't all dirt, even if it sometimes looks that way


(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 10.)
Don’t despair. Things are not as bad as they seem. At least that’s the optimistic message I’ve taken from all the unedifying political argy-bargy of the past few weeks.
It’s easy to think the worst, mind you. First, there was the YouTube video of Christchurch students moronically chanting “F… John Key”. That was a low in New Zealand politics, but it took only a couple of weeks to be surpassed in loathsomeness by a “song” – I use that word in the loosest possible sense – in which a semi-literate swamp-dweller snarled that he wanted to kill John Key and f … his daughter.

How the group that made it avoided prosecution is a mystery, especially when the Electoral Commission had previously huffed and puffed mightily over a clever and essentially harmless musical video called Planet Key.
One was a sophisticated, legitimate piece of political satire, the other a primitive, malevolent rant (the creator of which subsequently claimed, in a display of mock ingenuousness that would have fooled no one, that he was merely trying to encourage young people to vote).

Then there was Nicky Hager’s book  Dirty Politics, which – at the risk of sounding melodramatic – was like shining a torch into a dark political backroom, the existence of which was previously unknown,  and seeing rats scurrying around trying to escape the light.

Democracy depends on accountability, but the people whose machinations Hager exposed were neither elected nor accountable. Democracy also depends on transparency, but their attempts to subvert the political process relied on concealment. We are better off now that they are out in the open.
Much the same can be said about Judith Collins’ resignation as minister of justice, which had a cleansing effect. Collins denies the claims against her and deserves a chance to clear her name, but the trail of allegations against her meant she had become tainted goods. She had to go.

What about Hager himself, then? Yes, he performed a public service by exposing what needed to be exposed. But he remains open to the accusation that he is himself, ironically, part of the dirty politics that he professes to despise.
He is not an impartial journalist sifting objectively through all the evidence and weighing all the facts. He is a highly partisan, agenda-driven campaigner who used stolen emails and apparently made no attempt either to corroborate his material or allow the people he accused to respond, as a journalist would.

It’s surely significant that even after all the furore of the past few weeks, public support for Key and his government, as measured by the opinion polls, appears to have barely moved.
That suggests the public, after weighing everything up, has largely discounted Hager’s claims. They will have noted the strategic timing of the book launch and possibly regard Dirty Politics as itself a bit dirty, notwithstanding all the claims about the purity of the author’s motives.

That’s one of the great things about an informed, open democracy. It has a remarkable way of enabling people to see past the smoke, flames and noise and eventually find their way to the right conclusion.
I always remember Mike Moore’s philosophical response when the Labour government of which he was briefly the leader was thrown out of office in 1990. “The people are always right,” he said.

He was saying that in a democracy, you can’t argue with the result of a free and fair election. But what he said was also correct in a broader sense: an informed electorate is capable of making wise decisions.
That’s one of the reasons I remain hopeful. But there’s another factor too.

It’s agreed by everyone that this has been an unusually vicious election campaign. But the important thing is that the worst of the nastiness is on the fringes of politics, among noisy and highly partisan activists on either side.
In the middle, where most New Zealanders dwell, life goes on. Politics isn’t everything. They tune out most of the unpleasantness.

Another thing that gives me heart is that when the firestorm over Dirty Politics was at its height, I watched rival politicians debating on television. On one programme, Education Minister Hekia Parata was in the studio with Labour’s Chris Hipkins. On another, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was up against her Labour counterpart, Jacinda Ardern.
The striking thing about both these exchanges was that they were intelligent, respectful and civilised. It was good to be reminded that where it counts most, New Zealand politics isn’t so dire and soiled after all.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The baneful influence of social media


(First published in The Dominion Post, August 5.)
EVERYONE agrees this has been the ugliest, most vicious election campaign period in memory.
The previous benchmark was set in 1975, when the Citizens for Rowling campaign foolishly lit Robert Muldoon’s fuse. But the past few weeks have been even more ill-tempered than Muldoon at his most belligerent.

What’s different this time?  Well, there’s Kim Dotcom, for starters. The big German’s motive for entering politics was wholly negative: he wants to get rid of John Key. It may be the first time in New Zealand history that a party has been founded on the basis of a personal grudge.
Dotcom likes to play the amiable prankster, but the “F--- John Key” video was an attempt to legitimise mindless abuse as a political tactic – something not seen here before.

Then of course there was the cleverly timed launch of Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics – a limpet mine attached to the hull of National’s supposedly unsinkable dreadnought.
But underlying all this is a bigger incendiary influence: the role of social media.

Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere have played a large hand in dictating the tone of this election. Cameron Slater’s Whale Oil is just the tip of a large and dirty iceberg.
Much of the political commentary in online forums, both on the Left and Right, is extraordinarily toxic and abusive.

Mercifully, much of it fails to penetrate the mainstream. And to their credit, most politicians try to stay above it.
But among activists on both sides of politics, overheated online forums have created an atmosphere of rage and bigotry that has reshaped political dialogue. You can sense this baneful influence filtering through into media coverage, which is more intense and aggressive than ever before.

How could this happen in a country with a deserved reputation for being civilised, liberal and tolerant?
A couple of factors come to mind. The first is that the Internet enables instantaneous comment. Someone feeling a rush of anger can be on Facebook or Twitter within seconds.

In a previous era, if you wanted to comment on politics, you wrote a letter to the paper. That allowed time for sober reflection – a cooling-down period.  
Then there’s the fact that in online forums, the person you’re attacking is unseen. You’ve probably never met. In such circumstances it’s all too easy to demonise your imagined enemies.

Online, you’re safely distanced from those you’re attacking and feel less compunction about putting the boot in. I’ve succumbed to this depersonalising effect myself and know how easily it can happen.
And politics has become intensely tribal. Each political blog, whether it’s Whale Oil on the Right or The Daily Blog on the Left, has its own tribe. They are united in hatred against the other tribe. There are even factions within tribes that hate each other.

Any member of the Left-wing tribe foolhardy enough to stray into the Right-wing tribe’s territory, or vice-versa, will be eviscerated.
How did we arrive at this point? At the risk of being ridiculed for romanticising the past, I believe it has come about partly as a result of the decline of the traditional news media.

The old-style newspaper was a “broad church”, presenting a wide range of information and comment from which readers were able to form their own conclusions. But the digital revolution has given politically minded people an alternative.
They now tend to gravitate to the online forum that represents their tribe. They show no interest in hearing what the other side thinks, still less considering whether an opposing view might have some merit.

The newspaper was also the traditional forum for political debate via its correspondence columns. Good newspapers took the trouble to ensure a broad spectrum of opinion was published, and still do.  
Crucially, letters were subject to an editing process which filtered out abusive and defamatory comment. And just as important, anonymity was prohibited. The price of being able to comment publically was that you had to identify yourself. No such constraints apply online, where anonymity emboldens cowards.

Champions of the Internet applaud the fact that public comment is no longer controlled by gatekeepers in the mainstream media, and they’re right, up to a point. But the gatekeepers were a civilising influence whose absence from social media we may come to regret.