Civil and Human Rights · News media · Public affairs

New ABC survey an insight into Twitter’s Thought Police and cancel activists

In the Roman Colosseum of old, when a gladiator fell, the watching mob often decided whether he died or lived. If the mob raised its thumbs up, he lived. Thumbs down meant he died. Twitter is the new Colosseum and its inhabitants are the new mob, deciding what opinions, facts and beliefs can be expressed, and what cannot.

As the range of opinions people are “allowed” to express in public (and increasingly in private) has narrowed rapidly in the past few years, Twitter has become the de facto arbiter of “acceptable” opinions. Those whose thumbs work the phones connected to it daily and world-wide unleash barrages of tweets demanding “wrong” views be taken down and that those who transgress issue grovelling apologies,  be sacked from their (often unconnected) jobs, or both.

This mob of the  righteous great and good on Twitter is demonstrably a small minority. Some 350 million people have Twitter accounts. If that sounds a lot, consider that 2.85 billion people have Facebook accounts. Even though Facebookers far outnumber the denizens of Twitter, consider also that the global population is 7.7 billion, so most people in the world are not on either of these platforms that dominate so much of public discourse (at least in the countries where they are not banned, principally China).

So who are these 350 million people who think they alone can decide whose views will be heard and whose will be cancelled in the “public square” which today is dominated by “social media” at the expense of the fast-shrinking old media of newspapers, radio and television, much less the “town hall” and “speaker’s corner” public meetings of not that long ago?

Clearly many tweeters are journalists. One hardly encounters a journalist now without a Twitter account. Check a few out. They are all there, tweeting at each other in an echo chamber that rebounds with what they put into the public square in their day jobs. Many tweeters are clearly celebrities. Many are academics. Many politicians are there; according to Wikipedia (which appears to be dominated by the same people who dominate Twitter), Barack Obama has the most Twitter followers of all (more than a third of everyone on Twitter!), despite relinquishing office in January 2017. But you have to be a politician with the “right” credentials. You won’t find Donald Trump on Twitter. He is banned. He’s also banned from Facebook, at the baying of the Twitter mob, which is slightly odd, because Twitter mobs hold their noses at Facebook, whose huddled masses they openly despise. You’d think they’d allow Trump there.

But put aside hearsay and observed opinion. This week the ABC in Australia gave us a valuable statistical view of the kind of people who dominate Twitter. The ABC runs an annual online survey of public opinion it calls Australia Talks. Starting in 2019, the 60,000 people claimed to be in its panel have been asked questions about the issues that motivate the ABC, such as climate change, gender, discrimination, inequality, national identity, politics and social media. The answers they give also tend to reflect the ABC’s world-view  (which in turn reflects the views of its journalists on Twitter),  but that’s just my opinion. You can judge for yourself.

In a survey of social media published this week as part of the 2021 Australia Talks results, the ABC revealed that Twitter is, as one would expect,  used by a small minority of Australians (14 pc; incidentally more than I’d have guessed, given Twitter’s  international total,  but then the Australia Talks panel will be skewed towards ABC followers, many of whom would be tweeters).

Many of them are high-income folk, earning more than $A2500 weekly or $A130,000 a year. Of the Twitter users surveyed, more of them are Green voters than supporters of any other party (47pc of Greens use Twitter, compared with 38pc of Labor voters and 26pc of Scott Morrison’s supporters).

The survey also says 64pc of Australian tweeters have reported “offensive comment” and 74pc have boycotted a corporation because of “misbehaviour or offensive messaging.”  That certainly gives weight to the view that Twitter sits like a Colosseum mob, thundering who will be heard, who will be cancelled, and who will lose their job. It seems simply extraordinary that such a high proportion of the small number of people who are affluent inner-urban dwellers not only spend massive amounts of their time on Twitter, but are also finding so much that offends them and then reporting and boycotting the transgressors.

While Australia Talks only covers Australia, I suspect from my Kiwi observations that a similar survey in Aotearoa New Zealand would produce similar results, as would surveys in the UK and probably many other countries where the public square is dominated by the Twitter mob.

Those who dwell on Twitter truly are the Thought Police. Offend them at your peril.

Civil and Human Rights · History · Obituaries · Public affairs

Long live the memory of Linda Brown, almost-forgotten kick-starter of the American civil rights movement

Linda Brown at Sumner Elementary

Schoolgirl Linda Brown walks on by Sumner Elementary in Topeka Kansas

Linda Brown died on Sunday in Topeka, Kansas, aged 76, all but forgotten in her own land, let alone in far-away places like New Zealand. But before Rosa Parks, before Martin Luther King, before even Nelson Mandela became household names, Linda Brown was at the very start of the fight to bring down the apartheid-like system of “Segregation” enacted in America’s South to stop the black population enjoying their freedom from slavery.

In 1951, Brown, then aged nine, was a third grade school pupil in Topeka, her home town. Like all her black schoolfriends, she was required by law to attend Monroe Elementary, a “segregated” black school three kilometres from her home, rather than the nearby Sumner Elementary, which was only for white children.

Her father, Oliver Brown, a welder and pastor, tried to enrol her in Sumner Elementary and when she was refused, he challenged the refusal in court. Her case got all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled, in 1954, that the refusal was unconstitutional. The case, which opened my eyes when I learnt about it at university in the 1980s, was called, in legalese, Oliver L Brown et al v Board of Education of Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas, et al, or, for short, Brown v Board of Education.

It led to the desegregation of America’s school system, allowing non-white children to attend their local formerly whites-only schools, which always offered better facilities and better schooling than the poorly resourced black schools. It was the first big victory against the Jim Crow laws that had kept black Americans marginalised since the Civil War ended slavery in 1865. Further court cases followed; followed, eventually, by Congress passing the Civil Rights Act in 1964 to legislate equal rights for all, then the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to ensure black citizens could vote in those states that even then still tried to stop them from voting (as an aside, it wasn’t until another Supreme Court case in 1967 that black Americans were allowed to marry white Americans).

Oliver Brown’s court case on behalf of his daughter was taken up by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a famous civil rights group founded in 1909 to advance the rights of America’s oppressed blacks, whose status—especially in the southern former slave states—had barely improved since Abolition.

“My father was like a lot of other black parents here in Topeka at that time,” Linda Brown said in a 1985 interview. “They were concerned not about the quality of education that their children were receiving, they were concerned about the… distance that the child had to go to receive an education.”

Brown and her sisters had to walk across railway tracks and a busy road to catch the bus to Monroe Elementary, and so it was this distance, more than a disparity in quality between Monroe and Sumner, that initially motivated her father.

“He felt that it was wrong for black people to have to accept second-class citizenship, and that meant being segregated in their schools, when in fact, there were schools right in their neighbourhoods that they could attend, and they had to go clear across town to attend an all-black school. And this is one of the reasons that he became involved in this suit, because he felt that it was wrong for his child to have to go so far a distance.”

The Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution—enacted in 1868 to grant the freed slaves the same rights as white Americans—declared that “no State shall… deny to any person… the equal protection of the laws.” But the Jim Crow segregation laws passed in many southern states after Abolition had been upheld as legal until Brown v Board of Education, particularly by an 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v Ferguson, which ruled that separate facilities for different races were allowed under the Constitution as long as those separate facilities were equal. Which of course they were not.

The NAACP lawyers combined 13 cases of refusals to enrol black children in white Topeka schools into a single court case for legal emphasis and convenience. They put Oliver Brown’s name at its head so as to have a man as the main applicant, something seen as being important to the white male judges of the day. The twelve other applicants were mothers of refused children.

The case was initially heard by the United States District Court for the District of Kansas. The three judges rejected it, upheld Plessy v Ferguson and declared that, though segregation in public education had a detrimental effect on “negro children”, “negro and white schools” in Topeka had “substantially equal” buildings, transportation, curriculums and teacher qualifications.

This ruling was not a defeat but the outcome the NAACP hoped for, as the organisation wanted to get the case before the US Supreme Court, which has the final say about  whether a law is legal under the Constitution.  By 1954, when Brown v Board of Education was decided after three years in the judicial system, the nine-member Supreme Court had a liberal majority under Chief Justice Earl Warren, who had been appointed the previous year. Brown was to be the first of many civil rights cases heard by the Warren Court to produce landmark judgements that changed American society forever.

The NAACP’s chief counsel was Thurgood Marshall, who in 1967 was to be appointed to the Supreme Court as its first black justice. Marshall combined Brown with similar school cases from other states, making it the lead one because of the earlier Kansas ruling that the separate black and white schools in Topeka were “substantially equal,”  something he wanted to decisively challenge. That the winds of change were beginning to blow was exemplified by supporting briefs from US Federal Attorney General James P McGranary and Secretary of State Dean Acheson that America’s racial discrimination (hitherto upheld by the courts on behalf of the states) was hurting America’s image and interests abroad as the Cold War with Soviet Russia intensified.

The Supreme Court heard the case in 1953. Documents revealed since show that then-Chief Justice Fred M Vinson was opposed to overturning Plessy v Ferguson, but some senior justices stalled for time. They could not reach a decision and the court did not issue a judgement. Then Vinson died, Earl Warren was appointed, and the case was heard again with additional arguments. Much internal debate took place between the justices. Warren wanted to issue a nine-nil unanimous declaration that segregation was unconstitutional and thus illegal, but some of the justices held out. Eventually all agreed with Warren, who read his earthquake of a judgement on 17 May 1954. Its conclusion stated:

“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The effect is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.

“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

This historic judgement was, of course, only the beginning of the end of segregation. Many states, including the supposedly “liberal” New York, had de facto school segregation. Some school boards with statutory segregation prevaricated, leading to the so-called Brown II of 1955, in which the Supreme Court ordered desegregation to proceed “with all deliberate speed.” The bright yellow school buses of today’s America came about as a result of court-ordered “busing” of children between neighbourhoods to attend the same schools as children from richer or poorer neighbourhoods.

And beyond Brown, many hard battles lay ahead for black Americans. Far more than schools were segregated; so were trains and buses, parks and libraries, even restaurants, cafes and public toilets. They still faced the  fight for the right to vote, let alone being treated as equal citizens by the majority; a battle still to be fully won, something demonstrated by the Black Lives Matter movement.

By 1954, Linda Brown had passed the age of being able to attend Monroe Elementary. Ironically, Topeka’s junior high schools had been desegregated without any court action since 1941 and Topeka High had not been segregated since its opening in 1871. The Kansas Jim Crow laws only permitted segregation “below the high school level”.

Linda Brown and friends a decade on

Linda Brown is on the left in this photo of her and three other plaintiffs in her case, taken in 1964 on the 10th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education.

Other black Americans from the Civil Rights era became far better known than Linda Brown. The year after Brown v Board of Education, Rosa Parks refused to stand up for a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery Alabama and was arrested. Martin Luther King took up her cause and the Civil Rights Movement was on the road, shattering white America’s post-war calm and featuring such monumental events as the 1963 March on Washington and King’s “I have a dream” speech, one of the most powerful orations in the English language.

But I hope it is never forgotten that Linda Brown, a little girl from Topeka Kansas, began it all. I find it sad that, unlike civil rights peers such as Rosa Parks, she does not even have her own page in Wikipedia and is mentioned only four times, almost in passing, in the exhaustive Wikipedia article on Brown v Board of Education. Her adult life was rarely in the public eye. She featured in news items on the 10th anniversary of her case, and in a 1985 television documentary. She was a talented pianist, I learned from the little published information about her life. She taught children to play piano at the Topeka church she attended. There has been no movie about her, no best-selling book, no television series. Perhaps with her death, her importance to the shaping of modern America — and because of that, the world — will be given the recognition it deserves.

News media · Public affairs · Reviews

Golden age of newspapers recalled in The Post, a film that could not be set today

Every journalist brought up admiring Woodward and Bernstein will be seeing The Post, though of course, this film is set (just) before Watergate, and features Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) rather than America’s most famous reporting duo.

The film is about an important footnote to America’s war in Vietnam, the 1971 newspaper scoop-publication of the so-called Pentagon Papers, a secret Defense Department true history of successive American government machinations in that hopeless war. The documents were leaked first to the New York Times, and then the Washington Post, by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, whose pyschiatrist’s office was later infamously burgled by Richard Nixon’s “plumbers” (the leak-fixers behind the 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices in Washington DC’s Watergate complex).

Hanks and Streep play Bradlee and Graham much as I remember them from books and their reputation at the time, as being the stubborn newspaper editor wanting to bring his “small-town” paper to national prominence, and the proud establishment proprietor of a family firm.  Their close working relationship and the challenge that taking on the power of the state means for both the company’s finances and freedom to publish is the heart of this film. The film also references Bradlee’s close relationship with John F Kennedy (they met every week till his death) and Lyndon Johnson, which had given the Post the whiff of being a Democratic Party mouthpiece, accusations still thrown by conservatives against America’s traditional liberal newspapers.

But what leapt from the screen for me was the film’s stunningly accurate recreation of the newspaper world I began working in in the late-1970s and which is now long gone; the clattering typewriters, the rows of chain-smoking reporters yelling into telephones at their paper-piled desks under fluorescent lights, the Lamson (pneumatic) tubes that whooshed canisters holding the paper pages of typewritten stories from the news desk to the printers down below; and above all, the clanking ancient Linotype machines that cast newspaper stories (yes, type-cast!) line by line in hot lead for fitting in the big metal page frames from which printing plates were made. And, oh what an experience, the rumble and shaking of the whole building as the huge presses built up speed to thunder out tens of thousands of thick, inky newspapers an hour.

Hanks Post linotypeTom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, posed beside a Linotype machine.

I don’t pine for those days; today’s technology is superior, cheaper and produces a better physical product, let alone the online access. But The Post reinforced for me that the film is set in what really were the golden years of newspapers, years when newspapers, routinely,  actually broke very big news stories, when most households in most Western countries had the paper delivered not just daily, but every morning and afternoon. An era when politicians respected, and sometimes feared, the power of the press rather than manipulated it with photo-ops and sound bites. I became a journalist near that era’s end, but at least I was part of it before the decline.

Nixon’s White House took the New York Times and the Washington Post to the Supreme Court to try to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers. The court ruled six to three that the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”) trumped the desire of a government to keep its deepest secrets secret.

Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black famously wrote in his judgement on the case: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

It all seems so quaint in this new age of a news media world-wide mostly obsessed with clickbait, celebrities and bread and circuses.

Public affairs · Television

Borgen: The greatest political drama you’ll never see on TVNZ

What a find! The Danish political drama Borgen is quality television of the kind New Zealand no longer enoys. It follows the rise and ultimate fall of (fictional) minor-party politician Birgitte Nyborg, who becomes prime minister (statsminister) of Denmark through the machinations of that country’s proportional representation electoral system.
The scripting, acting and photography are simply superb, as is the opening sequence (attached). Nyborg (the wonderful Sidse Babett Knudsen) has to juggle the intense politicking of being prime minister with raising her two children and the collapse of her marriage because of the pressures of office. Other major characters include television journalist Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) Nyborg’s spin doctor (yes, “spin doctor” is Danish for “spin doctor”!) Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbæk; he is also in Game of Thrones) and her husband, Phillip Christensen (Mikael Birkkjær), whose scene asking his wife for a divorce is so traumatic that Birkkjær in real life cried after filming it.
Denmark (population 5.7 million) is, like New Zealand (population 4.8 million) a small, vigorous democracy, though Denmark is much more affluent (“We are the 12th-richest country on Earth” Nyborg says when trying to justify improved public hospital care).
Like us, Denmark is a constitutional monarchy; its parliament was established in 1849, ours in 1852. Both are unicameral (single-chamber) parliaments; we abolished our upper house in 1951; Denmark its in 1953. Its electoral system is a proportional party list with a 2pc threshhold, unlike our system with geographical electorates as well as a party list. Ours is the same as Germany’s Mixed Member Proportional system — we got ours from Germany and we both have a 5pc threshold. But Danish political parties, like those here and in Germany, have to thrash out coalition agreements after an election, a drama that features prominently in Borgen. Unlike New Zealand, Denmark in real life (and in Borgen) has no Winston Peters figure who has been around forever, deciding who gets to be prime minister.
“Borgen” is Danish for “castle” or “fort” and refers not only to the Christiansborg Palace (the København building housing Denmark’s parliament, government offices, supreme court and the queen’s residence), but also the colloquial Danish word for the government, known as “Borgen” in much the way we refer to the Beehive. The word stems from the proto-Germanic “burgz” (a walled town) which is the origin of the English borough, Scots Edinburgh and German burg as in burgermeister (mayor) and Freiburg (the city in Germany).
The series is in fast-paced Danish with English subtitles, which oddly are in American English. Danish is, as is English, a Germanic language but closer to Swedish and Norwegian than to German, Dutch and English. However, if you understand German, then after a few episodes you start to pick out some of the more curious translations. And you also quickly pick out such nice Danish colloquialisms as “hi hi” for “goodbye” !
I found the DVD box set on Trade Me.