Friday, June 23, 2023

Karl du Fresne: 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 demonstrate. 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 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 total 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. The implication was that the dull-witted and gullible 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.)

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 involves 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?

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
Great article...I can just imagine the commotion and how entertaining the event would have been.

So vile is the left-wing propaganda around misinformation that I fully endorse the disruption, but I lament the protest did not go far enough.

John's group should have put the speaker in the stocks and sauced him with tomatoes, and other seasonable fruits. I would heartily suggest this in the interest of democratic engagement as I am sure it would bring the crowds - just as it did in Elizabethan times when the peasantry really did know how to protest. (I would have suggested the Walk of Atonement but the image of Michael Daubs in an exposed state is too great to endure.)

Anonymous said...

So they let a woke Marxist propagandist from the VUW CCP indoctrination camp out into rural Masterton to talk about truth, trust and transparency?. It's a wonder he got out alive. And Karl, if you ain't enraged, who's side are you on?

Anonymous said...

Dear Karl du Fresne.

I take note that if it were not for your journalistic ability, the rest of New Zealand (yes, I use the correct name of the Country) would not know what took place in Masterton.

I note the following statement (quoted from your article) - "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 organization’s name suggests) foreign affairs, New Zealand’s relationship with the wider world and politics in general".

I surmise, that the Wairarapa is "home to the retired clique of Civil Servants", who "did dwell amid the Govt Depts, of Wellington, in their day".

I find it interesting, that we allow an American Academic into NZ who decides to "wax lyrical", as you comment on. This is the same attitude that is currently prevailing American Universities that in turn spreads across America and "becomes an American export", if not via Social Media, YouTube, American Newspapers, protest groups or in the format of a person (with Academic accreditation) who immediately "speaks forth on Social matters", that one could ?rightly assume, is designed to disrupt the social fabric of the Country they now reside in.

I am pleased you found Mr Daubs "contemptible" and I hope that those who also read you article will feel the same way.

It is a pity, that a "forced deportation could not be effected - it might resolve continued stupidity of him opening mouth & placing foot in it".

Yours ANON, of New Zealand

Anonymous said...

Well written balanced review of the event.
The professor was guilty of missinformation himself.
He also looked very nervous.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Maybe a harbinger of things to come when the election gets into full swing?
There is still a lot of pent up anger about the abuse of peoples civil liberties being trodden over by the government due to Covid. The politicisation was evident to all.

Did sound like a blimin good night though 😬

Anonymous said...

I've often thought that the Disinformation Project is a conspiracy theory about conspiracy theories.

Put another way, didn't the Disinformation Project notice that the anti-mandate protestors looked a lot browner than the brownshirts?

Gaynor said...

If only VU students with a sense of social conscience, a concern for free speech, knowledgeable about Marxism and other authoritarian systems could pose questions in Daub's lectures. Sadly, does no such animal exist today? Are students so brainwashed by our education system they can't think as individuals anymore ? Could your article be put on Twitter or referenced to it there? Somebody has to do something to stop such perverse and bigoted characters polluting our youths' minds

Anonymous said...

Well said. It is so sad that people like John Ansell don't realize that in behaving the way they do, that they shut down debate. My understanding is that there were many people waiting to ask suitably challenging questions of the so-called academic. Another great opportunity lost.

Anonymous said...

Spot on!

Rob Beechey said...

This subject was centre piece in Ardern’s armoury. Free speech are “weapons of war” she shrilled to an audience of five on the second day of the UN conference. After buying off our MSM and turning it into a State controlled communication function, she had the flourishing expansion of new platforms in her sights. However, before her return flight touched down, Elon Musk bought Twitter revealing how corrupted by government influence and denying her control over these types of platforms.
Karl’s questions were good and would have certainly challenged this academic lefty’s one sided view of the world.

Anonymous said...

Karl, thank you for highlighting the effect of the reactionaries on both sides of this meeting. You are right to do so.
One of the woke marxist left’s main tecniques to advance their cause is to provoke intense and angry reactions. They use these captured moments extremely effectively to recruit more ( mainly young) wavering wannabes into their cult.
It is the grand and wonderful true middle of society who will ultimately win this war, but we have to prepare, and we have to commit to a long, slow political push. And we MUST remain peaceful and reasonable.
We can express our frustrations to each other in ‘outrageous’ ways ( with agreement, and with designated times, or we will all go crazy mad) but when taking on the woke, and in designing the future we want to aim for we must remain rational, realistic and (somewhat) reserved.
Matteus Desmet believes that if we continue to speak out for truth, we prick at the bubble of woke hypnosis that is ensnaring many, and we stop that hynosis going deeper- which it surely will if the speakers of truth in our remarkable middle ( speakers such as you Karl), fall silent.
In every society, within months of the peaceful voices of truth falling silent, catastrophic violence to the outgroup scapegoats of the cult, ensues.
Reactionaries may be exciting but they, too are ultimately destructive. Encourage them at your peril.
James Lindsay has a recent podcast called “Name the dynamic”.
His summary of its content is inspiring and worth all of us considering deeply if we truly want to defeat the ruinous woke wizardry now everywhere we look (and almost everywhere we don’t!).
He explains: “When you understand that virtually everything with Woke Marxism is (a) impossible and (b) a strategic provocation, it leads you to think about engaging with it differently. (And engage with it we must!) A powerful technique for breaking free of Woke magic spells and manipulation is simply to take a step back and name the dynamic. This is a powerful technique from mediation and negotiation that can break through many stuck situations, but it’s crucially important to understand how it must be applied to defeat dialectical traps and advances from the Woke.”
At its core, woke is appealing, but brazenly stupid.
With the help of our many reasonable, rational truth tellers, we can be both appealing, and very, very smart.

James said...

Yes, I get it. I was the one that handed John the mic.

Was disruption the wrong approach? Would a modest and words only approach have been better?

How will this thing end? The obedient passive approach at parliament did not lead to reasonable discussion with our dear leader, I got bashed and kicked, many others much worse.

Yes, the spectacle of discussion to show enemy hypocrisy is valuable. But it is like they are just laughing at us, as we witnessed on Thursday via Michael Daub’s presentation.

Sooner or later an element of active disruption will become necessary, as these evil people are cornered and Truth becomes known, and they become slowly more brutal, and negotiation is completely off the table. Sooner or later, people will need to participate in active disruption. People will need to feel empowered to participate in active disruption and not just stand back as spectators where they clap and cheer from a distance. (That last sentence is a little simplistic, but still valid.)

I believe that we have less time than many realise. But that is my opinion.

So what is the solution? Active disruption or pure negotiation? Probably a mix of both. Did we get it right on Thursday? Who knows..

Doug Longmire said...

Excellent article Karl. You very clearly portray the George Orwell style of Left wing, woke academia that wants to shut down any dissenting opinion or even a discussion, because it's "far-right" or "hate speech". And the accusers, like Daub and Kate Hannah, the hand waver, go down multiple rabbit holes.

Robert Arthur said...

It is sad that traditional orderly public meetings seem largely things from the past. Many factors. At school, audiences are not discouraged to call out noisily for their side in performances, presentations etc. It is a small move from support barracking to the opposite. Then at public meetings no one intercedes. Years ago police would step in, but now very reluctant and especially if any hint of a racial component, or the possibility of accusation of one. Then maori have been brainwashed to imagine decolonisation, interpreted as enact decolonisation, so that long established traditions from civilisation are seen as not relevant. It is futile to attend any meeting with stroppy opposed maori in the audience, especially female.

There are also elements pushing themes they cannot rationally justify. They are very wedded to the ideas and the associated lifestyle and are desperate to keep their views to the fore. They exploit modern meeting culture. Political, racial factions are very aware of the effectiveness of cancellation policy. So more blatant shouting down at meetings, if not physical obstruction.

The current attempted anti co governance meetings illustrate the opposition from any political and especially race based faction, to any balanced rational presentation.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant well written article and done in such a short time too. I thought there were a few errors in your report though and I hope you don't mind me pointing out that. I was amongst the freedom crowd there and some of the noise at the end was from those who did not support the approach of Ansell, a couple of people also apologized to Daubs for the disruption. Also at the end, many of the 'dissenters' stayed and quietly attempted to ask the questions they had not been able to ask before. I and many others there were not aware of the 'plan' and were not happy about it. I just wanted to have that distinction here for the record. Thanks, and again - very impressed with your writing and agree with your views on the presentation

Anonymous said...

I’m one of the ‘Bulls’ that you refer to and have always respected your journalistic ability, I still do. What you may have missed in this article is that Daubs set no context for his “Lecture” on Misinformation and Disinformation.There was no mention of the Sanctity of Free Speech and its corresponding benefits despite his being Canadian cum Naturalised American who has sworn an Oath to the Constitution of the USA AND its Constitutional First Amendment Right of Free Speech.