Friday, 7 February 2014

More Than The Usual Suspects

"Here's looking at you, kid." That Casablanca is Winston Peters favourite movie should surprise no one. His own ducking and weaving between National and Labour has always had more than a little in common with the jagged course Casablanca’s hero, Rick Blaine, steers between the forces of Vichy France and Nazi Germany.

THE MOST DISTASTEFUL ASPECT of contemporary political journalism is its utter disdain for politics and politicians. That political leaders deliberately lie to the voters is never disputed. That political parties rely exclusively upon focus groups to tell them what they stand for is deemed unremarkable and represented as sound politics. That politicians in general are, in roughly equal measure, both venal and stupid is regarded as axiomatic.
 
The journalist who attempted to argue that most political leaders actually strive to be honest; that political parties frequently cleave to principle even though it costs them votes; and that the majority of politicians are good people doing their best to make the world a better place; would be laughed out of the Press Gallery.
 
This prevailing disposition towards professional cynicism is dangerously corrosive, not only of good journalism but also of the entire political process. If politics is presented as a dirty business, with which no respectable person would seek the slightest association, then we should not be surprised when it starts attracting the very sort of people our journalists describe, doing exactly the sort of things they decry.
 
The great advantage of likening politics to a dodgy tramp steamer, under whose flags of political convenience whole cargoes of deceit, treachery and naked self-interest are regularly permitted to evade electoral duties, is that it excuses journalists from examining and explaining to their readers the ideas and ideals that really do motivate our politicians.
 
The New Zealand politician who has suffered the most at the hands of journalists who (to employ Oscar Wilde’s wonderful quip) “know the price of everything and the value of nothing” is Winston Peters.
 
For the best part of a quarter-of-a-century political journalists have sneered at, belittled and defamed this remarkable politician, whose career, when viewed from a less hostile perspective, is distinguished by innate political skill, indisputable personal courage and considerable programmatic success. Not every Maori boy born into rural poverty ends up on the speed dial of the American Secretary of State. Not every National Party politician is capable of successfully defying his party. Not every New Zealander possesses the ability and charisma to build a political movement strong enough to make its leader New Zealand’s first (and so far only) “Treasurer”.
 
Twenty years ago, I asked Mr Peters to assist the readers of NZ Political Review to understand more clearly what he (among other political leaders) meant when he defined his politics as ‘centrist’. He concluded his response with the following sentence:
 
“When one walks down the centre of the road, one foot falls slightly to the right, the other to the left, but the head and the heart remain in the centre.”
 
Mr Peters is by no means the first politician to turn the human body into a metaphor for the state – the fables of Aesop did something similar two thousand years ago. Its organic character does, however, contrast sharply with the crudely mechanistic political language of neoliberalism. His conception of politics is as something intrinsically human – with all the messy contradictions to which human flesh is prey. For Mr Peters, societies and economies are not the sort of instruments you wind up and set in motion – they are the sort of instruments you play.
 
It came as no surprise when I discovered in 2005 that Mr Peters’ favourite movie is Casablanca. That he sees the New Zealand Parliament as something akin to that contested wartime city cannot be doubted. Nor that he sees himself ducking and weaving between National and Labour in much the same way as Casablanca’s hero, Rick, steers his jagged course between the forces of Vichy France and Nazi Germany.
 
Casablanca’s theme, that in a dangerous and deeply flawed universe our hearts will almost always prove a better guide than our heads, and that sometimes (as both Rick and Mr Peters learned the hard way) playing by the rules is exactly the wrong thing to do. Especially if your enemies are writing them.

But who will Winston put on board the plane?
 
If New Zealand’s political journalists could only learn to see past their kneejerk tabloid moralising they would recognise in Mr Peters a politician of extraordinary complexity and powerful conviction. They would also understand that in resolving which political leader to put on board the plane to electoral victory, his heart will play no lesser role than his head.
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 7 February 2014.

20 comments:

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I believe that politicians begin their political careers with the best intentions. I was taught by Jonathan Hunt way back when, and I thought that he entered politics with a certain amount of idealism. Later of course he became the Minister for wine and cheese, and very pedantic about his entitlements. However I suspect that this idealism is ground out of them – well – by politics. In my experience of the so-called real world, often those who rise to the top are not necessarily the talented, but those who can put up with the interminable bloody meetings, and in fact who revel in them :-). That, plus the fact that political parties are riddled with factions and cronyism would seem to indicate that pragmatism and indeed cynicism are worth more than idealism.
Having said that, I thought that Winston's Maori policy, which I studied when I was doing an undergraduate paper on New Zealand politics, was probably one of the best ever put forward by either party (as it was then.) Exactly why he left the party was probably a mixture of pique and idealism, but I suspect there was more pique. While I have every admiration for Winston's early work, and his societal advancement, the man is an egotist of the first order. If I was ever to make a comment about the way politicians dressed, it will probably be about him :-). So I could hardly blame the press gallery who actually live with these people, and sometimes even marry them :-) – for being cynical about them. They see more of their weaknesses than we do.

Brendan McNeill said...

When a culture embraces moral relativism, all it has left is emotions. That’s why journalists now ask ‘how do you feel?’ rather than ‘what do you believe?’

Therefore we are reduced to the venial and the superficial. Politicians are reduced to form without substance. To hold strong convictions about anything is considered to be dangerous, unless they are the populist convictions of tolerance and diversity, what ever that means.

We can lament the passing of conviction politicians like John Banks on the Right and Jim Anderton on the Left, but they are politicians of a previous generation. John Key once said “I’m not a very ideological person” and that folks is all we have to look forward to.

How does that make you feel?

jh said...

Journalists might consider reporting all the news:
"Of course there is more to life than attaining economic excellence. The social and environmental impact of immigration also needs to be considered. But here the reasons given for restricting immigration range from pathetic to extremely dodgy. Most of the accusations are barely disguised racist piffle backed by tenuous rumours and cloudy anecdotes. Winston Peters’ stirring of the masses has exposed the ignorance and racial biases of a small and distasteful section of New Zealand society. These people yearn for a cloistered, inhibited, white (with a bit of brown at the edges) dominated utopia fondly envisaged by racists and xenophobes everywhere.

http://www.gmi.co.nz/news/1021/opposition-to-immigration-why-let-the-arguments-get-in-the-way.aspx
Savings Working Group
January 2011
“The big adverse gap in productivity between New Zealand and other countries opened up from the 1970s to the early 1990s. The policy choice that increased immigration – given the number of employers increasingly unable to pay First-World wages to the existing population and all the capital requirements that increasing populations involve – looks likely to have worked almost directly against the adjustment New Zealand needed to make and it might have been better off with a lower rate of net immigration. This adjustment would have involved a lower real interest rate (and cost of capital) and a lower real exchange rate, meaning a more favourable environment for raising the low level of productive capital per worker and labour productivity. The low level of capital per worker is a striking symptom of New Zealand’s economic challenge.

http://www.treasury.govt.nz/publications/reviews-consultation/savingsworkinggroup/pdfs/swg-report-jan11

Victor said...

Yup. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Victor said...

There again, Winston might be playing Sam to JK's Rick:

Rick: You know what I want to hear.
Sam: No, I don't.
Rick: You played it for her, you can play it for me!
Sam: Well, I don't think I can remember...
Rick: If she can stand it, I can! Play it!

Guerilla Surgeon said...

God, not moral relativism again. I get tired of arguing about this on U.S. websites. The good old 1950s where women went away to have abortions, where black people in the U.S. weren't allowed to vote, and all those Maori stayed in the countryside where they belonged, the good old Victorian times, where working people and women weren't allowed to vote. Not much moral relativism there. Strictly black and white – particularly whites who were in charge.
I do however agree that we are stuck with the venial and the superficial, but that's less to do with moral relativism, and more to do with television - ism. :-) The national attention span is about 15 1/2 seconds. Tabloid TV journalism passes for current events, and TV news is judged on how it will look, rather than the content of its character :-).
Why on earth would anyone lament the passing of (unfortunate choice of phrase) 'conviction' politicians like John Banks? His convictions are rubbish. Or for that matter Jim Anderton who managed to fracture the left into more tiny pieces than usual. Actually the lack of ideology results from the shift in political convictions to the right and centre right, due to the social engineering of Roger Douglas and Jim Bolger. It was them who shifted the political dialogue so far to the right that now Greens are characterised as far left, so now it's just a grab for the bland centre vote. And they were conviction politicians – or at least Douglas was I'm never quite sure about Bolger I think he just went along for the ride :-).
It certainly doesn't make me feel good Brendan, but a bit of decent analysis would make me feel a lot better.

Anonymous said...

Brendan, depressed is what it makes me feel. The days of quiet and principled achievers like 'Gentleman Jack' Marshall are gone. The raucous wide-boys, girls and the gender disturbed are what has come in across the mudflats with the tide.

The press gallery may have little respect for politicians, but many have no respect for them either. Their unholy co-dependency is crap of different viscosity finding its own level.

Mick

Davo Stevens said...

Yep Brendan, I actually agree with you here. Pollies are reduced to a form without substance. That is the way the world now operates.

The Govts. of countries have less and less importance in today's world, multi-nationals hold all the aces. I doubt that it will improve in the future either.

Winnie is a sly old seadog and as cunning as a fox. Whenever he is involved in Parliament you can guarantee sparks will fly. I hope he does get in this time especially to counter that slimy little smarmy Simon Bridges another 'Born-to-rule' rich kid.

The Flying Tortoise said...

Great post Chris...

jh said...

Continuing my theme of the pillorying of NZ First supporters by elites:

According to [Frank] Salter, multiculturalism has reduced Australia's historic Anglo-Celtic majority to

... a subaltern ethnicity. They are second-class citizens, the only ethnic group subjected to gratuitous defamation and hostile interrogation in the quality media, academia and race-relations bureaucracy. The national question is obscured in political culture by fallout from a continuing culture war against the historical Australian nation. Many of the premises on which ethnic policy have been based since the 1970s are simply false, from the beneficence of diversity to the white monopoly of racism and the irrelevance of race. The elite media and strong elements of the professoriate assert that racial hatred in Australia is the product of Anglo-Celtic society. But in the same media and even in the Commission for Race Discrimination most ethnic disparagement is aimed at “homogenised white” people.[22]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_multiculturalism
of course that applies to NZ

Guerilla Surgeon said...

JH - Is this the Frank Salter that said homogenous nations are better world citizens? He obviously didn't take into account Japan in the 1920s to 40s :-). Couldn't get much more homogenous than that. I'm pretty sure that Germany was reasonably homogenous in the 1930s and 40s too. That's not trying to oversimplify things here.

peterpeasant said...

I have long been a grudging admirer of Peters. I have never voted for him or his party I do like him being in the house.

He keeps the others honest (well, sort of).

Some two or three elections back a blog (possibly Pundit) ran a questionnaire that asked what issues were uppermost in our minds just before an impending election.

The results would reveal which party the participants would likely vote for.

Much to my amazement my responses made me an ardent Peters voter.

Probably says more about political commentators,and polls than about me.

A lot of political reportage is more about the reporter than actual facts.

Winston is always going to be a wild card that egotistical journalists will play to justify their own existence.

jh said...

Intellectual Guerrilla Fighter :
here is the full quote

More ethnically homogeneous nations are better able to build public goods, are more democratic, less corrupt, have higher productivity and less inequality, are more trusting and care more for the disadvantaged, develop social and economic capital faster, have lower crime rates, are more resistant to external shocks, and are better global citizens, for example by giving more foreign aid. Moreover, they are less prone to civil war, the greatest source of violent death in the twentieth century.[9]
That sounds like japan where people queued up after the recent earthquake (no looting, hording and lay-off the air conditioning). I'm not sure your point about going to war (in the past) proves anything? War seems to be more about living within your means. Japan chose isolation up until industrialization and reliance on oil. The US isn't homogenous yet the left have on a number of occasions accused it of starting wars.

jh said...

The main means to attack NZ First was claiming (or pointing out) racism: 'how is it you only object to Asians" This was very effective as there is a little racist in all of us (evolution has left us with a natural preference for people just like ourselves).
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21220339
This isn't acknowledged however as the dialogue is controlled by sociologists
with a definition based on power
http://www.nzmediastudies.org.nz/articles/sueabelmargaretmutu1202.pdf

The incoming group has the same tendency to racism as NZr's. As a group, were they in the same position they would be exactly the same. The wider issues are obscured.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Salter, whose ideas I might say are idealised on such sites as "Stormfront" are extremely complex, and I suspect do tend to be simplified outside of the discipline of genetics. However, he did maintain that ethnically homogenous countries are better world citizens, less likely to go to war et cetera. This would seem to be negated by 2 pretty ethnically homogenous countries who caused one if not 2 of the greatest wars the world has ever known. The fact that ethnically diverse countries have also done this sort of thing seems to me to suggest there is not necessarily any link between being a good global citizen and ethnicity.
In fact most of those countries that are ethnically homogenous and who do produce better and more public goods and contribute more to disaster relief et cetera also tend to be quite egalitarian societies, including Japan :-). And where do you put China? A country that is pretty much homogeneous yet is not necessarily the best world citizen. Other social scientists have suggested that equality rather than ethnic homogeneity is not the reason for good behaviour. So I would suggest that while Salter's ideas may possibly have some merit in some areas, at the very least the science is not settled.

jh said...

Guerrilla Surgeon

I'm not defending whether ethnically homogenized nations make better world citizens or not, I am concerned about the life of the ordinary people and the functioning of that society. In the context of immigration into NZ this is driven by a desire for economic stimulation and perceived benefits of diversity (anti racism).
On Waitangi Day the weatherman was asked what it meant to be a New Zealander. he fumbled the answer coming up with being near the sea. leaving aside new New Zealanders and groups such as Chinese descended from the gold miners to me it is a common heritage where ancestors came in various ways from the British Isles, their histories and experiences, the literature and culture that went with it. We constantly hear praise heaped on migrants and how they "enrich us" as though our culture and lifestyle is a white base that needs diluting.
My elderly in-laws in Japan are poor. They live in a council apartment but during the day they both engage in voluntary social work. Spoonley et al would rather they were surrounded by East Africans.
Diversity is bad for community and the ordinary people crave community.
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/05/world/americas/05iht-diversity.1.6986248.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2013/11/paradox-diverse-communities/7614/

David said...

Sorry, not convinced. Winston Peters had leadership potential but he squandered it because he never really seemed to have a bigger positive vision for New Zealand's future. In rugby terms, more like a spoiler breakaway than a captain/first five general.

Jigsaw said...

I recall as a teenager heckling Mabel Howard at street corner meetings in Sydenham -(she was past her best) but she was a politician with principles and growing up in a post-war neighbourhood where if there was anyone who voted National then they certainly kept quiet about it -there were people who had principles. A good part of the problem now it seems to me is that we have such poor journalists generally. Everything is just once over lightly.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Bigger positive vision." Said a lot but hardly ever defined. Labour had one in the 1930s - I suspect by default. Haven't seen one since. Except maybe Roger Douglas :-).

Richard McGrath said...

Weren't Vichy France and Nazi Germany on the same side?