The Myth of the Politics of Style

The pragmatism that Alan seems to admire is dangerously close to being the absence of values, or the subsuming of all other values under the supreme ‘value’ of ‘pragmatism’, which isn’t actually a value at all.

Alan Duff penned an interesting piece for ‘The Herald’ recently regarding the relative merits and problems of our biggest philanthropist, and leader of the newly-minted ‘Opportunities Party’, Gareth Morgan. I must confess I’m not very familiar with Alan’s work. I’ve seen ‘Once Were Warriors’ a few times, although never read it. My mother, from whom I derive my connection with Maoridom, and who grew up in a state house in Otara, confirmed the poignancy and strength of Alan’s portrayal. Mercifully, her experience was not as tragic as that of the Heke family, but she was never in doubt that such private tyrannies were all around – indeed, right across the street. I have no doubt Alan is an intelligent and perceptive handler of the narrative form. But after reading his column it becomes clear that political commentary is not his calling.

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In all fairness, you certainly couldn’t call his piece a hatchet-job – for every negative comment he provides a positive one, and overall the article is more plain than it is incendiary.

He begins with a puff-paragraph about a man he evidently admires, John Key. He then goes on to say, without a hint of skepticism, that Mr. Key had “no ego getting in the way of his judgments and perceptions”. Really? An author’s currency is supposed to be their understanding of people and here Alan falls way short. Aside from perpetuating the misunderstanding that ‘ego’ is the same thing as pride, to state that someone, anyone, has no “no ego” is ridiculous. You may as well say that they have “no self.” And what about the much-discussed video of a young John Key, financially savvy and rapacious, bound for success, ominously telling the interviewer that his big goal in life is to one day be Prime Minister? I’m not saying that the desire for power is necessarily a bad thing (although that is debatable) but it is almost by definition a striving of the ego. I find it a little hard to swallow that a man who rose to prominence in a company such as Merrill Lynch, notorious in financial circles and known for their ruthless success, is without egoistic tendencies at all.

Fortunately he goes on to describe what I think is his main point about Key – that he is a “pragmatist.” I’ve written elsewhere about this quality and how it is basically code for maintaining the status quo. Pragmatic and incremental tinkering by emotionally un-invested technocrats is the style of governance that has been hand-in-glove with the neoliberal agenda for the last 30 years. Indeed, it is a very explicit part of the National PR strategy, openly discussed and for all to read in Nicky Hager’s excellent book, ‘Dirty Politics’. The core mission of the National party, imported directly from the American model, was to not really look like a traditional party at all. Say as little as possible. Don’t take radical positions. Rely heavily upon an untouchable ‘leader’. Stress management of the economy and the country, not change. The reason for this kind of inhibited, deliberately un-courageous mode of ruling is a big topic that I will try to address elsewhere. For now, we can think of the ruling ideology as centered around this ‘pragmatism’ that Alan venerates. But what kind of pragmatism does he mean? Is it those ‘hard choices’ we’re always hearing about? Is it the auctioning off of state assets to ‘balance the books’? Is it the colluding in illegal forms of surveillance to ensure good relations with our allies? Is it the opening up of areas of the marine environment to the fossil fuel industry? Or is it one of the many other policies promoted by our morally divine, apparently ego-less leader?

Don’t get me wrong, pragmatism is a good thing in certain contexts. Unfortunately, in political discourse, the word really just means compromise. And it is here where these elder intellectuals love to tell us that a revolutionary or progressive vision is selfish and dangerous because it eschews compromise. But compromise is not a value, it is just an outcome that is both beneficial and harmful. My response to it is always the same – what about when compromise becomes harm-by-proxy? How much harm is too much? And progressives would argue that when it impinges upon set values, it is too much. Sure, we must compromise in many areas of our life, most importantly in our romantic relationships. But if we truly want bold change, which I feel the problems of the world demand, then the one thing we do not compromise are our values. So, finding a compromise between environmental protection and fossil fuel exploration is not pragmatism, it is a betrayal of environmental values. Finding a compromise between the need for robust political relationships with allies and support for illegal surveillance is not pragmatism, it is a betrayal of our right to freedom and privacy. Finding a compromise between keeping our meat and dairy industry competitive and courting the brutal, authoritarian Saudi monarchy is not pragmatism, it is a betrayal of our human and animal rights. A real leader, a real progressive, has a set of values that are immutable and constant – that is what values are supposed to be. They may be horrible values no doubt, and often are, but what matters is that they don’t change, they are what we build upon. The pragmatism that Alan seems to admire, that of the Key government, is dangerously close to being the absence of values, or the subsuming of all other values under the supreme “value” of pragmatism, which isn’t actually a value at all.

Alan then goes on to compare Gareth with Winston Peters, in particular their respective performances at Waitangi this year. Predictably, it is not a comparison in terms of substance, or policy, or any important facts at all. Rather he wants to share with us his belief that Gareth…well…he just doesn’t get it. Whereas Winston has the gift of the gab, the ability to batter away tough questions, the political acumen to “make us laugh, bro” (because “us Maori love to laugh”), Gareth has “poor timing” and doesn’t have his “finger on the public pulse”.

He goes on to describe, astute judge of character that he is, how he knows how to handle people like Winston. When told that Winston (like a lot of politicians, let’s be fair) doesn’t take kindly to being challenged, Alan quite proudly explained how he “got what he wanted” from Winston in an interview he conducted by “deferring to him” and allowing him to “keep face”, lest he “be on the defensive.” I’m sorry, but that doesn’t sound like a political interview. Maybe if you’re interviewing a cagey pop star or actor it could be justified. But a politician? Imagine if David Frost had decided, after hearing Nixon was a prickly subject, to forego his tougher questions on the Watergate scandal to help him “keep face.” Winston is a public servant, with power and influence and the ability to affect the lives of every person in this country. And according to Alan, the best way to hold him accountable is by “deferring to him”. It’s quite ridiculous. The aim of real political journalism is the exact opposite of this. It should be to ask the hard questions, to poke the soft underbelly, to get under the skin, irritate and perhaps coax out some truth, some authenticity. If Winston then responds with unjustified defensiveness, then good, that’s a piece of information about him, about his ego, that I’d like to know. The worst part is that Alan is proud of what is really a lack of courage. It’s doubly sad that he seems to have deluded himself that his interviewing was artful and he “got what he wanted”. He probably didn’t. He got what Winston wanted to give him.

And so back to Gareth. Poor, amateur Gareth, with his plain-speaking and lack of finesse. And this is where I think Alan departs from good sense most wildly. He goes so far to suggest that it would be preferable for Gareth to basically be more misleading. His advice is to “play us man”, “pander to our biases” because, after all, “you’re not a columnist.” There are so many things wrong with these statements that it’s difficult to know where to begin, but the crux of it is that Alan is desperate to impress upon Gareth, and by extension on a new brand of unpolished politics, that their directness, their lack of spin or pandering, is a weakness.

This is a good point to round out the discussion because it shows in quite stark terms the ignorance and insularity of many political ‘commentators’ in this country and abroad. Alan’s colossal mistake is to completely miss that it is precisely the pretense and affected gestures of politicians that the public hates. A cursory understanding of recent political developments in the West makes it quite clear that disdain for the establishment, and attraction to ‘straight-speaking’ politicians is very popular. In some instances, it is the very reason for their success. Of course, one can speak ugly things or good things plainly, and unfortunately people like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, being ugly people, said very ugly things. But it is Alan, not Gareth, whose finger is not on the “public pulse.” I do not wish in any way to personally attack Alan – I am sure he is a kind and considerate man, and certainly a thoughtful one, but perhaps not on this. Unfortunately, whether he knows it or not, he is protecting an unsustainable status quo.

In today’s climate, someone with integrity, who also speaks plainly, is a pretty good bet. I don’t know Gareth Morgan, but Alan quite graciously describes him as a good man. I am following the growth of his party with interest, precisely because I believe it may have the necessary combination of a bedrock of values and the ability to communicate them directly and without pretense. I encourage people to really look at the latest policy ‘Democracy Reset’, which makes explicit the desire to formally enshrine many important progressive values, including the rights of Mother Nature. These are vital efforts, because they push back against the valueless, empty and un-courageous concept of ‘pragmatism’. Gareth may have the last laugh and I am curious as to how responsive the youth in this country are to his message and style. It is no coincidence that those who rally most to this message are the younger generation. To us, political posturing appears ever more grotesque. Only a bit less grotesque is being told by ‘learned’ commentators, like Mr. Duff, that what we really need is more of it.

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