Friday, 18 December 2009

Distress Signal

A nation in distress: The anti-war film In The Valley of Elah ends with the hero running the US flag up the flagpole upside down - the international signal of distress. John Key's decision to fly the Tino Rangatiratanga flag alongside the New Zealand ensign has caused many New Zealanders to wonder whether their own nation might soon be in need of rescue.

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH is one of the best anti-war films to come out of Hollywood since America declared war on terror in 2002. In the film, Tommy Lee Jones plays the role of Hank Deerfield, a retired army investigator, who sets out to discover the fate of his missing soldier son.

As he heads out of town at the beginning of his quest, he notices the Stars and Stripes has been raised upside down outside the local high school. In a sharp exchange with the school’s indifferent Hispanic janitor, the ex-Marine asks:

"Do you know what it means when a flag flies upside down?"


"It’s an international distress signal."

"No shit?"

"No shit! It means we’re in a whole lot of trouble so come and save our asses ‘cause we ain’t got a prayer in hell of saving it ourselves."

"It says a lot …" murmurs the janitor.

"Yes, it does …" says Hank Deerfield.

I COULDN’T HELP RECALLING that scene when, last Monday afternoon, the Prime Minister, John Key, announced that the Cabinet had given its official sanction to the flying of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag over government buildings on Waitangi Day.

We are asked to interpret this decision as a gesture of reaffirmation toward the bi-cultural partnership enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi.

I am extremely doubtful, however, whether a majority of New Zealanders will see it that way.

Sadly, their views will get short shrift from "Official" New Zealand.

The politicians and public officials whose business it is to align public opinion with state policy have already framed this issue in such a way that any criticism of the Government’s decision will be dismissed as "immature", or, should that label prove ineffective, be decried as "racist".

Whatever the critics are branded, the ultimate effect will be the same: the suppression of genuine public debate and the marginalisation of the Government’s opponents. All those individuals and groups in some measure dependent on the grace and favour of the state will lower their heads and shut their mouths.

The resulting silence will then be interpreted as assent.

Thus will Official New Zealand lay yet another carefully-fashioned stone in the edifice of our distress.

Thus will ordinary New Zealanders’ anger: their sense of being ignored, belittled and despised; grow and fester.

A government that plays fast and loose with the core symbols of its citizens’ national identity does so only at the gravest risk to its own survival. Mr Key’s apparent ignorance of just how important these core symbols are – especially to the people who elected him – is, therefore, deeply troubling. Like the immigrant janitor in the scene I have quoted from In The Valley of Elah, our Prime Minister does not appear to know what his country’s flag means, nor that how it is flown can send a powerful message.

The Tino Rangatiratanga flag is not a symbol of bi-cultural harmony – but its opposite.

No matter how much oil the Minister of Maori Affairs, Dr Pita Sharples, attempts to pour over the troubled waters of its history, the flag which Mr Key’s Cabinet has just authorised to be flown alongside New Zealand’s flag – "says a lot."

It declares Maori nationalism’s fervent desire to reverse the verdict of history: to re-constitute the "absolute power of the tribal chieftains" (the literal meaning of tino rangatiratanga) and to re-establish the same conditions of dual sovereignty that prevailed immediately prior to the land wars of the Nineteenth Century.

That was the last time two flags – one representing the tangata whenua, the other the tangata tiriti – flew side-by-side. And no one back then was in the slightest doubt about what those flags meant.

The two flags stood for two sovereignties. And where two sovereignties are asserted, there also will be two states. And where there are two states there will be two economies; two bureaucracies; two codes of justice; two systems of health, education and welfare; two parliaments – and two armies.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Mr Key’s Government has struck a blow against the safety of the New Zealand realm. They have signalled to the Maori Party that their cherished dream of making two states out of one will not be thwarted.

At least, not by them.

If New Zealand’s flag must fly alongside Dr Sharples’ banner – then fly it upside down.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 18 December 2009.


Anonymous said...

For goodness sake lighten up already! this flag thing is just a bit of horsetrading with the Brown table. Its not going to rewrite New Zealand's crappy colonialist history. As for the official flag, its the symbol of Gallipoli and every other imperialist adventure since. One thing the Workers Party kids did get right was to burn the bloody thing.

Sara said...

Chris- It seems Phil Goff has been muzzled by Labour. He must have been outnumbered and then silenced. That is the only way I can explain his lack of concern over the Maori sovereignty flag and his comment that it would "look good". He seems to have backed away from the whole race issue.

Also odd the comment by a Labour MP (reported by TV3 last night) that to criticise the formation of a separate Maori welfare system would make Labour appear "racist". To most people out there- a separate Maori welfare system is out and out racism. What planet are these Labour politicions living on??

With National and Labour happy to let the country go further down the separatist road, this creates quite a political vacuum. People who object to separatism will become more and more agitated. If their concerns are not listened to I, like you, would expect the result to be violence. Maybe a new political party will come out of it.

Chris Trotter said...

Which is why, Anonymous, the Workers' Party will never be more than a risible footnote in the history of the New Zealand Left.

Che Guevara always understood that before one can be a true revolutionary, one must first be a true patriot. He also understood the importance of symbols: be they flags, memoirs, photographs, or, ultimately, his own heroic death.

Flag-burning is merely the projection of the ultra-leftist's own political failure and self-loathing onto the whole nation. It says nothing about the nation, but speaks volumes about the perpetra[i]tor.

Chris Trotter said...

And, yes, Sara, I agree that Goff has become a little gun-shy re: the race issue. He certainly missed an important opportunity over the flag decision. Shane Jones did, of course, pick up that responsibility (quite possibly at his leader's urging) but it should have been Goff leading the charge.

The problem, I think, is that the majority of Goff's caucus colleagues still haven't got their heads around the fact that the Maori elite are out of control.

Just look at this latest move by a Maori Trust to provide cover for a Dubai-funded buy-up of New Zealand farmland.

Kaitiaki? Yeah, right.

So long as the Labour caucus continues to flounder around in the wreckage of the identity politics of the 1980s and 90s, so long will they miss the political opening yawning wide in front of them.

And you're right, if Labour doesn't fill the gap, then someone else will. And, I think we both know that, when he or she does emerge from the angry and abandoned masses, that "someone" will not be in the least respect ... "progressive".

A true patriot would, therefore, seize this moment with both hands.

Goff has some serious thinking to do over the summer.

Anonymous said...

This can be summed up in 6 words.

Where's Winston when you need him?

He is the only man who has the guts to stand up and say that this is unacceptable. The New Zealand First leader, Chris, is the man who will fill the gap you speak of.


Anonymous said...

"Flag-burning is merely the projection of the ultra-leftist's own political failure and self-loathing onto the whole nation"

Ok Chris. Now how does your flag reverence differ from that expressed by the lads at the annual National Front 'flag day'?

Anonymous said...

Selleys is the gap-filler Chris - don't tarnish the legacy of names like Hickey, Semple and Savage by association. The Blackball boys didn't starve and bleed to enable opportunism.

Whip back and check out what you wrote at first spotting Orewa One (which was identical to several previous tory speeches), and reflect on why Lew got so deeply under your skin.

The reaction (to O1)took us all by surprise, didn't it.

Because it wasn't real.

Synthetic, manufactured hatred, a la the Helenhate campaign: an expensive, co-ordinated, subterranean tory PR blitzkreig (p.88 Hollow Men for a clue - scan provincial press editorials for confirmation)

Kiwis are better than this. And sans media manipulation do love their neighbour - dusky or otherwise.

Source of current anomie: Key dependent on MP to keep ACT at bay: tory rump attacking MP: Goff (and Trotter) aligning with tory rump: Goff pulling back from MP attack. Media stymied and confused: wants to drive ACT agenda, but loathe to support Goff in MP attacks.

Lots of Gap-Closing going on sub-radar, Chris - accepted and endorsed in all quarters, and lots more round the corner. Progressive, Labour-initiated advances of immense egalitarian benefit.

Stick to principles, son: your "blacks" are as risible as Lew's "reds" under the bed.


Fatal Paradox said...

I agree with the first (anonymous) poster above - the NZ flag represents nothing but 150 years of imperialism and capitalist greed.

As Jean Genet said, the patriotic 'fatherland' can only be an ideal for those (like the Palestinians) who don't have one. Nationalism in a country like New Zealand is on the other hand (to paraphrase Einstein) nothing more than an infantile disease...

Sara said...


Yes- agreed- historically the political void such as we have is generally filled by a party somewhat to the right of ACT. The shame is that Phil Goff had a real chance to bring those voters to the centre. I watched people I know to be very conservative sit up and take notice of Phil when he talked both about racism and the limitations of the Reserve Bank. When he walked away he lost those voters and probably won’t get them back as he looks insincere now.

I felt sick as I watched the news story about the sale of dairy farms to Dubai. It should have been the lead story- not hidden away near the end of the programme.
The words blankets and muskets came to mind when it was reported that Maori were involved- nothing much seems to have changed over the centuries.

I believe selling productive farming land to overseas nations should be considered treason. In a world that is several degrees warmer the South Island will be a cornucopia of natural riches and resources. It will feed us. I knew it would only be a matter of time before foreign nations came for our productive land but I thought it would be in a decade or two and with warships. That New Zealanders would be involved in a back door deal at this time was an unpleasant surprise.

We need to urgently do some forward planning in this country- the world is changing rapidly. I despair of the lack of leadership though.

Sara said...

Millsy- the trouble with Winston is that he cannot be taken seriously. He campaigns on issues such as asset sales and immigration, but then when he gets into power he reneges on his campaign promises. Remember the sale of Auckland Airport while he was Treasurer?

I suspect that next election the disaffected vote will end up with ACT. In all likelihood this is probably what National strategists have in mind. National must have been very relieved when Labour backed off. Phil Goff's speeches would have surprised them greatly and caused them more than a few sleepless nights. However I'm sure they are back sleeping soundly again now.

Anonymous said...

To my mind the flag is what it is. It is a symbol, and no more. When the American imperialist empire finally folds in on itself, I would still see nothing wrong with American's being proud of their flag. Nationalism is only sickening when it is used for selfish purposes; when you say your country is right, whether right or wrong. It is a bit like loving your family. Nothing wrong with it, unless you start clannishly ignoring wrongs by members of your family, and let them exploit and abuse non family members of wider society, without any censure.

The first post here has some truth. National is obviously doing some horsetrading with the brown business table. That's the thing about John Key...he is a corporate finance man through and through. He's a manager more than a Prime Minister, and so lacks a national instinct, in my view. Corporations like Merrill Lynch, his old employer, are truly transnational. They don't recognise national boundaries, or put much store in cultural diversity and traditions. The bottom line (filthy lucre)is the only thing that really matters with them. That's why you can get some real bungles, like McDonald's trying to sell burgers with beef patties in India.
Rod Oram commented in the papers a while ago that the word from some associates of Key's in the corporate world is he has amazing attenae for public feeling, but lacks a moral compass.

Sooner or later that is going to show, and I think this flag issue could be one of his first real stumbling blocks.

Anonymous said...

"He campaigns on issues such as asset sales and immigration, but then when he gets into power he reneges on his campaign promises. Remember the sale of Auckland Airport while he was Treasurer?"

You are right there, Sara, admittedly so. I remember sitting there infront of the TV back in 1996, and my heart just plummeting when Peters announced that he has chosen to go with National, in spite of promise then throw them out of office.


Lew said...

ak, re your 'reds under the bed' attribution to me -- the difference is that I don't think the 'reds' are a threat; I think they're self-deluding. That's unfortunate; if they'd just get with the 21st century the left would have a whole lot more clout. In my humble opinion.


Chris Trotter said...

The problem I, and many of the commentators at Bowalley Road, have with your position, Lew, is its absence of agency.

With Copenhagen a disaster, and the truth of US journalist Greg Palast's quip that "environmental devastation is class war by other means" becoming clearer with every passing day, to which social force (if not the global working class) should we turn to mount an effective challenge to global capitalism and the planetary eco-cide for which it is responsible?

In the language of LOTR: "The hour grows late, and the list of our allies grows thin."

Anonymous said...

The alliance of Phil Goff and Chris Trotter mounting ( any sort) of challenge to global capitalism would not make it up on the Richter scale to "risible". Or even ludicrous.

Anonymous said...

Where indeed should we turn in our hour of need.
Brothers and sister, let us turn to Phil Goff, he will lead us on.
Thanks Chris for pointing us in the right direction.

Chris Trotter said...

The problem, of course, "Anonymous" is that measuring your contribution to the process of building a better world is impossible.

So many lights, so many bushels - it's sad.

rouppe said...

Whether or not the current NZ flag is relevant or not to this country is a side issue.

Allowing the flying of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag along side the national flag - no matter what it is - is a mistake. It sends tacit acceptance and approval for a seperate governance structure. In other words, apartheid.

Over the coming months and years there will be other 'little' changes that over time will amount to something I think is quite unacceptable.

An example is the separate funding for Maori health services. No doubt Maori currently need extra health funding. However as soon as it is entrenched it cannot be removed. If this new health funding model works then there will be other groups that need funding more than Maori and the money won't be able to be reallocated. New money will have to be found while money is wasted keeping an unnecessary structure fed.

Lew said...

Chris, in case I wasn't clear, the 'reds' to which I assumed ak was referring were the socialists, not the social democrats (or even really the socialist democrats, such as you style yourself). Referring back to the environmental message, I make this distinction for the simple reason that socalism in its many authoritarian guises has historically been very much worse for its local environment than almost any form of capitalism -- and I think that's saying a very great deal, since I'm under no illusions about capitalism's environmental credentials.

So while I agree that the working class who live closer to the environmental margins are a critical force in an environmental crusade, I think it's foolish to conflate that with socialism.


Chris Trotter said...

First of all, Lew, the term is "democratic socialist" or "democratic socialism" (the promotion of which is still enshrined in the Labour Party's constitution).

The "democratic" distinction from the various totalitarian deformations of the socialist project became increasingly important as the full horrors of Stalinism and Maoism became apparent.

The achievements of democratic socialism are manifest all around the world - most particularly in North-West Europe (and up until the 1980s in Australia and New Zealand).

That these achievements are so often mis-characterised by people who only accept Stalinism or Maoism as "true" socialism is, I believe, one of the most debilitating effects of the 45-year Cold War which ended in 1991.

It is certainly not true to say that the democratic-socialist states are environmental despoilers. In fact, the reverse is true. It is precisely the marriage of popular will with state power that makes environmental protection possible - which is, of course, why the energy industry and its CCD minions are so keen to engineer a divorce.

Definitions aside, you still haven't answered my original question, Lew: What, in your view, will be the agency for all the massive social and economic changes required to keep the planet habitable by human-beings - if not the working-class?

Anonymous said...

To be honest, I think it will take people from all classes to save the planet in habitable form for humans. Democratic socialist countries? The nearest to them..Sweden or Norway are much better for the planet, than State capitalist USA or neo-liberal countries like NZ...but they are still not doing that good.

Chris Trotter said...

People from all classes - yes of course, Jason. But not all classes per se.

The ruling classes of the USA, China, India and Brazil have too much to lose by curtailing the corporate destruction which enriches them. As we have seen at Copenhagen, they will thwart any programme which threatens to reduce their wealth and power.

These people will have to be fought, and the only social force powerful enough to fight them - and win - is the global working class.

Nor is it simply a matter of there being "a world to win", as Marx proclaimed, now we have a planet to save.

Lew said...

Chris, I apologise for reversing the terms. The point was that my objections were and are to 'classical' socialism rather than to the democratic kind -- and while I would dispute the extent to which 'democratic socialism' accurately describes the system to which you refer, I certainly am not accusing those societies of being the despoilers.

To answer your question: I think the working class is that agency. My only objection was to socialism as the means of motivating it. As you know, I favour eschewing the term altogether on account of it being irretrievably compromised by the actual socialism we've observed through the last century -- as opposed to that imaginary socialism of the democratic sort, which has considerably more merit which is woefully undermined by the use of the 's' word.


Chris Trotter said...

There was nothing "imaginary" about the socialism which Labour voters secured for themselves in 1935. Certainly the National Party recognised it's political reality.

I'm not sure of your age, Lew. Perhaps you are too young to remember clearly the New Zealand prior to 1984. Perhaps you don't remember it at all. Perhaps all you've known is the New Zealand of Roger Douglas, Ruth Richardson and Don Brash.
If so, it would explain your lack of sympathy for, and unwillingness to believe in, a democratic form of socialism.

But, take it from one who grew up in that older, more egalitarian, happier and freer New Zealand.

It was very real.

AWicken said...

Indeed (to use an example possibly more illustrative than fair), the new regime closing the PM's former state school nicely sums it up.

Over the last 20-25 years most of the democratically-gained socialist programmes in NZ have been eroded by the people who benefitted most from them. Labour's tenure did little to regain the course.

I guess the only thing NZ was missing was a way to stop its children becoming economic and political sociopaths.

Lew said...

Chris, I'm quite aware it existed, I just dispute that it can meaningfully be called socialism for any reason other than 'that's what people called it'. But that's beside the point, and something I'm prepared to be persuaded on.

Regardless of whether it can reasonably referred to as socialism, as a matter of practicality it shouldn't be, because it enables the movement's enemies to conflate the bad authoritarian socialists (we agree they were bad, right?) and those comparatively good so-called democratic socialists. By calling referring to yourself in such terms, you enable your ideological enemies to equate you with the former group, which due to a very effective half-century of propaganda, helped by the very real horrors of those regimes, will always win out in peoples' consciousness over the brotherly, egalitarian sort you had in mind. Democratic socialism, if it is to have a future, needs to be rebranded as something which doesn't conjure images of black marias, death camps and mass graves, which was the point of my response to ak distinguishing the two.

You tacitly accepted this when you conceded in a previous thread that despite not really being a progressive, you were very fond of the symbolic advantage that calling yourself one brought -- an advantage that referring to yourself solely as a democratic socialist did not yield.


Chris Trotter said...

I notice, Lew, that you didn't respond to my comments regarding your age. But your comments regarding the word "socialism" convinced me that you cannot be much older than 25-30.

The stigma you attach to the word "socialism" could only come from someone who has no real memory of the much more powerful stigma attached to the word "communism" during the period of the Cold War.

Between 1946 and 1991 "socialism" was the acceptable term and thousands of people all over the world were proud to call themselves socialists.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and its East European vassal states, however, the triumphant capitalists immediately began imbuing the word "socialism" with the same negative connotations they had previously pumped into the word "communism".

Were every socialist to abandon "socialism" in favour of "progressive" or some such term, the capitalist ideologues would immediately set their tame media to training the populace to react to that word with fear and loathing.

Sometimes you just have to stand your ground, fight, and reclaim the power to wash your political vocabulary clean of all the filth your ideological enemies have heaped upon it.

markus said...

Yeah, look Lew, with respect, you really just don't know what you're talking about.

I studied political ideologies (in POL SCI) at university as well as two papers on different aspects of New Zealand and Western Labour History. [I also come from a left-Labour, blue-collar family with a deep interest in politics]. And, on top of all that, I also happen to be old enough (mid-forties) to remember a time when many (perhaps most) Labour voters (not just activists but voters) were happy to call themselves "Socialist".

There have always existed many variants of Socialism and to equate the ideology solely with dictatorial Communist regimes is quite frankly a little bizarre.

Lew said...

Chris, you're right about my age -- I'm in my early 30s, and I meant to say so in the last comment. If you think this disqualifies me from reasonable comment, then

I'm aware of the history of these terms -- my academic focus has been on propaganda and symbolic politics, after all -- and it's for just the reasons you explain that socialism is indefensible. I'm not talking about how things were, I'm talking about how they are now. And it's not that I think they mean the same thing, it's that they've been used so interchangeably and so people think of them in the same thought. But even beforehand they were clearly related, and it was easy to link the two, because they were both brought into the political lexicon by Marx and Engels, and the word 'socialist' was part of the name of the two most notorious totalitarian regimes of our time -- one communist (the USSR), and one very much not (the Third Reich).

Another term (such as 'progressive', though it is weak; and 'liberal' is also compromised, though not mainly for the reasons we've discussed before) would not have that disadvantage, and while I agree it would be hard to defend, it might be possible. Those who defend socialism need to realise that, while they might want to defend the glorious egalitarian past, they'll be expected to defend the bad stuff as well. The left must indeed stand and fight for what it believes -- but let it fight on grounds which are not undermined by history.


Fancy that, you studied political science as well? And yet we disagree? It's almost as if it's a broad field containing a great diversity of views.

I'm not equating all socialism with the totalitarian kind (although I have concerns about the other types too), I'm saying that totalitarian socialism is what comes to mind when anyone says the word. That might not be fair and might not be right, but it doesn't matter: it's how things are.

This is the thing: I'm not denigrating Mickey Savage and his legacy at all. I'm not saying that the workers should be left behind, or even that they shouldn't be the central focus of left movements. But you don't need the word socialism and all its blood-soaked historical baggage to appeal to those things.


markus said...


I seriously question your two closely-related assertions that: (1)what comes to mind when anyone says the word "Socialism" is "totalitarian socialism"; and (2)the word "Socialism" has all this "blood-soaked historical baggage".

I think one of the points Chris was trying to make was that you're possibly a bit too young to realise that the word "Communism", NOT "Socialism" has long held these sorts of connotations.

I simply don't believe that the two terms are as casually inter-changeable in the public mind as you seem to infer. Do you have any proof (besides your own seemingly "common-sense" assumptions) that they are ?

I'd suggest "Socialism" tends to be associated by most people***, not with the Soviets or the Nazis, but, first and foremost, with Western Social Democratic political parties (in particular, with the pioneering years of these parties). In the local context, it's precisely images of "Mickey Savage" and the first Labour government, ushering in pioneering "socialist" reforms, that (I'd argue) immediately come to most people's minds.

You need to realise that during the Cold War - right up to the 1980s - the rhetoric/discourse was always about "evil Communism" and "evil Communists", very rarely about "evil Socialists".

Having said all that, I have no problem whatsoever referring to myself as a "Social Democrat" or "Left Social Democrat". I'm simply suggesting that your understanding of (a) political history and (b) the contemporary mindset may not be all it could be.

*** I should qualify the term "most people" in this sentence. Let's remember that university conducted voter surveys often find that up to half of respondents don't even know what the Left/Right spectrum actually means. Many, I suspect, have never even heard of "Socialism", or, if they have, it means little or nothing to them.

And the real tragedy is, I'm doing this way past my bedtime.

Anonymous said...

Your're right Lew: the battle is exclusively for that unedifying phalanx of "swinging voters": and within that breezy, work/sleep/TV sponge-target of advertorials and any current "trend" (blatantly synthetic or otherwise), the word "socialist" is indeed blood-soaked. Or at least tarnished. Dodgy. Not up there with the Briscoes lady, at any rate.

Which is a pity. Because as you implicitly admit, Lew, Michael Joe & co have done more than a wee bit for them over the years: the four weeks hols, lunch breaks, super, welfare, houses, healthcare, schooling, wage increases, - you name it - that we and those self-same "swingers" enjoy, was all achieved under the - indeed - hearts-blood-dyed and heroic standard of "Socialism".

Jesus, Lew, Michael even defined it as "practical Christianity" - and was universally revered. A mass deliverance from the unimagineable misery of centuries - empowering future struggles on a multitude of fronts, and NZ in the vanguard.

Which maybe explains why Chris and I aint too keen to ditch the word. Because their bones have grown stiff and cold not deservedly - but by neglect. Deliberate neglect.

"Maori" was the "Socialist" of Chris's and my childhood, Lew. The "N" word was common and inter-breeding to oblivion was the expected outcome. But assertion was no economic threat to Power, so hitching on the US and global movement was allowed (even encouraged - sold ads) and opinion moved north to today. Proud contributors - albeit poor and dead 8 years early (unproductive years - no need to remind people).
Word allowed. With limits. Subject to revision.

"The banner bright, the symbol plain
Of human right and human gain"

Dangerous. Ignore and subvert at all costs.

It's the Media, Lew. The monopoly on Sponge opinion that determines all.

Your chosen field.

(PS: as it happens, I'll be up on Prayer Hill next month; sighing feeble imprecations for all our Dawns)


Lew said...

markus, I recommend you look up experts in political communication and psychology like Drew Westen. He has a book which goes into detail on these topics (The Political Brain but also a bunch of youtube videos and such which make his overall point in a more pithy fashion. Also George Lakoff, and even right-wingers like Frank Luntz. There's one particular panel discussion available on the internets which includes all three (and some other chap I can't remember). The key point is that they don't need to know what it means in order to hate and fear it -- and in fact, it helps if they don't.

But more generally, if you think socialism still means a chicken in every pot to general people, I have to ask: have you been paying attention to political discourse over the past decade? Significant, successful left politicians in the Anglo world have consciously abandoned socialism: Blair, Obama, Clark and Cullen, Rudd, Clegg (not yet successful but should be soon). Chief among the orthodox critiques employed against each of them by the economic right has been the accusation of socialism -- not communism. The US healthcare debate is the most apposite example.


Perhaps it is a pity -- but it's hard to fight history, especially when the left generally just doesn't understand political psychology and communication to the same extent that the right does. But that's another argument. I'll just say (again) it's not useful to blame the media.

As to 'Māori' being the same in your day -- to an extent it still is. But there are a couple of big differences, the main one of which is that the predominant ideological strand of the western world -- liberalism -- is becoming more and more anti-racist, while this same ideological strand is in direct conflict with the key symbolic traits of 'socialism' in popular mythology. Also the 'inter-breeding' has worked in the opposite fashion with the race problems being gradually solved, as Ranginui Walker said, in the bedrooms of the nation. This has only been possible in conjunction with the Māori renaissance; but socialism enjoys neither of these advantages.

To echo markus' dismay, and to endorse ak's pilgrimage: it's the wrong time of year to be carrying on this discussion. Let us go out into the land we still have, enjoy it while we still can, and reconvene in the next decade.


AWicken said...


I'm not sure the word "socialism" is as inately tarred in public opinion as you suggest.

Aside from the recent (and therefore possibly not permanent) fixation on the word thanks to Fox News, essentially you're talking about the narrow band of folk who:

A) Routinely think of the main eastern bloc nation as the "Union of Soviet SOCIALIST Republics", as opposed to "USSR", "Soviet Union", "iron Curtain", etc;

B) are not aware that many of the communist nations were/are "peoples' republic of ..." or "Democratic Republic of ...", and thus don't have the same conceptual dissonance re: democratic ideas as they might for "socialism";

C) are aware that the "Nazis" were in fact members of the NSDAP, but are unaware of the conflict the NSDAP had with communist and Social Democrat parties within Germany

For the sake of "practicality" I think you're making a mountain out of a molehill.

Yes, words get abused. In my opinion, the real reason socialism has had hard going in NZ over the last 20 years (and we're about the same age, btw) is that the initial excuse of "There Is No Alternative" has been incrementally replaced by a learned, conditioned restriction upon the social and economic imagination of the population. Basic things like accepting homelessness as normal, regarding unemployment as an individually chosen lifestyle as opposed to being chaff in the global economy with a NAIRU fixation, and of course the "it's all about me" factor.

These aren't the result of people consciously rejecting "socialism", it's more about a political con. The old "look, this person got a swimming pool fence while on a benefit" followed coincidentally by "let's automatically expire benefits after a year and make people re-apply".

Lew said...


Again, it's not what people know -- it's not about conscious connections. It's about what people feel. Read Westen. Folk with the level of conscious historical awareness you describe have to undertake a perverse reading of history to link Savage with Stalin -- and a few do, but it's not those who are the concern so much as those who hear what they say and believe it. This is the propaganda campaign Chris talked about, waged since the end of the Cold War. It's not a new thing; it's not a small thing.

Anyway, I'm off into summer. For real, this time.


Anonymous said...

I think us oldies are being a little unfair to Lew.

I agree with him that, in the English speaking world at least,the word Socialism has been largely discredited by a false identification with Leninism.

Obviously, this process is more advanced in the United States than elsewhere. But I doubt whether, even in New Zealand, there are many people under forty who identify Socialism with the humanitarian welfare state policies and economic dirigisme that predominated in the immediate post-war decades.

And, in fact, I don't understand that to have been Socialism either but Social Democracy or (to use Willi Brandt's favoured phrase)the 'Social Market' model.

I've always understood Socialism to mean the socialisation of the means of production and distribution, whether by a Leninist dictatorship, a democratic revolutionary state acting in concert with militant workers or an established democracy using the well-oiled apparatus of its parliamentary system (as half-happened in the UK in the late 1940s).

We desperately need to return to the humane dirigisme of the post-war period. But there's no point scaring people by describing it as what it's not.

Merry Christmas everyone, whatever your theological preferences or lack thereof.

Chris, thank you for providing a forum for civil yet passionate argument this year.