The Changing Face Of Protest: In marked contrast to the theologically- and ideologically-driven protest movements of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, contemporary protest, like this demonstration against the latest Israeli assault on Gaza, tends to be led by those whose stake in the identified violation of individual and/or collective identity is perceived to be the greatest. Photograph by GPJA.
PROTESTS against Israel’s latest invasion of Gaza are gathering momentum. In Auckland the rallies and marches of the last two Saturdays have drawn thousands to Aotea Square and Queen Street. Hundreds more have marched in Wellington. More action is planned. The protest organisers are now vowing to rally and march every Saturday until the Israeli Defence Force ceases its assault upon the beleaguered Palestinian enclave.
Viewed from an historical perspective these protests would appear, at least superficially, to conform to the templates laid down by the protest movements of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Like the current movement in support of the Palestinian people, the movements against sporting contacts with Apartheid South Africa, nuclear weapons, and the war in Vietnam grew out of New Zealanders’ conscientious objection to conflicts flaring far beyond their country’s shores.
The prime movers of these earlier protests were drawn, overwhelmingly, from the churches, the trade unions and the universities. For the most part their motivation was straightforward moral revulsion. The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960; the nuclear war-gamers’ apocalyptic doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction; the technology-driven carnage being visited upon the Vietnamese; all of these horrors stirred into action the muscular Christian ideals which, ever since the days of the Church Missionary Society, have played such an influential role in shaping New Zealand society.
Inevitably there was an element of smug condescension in these demonstrations of Christian charity. In the warm glow of the post-war boom many New Zealanders believed their little country came about as close to social perfection as it was possible to get in an imperfect world. With its “exemplary” race relations, its cradle-to-grave welfare state and its convenient amnesia concerning the nation’s disgraceful colonial conduct in Samoa, “progressive” New Zealand felt entirely justified in protesting against the rest of the world’s moral delinquency. How could “God’s Own Country” do less?
Playing the part of yeast in all this liberal Christian white-bread were the tiny communist parties. To the worthy moralism of the churches these Marxist missionaries added the sharp-edged arguments of socialist anti-imperialism. Though they were careful never to say so directly, implicit in their criticism of New Zealand’s diplomatic and military allegiances was the clear suggestion that we had taken up our position on the wrong side – not just of the Cold War but of History itself.
Wielding influence out of all proportion to their numbers, the communists would have been even more persuasive if their loyalties had not been divided between the gospels of Lenin, Mao and Leon Trotsky. The intensity of the struggles waged by the Communist Party of New Zealand (Beijing) against the Socialist Unity Party (Moscow) and by the Workers Communist League (Mao) against the Socialist Action League (Trotsky) rivalled that directed against the running-dogs of Capitalism themselves!
But regardless of whether the deities they worshipped were religious or secular, the leaders of New Zealand’s protest movements shared a common assumption that their respective doctrines were universally applicable. Black or White, Male or Female – everyone was welcome in God’s Kingdom/the Proletarian Paradise. What united human-beings was more important than what divided them.
It was only after the most convulsive protests in New Zealand history: the Springbok Tour Protests of 1981; that these universalist assumptions began to be challenged. Maori demanded to know what middle-class Pakehas could possibly know about racial and colonial oppression. Women wondered how men who preached racial equality could be so blind to inequality between the sexes. Gays struggled to make the straight world understand how oppressive a universal definition of sexuality could be.
The things that divided human-beings were important too. The new left-wing catechism now held that people define themselves less by the qualities they share with everybody else than by the attributes peculiar to themselves and those similarly identified: gender; ethnicity; sexuality; nationality; religion.
In this, the age of identity politics, protest activity operates according to a very different set of rules. The idea that New Zealanders per se might launch a series of nationwide protests inspired simply by Israel’s abrogation of universal moral values would quickly be challenged by persons and groups representative of the people most directly involved. In the case of Gaza and in descending order: by Palestinians; fellow Arabs and Muslims; people similarly victimised by imperialist oppression; and only then by “ordinary” New Zealanders – who must, of course, acknowledge the leadership and political objectives of those at the summit of the identity hierarchy.
And so the anti-Israeli protesters chant “Palestine will be free – from the river to the sea!” And no one who expects to be invited back dreams of asking: “Free in what way? Do you mean two free and independent states living side-by-side in peace? Or, do you mean that from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean, Palestine will be free of Jews?”
Because there’s a big difference.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 July 2014.