Sympathetic Magic: John Key is burned in effigy by angry youths at a birthday party. What leads our fellow citizens to the extreme of publicly destroying the image of their political leader. What is fuelling such incandescent anger? Who is responsible for the social and political desperation it represents?
BURNING THE PRIME MINISTER in effigy is evidence of some pretty serious political disaffection. The only other instance I can recall is the burning in effigy of Jenny Shipley and Ruth Richardson during the mass demonstrations against the Employment Contracts Bill and Mrs Shipley’s proposed social welfare cutbacks in April 1991. The image of the two stuffed dummies consumed in flames, while the delirious crowd chants “Burn, Shipley, burn!”, is one of the most powerful to emerge from that bitter time.
The practice itself is a primal expression of what anthropologists call “sympathetic magic”. The act of setting fire to a likeness of your enemy is driven by the same powerfully negative emotions as sticking pins in a voodoo doll. Unlike the private, even secretive, persecution of the voodoo doll, however, burning in effigy is almost always a collective and cathartic act, and the effigy itself almost always of a well-known – if not well-liked – public figure.
The act is undoubtedly more shocking to us now than it would have been to our parents and grandparents. Seventy or eighty years ago in the English-speaking dominions of the British Empire the very public burning in effigy of the hapless Guy Fawkes was an annual ritual in which whole communities participated. Behind the bonfires and fireworks, however, flitted the shadowy folk memory of a time when real men and women were burned alive in the public square. Those who cared to ponder the origins of such “harmless” folk traditions were reminded that believing in the wrong things at the wrong time was once a very dangerous practice indeed.
The Prime Minister’s supporters have naturally recoiled in anger and disgust at the image of their leader being put to the torch. His opponents, however, would be lying if they did not admit to feeling just the hint of a thrill as the flames climbed higher. Such is the power of fire. It speaks directly to the savage that lies within every one of us.
And it is precisely this appeal to our inner savage that makes burning in effigy such a profoundly undemocratic gesture. Because if democracy means anything, it means suppressing the savage within and submitting the issues that divide us as individual citizens to the judgement of the electorate as a whole. Even more importantly, it means accepting that collective judgement – even when it goes against our individual contribution to its formation.
Such high-minded pronouncements are no substitute, however, for a closer examination of what leads some of our fellow citizens to the extreme of publicly destroying the image of their political leader. What is fuelling such incandescent anger? Who is responsible for the social and political desperation it represents?
Because that is what it is: the burning of John Key’s effigy is, indisputably, an act of deep-seated anger and desperation. Proof that a whole layer of our population not only feels excluded from the “rock star economy”, but despairs of ever finding a political champion willing to obtain for them a back-stage pass.
But, perhaps, the use of the present tense in this context is misplaced. Perhaps what we should say is “despaired”. Because, in the course of the past few weeks, these reckless haters of John Key and his National Party government show every sign of having found themselves a champion; one of the most unlikely to ever bestride New Zealand’s political stage; Kim Dotcom.
Here is someone who shares the rage of New Zealand’s despised Underclass. And for much the same reasons. He, too, has felt the unwanted attentions of the Police. He, too, has been lashed by the whips of the mainstream media. He, too, has been branded a threat to public safety and decency.
Most importantly, however, Kim Dotcom and the Underclass blame the same man: John Key. And when it comes to voicing their political priorities, he and they both use the same three word slogan.
It is a powerful rallying cry for the young and the disaffected – incendiary even. But one wonders whether the young and idealistic activists on the Internet Party payroll would find much to talk about with those who deride John Key as a “faggot”, or, worse still, a “Jewish faggot”?
Especially considering that this time-worn term of abuse is derived from the tradition of consigning homosexuals (and Jews) to the flames.
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, 15 August 2014.