Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Dirty Politics - Is There Any Other Kind?

No Escape: If war is "the continuation of politics by other means", then the reverse may also be true: that politics is the continuation of war by other means. In practical terms, the accepted (if unacknowledged) principle of democratic politics has always been that so long as politicians and their followers eschew actual physical violence, then all other tactics are permitted.

IT IS NEARLY TWENTY YEARS since I first read Dirty Politics. Impossible? Given that Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics: How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand’s political environment was only published a few days ago, how could I possibly have read it in the 1990s?
 
The answer, obviously, is that Mr Hager’s is not the only book bearing this arresting title. The American scholar, Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s, Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction and Democracy, was first published by the Oxford University Press in 1992. As the subtitle of Professor Jamieson’s book suggests, her research covers much the same ground as Mr Hager’s Dirty Politics; the obvious difference being that her examples are drawn from American politics.
 
About the subject matter of her study Professor Jamieson writes: “Those who claim that politics is cleaner now than it was in the nineteenth century are usually marshalling evidence that compares toucans to tangerines, unsigned print ads to televised claims. But if one compares print to print one finds as much that is disreputable in today’s campaigns as in the past.”
 
Professor Jamieson’s claims for the historical continuity of attack politics are further reinforced by quoting American Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin.
 
To his friend, Robert Morris, Franklin observed that the public “is often niggardly, even with its thanks, while you are sure of being censured by malevolent Criticks and Bug-writers, who  will abuse you while you are serving them and wound your Character in nameless Pamphlets”. Franklin presses home his complaint in language which undoubtedly strikes a chord with today’s political leaders; accusing his critics of “resembling those little dirty stinking insects, that attack us only in the dark, disturb our Repose, molesting and wounding us while our Sweat and Blood are contributing to their substance.”
 
Nor does one have to look too hard to discover evidence of attack politics in New Zealand’s political history. Of the 1951 Snap Election, University of Otago Professor of History, Tom Brooking, writes: “The campaign was probably the dirtiest in New Zealand’s political history. National declared the election was a contest between the ‘The People versus the Wreckers’. Hackneyed old stories that [Labour Leader, Walter] Nash had once been a bankrupt were dredged up and his earlier visit to Russia was cited as proof of his communist leanings.”
 
Much worse, however, were the series of highly embarrassing and potentially criminal incidents which dealt death-blows to the political careers of Labour Party politicians Colin Moyle and Gerald O’Brien.
 
Nor is the dark anti-hero of Mr Hager’s Dirty Politics, Cameron Slater, without precedent when it comes to the New Zealand Right’s long history of doing damage to its political enemies. As Listener journalist (and now Bill English’s press secretary) Joanne Black wrote in her review of Redmer Yska’s study of the newspaper Truth (of which, ironically, Mr Slater was the last editor): “For nearly 40 years [James] Dunn, as Truth’s in-house censor, read almost every word of every edition before it was printed. But his influence was not only on what not to publish for fear of defamation suits. He also played a backroom editor-in-chief role and was himself the source of many stories, including those that satisfied his virulent anti-Communist beliefs, which were shared by editor Russell Gault.”
 
The great Prussian military theoretician, Carl von Clausewitz, famously described war as “the continuation of politics by other means.” I would argue strongly that the reverse of that famous formulation is equally true. That politics is the continuation of war by other means.
 
Democratic politics, in particular, requires both the political leadership of the state – and its citizens – to resolve the fundamental economic and social issues dividing their communities through institutions and processes that are of their essence both formal and peaceful. Legislatures and elections are thus charged with settling those issues which would, in previous centuries, have been resolved (to quote another Prussian) by “blood and iron”.
 
In practical terms, therefore, the accepted (if unacknowledged) principle of professional politics has always been that so long as politicians and their followers eschew actual physical violence, then all other tactics are permitted. Politics is not an occupation for the faint-hearted, nor is it one whose practitioners can remain both effective and unstained. Bluntly, “dirty politics” is the only kind there is.

Mr Hager argues that: “Exposing dirty politics is an essential step in allowing reasonable people to understand and to choose other approaches. There is no need to follow those who are least principled down into the pit.”
 
But the choice is not – with all due respect to Mr Hager’s ardent idealism – between decency and the pit. The choice is between accepting “dirty” politics, with all its “Criticks and Bug-writers”, and rejecting altogether the formal and peaceful processes of democracy.
 
The options are not fair means or foul: they are foul means or fouler.
 
This essay was originally published by The Press of Tuesday, 19 August 2014.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Even war has its Geneva Convention. It seems we need a "Geneva Convention" for politics.

Debbie Sullivan said...

Chris. I read with interest your article in The Press this morning (they appear to have finally realised they can ignore Nicky Hagers book no longer)....when I finished reading the first thought that entered my head was the question, who is this article written for?...not, it appeared to me, those potential voters of the Canterbury region seeking elucidation of current events.

KerryNitz said...

Random note: actually, Clauswitz said "Der Krieg ist eine blo├če Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln" - note that he is saying not "by other means", but "with other means", the implication being that they are additional means. Thus politics is not dropped when you take up war, but continues alongside it.

Victor said...

Is the author of "Love Lifts Us Up: Thoughts From The Green Party's Campaign Launch" the same person as the author of "Dirty Politics - Is There Any Other Kind?"?

If so, how so?

I assume that schizophrenia is not the explanation.

Skippers said...

I like this. And let's face it, publishing the book just as the election looms is pretty self-serving for Hagar. And he is being slippery - initially he said he was fed the emails by an ex-staffer of Slater who was disgusted by the 'feral' comment. If that was true,surely determining the identity wouldn't be too difficult. Others would know who fitted that description.
But it doesn't matter now as Hagar no longer uses this line re his source.
As Chris says, politics are by nature dirty, and this can rub off on all associated with politics, journos, bloggers, authors included.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Just popped over to Kiwi blog. Interesting place, though I notice Hooton is ducking and weaving and diving for cover. Allegedly setting it up so he is more "transparent". Pretty boring on the whole, but one of the comments did say something quite pertinent about the oily whale blog. "It's like Jonestown over there." :-) They are not wrong. Loving it even more.

Chris Trotter said...

Ouch! Victor. Ouch!

I can only say that it's all in the timing. I wrote my column for The Press before the Green Party campaign launch.

So, I went from the mindset of a cold political realist, all too aware of the historical continuities of attack politics (both here and overseas) to the Greens' love-fest.

What's a fella to do?

Maybe I should argue that although dirty politics are unavoidable, there remain, nevertheless, reasonably clear boundaries beyond which political actors venture at their peril.

Think of all the President's men. Nixon's frankly paranoid personality attracted the sort of people who were always going to be the political death of him.

It would seem that Key, by giving Jason Ede his head, has courted the same fate. The relationship with Cameron Slater was not one Key should ever have encouraged.

Slater is, as his National comrades are fond of saying, "a force of nature". So, why would you let a tornado through your office door? Especially if that office is on the 9th Floor of the Beehive!

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I notice that Colmar Brunton is polling on this at the moment. Is it going to change your vote? All that sort of thing. What's your opinion of Cameron Slater? :-) Absolutely fascinating now that the right are beginning to throw Slater to the dogs – or the crocodiles – or perhaps the sharks. Someone is really interested in the effects on the election.

Debbie Sullivan said...

bugger...timing is everything and unfortunately your lesser of two evils ran beside TP"s dismissive minimisation of the whole affair....but am pleased to hear medication not required.

Anonymous said...

Chris....your comments about the Greens and Nicky Hagar are so generous.
I have been inspired by your writing for years. It fills me with hope for a better future. connects me to historical context and is reassuring in that an old bloke like me has not been left behind.
John

Victor said...

I do understand, Chris.

The Greens can have that sort of effect on you.

I notice them having it on me quite often, hardened crustacean though I am.

"Good luck to 'em," says I.

Charles Etherington said...

So who dumped on CS & stole his banal mail? Mail theft is an old trick, and crime too.
Did Hager know this person had set up that auto-Twitter account a week before his book came out?
Why was a pre-issue copy given to the IMP strategist with the silly name?
All indicates a backlash brewing!
Greens are 75% image, like Greenpeace and once, if ever, in power they may become road kill or find themselves standing in & dealing in the organic compost themselves.
Their fans are dreaming if they think their people are different.

Meanwhile Labour bleeds votes to them and may find it's 20/20 on election night. Imagine that.
Key then invites Green into government for a grand Blue-Green algae, sorry coalition and we all live happily ever after....
Now I'm dreaming..

Chris Trotter said...

Well, well, well, Charles. If these comments of yours are a reflection of the Right's on-going reaction to Nicky's book, then the Left will be very happy indeed!

I understand that your involvement with the forestry sector makes you a natural enemy of the Greens, but that does not absolve you from the need to know your enemy. And judging by the things you have stated here, you have a lot of learning to do.

I would also advise you to have a look at the uncannily accurate iPredict website - where Labour and the Greens are now outstripping National (43 to 42 percent).

Oh, and BTW, Radio NZ has accepted that its claim Martyn "Bomber" Bradbury had prior knowledge of the content of Nicky's book was incorrect. And Laila Harre has stated unequivocally that Martyn is neither employed by nor contracted to the IMP.

The manner in which Nicky came into possession of Cameron Slater's e-mails is described thoroughly in his book - which I strongly recommend you read before making any more silly statements.

Charles Etherington said...

No Chris, life is too short to waste it reading others gossip. Many better books to get through on my shelf.
I'm just having fun and really I don't mind if we get a Lab-Green govt as long as they keep NZ on the current track which they probably will if they want to last more than a year.

The Greens have changed their forestry policies over the years and now I prefer their one to the Nat's forest policy which was basically to ignore us and dump on us with the ETS.
The Greens used to say daft things like our plantations are not forests but now they realise they are, and a way better land use than farming, and wood is the best building material on the planet. They would promote it for government buildings and that is sensible. Greens are slowly becoming sensible but should move to the middle as the environment is not left or right.


Now Chris, perhaps I touched a nerve but how about trying not to be abusive with reference to 'silly' this or that, or we may have to ban you.
Or would you like the old me back?

paul scott said...

Nothing to worry about at all Trotter, we are over 50% and that other 7% is ours.

Chris Trotter said...

Good grief, Charles! I don't think I've ever encountered a better example of cognitive dissonance.

You write perfectly cogently about the Greens' excellent forestry policy - right after abusing them in your previous post.

Extraordinary.

And if Hager's book was nothing but gossip, Charles - do you really think it would be making this sort of impact on the campaign?

You see, those sort of statements are what lead me to use words like "silly" - because they are.

And, if you want to ban me, Charles, I'm sorry, but you'll just have to set up your own blog and hope that I pay it a visit.

And as for you, Mr Scott. I would say only that you remind me of those Republicans back in 2012 - the ones who were utterly convinced that Mitt Romney would win by landslide - right up until Obama was re-elected.

Anonymous said...

Chris says "And if Hager's book was nothing but gossip, Charles - do you really think it would be making this sort of impact on the campaign?"

Are you not confusing the level of hysteria in the media with actual impact on the campaign? According to one poll, just 1/4 of people believe Hager.

Helen Clark outed far more civil servants than Collins, with little more than a "tut tut" from the media.

- Hager's lawyer is furiously backtracking from the blackmail claim.

- Hager has admitted the Collins / prisoner accusation is false.

- Expert legal advice for some of the countries top IP lawyers has shown the claim of "hacking" of Labour's website is false.

- And Hagars claim of the PMs involvement in releasing SIS documents has been shown false by none other than the director of the SIS.

Anybody else in politics who had such a significant list of serious but false accusations, would be hounded by the media for conducting an orchestrated smear campaign.

Why not Hagar? The media has barely even reported that these allegations have been shown false.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I love the way the right are trying to make moral distinctions between Hager and their black bag artists :-). Looking at the Labour Party's website and stealing things from it is okay because security was lax. Fine – does that mean if you leave your door unlocked it's okay for someone to walk in and take all your stuff? I'm a believer in situation ethics, but this is laughable. And believe me I'm laughing. I notice now that various politicians are distancing themselves from Judith Collins. (Mind you one of them is her political rival.) Now that's a bit of an awkward situation for the PM :-). Damned if he does and damned if he don't.

Charles Etherington said...

Fair enough I am making light of things, and was attempting humour, clearly lost in print.

No party is all bad and of course some policies of parties I would not vote for are better than my pick to lead the government. You agree with that in reverse? If not you are one eyed no? So be it.

So actually I would claim cognitive maturity on this one.
I have said it before: Elections are a choice between the lesser of two evils. I would not hire most politicians to sweep out my garage but that is irrelevant, we have to choose one party. To me the one led by Key, English & Joyce is streets ahead and the largest group of Kiwis by far agrees with me, not you.
I think right now if they dropped Collins even more would.

On the Greens, I detest them as people but one or two of their policies are fine. That is not surprising as I am a Blue-Green member. Nick Smith would agree. Another good guy doing good work.

Charles Etherington said...

Gossip: Telling negative truths or lies about other people behind their backs. That is pretty much what Slater's emails are about I presume and Hager has an agenda to disclose it. So be it but why should I be interested in it in the way you media junkies are? The election is not about that.
Most voters will actually decide which lot will be best for them in government not who said what about whom and when and how.... blah blah blah.

So let's have a look at the record and the policies. We know the Nats very well after six years and so do they deserve another 3 years? I think so but you will not. Yet tell me how it is Lab-Grn-Imp or NZF will do a better job with which policies? Why are they going to be better for NZ?
Or do you prefer silly videos, name calling and effigy burning to determine your vote, since we are allowed to use the word silly?

Davo Stevens said...

The Greens have become the party for the working class and shucked off their hair shirts and sandals. They have filled the void left by Labour when the latter shucked off their support for the poorer members of our society and became the second class business party.

I have said often that Labour needs to look to where it sits in the political spectrum, whether it wants to be the party of the NZ workers or just remain Gnatlite.

As we get closer to the election I hope to see more leftish policies from Labour but I'm not holding my breath!

Debbie Sullivan said...

Anon (and others) ..there may, and I stress the may, be "only" 25% of the electorate who currently believe the actions outlined in Nicky Hagers book but it it will only take a single figure swing against National to remove them from office...and thats assuming J Key dosnt have to do a Nixon if he is found to have been involved in using the SIS inappropriately...and if you look at the Nat front bench they are very short on any other assets....it is not surprising the right are scrambling for all they are worth....this may keep them out of office for a decade or more.

Guerilla Surgeon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guerilla Surgeon said...

Really interesting how the right are reacting at the moment. A little like climate change deniers. Firstly complete denial it's not happening it's not true. Then it's happening but it's not our fault. Then it's happening but there's nothing we can do about it i.e. it's a distraction from the election. To me this goes to the root of our democracy, in that if the SIS accusations are true, the government is using the SIS politically. Not that I ever believed that the SIS were politically neutral. I guarantee they check your political persuasion before you are selected to join. I also guarantee that left-wing people don't get in.
But this if true, it's corruption at its worst, the sort of thing we kid ourselves only happens overseas. This is about as bad as Richard Nixon got. And those sort of people I don't want anywhere near my government. No matter how much they try to distance themselves from the whole sorry mess now.