Thursday, 18 September 2014

'Kratos' To The 'Demos': Chris Trotter's 'From The Left' Column, Election Eve, 2008.

Paradise Delayed: Thousands gather in Wellington's Willis Street in 1931 to watch the election results posted by The Evening Post newspaper. The Labour Party victory anticipated by so many working-class New Zealanders failed to eventuate. The next four years were to be the most desperate in the country's history.

THE PEACEFUL CIRCULATION of elites – that’s how the political scientists describe democracy. But if that’s all voting is about, I’d favour The Who’s much pithier version of the process: “Meet the new boss – same as the old boss.”
 
The problem I have with the political scientist’s view of democracy is that it takes us – the citizens – right out of the picture. We, the people, are reduced to a passive agglomeration of individuals; a great big witless lump of humanity to be pummelled and pushed by advertisers, marketers and pollsters, into giving our votes to the “elites” with the best campaign team.
 
And this unholy gaggle of professional “communication specialists” – spawned by the political scientists, sociologists and psychologists who came up with the theories that guide them – have an even more instrumental view of the democratic voter. In the hands of these arch manipulators, the nation’s citizens are transformed into what honest con-artists call “marks”, but who, to the political fixers, are known as “the punters out there in punterland”.
 
It gets worse. Because the views of these “communication specialists” are transmitted via polytech and university courses into the minds of hundreds of eager journalism students. They, too, are encouraged to view voters as passive consumers of sophisticated “messages”; people whose views can be shaped and re-shaped – practically at will – by the all-enveloping communications media of the 21st Century.
 
These young people are taught that “perceptions” trump reality – and that perceptions are easily manufactured and/or manipulated.
 
The handful of journalism students who, every year, rebel against this pernicious, post-modern doctrine that reality is a “social construct” and that there is no such thing as “the truth”, are condescended to and pitied as the intellectual relics of a bygone age.
 
As for the rest, the Guyon Espiners and Duncan Garners of tomorrow, what lesson can they be expected to draw from their lecturer’s teachings other than the blindingly obvious one that, in the 21st Century, “the news” is being steadily reduced to the status of a commodity?
 
Increasingly, journalism is no longer what gets placed between the ads: it has become just another means – perhaps the prime means – of  “delivering eyeballs to advertisers”.
 
And if “reality-based” journalism upsets those advertisers – or drives too many “eyeballs” to another channel? What then?
 
I was talking to a parliamentary candidate from one of the major parties a few days ago, and he told me something very interesting.
 
He said the subject most talked about on the doorsteps of his electorate was the appalling news media coverage of this year’s General Election.
 
People lamented the sparse media coverage of local electorate contests; wondered why there were so few in-depth articles about the big election issues; and decried the way in which the newspapers and the airwaves were being turned over to “journalists” with clear partisan objectives.
 
What they were really saying was that they wanted to be treated as citizens – not as “marks”, or “punters”.
 
They did not consider democracy to be a con job, or a game, or matter of re-cycling elites, but of discovering the popular will: and delivering – as the original Greek words demos and kratos suggest – “power to the people”.
 
At a recent Labour Party conference I enjoyed a long discussion with a veteran activist who shared with me his boyhood recollections of the 1931 General Election.
 
In the depression-stricken working-class neighbourhood where he and his family lived, there were high hopes that the Labour Party would be elected to tackle the deepening economic and social crisis.
 
He remembered the vast crowd gathered outside the local newspaper offices to watch the results come in, and the slumped shoulders and bowed heads of the working-class voters as they trudged back home in the silence of bitter disappointment and dreams deferred.
 
For a Labour victory was not to be. In 1931 a combination of right-wing parties was elected, and my storyteller and his family, along with their friends and neighbours, were forced to endure the bleakest and most harrowing years of their lives.
 
Seventy-seven years later, I am desperately hoping that a new generation of democratic citizens will use tomorrow’s election to avert the sort of catastrophe that overwhelmed their great-grandparents.
 
In the words of The Who:
 
Just like yesterday
Get down on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
 
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post of Friday, 7 November 2008.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Chris, couldn't agree more.
And I usually disagree with your politics.
The almost hive mind nature of some occupations (primary school teachers are another) is a bad thing for society.

Wayne Mapp said...

Chris,
You have actually lived with a John Key government for 6 years now. Have they really been the bleakest years of your life, and has John Key really been the worst Prime Minister in the post WW2 era.
Or do you think the sugar bag years will once again be in our future if there is the re-election of John Key led Government.

Chris Trotter said...

Of course not, Wayne. But in 2008 - when the GFC was in its first terrifying shudders - that prospect was by no means as fanciful as your 20/20 hindsight now allows you to characterise it.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

In my experience primary school teachers generally have good and rational reasons for doing what they do. The fact that they mostly agree is nothing to do with a hive mind. Particularly when a minister says "we want to do this, find me some research that supports it." In general teachers know what works – much better than ministers.

David said...

I think the media rot set in from the mid-1980s onwards. It was at this point that the view changed from the media reflecting the voices of the people to the media believeing it could direct it. A prime example was the Listener, a great source of journalism in the early 1980s. By the late 1980s it believed it could change the New Zealand flag by running a campaign on this topic.

Bruce Clark said...

Hi Chris hope you don't mind my emailing again - have written song "Dirty POlitics" please pass on to as many as you can and have a listen yourself - you'll like it - -all the best- bruce - http://youtu.be/dTZdbmXSNWI

peterpeasant said...


What was once "news" is now "infotainment" designed to keep eyes, earsand fingers concentrating on the spaces between advertisements.

What were once journalists are now bazaar touts linking advertisements.

Recently TV1 did a "story" about their reporter Jack Tame (!) doing street interviews with New Yorkers about their impressions of pictures of aspiring NZ political candidates. Zeesh!

Do not get me started on Seven Sharp. The Dompost is largely froth and bubble. The Herald devoted 8 pages to Robin Williams on his death. (Zeesh squared).

The demos has to treat media types as bazaar touts. Some touts are honourable and do a good job. Some sell stuff you are interested in some sell unspeakable rubbish.

It is hardly any wonder that the "blogosphere" and "social media" has taken off. Little or no uncontrollable advertising for starters is helpful.

Ennui said...

Chris, you better hope Pete Townsend don't come looking for royalties. Not sure if he uses lawyers or his "ax". I've seen him break it a few times...ouch. Take cover.

Patrick said...

Hi Chris,

After last nights absolutely appalling leaders debate on TV,I don't think it will ever improve when we have commercial pressure + show pony moderators that we are forced to endure.

Unfortunately 7 minute sound bites between advertisements is not what democracy is all about.

One thing that I really like about Oz public TV is that the bastards do not get away with anything, does not matter which side of the fence they stand on there is no where to hide.

Compare that to what happens here, the so called investigative reporters are almost on their knees in adulation.

Patrick W.

Davo Stevens said...

Our Mainstream Media are all corporates fer gawd's sake! They primary focus is the profit margin. Any Journo who goes outside that dictum is quickly pulled back into line again.

That's why Nicky Hager is independent and can write what he does. And does it so well! Which is also why one should believe what he says as opposed to what the MSM stuff down our throats.

Note that every billboard for the Gnats has our Johnny smiling away in the background and now the Labs are copying it too. That is not politics - it's the Cult of John, or David, or who-ever. Policies are not important, only the Dear Leaders are!!

Another three years of the Gnat lead Govt. here will be a disaster for the country and the people except the very top percentage.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

We all know the press is crap and has been so for a long time – in fact if you look back at it as I have done you find that it's always been biased, it's always been right wing with the reasonably honourable exceptions of national radio and to some extent public television – until it went private. As I said, the Scots are having a discussion about what sort of society they want, we don't get that. For instance – what happened to my oil? Norway and Alaska have managed to put away enough from oil revenues to fund, in always case at least a pretty good social welfare system. Why haven't we done that? The Scots certainly want to. But that conversation never took place in this country largely due to the press. Christ I didn't even know we exported oil until a few years ago :-). One good thing about the Scottish 'Yes' vote is that they will get a left-wing government for the foreseeable future, and the English Labour Party will have to get off its arse and get in touch with those people it has abandoned for the last 20 odd years.

Anonymous said...

@Guerilla Surgeon,
Yeah, I wasn't so much referring to the teaching methods (where I think they generally do well), but the wet lefty political beliefs they seem to think it is their job to impose on children, and eachother. Unquestioning veneration of all things Maori, half baked over simplified nutrition information, cultural self hatred (well beyond rational constructive criticism), milksopism (climbing of trees banned) ,and the jargon, oh the jargon! Reading that, it sounds like grumpy old man territory but I have personally witnessed all of them at my child's school.