I HAVE BEEN an admirer of Susan St John and her work for the best part of 30 years. So much so that in 1992 I put her picture on the cover of my magazine, New Zealand Political Review. In a country where the number of progressive public intellectuals is shrinking alarmingly, Susan stands out as a forthright champion of social justice for New Zealand’s most vulnerable citizens.
It is sobering, therefore, to find myself branded a cynic by this tireless campaigner against child poverty – not to mention being called out for my patronising and dismissive attitude towards Labour-voting women! Had the case Susan presented in rebuttal of my Daily Blog post “Staying Focused: Why Labour Still Won’t Help The Poor” been strong one, I would have breathed a heavy sigh of contrition and retired hurt.
But, Susan’s case was not strong, it was weak. The old saying, “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride”, sprang to mind. Or, perhaps more accurately: “If expressions of support for the poor were more than empty rhetoric, then beggars would no longer be found sleeping on our streets.”
Because what Susan read in my posting wasn’t cynicism, it was realism (albeit expressed with a fair measure of sarcasm). That the reality described is grim I would not for one minute dispute. That I would be a great deal happier if this government’s conduct of social policy showed more evidence of empathy and courage is, similarly, indisputable. But wishing something was so, doesn’t make it so. The grim realities of poverty in New Zealand must be faced squarely – and so must this Labour Government’s consistent failure to adopt the policies required to reduce it.
According to Susan: “Two things drive the ‘don’t do anything about the poor’ group attitude. The first is naked self-interest, the second is ignorance.” I agree. Unfortunately, Susan declines to properly interrogate the former, and spends far too much time speculating about the latter.
“Naked self-interest” is a fearsome beast – with a truly terrifying ability to prevent us from hearing any argument calculated to weaken its grip on our priorities. It was the American journalist and social reformer, Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) who expressed this aspect of self-interest best. “It is very difficult to make a man understand something,” wrote Sinclair, “when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.”
Knowing this to be true from bitter personal experience, I could only shake my head sadly as Susan waxed eloquent about Jacinda Ardern re-dedicating herself to the task of making “a more equal society” by providing “the leadership she’s so good at, to get the neoliberal left to re-envision the future.” How did she propose to do this? “In a sentence: appeal to their self-interest and challenge their ignorance.”
And off Susan went, in her best imitation of Don Quixote, tilting at the same windmills against which she has been setting her lance these past 30 years: The counterproductive under-investment in Māori and Pasifika communities upon which New Zealand’s economic future will increasingly depend. The dangerous stigmatisation of the poor, which our increasing reliance on private philanthropy only intensifies. (There’s a reason why people talk about something being “as cold as charity”.) The self-evident benefit to the whole of society of providing jobs, housing, health and education to all citizens. The fundamental moral obligation on the part of all human-beings to prevent children from suffering in circumstances of acute material deprivation.
But, Dear God, Susan! If this worked, it would have worked already. It would have worked 30 years ago when Jim Anderton, Sandra Lee and Jeanette Fitzsimons offered every single one of those policies to the New Zealand electorate and saw the Alliance’s vote drop from 18.3 percent to just 7.74 percent in the space of three consecutive elections. (Only to disappear altogether from the New Zealand Parliament three years later.)
While the people from the “leafy suburbs’” salaries, house-prices, social-status and children’s futures depend upon them not understanding either the economic disadvantages of unequal wealth distribution, or the sheer dehumanising agony of grinding poverty, then they will go on not understanding it. Do you not understand, Susan, even after 30 years? They don’t want to know! Their ignorance is blissful.
It is also disappointing to hear the same wishful thinking that plagued the politics of middle-class suffragettes more than 100 years ago, repeated in the twenty-first century. The highly contentious notion that enfranchising women would, somehow, “tame” society. That women were beings in possession of a higher moral sensibility that mere brute males. That a society in which women enjoyed equal rights with men would ipso facto be a kinder, gentler society.
Do you really suppose, Susan, that all these “kind Labour women” have only to “flex their muscles” and their “deep-felt concern for the unconscionable struggles of families and women doing the undervalued social care in society” will be translated instantly into the sort of “transformational” change that will bring capitalism, that unceasing generator of inequality and social injustice, to heel? There are many adjectives that could be applied to this sort of magical thinking: “patronising” and “dismissive” are two of them. Just one name, however, is sufficient to dispel it altogether: Margaret Thatcher.
With the Iron Lady firmly in mind, just think about the sort of policies which those 400,000 former National Party voters (the majority of them, if we are to believe the pollsters, women) who gave Jacinda’s Labour Party its crushing parliamentary majority, had been happy to vote for when John Key was New Zealand’s prime minister. Where was their “deep-felt concern” for the poor and exploited then?
Perhaps, Susan, that’s why you and your fellow philanthropists created the Child Poverty Action Group? Because it is much easier to extract charitable donations from the wealthy when the recipients of their generosity are blameless infants – not improvident parents. Had you called it the Poverty Action Group, it would have been a great deal harder to prise open those wallets from the leafy suburbs. Action against poverty requires action against wealth; action against privilege; action against racism and sexism. In a sentence: action against naked self-interest and ignorance. And that, as you know full well, Susan, is a much harder sell.
Seemingly, there are plenty of opportunities for cynicism in the fight against poverty. More than enough for realists and idealists.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 14 September 2021.