IT’S A PRETTY CONFRONTING VIDEO. Recorded in Starship Hospital, it shows “Baby Will” being taken from his protesting parents for pre-operative tests. Perhaps the most jarring aspect of the video is the father’s loud and repeated accusations that the Police officers present are acting illegally. As if the court case, which the father witnessed, was of no significance. As if the judge’s decision – which found in favour of the medical authorities seeking guardianship of the infant so that the life-saving surgery he needed so urgently could go ahead – was not binding. Clearly, the “reality” inhabited by the father differed radically from the reality inhabited by the Police officers, the medical staff, and the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders.
Kate Hannah, of the University of Auckland’s “Disinformation Project”, characterises the situation depicted in this disturbing video as “a split reality”. Human-beings in the same room, breathing the same air, and utilising the same light, nevertheless believed themselves to be engaged in entirely different activities. “Baby Will’s” parent believed their child was in imminent danger and were trying to protect him. The Police and Starship’s medical staff believed they were doing what was necessary to save a baby’s life. Tragically, the impasse could only be resolved physically – by the Police officers interposing their bodies between the child and its parents.
Much of the responsibility for the emergence of this split reality lies with the augmented powers of communication vouchsafed to “ordinary” people by the Internet and social-media. It is now relatively easy to pour false or misleading information into the minds of tens-of-thousands of citizens.
Ironically, these extravagant lies have the power to effectively inoculate their victims against the truth. If people can be persuaded that, as Donald Trump insists, “the whole system is rigged”, then all the officially-sanctioned expertise in the world becomes untrustworthy. The alienated masses’ response to ‘the facts’, echoing Mandy Rice-Davies’, becomes: “Well, they would say that – wouldn’t they?”
It would, however, be wrong to think that this triumph of misinformation and disinformation is a new thing. Technological innovation has empowered all sorts of communications over the centuries. The equivalent of a twenty-first century video, recorded on a smart phone, might be the anti-elite graffiti daubed on the walls of Ancient Rome; or the inflammatory religious pamphlets, illustrated with blood-curdling woodcuts, rolling-off the new-fangled Protestant printing-presses of the Sixteenth Century.
If ever there was a time of split-realities, it was during the Reformation. At stake in this great 100-year-long falling-out between Christians was nothing less than the individual’s immortal soul. The perceived existential threat, registered by Protestants and Catholics alike, wasn’t just to their well-being in this world, but to their long-term location in the next!
But, if religious disputes were bad, political conflicts proved to be even worse. In no other facet of human existence are split realities more common than in the hotly contested realm of political belief – and action.
Consider the following passage, drawn from an editorial published in The Dominion on election-day 1938:
Today you will exercise a free vote because you are under this established British form of government. If the socialist government is returned to power your vote today may be the last free individual vote you will ever be given the opportunity to exercise in New Zealand.
A level of paranoid hyperbole to rival even the most egregious National Party troll on Twitter!
Not that Labour Party voters took their lead from the Tory press – not in 1938. That was the election in which Labour received its greatest ever share of the popular vote, an astounding 55.8 percent. If reality was split in 1938, then Labour’s portion was a large one. Not even the united and venomous opposition of what we would today call the “mainstream” media could shake the loyalty of Labour’s voters.
The reality inhabited by working-class New Zealanders prompted an unequivocal endorsement of the government they had elected in 1935. Change had been promised, and change had been delivered. And “their” government wasn’t finished – not by a long shot. A vote for Labour in 1938 was also a vote for “Social Security”. The eponymous Act of Parliament, passed before the election, was due to come into force on 1 April 1939. If New Zealanders wanted a welfare state, then they knew what to do.
There are some interesting parallels between the elections of 1938 and 2020. Both came after a sustained period of crisis – seemingly overcome as the result of Labour’s inspirational leadership. The voters were grateful; they were keen for more; and they were willing to vote for it – even some National supporters. The big difference between 1938 and 2020, of course, is that Jacinda Ardern had nothing like Mickey Savage’s Social Security Act waiting for voters on the other side of the ballot-box.
Not everybody was on-side with Savage’s agenda. In the wake of Labour’s landslide victory, and with the Social Security Act’s coming-into-force date fast approaching, forces on the other side of the Thirties’ fractured reality struck back – torching the new Social Security Building that was rising on its Aitken Street building-site, barely a stone’s throw from Parliament. The smoke that swirled around Parliament in February/March 2022 was not without precedent.
Those ugly scenes in Starship Hospital this week are an echo of the unprecedented divisions that opened up in the months immediately following the 2020 Labour landslide. Future historians will sift through those months for explanations as to how and why the love for Labour and its leader was lost. Much will be said about vaccination mandates and extended lockdowns, but those, alone, will not be enough to explain the steady erosion of Labour’s position.
Perhaps, we should ask ourselves what would have happened to the mood of New Zealanders if, in the wake of the arson attack in Aitken Street, Savage had announced that, in the name of national unity, he was going to repeal the Social Security legislation. Imagine the sense of betrayal, the sense of loss. Imagine the level of animosity ordinary working-class voters would have directed towards the Labour Party. We can only speculate as to whether or not it would have exceeded the disappointment experienced by the New Zealand electorate in 2021/22 as kindness was cancelled, and the Team of Five Million disbanded. One outcome, however, is easily predicted – reality would have become even more dangerously fractured.
Except, of course, Mickey Savage did not do that. This is how I described his response to the arson in Aitken Street in No Left Turn, published in 2007:
“We have got to get the Social security Act working on April 1st and it’s going to work”, Savage told the country […..] and his government were as good as their word. “We are not going to weep,” said the irrepressible Minister of Public Works, Bob Semple. “It is a question of getting our backs into it, and getting the job done.” While firemen were still dampening down the smoking ruins on Aitken Street, Semple promised the construction of a replacement building within six weeks. The Public Works Department, Fletcher Construction, and the building firm of R.C. Love began work immediately on a site in Aotea Quay. James Fletcher admitted that this schedule would “necessitate the working of two 10-hour shifts, and it is anticipated that approximately 150 men will be required for each shift”. It is a measure of how vital the replacement of the building was seen to be that the normally obstreperous building trades unions agreed to work the site around the clock. Even more remarkable is the fact that the contractors agreed to take no profit!
On March 27th 1939, Savage opened the new building. As the economic and social historian, Bill Sutch, later recalled: “The ceremony took place in the presence of thousands of people, in time to mark, five days later, the end of poverty.”
That’s how you hold a country together.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website of Monday, 12 December 2022.