Monday 29 January 2024

The Cuckoo's Nest.

“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” –  Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles) in The Third Man.

THEY SAY that the distance between the Government and Opposition benches in the old House of Commons was the length of two drawn swords. True or apocryphal, the story all-too-accurately conveys the truth that violence seldom strays far from power’s shadow. Democratically-elected legislatures, modern ones in particular, do their best to maintain the pretence that the raw calculations of power and the brutal efficacy of violence play no part in their deliberations. But, the less idealistic among our parliamentarians tip their hat to those who came up with the two-drawn-swords rule. It is a frank acknowledgement of what politics is all about.

Sadly, this is not an age that welcomes the frank acknowledgement of political truths. For nearly a decade now, parliamentarians and the parties they serve have been lamenting the “bullying culture” that is said to permeate the precincts of power. The young staffers assigned to assist individual Members of Parliament by Parliamentary Services are said to have borne the brunt of this misbehaviour. Some have felt themselves so beset that they have quit the political life altogether. Others have waged long and emotionally draining legal battles against their alleged persecutors, only to discover that even when a rare victory over the parliamentary power structure is won, it is almost always the victor that loses.

That is because the bullying isn’t a bug in the parliamentary power structure, it’s a feature. Not that anyone who hopes for a career in politics would ever own up to such a shocking admission. The whole proposition is too unfashionably Darwinian to be advanced publicly in 2024, but all the predatory animals who stalk the parliamentary corridors know it to be true. They make it their business to weed out all the little darlings who think that the political game has rules that must be followed, and that those who break them will be punished. That any staffer could subscribe to such nonsense is proof positive that they are manifestly unsuited to their jobs – of which the predators are only too happy to deprive them.

One of the reasons the idealists cling to the notion that the power game is governed by a set of benign rules is because the news media is so willing to congratulate itself on dealing with the rule-breakers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Parliamentary journalists are jackals: that is to say they feed off the carcasses left behind by more successful predators. Certainly, there are few more violent spectacles in Parliament than a pack of media bullies ripping to pieces some unfortunate legislator’s political carcass.

The question that must be asked, however, is: from whom does the Press Gallery get its stories? The answer, almost always, is from a politician and/or one of their staffers. Journalists pride themselves on keeping silent about how they know who has sinned. What they are even more careful to hide, even from themselves, is why they know. Whose power are they swelling?

The chests of the Press gallery will, of course, swell with indignant rage at the suggestion they regularly allow themselves to be made the tools of political actors engaged in (unaccountably unreported) factional struggles on the Beehive’s upper-floors, or, in and out of the Opposition’s offices. These self-proclaimed speakers of truth to power would be more believable, however, if so many of them didn’t tread the well-worn path from gallery journalist to ministerial press secretary, and from there to the broad sunlit uplands of public relations and lobbying.

That’s the thing about politics, there is always so much to be gained and, inevitably, even more to lose. Frankness and honesty are all very well, but it is vital – if one means to succeed – to recognise those situations where it is better to remain silent, or suffer a temporary loss of memory. Telling the truth is admirable, but telling the whole truth is just bloody silly. Much of Jacinda Ardern’s seemingly effortless rise to power is attributable to her finely honed sense of political discretion. She is living proof of the adage “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, then don’t say anything at all.” Or, at least, not where the wrong sort of people might overhear the conversation!

Difficult though it is to admit, the bullying of politicians and their staffers is the most effective way of separating the innocently ambitious – those who just want to make the world a better place – from the ruthlessly ambitious – those who just want to get to the top of the greasy pole.

In the context of a democratic legislature, physical violence perforce gives way to emotional violence. In a kinder world such strategies would fail. In this one, however, emotional violence – like its physical counterpart – swiftly reveals those who possess the skills for turning such attacks aside. Wit, unrestrained verbal counter-aggression (just think of Malcolm Tucker in “The Thick Of It”), the ability to calm and smooth the feathers of the angry and offended, an astonishing ability to lie convincingly: these will all signal to those alert to such qualities – someone worth watching.

Six hundred years ago Baldasarre Castiglione catalogued these political skills in his celebrated “Book of the Courtier”. Where his contemporary, Niccolo Machiavelli, was all about painting the big picture of political power, Castiglione concentrated on describing how best to manoeuvre one’s way through its mazes. The quality he was looking for he called sprezzatura – an Italian word which largely defies translation, but which may be rendered, roughly, as “studied nonchalance”, or, “grace under pressure”. Someone who has sprezzatura, is someone who can keep her cool.

But, without pressure, the grace of the courtier (because, democracy notwithstanding, all centres of political power and influence still operate like the royal courts of yesteryear) is deprived of the opportunity to manifest itself. A Parliament bereft of bullies, where everyone is “nice”, and where nothing is ever thrown at anybody – especially not insulting language – is a Parliament that will manifest the strength and competence of a kindergarten.

As Harry Lime, the character played by Orson Welles, wryly observes in the classic movie “The Third Man”:

“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project website on Monday, 22 January 2024.


Mark Simpson said...

I think it is possible to be a "nice" politician who rises above the cesspit of bullying, backbiting, dishonesty, etc. But it requires spadesful of rectitude and integrity. Such people are then able to facedown those devoid of such values, perforce of their perceived and actual strength of character. The only ones that spring to my mind are Jeannette Fitzsimons, Rod Donald and Russell Norman - all Green Party politicians (sadly) of the past.

Anonymous said...

“If you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything at all”. The famous Washington hostess Alice Roosevelt Longworth went one better than that: “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, come and sit next to me”.

The Barron said...

Brilliant quote from one of the greatest movies ever. Dialogue was so much better when you could have Graham Green as screen-writer.

chris prudence said...

Rock passed the menthol to greg and chris while wayne rode down the hill to the mobil.

Ten thousand strong at ngaruawahia an old school camp.Motutapu and ahuroa.55 on sunday with a may the force be with you birthday card and a six pack.

New view said...

As you have alluded to Chis, political journalists behave like jackals but they are also dependent on their governmental hosts for the information that breeds the next headline or political commentary. Because this self serving situation works both ways imo these journalists have no incentive to bite the hand that feeds them. The last left Labour government weren’t good at much but they knew how to use the media and those in the media who print positive stuff will get more good stuff to print. To my mind the media haven’t decided whether the present government is made of the right stuff and so appear to be pro opposition. How long this is tenable for them I don’t know. In essence the media have to be corrupt to survive. The reason I say corrupt is that rarely does any commentary or article give both sides to a story. They are arrogant and opinionated and because they believe their opinion is the right one that’s where their argument will lie. The school boy type bullying in parliament that Chris describes is never fully disclosed because by its nature the pimps behind closed doors who have their own political agendas are only too willing to feed a hungry journalist the juicy bits of info needed to sustain their immoral appetite. The reason I enjoy your articles is your willingness to poke at a subject from different angles. It’s a pity political commentators don’t do this more often or just put out a balanced view. Can’t be that hard. Our politicians who shout at each other with emotion, quietly use the media as a valuable tool to get their message out. The media imo don’t treat their role with the honesty and responsibility that it deserves. Our political landscape is ruthless but the tough do survive and we need tough people to make decisions in this volatile world.

Shane McDowall said...

What did Switzerland produce?

LSD, Velcro, Aluminum foil, milk chocolate.

If you have not tried the first, I strongly recommend that you do.

Wait about 60-90 minutes after ingestion, then smoke a joint.

chris prudence said...

Paywalled commentary versus free to air.When something does not have a price attached i.e user pays then we do not place a value on it.This hard right racist government and the democracy project backing it up.

David George said...

"Wait about 60-90 minutes after ingestion, then smoke a joint."
But first hide your keyboard where you've no chance of finding it. Please.

David George said...

Shane: "Wait about 60-90 minutes after ingestion, then smoke a joint."
But first hiding your keyboard where you can't find it would be good.

Shane McDowall said...


No chance of me losing my keyboard, so you will have to either tolerate or ignore my epistles.

And it seems you would be a good candidate for my "medical" advice.

A tab of LSD will set you back $30-$40. If you can't afford LSD,or don't know where to get some, magic mushrooms are free and have the same effect.

Mushrooms tend to pop up after a frost near running water. But make sure you know what you're looking for.

Handy hint: break the stem and wait a minute, if the area of the break turns blue, you have got the right ones.

Happy hunting Dave.

CXH said...

This explains why those receiving free stuff from the government behave the way they do. Continual hands out demanding more. Perhaps we need to find a user pays method instead.