Friday, 21 November 2008

Phil Goff's Manly Mission

Originally published in The Independent of 20 November 2008

Phil Goff’s part in Labour’s redemption song must be to offer the angry and frustrated blokes who voted Helen Clark’s government out of office an alternative vision of what it means to be a man in the 21st Century.

THE effortless transition from Helen Clark to Phil Goff makes you wonder why it took so long.

As far back as January, Goff’s supporters were testing the waters for a possible leadership challenge. As far as I know, I was the only journalist to raise the prospect seriously.

No one else believed a change of leadership from Clark to Goff would make the slightest difference to Labour’s chances of re-election.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that their lofty dismissal of a Goff-led Labour Party was mistaken.

For a very large number of New Zealand voters, the only major point of difference between Key’s National Opposition and Clark’s Labour Government boiled down to the fact that Key wasn’t Clark. Apart from this rather obvious distinction, the electorate found it increasingly difficult to separate the two major parties.

Which suggests that Labour came to grief on the same jagged reefs of anguished masculinity which sank the campaigns of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis in the United States.

The "Angry White Males" who ushered in the conservative revolution in America in the 1980s, and to whom Key owes his party’s success on 8 November 2008, interpret practically any manifestation of social-liberalism, and especially the successful enactment of social-liberal legislation, as a direct attack upon their beleaguered manhood.

In the United States it was the "judge-made law" which led to the desegregation of public education, and affirmed a woman’s right to choose an abortion, along with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the introduction of affirmative action programmes in higher education and employment, that gave rise to the "Reagan Democrats".

In New Zealand the issues were different.

The decriminalisation of prostitution dramatically reversed the power polarities in the sex-for-money nexus. The introduction of Civil Unions for gay couples was construed by many heterosexual men (and women) as a grotesque parody of the traditional, religiously sanctified, marriage ceremony. And the repeal of s59 of the Crimes Act struck at the very heart of the social-conservative’s understanding of how fathers and mothers should discipline and punish their children.

Labour’s social-liberal workplace reforms: paid parental leave, 4-weeks annual leave, strict protection against unfair and illegal dismissal, the notion of "work-life balance"; were similarly seen as undermining the small proprietor’s ability to manage his own business according to his own best judgement – his "right" to be a boss.

The frustration and anger of this fraction of the male electorate, growing steadily since 2002, had, by the beginning of 2007, metastasised into a single, malignant tumour of rancorous hatred towards both the government and the person of Helen Clark.

The NZ Herald’s political cartoonists, Emmerson and Brody, captured this malevolent misogyny to perfection, their caricatures of Clark becoming increasing hideous and deformed with every passing week.

How easy it would have been to short-circuit this dangerous political wiring by simply replacing Clark with Goff. For thousands of angry and disaffected Labour "men" – voters who shared John Tamihere’s aversion to left-wing, lesbian, "front-bums" – Clark’s removal would have represented, to paraphrase Barack Obama, "the change they needed".

Denied that change, they turned to the only electable bloke on offer – John Key.

That Goff didn’t push for an early transition from sheila to bloke, and that the Labour caucus would almost certainly not have backed him had he tried, is, however, a testimony to the moral wisdom of both.

Replacing Goff with Clark might have worked, but it would also have been the wrong thing to do.
Because appeasing evil is never the right thing to do. And make no mistake, by the beginning of 2008 the anti-Clark movement had become a very evil thing indeed.

Besides, Labour had already tried appeasement in 2004: responding to Don Brash’s extraordinary Orewa speech with a wholesale retreat on the tangata whenua front.

And what did it bring them? The Maori Party, and no viable post-2005-election options except a continuing lurch to the Right with Peter Dunne and Winston Peters.

Those two factors, alone, wreaked havoc upon Labour’s political integrity. Further retreat, in the face of the ugly mob that was baying for Clark’s blood may well have secured Labour a fourth term – but at the price of the party’s political soul.

As things have turned out, it is the Clark-hating male electorate – and not the Labour caucus – which must now bear the burden of its political choices and, hopefully, try for a shot at redemption by voting for the Goff-led Labour Party in 2011.

Labour’s part in this redemption song must be to offer these angry and frustrated men an alternative vision of what it means to be a man in the 21st Century.

And that, in an world increasingly hostile to the core values of manhood, will be no easy task.
It is, nevertheless, a task which Labour must undertake. Because the way out of dead-end, dumbed-down, muscled-up antipodean machismo, is also the way forward for New Zealand as a whole.

We must learn to celebrate intelligence and creativity.

We need to cultivate the non-conformist and the unorthodox.

We should prize critical thinking and the courage to say "No, you’re wrong."

We have to confront the root causes of male anger and frustration – and stop rewarding their cultural symptoms.

The essence of masculinity is the instinct to protect – an impulse inextricably bound up with the heroic qualities of defiance and self-sacrifice. To protect and to serve are the defining qualities of all our most enduring cultural icons – from King Arthur to Winston Churchill; Te Whiti O Rongomai to Mickey Savage; Ed Hillary to Peter Blake. The aggression and violence we so easily and so often equate with masculinity can only ever be justified in defence of the weak and the vulnerable. It must never be used against them.

If the Goff-led Labour Party can embody these, the genuine attributes of masculinity, then it will become more than competitive in 2011.

Because, in the end, the values of the National and Act parties are the doomed values of Arthur Miller’s stricken fantasist, Willy Loman – the self-deluding hero of Death of a Salesman, who sacrifices his manhood and, eventually, his sanity to the dog-eat-dog ethics of the marketplace, and then wonders why his most cherished dreams continue to elude him.

It is in the demonstration of generosity, courage and compassion that men become their true selves.

Solidarity makes heroes of us all.


Anonymous said...

First you blame the 'dumb' electorate for Helen Clark's demise. Now its a manhood problem.
Could it be that the electorate is more clever than you give them credit for. Maybe they became sick of Clark's lack of integrity and casual criminality, maybe it became tired of the politicisation of the state sector, in particular the Police. Maybe Clark's protection of the devious Winston Peters finally stuck in the electorate's throat?
Or maybe it is because the electorate woke up to realisation, so ably communicated by Michael Bassett, that Clark's agenda was fundamentally bankrupt?

Anonymous said...

Chris, a welcome and resonant return to blogging. I agree your thesis, including your argument against appeasement. I wonder if there wasn't another factor too in the rise of Clark's replacement; Key sounds ordinary. I might be oversimplifying matters, but his plain-spokenness appeals to many. Clark is frank and straightforward, but she's also clearly an intellectual. More of the tall-poppy sydrome I wonder?

Anonymous said...

Oh Chris, the chest beating goes on. You are one angry white male, and ironically the only one in evidence.

Anonymous said...

My workplace is mostly 30-45 year old male IT guys. Well (though narrowly) educated and pulling salaries of around 80-120k. All are either married or have partners and slightly more than half have children. I admire their talent and in most cases their work ethic.
But their Clark-hatred was eye-popping. One guy told a joke: Helen Clark had an arsehole transplant but the arsehole rejected her".
A day before the election another circuated a Tui's poster showing Clark saying "I did have sexual relations with my husband - yeah right".
I couldn't see any justification for this stuff. What did they resent so much, was it just that extra 6% of tax (from 33-39%) that Labour introduced? Most of them as far as I know didn't whack their kids senseless and had no reason to worry about the S59 repeal. One has a kid born very premature and is a heavy user of public health services, so should really have been left-leaning if he'd had any historical perspective on what National has done to health services.
It's still baffling - I think in the end the right's greater support from men is simply that men on average are more self-centred and lack the imagination to have sympathy for others.
I'm a 53-year old bloke. I can just remember the end of the Holyoake years and to me Clark is easily the best prime minister in that tme.

Carol said...

I am not yet certain whether or not Goff is the right person to lead Labour into the next election. However, I do agree with Chris that it was right for Labour not to appease the misogyny directed at Clark (and by extension Labour) over the last few years.

As with the story from anon above, there is widespread anecdotal evidence of this anti-Clark misogyny & lesbophobia, sometimes echoed in MSM reporting, and strongly circulated online by rightwing bloggers.

It is an indictment on the National Party leadership that they never have disavowed such nasty stereotyping and prejudice from their supporters, and that they even seemed to pander to it through dog whistling promotions. For instance, as soon as Key was elected leader of National he was promoted as a family man, and this was also the focus of some of his election ads on TV. Furthermore the TV news that I watched, the day the new government was sworn in, focused on Key's daughter.

When I vote for a politician and preferred party(often with a preferred PM in mind), I vote for the individual/s, not their family or lack of it. I hope we don't go further down the US route of electing, not just a president, but a first family.

I had looked on Clark's government as a sign that women had made advances in gender equality. Our new government, not only looks not to be making any further advances for such equality, but to be taking a step backward, with women MPs given marginal portfolios, and continuing failure in leadership to disavow the misogyny coming from their supporters.

After all the criticism of Clark being a dictator, we now have leadership including bully-boys like Brownlee. And, as Idiot/Savant points out, they are attempting to rush through a load of legislation over the next few months under unnecessary urgency.

Hence the new government looks overtly dictatorial from the get-go.

I'm not sure whether to agree with Chris, that Goff is the man to lead Labour into the next election, or with Tim Watkin at Pundit, who argues that Labour need a a new leader and refreshed team. Goff is very capable, and presents a version of masculinity that is neither aggressive retro bully-boy, nor a wimp. If Obama's widespread support is anything to go by, the world is ready for a new version of political masculinity, that is assertive, but willing to listen to others, and that gains a lot of support amongst feminists.

But I will just wait to see how Goff performs, and I guess Labour will get feedback over the next year or so, which will show whether Goff is the best person to lead them into the next election. At the moment, he seems the right person to me to focus on challenging the government when necessary, and to provide positive leadership in the policies Labour will promote in the future.

stargazer said...

great post chris. during the campaign, we saw the misogyny regularly, eg from the republican candidate who regularly used the term "feminazis"; and from the ACT candidate who would finished his speeches with the tag line "helen clark never smacked her kids" and would get a huge round of applause in every single forum he said it. it was difficult to deal with, because if you respond, you drag yourself down to their level but if you don't respond, it becomes normalised.

honestly, i think it's going to be a long time before we have another female prime minister. which is really sad. just like during the failed hilary clinton campaign, the misogyny has become normalised and so much harder to fight.

Anonymous said...

New Zealanders are quite nasty, intolerant and hateful when you really look at it. Looking at the internet, listening to talkback, I belive that we would have been perfectly comfortable with a fascist dictator.

Anonymous said...

"... I believe that we would have been perfectly comfortable with a fascist dictator."

I don't know whether Millsy was around in the 1970s, but that was certainly the case with Rob's Mob and many other NZers, who admired Muldoon's "strong man" approach. Did they like being dominated, or simply (and erroneously in this case) believe that NZ needed someone who could "make decisions"?

Interestingly, we have just voted someone out of office who was also a strong leader. Dominating too, in point of fact. And voted into office someone whose ability to keep a tight rein on his own people has yet to be demonstrated. So I'm not convinced that we as a people have a predilection for fascist dictators.

Interestingly, I was often reminded of the 1975 election during recent months. The poison emanating from the right-wing blogs and talk-back radio seems to have been effective (see Ron Shaw's comment above for some examples of the principal memes). Was this part of a sophisticated strategy overseen by Crosby-Textor? But then I don't think that Clark and her advisers have any claim on the high ground.

The election was a squalid affair, and presented a perfect breeding-pond for all kinds of baseness, including but not limited to chauvinism and misogyny.

Anonymous said...

"Did they like being dominated, or simply (and erroneously in this case) believe that NZ needed someone who could "make decisions"?"

No Pete, I am not talking about the Mussolini/Peron Facism, which was about the trains running on time, but the Fascism practised by a certain ex-corporal in Germany, and the like...the deliberate targeting of minority groups with the intent of laying blame on them for a nations misfortune, in Hitler's case it was the Jews, communists and the likes, in our case it is academics, gays, women and beneficaries. You dont belive me? You turn on talkback, you read the article comment threads on You look at what happened on cyfswatch last year. People need to start looking at what it is, and we are looking at what was exactly happening 75 years ago in Germany. Only we hold our noses and say "no we arent", even though we forget that in 1933, the NSDAP was voted in because people were sick of Jews and commies running the place, just like New Zealanders are sick of gays and women running this place

Anonymous said...

"People need to start looking at what it is, and we are looking at what was exactly happening 75 years ago in Germany."

"Exactly"? Surely if any caller to radio talkback in NZ were to express the sorts of sentiments about gays and women that were commonplace about Jews in Weimar Germany, there would be a flood of complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority?

This is not to say that I don't share your concerns about the smears and innuendo that have poisoned the blogosphere, and that anecdotally appear to have had a discernable effect on the election outcome. (In fact, there's just been a nice wee discussion about the left blogs' response on my own humble blog.)

But if we place too much blame for the election outcome on the illiberal and misogynist attitudes of NZers, we run the risk of missing many of the other reasons for the loss, and do many of those who voted National a disservice.

rouppe said...

"The introduction of Civil Unions for gay couples was construed by many heterosexual men (and women) as a grotesque parody of the traditional, religiously sanctified, marriage ceremony."

And herein lies the fundamental problem with the Civil Union Law. A Marriage is not religiously sanctified. A Wedding is. All during the debate no-one I talked to could get their head around that distinction.

I opposed it to whoever would listen. Not because I didn't think that same-sex couples shouldn't marry, but because it duplicated an existing law.

Marriage is the civil part. A Wedding (ceremony) is the religious/emotional part. At the end of a Wedding ceremony, the couple and their witnesses go up and sign the register. That 10 minutes is the act of Marriage.

You can have a marriage without a wedding ceremony by walking into a registry office and signing some paper. If your religious faith does not accept your same-sex-couple status, and refuses to hold a wedding ceremony in their place of worship, that is a problem between the religion and the person. There was no need for the state to get involved.

All that needed to happen was to amend the law to allow same-sex Marriages. Then same-sex couples could go down the the beach, hold their own (non religious) wedding ceremony and get married.

rouppe said...

"the deliberate targeting of minority groups with the intent of laying blame on them for a nations misfortune"

You mean white males earning over $75,000? Those "rich pricks" are the ones who have been blamed for everyone else's failures...

All those homophobic comments against Helen were simply rants from frustrated people that didn't have the wherewithal to express themselves any other way.

Anonymous said...

No Rouppe,
'simply rants from frustrated people' does not give the true depth of absolute hatred by many men and women, both religious and cultural hatred, against a woman leader.

Unbelievably, (I originally thought it was a tongue in cheek complaint by a taxi driver) it would seem that Helen Clark was actually blamed for an inability of men to win sports games internationally, because a woman leader made men weak. Only if men controlled women would they be strong on a sports field...

You would have to go back thousands of years to root out the deliberate seeding of the covert hatred and fear of rape that gave men control over women. They felt they were losing that control in 2002 when Clark defeated English.

The essentially savagery of humans is very close to the surface. When Clark refused to play the gender game of pretending to be inferior to men, she was seen as a danger to the societal framework of NZ's male hierarchy.

Bassett, a definite player in the war against Clark, has proceeded to blame women for the breakdown of NZ society since the mid 1900s when they decided they had a right to be treated as human adults and not as appendages. What he obviously refuses to accept is that women, generally, have never had the power to direct society anywhere, until Helen Clark came along. All the hatred manifested itself against her - hatred from women as well as men.

Obviously you have never listened to the talkbacks. The hosts jump right in with the callers agreeing with the nastiest comments against a woman PM.