Friday 26 June 2009

Minority Opinion

"They've got the guns, but we've got the numbers", or so sang 60s icon Jim Morrison of The Doors. But, for the first time since the progressive majority of the Baby Boom Generation became old enough to influence social and political trends, "the numbers" now lie with conservative social movements like the anti-anti-smackers, Family First .

FINALLY, the die-hards have got the numbers. For years now, on the issues that divide New Zealanders into progressives and conservatives, the progressives have been in the ascendant.

Whether it be issues as old as the death penalty and a woman’s right to choose, or as relatively recent as New Zealand’s nuclear-free status, genetic engineering, or the Iraq War, a solid majority of New Zealanders have held up their hands for compassion, justice, peace and rationality.

This progressive ascendancy has lasted a long time. From the late-1980s until about 2005 – nearly twenty years.

Historically, it coincided with the rise of the NewLabour, Green, and Alliance parties, and the election of the Helen Clark-led Labour Government – all of them elevated by the public’s deep mistrust of the New Right revolution of 1984-96.

Progressive dominance was also reinforced by the advent of proportional representation. Instead of a hide-bound club, comprised overwhelmingly of white, middle-aged men, MMP forced the House of Representatives to live up to its name. Nandor Tanczos’s dreadlocks, hemp suit and skateboard were only the most colourful proof that the times were a-changing.

Underlying all of this, however, was the relentless demographic pressure of the Baby-Boom Generation (1946-66).

The first of the Boomers were in their late-30s when Rob Muldoon’s conservative government finally fell in July 1984. Over the next 20 years, they and their younger brothers and sisters would steadily occupy all of the strategic decision-making points of New Zealand society – and progressively transform it.

From the moment they entered primary school in the 1950s, the Boomers had been absorbing New Zealand’s nominally progressive "official" ideology. And, as they entered high-school and university in the 1960s and 70s, these youngsters were naturally impatient to test its authenticity.

There was genuine reason for doubt.

Apart from a handful of progressive enclaves in the universities, civil service, arts and trade unions, the New Zealand of the 1960s and 70s was a profoundly conservative society. There were overwhelming popular majorities in favour of restoring the death penalty, keeping abortion and homosexuality illegal, maintaining sporting contacts with South Africa, and preserving the ANZUS alliance with Australia and the United States.

When it came to challenging the "official" values of their parent’s generation, the Baby-Boomers (as in so many other aspects of their lives) were spoiled for choice.

New Zealand had signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – but was willing to play Rugby with representatives of Apartheid. We had endorsed the UN Charter – but backed the United States’ rape of Vietnam. We solemnly affirmed that in our democratic society all citizens were equal – but we paid women less for doing the same work as men, and refused to protect te reo Maori, their lands and other treasures.

The Boomers’ great mission became matching their nation’s deeds with its words. And, to a truly remarkable degree, they were successful.

Or, perhaps it’s more truthful to say that the Baby Boomers who genuinely believed in the progressive ideals they’d been encouraged to actualise were remarkably successful. Because not all of the generation born between 1946 and 1966 ended up falling under the progressive spell.

For conservative Baby Boomers, these past 20 years have been a torment. While New Zealand’s officially progressive ideals remained little more than window-dressing, behind which the majority’s die-hard conservatism continued to hold sway, all was well. But when the official credo found official backing, and theory became practice, things turned decidedly sour.

Railing against the "political correctness" of the Boomer generation’s progressive majority, its conservative minority could only wait for the same demographic forces which had unseated their parents’ regime to come to their rescue.

And come they did, in the form of Generations X and Y. Innocent of the old conservatism’s crimes, but only-too-aware of their Boomer parents’ glaring hypocrisies (who was it who took everything the Welfare State had to offer, and then decided it was all too expensive for their children to enjoy?) the New Zealanders born after 1967 proved easy prey for the "political correctness" calumnies of the conservative Boomers.

And so the period of progressive ascendancy has ended, and the conservative Baby Boomers – backed by their privileged generation’s alienated offspring – are eagerly anticipating an historic victory for the anti-anti-smacking referendum.

Which leaves the progressives exactly where they’ve always done their best work: carrying the flickering flames of our vulnerable virtues into the cankered heart of the conservative darkness.

A version of this essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 26 June 2009.


smackmybitchup said...

bang on the money christopher.
amazed i was at the amount of my friends who voted national having been mind-rinsed by mass messages of nanny state, telling parents what to do, only use these lightbulbs - the 'idea' of a state that is too intrusive.
but we needed it.

Anonymous said...

why do we need it? Can we not make our own decisions, especially in raising our kids. Parents should have this freedom, and citizens have every right to their own referenda. Nanny state has not gone away, it's just a different colour.