Wednesday 30 June 2010

Russel's Tussle

An Entirely Predictable Confrontation: The news media's insatiable appetite for conflict is redefining the meaning of both protest and free speech. The alleged "right to offend" one's fellow citizens (and their guests) threatens to obscure the original justification for free speech: i.e. the benefits that accrue to the whole of society when citizens are able to challenge state-defined "reality" without losing their lives, liberty or property.

RUSSEL’S TUSSLE with Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping’s security detail raises some very interesting questions about the meaning of protest. It also shows how the news media’s insatiable appetite for conflict is fundamentally re-defining the nature of protest action.

Before going any further, however, we’ll need a working definition of both the noun and the verb. What is "a protest"? And, what does it mean "to protest"?

Put simply, protest is about registering your objection to and/or expressing your disapproval of someone or something. A protest can be individual, or it can be collective, but essentially the protester is saying: "I don’t like this."

Protest can take a wide variety of forms. From the formal, carefully argued diplomatic protest delivered by an ambassador, to the angry torching of a foreign embassy by a frenzied crowd.

The news media, however, is redefining protest. Rather than use the term in relation to objection and disapproval, it prefers to present protest in terms of provocation, confrontation and agitation.

From being a statement or demonstration of disagreement, protest is now regarded as something very close to an act of aggression.

This dangerous new definition of protest encourages the notion that any individual or group which sets up a confrontation between themselves and their opponents is guilty of nothing more than exercising their "freedom of speech". Even when it is clear that the confrontation has been carefully engineered to provoke its targets into doing something they will later regret, the protagonists insouciantly argue that this, too, is the protesters’ "right".

But the conflation of the right to free speech with confrontational and provocative political behaviour allows those responsible for what would normally be regarded as profoundly unethical acts (such as burning down an embassy) to escape all moral sanction. Basically, if you’re "making a protest" – you can do whatever the hell you like.

This position is morally indefensible. It is simply untenable to argue that political acts can be conveniently separated from their consequences. With rights come responsibilities: the right to free speech doesn’t include the freedom to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre.

Protest always occurs within a political context: a unique set of circumstances that the ethical protester is obliged to consider when deciding upon the nature of the protest he or she wishes to make.

What were the major elements of the political context in which Dr Russel Norman’s tussle took place?

Most obvious were the deepening economic and cultural ties between New Zealand and the Peoples Republic of China. That Mr Xi, one of the most powerful men on the planet was here, on New Zealand soil, is a sign of how large this nation now looms in China’s diplomatic calculations. The very real benefits for New Zealand’s economic welfare already flowing from this relationship are considerable.

Against these benefits Dr Norman entered the claims of the "Free Tibet" movement. Highly contentious, politically dubious, and hotly disputed by Chinese historians, these claims counted for more – in the minds of the Greens’ leadership – than increasing the good-will already fostered between the New Zealand and Chinese peoples by successive governments.

Well, that was their choice to make – as was the manner in which they drew attention to those claims. Dr Norman, as a parliamentarian, could have made a speech in the House of Representatives. He could have written an article protesting the treatment of Tibetan dissidents for the op-ed pages of the daily newspapers. He could even have done what his predecessor, Rod Donald, did and stand at a respectful distance from his country’s guests, holding aloft the Tibetan flag in a silent and dignified gesture of disapproval and solidarity.

But that is not what Dr Norman chose to do. Instead, he enthusiastically bought into the news media’s definition of protest and took up a position which any sensible person could have predicted would provoke a strong reaction from the Chinese Vice-president’s security guards and which would, almost certainly, lead to a physical confrontation.

Dr Norman has justified his actions in terms of defending democracy against totalitarianism.

I don’t buy it.

All I saw were the actions of an ambitious politician, whose shrewd judgement that confrontation wins more screen time than reasoned dialogue persuaded him to provoke the Chinese into giving him the wall-to-wall coverage he was seeking.

Russel’s tussle wasn't a protest, it was a media event.

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, 25 June 2010.


Anonymous said...

I think the deal with China is that they will give us a panda bear, and in return we give them our beautiful, productive and underpopulated land. No thanks. I don't want China as our new "best friend" and their interest in us makes me very uncomfortable. Our politicians are third world in quality sadly, and for China getting what they want from our clueless leaders will be like taking candy from a baby.

Russel Norman is rightly concerned about the future sovereignty of New Zealand in the face of China's interest in our natural resources. If he needs to take provocative action to make a point about China and get people's attention then so be it.

Anonymous said...

This was a real cringe moment for NZ, Key must have been mortified. Could you imagine Jeanette Fitzsimons carrying on in such a school-yard, petulent manner, childish manner?Keep it up, Russell, and the Greens will become a true has-been, if they're not already. Shame, and a shame that MMP allows the unelected and unpopular to prevail in Parliament, still.

Lew said...

In a mediated world, all protests are media events. A successful protest must be a media event (which is not to say that all media events are necessarily protests). I think Russel's action was both: a protest which became a media event, and undertaken at least partly in the hope that it would become a media event.

There's nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. It's fair enough to criticise Russel for his actions and judgement -- whether the benefits of his course of action outweigh the costs is rather dubious -- but it's a bit aimless to criticise him for simply taking advantage of how our media culture works.


Joanne said...

Et tu CHris, have you become just another apologist for the undemocratic government that rues us at this time. Russel Norman undertook a perfectly legal and reasonable protest action that our chinese overlords didn't like. Well I did and if Key and you think it was wrong, sorry you are wrong. the day we have to not protest for fear of offending someone, powerful or not, is the day democracy has truly died in this country

Victor said...

The only cringe involved in this incident was Key's abject apology to the emerging masters of our economy and the expected sycophantic rush of the media and establishment to condemn Russell Norman.

Meanwhile, the only valid criticism that you could make of Norman in this context is that he lacks personal gravitas and hence looks a bit ridiculous when grandstanding.

But lack of gravitas is no reason to refrain from protest, where protest is warranted. We can't all possess the charisma of Martin Luther King Jnr.

Lew is, of course, right that all effective protest in a media dominated age is a media event.

Moreover, China's power grows daily, as does its penchant for leaning on democratic countries to water down their democracy where this conflicts with China's perceived interests and dignity.

In this context, it was a public-spirited act for Norman to protest as firmly as our legal system allows. Liberties that are not exercised have a tendency to wither away, particularly when the emerging hegemon finds them culturally offensive.

As to the contentious nature of calls for Tibet's Independence, most of the pro-China arguments are based on nothing more than the historical record.

By the same logic, you could argue that the United States should revert to Britain, Argentina to Spain and Algeria to France.

But you could equally argue that Britain should revert in its entirety to the Welsh, Spain to Morocco and France to England.

After World War One, the absurd games that nationalists play with History was replaced with the objective test of democratic self-determination.

Yes, the test was imperfectly applied and the triumph of this principle frustrated for a long time by the continuance of European colonialism, by the rise of Fascism and by the power politics of the Cold War era.

But no reputable or responsible person or organisation would today argue that nations should have their independence or boundaries determined on any basis other than self-determination.

Chris, I thought this was one of your arguments against enshrining Rangatiratanga as one of the governing principles of New Zealand. Am I wrong?

Anonymous said...

Interesting how media coverage (4 or 5 Media corporations now provide 90 something percent of all media to the entire world including NZ by the way) is equated/justified as the successful protest of 'democracy' in some way or another for some.

Increasing murders, crimes, & other reflections of NZ having one of the worst as well as accelerating widespread gulfs in life quality of the developed world, personal scandals & celebrity culture (including the public having to suffer a kind of daily & petty culture of celebrity politics), are all indicative of the life blood of this 'type' of democracy in practice, and on that front, this 'protest' does indeed fit right in. But 90-95% or more of the public are bystanders to notions & benefits for such claims of 'this' democracy and always will be outside of it.

As to the functionable practicality of this type of local 'democratic' gamesmanship being extended into visiting representatives of other nations not being able to feel secure leaving their vehicles on a semi regular basis - the real world would quickly deliver no visits.

As it does to populations longer & longer working hours, increasing Debt and obligatory elections about tax cuts or hikes (being inevitably about less public commonwealth), personalities & how best to sell varying degrees of extra bad news involved within the next round of whatever the 'best' successful democratic protest is…. to the previous real world pattern continuations of the 'best' last ones.

Tiger Mountain said...

Really, expecting change in Tibet after this interval, has as much chance of succeeding as the lonesome Trotskyites wish for a new international.

This does not negate any of the pro democratic principles involved in Russell’s one man ‘tussle’, or the symbolism generally involved in passive protests.

The immediate future surely lies in the struggles of the Chinese working class. I maintain that when Chinese workers organise in independent unions then world captialism’s days are truly numbered as the corporations will have few significant options to run (outsource) to.

Anonymous said...

What do the Green party have to say about Tibet apart from their abstract isolated media stunt hollers about "freedom"?

Do they call for its complete political independence from China and if so, on what basis?

If they really think this is a central international question, why arn't they
running a systematic campaign on the matter?

When will we see Norman demanding freedom for the people of Afghanistan at a close counter public with a US official ?

Victor said...


I'm not a Green but I'm getting a bit tired of this constant bleat about them never protesting vociferously about the US and its adventures. It's patently untrue and absurd.

I'm also getting a bit tired of the constant bleat that the US would have pulverised anyone who came near one of its visiting grandees.

You might recall that, some 12 years ago, at the precise time when the Shipley crowd were busy keeping NZ protesters out of the sensitive eyesight of the then Chinese leader, Bill Clinton was dining in a (admittedly rather expensive)Queenstown restaurant and wandering from table to table having casual chats with other customers.

I've spent a lot of my now rather long life being opposed to one or other aspect of US policy, both foreign and domestic. But if you think the Yanks are the only tough guys on the block, you need to wake up and smell the coffee.

They are an empire in decline and there is no reason to think that their successor empire will be any better.

What is it about these post-Mao Market Leninists that makes so many Westerners want to tuck them under their arms and caress them?

Tiger Mountain

"The immediate future surely lies in the struggles of the Chinese working class. I maintain that when Chinese workers organise in independent unions then world captialism’s days are truly numbered as the corporations will have few significant options to run (outsource) to "

I very much agree with your first sentence. There is an interesting piece by Seamus Milne on this subject on the Guardian's website today.

But I think world capitalism might survive the erosion of China's status as a source of cheap labour. There are, unfortunately, enough other cheap labour sources on the planet.

Victor said...


The basis of calls for Tibetan independence is democratic self-determination. What don't you understand about that?

Of course, it's not going to happen and even the Dalai Lama is only talking about 'autonomy'.

Moreover, any (highly unlikely) moves to apply democratic principles to Tibet's status would need to take into account the rights of Han Chinese settlers, who might soon be a majority, if they are not so already.

But, from a point of view of principle, what other standard other than self-determination would you suggest?

And if Tibetans aren't good enough to be granted self-determination, what other peoples would you suggest should be similarly deprived?

Anonymous said...

"Russels Tussle"?
Very good, but may I suggest "Russell tugs his muscle" is more apt..

Anonymous said...

Well yes McCully, we wouldn't want to "give offence" to a foreign dictator whose oppressive and violent thugs have been "giving offence" to Tibetans, Uighurs, and many others for over fifty years!

Good job that Norman actually had the gumption to wave the Tibetan flag at Xi when all our other cowed "representatives" sat timidly in the aisles as Xi came in to give Key his orders.

But another news report about Xi travelling on to Australia shows what this tour was REALLY all about. The Ozzie regime is planning a "super-tax" on the exorbitant mining profits. Since the Chinese buy all that iron from the West Ozzie mines, they are highly against such a move, as it will cost them. So what's the bet that now Xi has "spoken firmly" with the Oz prime monster, the "super-tax" idea will be dropped?

"We have to forget the super-tax, as we do not want to give offence to our Chinese associates!"