Wednesday 2 March 2011

Oh, For A Well Mannered Left

IN A RECENT POSTING, Cactus Kate fulminates against the Left’s presumption that only they know how to care about their fellow human-beings. Her caustic polemic reminded me of the editorial I wrote for the Autumn 2003 issue of N.Z. Political Review.

"Oh, For A Well-Mannered Left" drew attention to the curious fact that "the Right treats humanity like cattle and individual human-beings like princes, while the Left loves humanity with a passion but treats individuals like shit."

The whole editorial is reproduced below.

WHY IS IT that I can get a friendlier discussion about New Zealand politics out of an ACT regional conference than I can out of practically any gathering of New Zealand lefties? Come to think of it, why was a gathering of right-wing ACT party members confident enough to invite an avowed social-democrat like Chris Trotter to address them, when a gathering of socialists and communists were unwilling to grant him speaking rights at a post-9/11 rally?

Why is the Left so bloody unpleasant?

In the end, I think it comes down to the stark differences between conservative and radical political cultures.

Conservatives operate on the not unreasonable assumption that, since they already control most of the things that really matter in our society, their paramount political responsibility is to hold on to what they’ve got.

Having firmly settled upon their guiding strategy, conservatives feel free to debate its tactical ramifications without rancour. What’s more, like any good general taking up a defensive position, they possess an insatiable appetite for reliable intelligence about their political enemies’ intentions. If they’re going to be attacked, they would like to know when, by whom, and with what.

All of which contributes to a conservative culture of civility and curiosity. Historical memories of aristocratic honour and noblesse oblige mingle with more recent bourgeois values inherited from the Enlightenment – like the spirit of scientific inquiry – to produce the personal generosity, social ease, and intellectual flexibility so characteristic of conservative politicians the world over.

Radical political culture is altogether different.

For a start, there are long-standing and very sharp disagreements among radical leftists about "the movement’s" ultimate objectives. You can be a radical socialist, a radical Maori nationalist, a radical feminist or a radical ecologist and, depending on which camp you belong to, identify Capitalism, Pakeha Privilege, Patriarchy and/or Industrial Civilisation as the primary target of your political assault.

Worse still, because the radical’s default-mode (and here we are talking about radicals of both the Left and the Right) is opposition to the status quo, radical movements evince a praxis which encourages not only intellectual aggression, but all-too-often verbal and physical violence as well. Add to this volatile mixture the radical’s confusion over objectives (and the interminable tactical squabbles that it generates) and you have the perfect recipe for a culture of competition and intransigence.

Such cultures are highly intolerant of dissent. Indeed, intellectual subtlety of any kind tends to be frowned upon as proof of insufficient "staunchness". As a consequence radicals display all the attributes of (if I may continue to employ a military metaphor) the classical attacking force: an insistence on unity and unquestioning obedience; the strong validation of personal sacrifice and loyalty to the group; and a preoccupation with ends as opposed to means. Small wonder that so many radicals employ the language of combat – campaigns, rallies, marches, attacks – to describe political behaviour.

There is a paradox here. Conservative political culture, whose raison d’être is the preservation of social inequality and economic exploitation (not to mention the institutional violence these things create and upon which ruling class power rests) tends to produce individuals of considerable personal charm and genuine liberality. While radical political culture, which sets its face against the violence and injustice of entrenched privilege, all too often produces individuals who are aggressive, intolerant and utterly indifferent to the suffering which their relentless quest for justice causes.

In short, the Right treats humanity like cattle and individual human-beings like princes, while the Left loves humanity with a passion but treats individuals like shit.

I can’t help thinking that the revolution would come a lot sooner if the Left set about achieving its own radical objectives with its conservative opponents’ infinitely better manners.

As Gilbert Shelton’s wonderful 1970s poster put it: "Remember kids, when you’re out there smashing the State, to keep a smile on your lips and a song in your heart."

EIGHT YEARS ON, little appears to have changed. Perhaps all of us, Left and Right, should ponder the truth of the following line of dialogue from an old Hollywood movie I saw many, many years ago – but which I've never forgotten:

"It’s a whole lot harder to love just one person than all humanity – but it’s not one bit less noble."


Anonymous said...

Both left and right have it wrong, both are just made up of fragile humans, imperfect and fallen. Man as always made a hash of the world, even now, in these more çivilised times.

Phil Sage said...

Chris - Media reports of Egypt and the free parts of Libya reveal a spontaneous courteous co-operation. Yet those people have nothing. I think you state left and right but mean the difference between classic liberal and autocratic.

Liberals and autocrats reside on both parts of the spectrum.

Having been constantly examining my own claims to liberalism I am now often paused to wonder why it is that Capital is free to organise in the form of limited stock companies but Labour, in the form of Unions, is not. Scott Walker in the US is a fine example right now. I support most of what he is trying to achieve but not that

I conclude that what we should be trying to achieve is stopping the abuse of power against the individual. On that basis I have no problem with locking up violent individuals who have constantly demonstrated their abusive tendencies.

Equally we should have no problem restraining corporates or state organisations attempting to abuse their power.

The reason for the individual courtesy is simply a respect for the individual based on sound intellectual principle.

I am afraid that I will never be able to resolve the socialist ideal resolving to an elite making decisions on behalf of the rest versus a market democracy that empowers infinite individual choices. I know which I prefer.

Anonymous said...

In NZ politics, too much power is placed in the power of too few, almost down to a team of two. Hardly a shining example of democracy.

Cactus Kate said...


The point is the left MADE it political. You know that I'm no Key fan as you know but he's been utterly AWESOME in the past week. The left has served up Phil Goff and a whole lot of talk about higher taxes and levies. Left = boring, more of the same.

I understood absolutely none of the above of what you posted. That is my postings are from the heart. You know I have one. I know you have one.

I'm not a conservative and nor am I a liberal. I don't believe in labels of such. While I am a right-wing commentator I seek not to generalise.

Willie Jackson has agreed to come to an ACT conference to speak. That must spin your wheels if you believe in labels. He will be politely welcomed I hope as a guest.

I am not seeking to silence you. Speak up. I seek not to label you other than a left-wing commentator. But I will always respond to nonsense that the right does not care.

XChequer said...

:-) @ Anonymous. Well said

Chris Trotter said...

Oh, come ON, Cactus. You make your living by reading and writing complex legal documents - don't tell me you "understood absolutely none of the above"!

Anonymous said...

The problem with radicals (of left or right) is that it never occurs to them that their understanding of the world might be incomplete, or simply wrong. In that sense radicals are like over-confident teenagers or undergraduates - or religious fundamentalists. That is why radical politics is so tiresome and often nasty.

Chris Trotter said...

And one more thing, while I'm at it, Cactus.

Act's invitation to Willie Jackson to address its annual conference merely confirms what I was saying 8 years ago: that the Right has a more inclusive approach to political debate.

The idea that Labour would invite, say, Muriel Newman to address its annual conference is, quite simply, outlandish. It would never happen.

This is why I'm so disappointed in your own and David Farrar's response to the Left's blogging on the Christchurch Earthquake.

It's out of character for the Right. Indeed, it reminds me much more of the censorious approach to political speech taken by so many radical leftists.

Ironic really.

Anonymous said...

Chris, Bomber Bradbury and his @499 fellow "new left" travellers are rude, crude buffoons, but you don't get out and about enough if you think they are representative of the broad liberal-left church that vote for Labour.
Both the National Front and the "Workers Party" are idiots, and they have similar levels of support. Lenny.

Anonymous said...

You don't think ACT are radical?

XChequer said...

I agree, Chris. Have written a piece that refers to your post here:

Anonymous said...

I'm still amazed at this piece. Were the conservative right really known for their "intellectual flexibility"? What about the New Right's 'there is no alternative', and abuse of power while occupying the Executive. Did they really tolerate dissent; or did they pressure the media to prevent any alternative views being voiced? The result is that there is no new generation of commentators that are left-leaning in the mainstream media (do we count Bomber?).

This editorial may also indicate the time when Chris was writing for the business press, and perhaps preferred their company? Certainly, in his book he pays a lot of attention to the writing of Michael Bassett, but not much to the new history being written by thesis students, who are usually left-leaning.

Last point: would the fractious nature of the left being helped or hindered by the new left party; Chris seems sure that it hindered New Labour, but it actually led to a consolidation of Anderton with his inner circle.

Anonymous said...

And you wonder why you don't get invited places.

It's this kind of crap that makes you the Right's favourite 'leftie', Chris.

Your replacement, Bryce Edwards, is the same. Always too busy sticking the knife in your allies' backs.

And so god-damned self-centred. One perceived sleight and you're chucking grenades in your own trench.

Chris Trotter said...

To: The Sentinel and Anonymous @ 2:00pm

I believe there is an important distinction to be drawn between conservatives and neoliberals.

The latter are, almost by definition, radicals - with an agenda to uproot practically every progressive reform undertaken since the late 19th Century.

This is why their more rabid spokespeople are so akin to leftists of the most extreme kind. More than one commentator has referred to the militant neoliberal fraternity as "right-wing Leninists".

Back in 2003 (before the arrival of David Garrett and the SST, when Act, under Catherine Judd, was at the height of its "liberal project" phase) a very large proportion of the party's membership was still made up of ex-Labour people (of the Trevor de Cleene/Backbone Club variety) who conformed quit closely to my courtly conservative profile.

If you want an example, from our own history, of "intellectual flexibility" on the Right I can point to Keith Holyoake, Tom Shand, Raplh Hanan, Brian Talboys and, of course, Rob Muldoon.

It's easy to forget, after 25 years of government by extremist ideological commissars (among whom I include Helen Clark and Michael Cullen, although, obviously, they were of a less offensive breed than Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson) what a generally benign conservative regime looks and feels like.

I freely concede that "No Left Turn" makes use of Dr Michael Bassett's fascinating account of the Lange Government's adoption of the NZLP's radical anti-nuclear policy. I'm not sure he's overly pleased about that, however, since I use his research to celebrate the outcome of the process rather than to - as he does - condemn it.

And yes, I plead guilty to earning my living by working for the capitalist press - as all journalists and commentators do. We are far from unique in this respect, however, since upwards of 75 percent of the NZ workforce is employed by capitalists (and even the management of the State's big institutions is now modelled on that of large capitalist enterprises).

I must also plead guilty to being an egotistical bastard - and a bloody cantankerous one at that.

Toss a grenade in my direction, Comrade, and I'm almost certain to toss one back.

Tiger Mountain said...

Decent people behave decently and where does it get them? The NZCTU postponed nationwide rallies on April 1 in deference to the awful quake. Meantime the odious “fire at will” and other anti worker laws pushed through under urgency will come into legal being. Unionists report some employers have implemented the new measures for several months prior. Kind of rude to jump the gun?

The vast majority of kiwis grieve for, donate, assist and display solidarity for those in Christchurch while landlords, tories and various other captialists charge on regardless. Good manners are required? Certainly, but I would suggest not this time from left ‘battlers’.

Bowalley, or rather the newspaper columns that it is primarily populated by, like a missed bus should not give rise to huge offence, another one will be along soon enough.

Anonymous said...

"The problem with radicals (of left or right) is that it never occurs to them that their understanding of the world might be incomplete, or simply wrong. In that sense radicals are like over-confident teenagers or undergraduates - or religious fundamentalists."

This so accurately describe Bradbury and co. I tend to blame it, as you have previously written, on the infiltration of the old left by over-educated university graduates armed with the theory but no practical experience of the working class who felt they had to take up the mantle but corrupted socialism with indigenous and minority rights issues.

His blog is a reflection of this and is nothing but an angry rant devoid of analysis. Bomber even had to close his comments section
after people started posting torture and death threats on it which, while extreme were simply a reaction to his personality.

Anonymous said...

Rodney did a great speech today. Do you really think that Act don't care, Mr Trotter? Of course they do, and they say what they think and think what they mean.

I for one am sick of the crims ruling our society, and the bludgers pilfering the taxpayer and yes, the brightly rich. Key was intelligent enough to make himself a multi-millionaire, but the left punish him for that. Why? Cause he's got brains? Maybe you're all jealous. We all have the same chances in life, Lange came from a hard-life background, as did Key.

It's up to us all to make our own luck, and we are lucky that the state also gives more than just a helping hand, if and when needed. Crying poor does reek of defeatism. Just ask the myriad of World War soldiers, they were never 'poor me''s. Where has the Kiwi gumption/know how/spirit gone to?

Go Act, hope they make Parliament in the next election, with a shining, able team.

Anonymous said...

Bomber is a radical of the blogosphere, with a tunneled, narrow vision. He hates religion it seems, except for his own. So he closes his comments, sad, they're only words.

Anonymous said...

This is the best piece of writing I have ever read of yours Mr Trotter. Your measure of the current challenges is both balanced and compassionate.


Anonymous said...

Cactus Kate civil and curious?

Surely you jest, Chris...

In my experience, all sides of politics are dominated by people of dubious virtue. After all, to get anywhere in it requires a degree of determination that very often expresses itself as bad character.

As Plato pointed out, the fact that a person wants to occupy a position of political power in society is the best indication that he should be prevented at all costs from doing so. 2500 years later, and he's still right.

SPC said...

A veneer of civilised behaviour is part of the order of rule. Those who see themselves as comfortably part of this order of rule will play the game as gentle"men" however callous their policies are, or cynical their means - using women to front welfare reform.

Thus those who take offense and offer resistance are the unruly lacking respect for the ruling order. As if this is a sign of the lack of virtue of those who take the side of the underclass against their betters.

Of course such did not apply to the SA and
falangists, nor does it to American talk back radio, the moral majority/christian coalition/ tea party or the kiwiblog brigades.

PS As for reasons why the right invites a left wing representative to their party gatherings ...

1. they expect the guest to behave while there - show them due respect and thus learn to moderate their protest/dissent and become conditioned to being accountable to their will.

2. if Douglas, Prebble and Basset can become one of them so can others

3. it gives credibility to their conceit that
trickle down works to help the poor and thus they can have relationships to the advocates of the poor - by their largesse.

4. it prevents their guest from using more time to interface with voters - their inclusiveness
does not extend to giving the left an even break in financing election campaigns.

5. if their guest knows them as people, maybe he won't oppose them in public so much - the personal charm of their wealth works on their women after all ...

6. it will make their guest mistrusted by other left wingers and so they turn on each other

7. they find out how low the fees are for left wing speakers and spend the saving on better wine and a post event gathering at the White House.

8. it helps to demonstrate that their belief in their values is not just a case of their self-interest.

9. they're really after reciprocity, not having heard a good speech at a Labour conference since the ACT party was formed.

10. they only invite people who already have a public profile in the local media, someone who could use that to oppose them, someone to be held close and made more docile.

Victor said...

An excellent post, Chris

However, the point about a civil and civilised society, is that we should treat with civility and decency, people whom we do not necessarily love.

Nationalists love their 'Volk', some (but not all leftists) just their real or assumed class. In a primeval village community, you sort of love/hate everyone you know.

But, in a modern, complex society (a Gesselschaft not a Gemeinschaft) you can't love everyone you come across. You are in a society of strangers and you need a code for dealing with them.

Tolerance, compassion and politeness don't require love. They require merely a commitment to the public good and respect for the humanity of others and (where they exist) for traditions of civility.

Without these qualities, you are on the path to the Gulag....or to Auschwitz... or to a Somali-style failed state in which Hobbes would have recognised the 'State of Nature'.... or, at the very least, to the kind of rancorous political culture that is rapidly making the United States ungovernable.

Written in apologies for any lack of clarity.

MPledger said...

The right are groupists - you have to be in the in-group. Everyone in the in-group is nice to each other because they don't want to be tossed out. They are nice to people outside the group (when they meet them on an infrequent basis) because they know those people will never get into their group so they don't have to accomodate their views or differences.

The left accomodate anyone who wants to be in but that just means there are many, many viewpoints and that means working hard (i.e. being noisy) if you want to get your particular view point heard.

It's the difference between being at the table of a King or being at the table of a large extended family.

(Actually, I think this is close to what SPC said but he/she said it better.)

Anonymous said...

"The left accomodate anyone who wants to be in but that just means there are many, many viewpoints and that means working hard (i.e. being noisy) if you want to get your particular view point heard."

You've never heard the vitriol between Trotskyist and Marxists then if you believe this. It goes beyond 'wanting to be heard'.

It isn't a matter of being left or right but of being craven followers of doctrine or not.

"The right are groupists - you have to be in the in-group."

I laughed then I laughed some more at this. The right stands for individual rights while the left stands for group aka class rights. Do you have any idea of political philosophy at all?

It may describe teenage girls but not political differences.

Morgan said...


"The right stands for individual rights while the left stands for group aka class rights."

Are you so naive as to believe that the right does not perpetuate a class society, or that its very purpose is to retain control of a very stratified society?

Looking closely at the behaviour in the news of late towards beneficiaries - vilifying them, planning to reduce benefits - and the reluctance of the Government to place responsibility for funding the repair of Christchurch on those who can afford to pay it most - aka National's rich friends - you can see which group you should be in if you want to get decent treatment from the right.

In reality, the behaviour of teenage girls isn't really all that different from that of our political leaders.

vibenna said...

Actually, I think the terms 'left' and 'right' are of decreasing relevance in our political discourse. Modern democracy has squeezed everyone towards the centre.

The right has won argument on the need for incentives and markets to create wealth and efficiently allocate resources. The left has won the argument on the need for social justice to enable individual freedom. Both are now completely mainstream ideas. It's only old soldiers, young fogeys and the lunatic fringe who think otherwise.

IMHO The critical ideological battles of the 21st Century will be between individual liberty and statism, and between justice and corruption. Left and right are both split on these issues.

Deborah said...

I think you have conflated 'the broad left' and 'the radical left' in your post, Chris. I think you make some valid points about the radical left, but casually applying that criticism to the entire left is not valid. To make your thesis work, you need to show that the entire left is badly behaved, rude, and boorish.

Anonymous said...

"Are you so naive as to believe that the right does not perpetuate a class society, or that its very purpose is to retain control of a very stratified society?"

Are you so naive as to believe that in socialist countries such as Cuba and the former Soviet there exist a class structure with the very same objectives?

It's so very easy for trite phrases like this to roll of the tongue to be disproved by simple empirical observation.

"you can see which group you should be in if you want to get decent treatment from the right."

BTW National may have cut benefits in the 1990s but labour did nothing to restore them to previous levels when they attained power. So decent treatment you say?

telecommando said...

Great Debate

As I get older (and maybe wiser!) I'm struck by my increasing conservatism and nostalgia for the past.
The problem with all radical and revolutionary ideologies is that they seek a nirvana that doesnt and never will exist because people just want to get on with their lives!

The starting point is irrelevant (socialism, nationalism or any religious or political dogma) the truth is they can never sustain the initial burst of energy or enthusiasm just look at Libya where Quaddafi is a sad characature of himself or the hermit kingdom of North Korea where we have dynastic succession in a supposedly communist state.

This is where you have to admire the genius of the Chinese Communist Party they saw the folly of Mao and delivered stability and prosperity, that is why they probably have many years left in them!

The other great survivor is the Catholic Church, who despite many challenges deliver stability and gradual change much to the frustration of several millenias worth of opponents and replacements.

And that is because they fused the radical notion of Christianity with the stability of the Roman Empires bureaucracy!

I remember Peter Tapsell saying when he left Parliament that their is only 2 kinds of politics

The politics of those who want to preserve what they have (classically conservative but includes most union based labour parties now)


The politics of those who want what the other guy has!

And over time positions move, we can see that with Maori politics as they move to becoming our major landed class! (watch Ngai Tahu become very important in post quake Chch) and an increasingly nationalistic source of capital

And this is where the Greens will founder because they can't keep all their strands together

Anonymous said...

Chris - It's easy to be polite when you have cake to eat!

Mad Marxist.

cbmilne33 said...

I do think that one factor may be that the left wing in New Zealand has not been regularly into standing for Council and Parliament which would have institutionalised internal unity and cohesion through exposure to combatting in the electorates against the common enemy rather than the stupid factionalist games they play.