Friday 15 August 2014

Burning Issues

Sympathetic Magic: John Key is burned in effigy by angry youths at a birthday party. What leads our fellow citizens to the extreme of publicly destroying the image of their political leader. What is fuelling such incandescent anger? Who is responsible for the social and political desperation it represents?
BURNING THE PRIME MINISTER in effigy is evidence of some pretty serious political disaffection. The only other instance I can recall is the burning in effigy of Jenny Shipley and Ruth Richardson during the mass demonstrations against the Employment Contracts Bill and Mrs Shipley’s proposed social welfare cutbacks in April 1991. The image of the two stuffed dummies consumed in flames, while the delirious crowd chants “Burn, Shipley, burn!”, is one of the most powerful to emerge from that bitter time.
The practice itself is a primal expression of what anthropologists call “sympathetic magic”. The act of setting fire to a likeness of your enemy is driven by the same powerfully negative emotions as sticking pins in a voodoo doll. Unlike the private, even secretive, persecution of the voodoo doll, however, burning in effigy is almost always a collective and cathartic act, and the effigy itself almost always of a well-known – if not well-liked – public figure.
The act is undoubtedly more shocking to us now than it would have been to our parents and grandparents. Seventy or eighty years ago in the English-speaking dominions of the British Empire the very public burning in effigy of the hapless Guy Fawkes was an annual ritual in which whole communities participated. Behind the bonfires and fireworks, however, flitted the shadowy folk memory of a time when real men and women were burned alive in the public square. Those who cared to ponder the origins of such “harmless” folk traditions were reminded that believing in the wrong things at the wrong time was once a very dangerous practice indeed.
The Prime Minister’s supporters have naturally recoiled in anger and disgust at the image of their leader being put to the torch. His opponents, however, would be lying if they did not admit to feeling just the hint of a thrill as the flames climbed higher. Such is the power of fire. It speaks directly to the savage that lies within every one of us.
And it is precisely this appeal to our inner savage that makes burning in effigy such a profoundly undemocratic gesture. Because if democracy means anything, it means suppressing the savage within and submitting the issues that divide us as individual citizens to the judgement of the electorate as a whole. Even more importantly, it means accepting that collective judgement – even when it goes against our individual contribution to its formation.
Such high-minded pronouncements are no substitute, however, for a closer examination of what leads some of our fellow citizens to the extreme of publicly destroying the image of their political leader. What is fuelling such incandescent anger? Who is responsible for the social and political desperation it represents?
Because that is what it is: the burning of John Key’s effigy is, indisputably, an act of deep-seated anger and desperation. Proof that a whole layer of our population not only feels excluded from the “rock star economy”, but despairs of ever finding a political champion willing to obtain for them a back-stage pass.
But, perhaps, the use of the present tense in this context is misplaced. Perhaps what we should say is “despaired”. Because, in the course of the past few weeks, these reckless haters of John Key and his National Party government show every sign of having found themselves a champion; one of the most unlikely to ever bestride New Zealand’s political stage; Kim Dotcom.
Here is someone who shares the rage of New Zealand’s despised Underclass. And for much the same reasons. He, too, has felt the unwanted attentions of the Police. He, too, has been lashed by the whips of the mainstream media. He, too, has been branded a threat to public safety and decency.
Most importantly, however, Kim Dotcom and the Underclass blame the same man: John Key. And when it comes to voicing their political priorities, he and they both use the same three word slogan.
It is a powerful rallying cry for the young and the disaffected – incendiary even. But one wonders whether the young and idealistic activists on the Internet Party payroll would find much to talk about with those who deride John Key as a “faggot”, or, worse still, a “Jewish faggot”?
Especially considering that this time-worn term of abuse is derived from the tradition of consigning homosexuals (and Jews) to the flames.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 August 2014.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

People condemn Key as a faggot or a Jewish faggot? That's reasonably weird. I'm in two minds as whether to ask for a link. I'd sort of like to know who does it, but I'm not sure I want to visit that sort of website :-). Anyway, let's hope all those who burned John key in effigy get out to bloody well vote.

David said...

The thing is, John Key has been incredibly contemptuous, dismissive and insulting about the peaceful protests that have taken place against his policies. He's taken advantage of New Zealanders' tendency to eschew violent protest for the past six years.

Charles Etherington said...

In the thirties another German from a small disaffected minority managed to bring out the monstrous beast in one of the most civilised and indeed liberal societies.
He too encouraged burning, including in his case, books. This is even worse than an effigy of your enemy in my view.

However not to get carried away, the mainly ignorant pissed and pissed off youth who burn cardboard Keys here are not proto-fascists, yet. Not likely to be. Some are just spoilt students.

Even as a Tory, I would be more concerned if large numbers of right-wing youth did it of a Labour leader. But nasty right wing youth hardly exist here which is instructive. Shows our society is pretty healthy.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"But nasty right wing youth hardly exist here"

Ha! Where on earth do you live – cloud cuckoo land?

Brick said...

Chris - I have always visited your site to gain a more reasonable, if sometimes constricted, view of left side thinking. I do not know if the approaching election is driving you to desperation, or if cogs are starting to slip, but your recent postings leave me no option except to depart. Might try again in October when sanity has returned. Regards

Geoff said...

What Brick @ 11.30 said !

vortexx said...

'The Prime Minister’s supporters have naturally recoiled in anger and disgust at the image of their leader being put to the torch."

While for some years the Prime Minister, Steven Joyce, Judith Collins et al have been putting the torch to our democratic style. And Cameron Slater's putrid, fetid contribution has not caused their supporters anger and disgust but acclamation.

How dare those without money try to have a say in how their world should be run. How dare they, when they have no other way to strike back, they burn an effigy of John Key. The only disdain yet to be voiced is complaints about benefit money being spent on the effigy. Hark, is that Paula stirring?