Keep Your Eyes On The Prize: Mr Armstrong counsels the Greens to make the same Devil’s Bargain that he has been forced to accept. Right and wrong, good and evil, in the revised edition of the Armstrong political gospel, haven’t the slightest purchase in contemporary governance.
WHAT AN EXTRAORDINARY COLUMN from John Armstrong! There have been many this year, but his latest (10/9/14) stands out because of the amoral cynicism underpinning the writer’s political analysis.
“The Greens face an old dilemma”, opines the NZ Herald’s Chief Political Commentator, “remain pure but powerless. Or go centrist and compromise and get things done.”
A dilemma? Only if you believe that remaining true to your ideals is in any sense disempowering.
But there is absolutely no historical warrant for the suggestion that strongly held beliefs lack power. In fact, history testifies to precisely the opposite conclusion.
“Here I stand!” Martin Luther told the Holy Roman Emperor, “I can do no other.” How different the history of Protestantism would have been if he had not. “Keep your eyes on the prize – hold on!”, sang the civil rights protesters in the face of the most appalling racial violence. How different the history of the United States would have been if they had decided to “go centrist and compromise and get things done.”
Why didn’t Armstrong remind his readers that although political movements like the Greens often have to wait many years to see their ideals accepted and their policies implemented, principled patience is almost always rewarded? He is, after all, a member of the generation that struggled to end New Zealand’s contacts with South Africa; withdraw its troops from Vietnam; end nuclear testing in the Pacific; and decriminalise homosexuality. With those (successful) examples before him, why did he feel the need to construct this false “remain pure”/ “get things done” dilemma for the Greens?
The answer almost certainly lies in the context of Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics and the New Zealand public’s alarmingly blasé reaction to its contents. Armstrong, like many of his journalist colleagues, reacted with commendable outrage to Hager’s revelations. Like just about every other Kiwi with a conscience, he was appalled by the behaviour that had been exposed. His feelings of disgust were undoubtedly intensified as he reviewed his own experiences as a Press Gallery journalist and realised just how often and how ruthlessly he and his colleagues had been played.
The problem for Armstrong and others like him was that pretty close to a majority of the voting public found nothing very much to get upset about in Hager’s book. Their opinion of politicians was already so low that the revelations of Dirty Politics, if they were accepted at all, were taken as a vindication of their long held prejudices. No big deal.
What to do? Confronted with the seemingly indefatigable cynicism of their readers, how should Armstrong and other mainstream media commentators respond? Should they unload upon these morally inert electors the full weight of their journalistic scorn? Should they openly challenge their fitness to cast something as precious as a ballot? Seriously, if these “so what” National supporters are able to absorb, with apparent equanimity, the news that their democracy is riddled with political cancer, then can they even be called citizens?
It’s happened before, this unexpected and, therefore, shocking disjuncture between the judgement of journalists and the perceptions of their readers, listeners and viewers. The most famous example is the US news media’s reaction to the police riot that erupted at the Democratic Party Convention in 1968. Mayor Daley’s brutal Chicago cops not only billy-clubbed and maced and tear-gassed the young demonstrators outside the Convention, they also attacked Convention delegates, trashed one of the presidential candidates headquarters, and beat-up any journalist foolhardy enough to attempt to report their illegal rampage.
Outraged, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger of the New York Times, Katherine Graham, of the Washington Post and Newsweek and many other publishers joined with the heads of the major television networks in telegramming Mayor Daley and protesting that newsmen “were repeatedly singled out by policemen and repeatedly beaten … the obvious purpose was to discourage or prevent reporting of an important confrontation between police and demonstrators which the American public as a whole has a right to know about.”
But the American public didn’t want to know. In the words of historian, Godfrey Hodgson:
“Almost to a man, the journalists had been shocked by what the police did. To their astonishment, the polls showed that a large majority in the country were shocked by the demonstrators, and sympathetic to the police. Nine out of ten of the seventy-four thousand letters sent to Mayor Daley in the first two weeks after the convention, commended the police. And bumper stickers blossomed across the country: WE SUPPORT MAYOR DALEY AND HIS CHICAGO POLICE.”
It was to be another six years before the resignation of President Richard Nixon finally convinced a majority of Americans that people in authority are not always worthy of their support; that, sometimes, the journalists are right.
And maybe that will happen here, too. Maybe, in the months ahead New Zealanders will find out just how deep the cancer has burrowed into the bones of the nation. But, in the meantime, the advertisers are not going to spend money purchasing time and space in media businesses that excoriate their customers. Like the American journalists of 1968, the New Zealand journalists of 2014 have little choice but to adjust their ethics to fit those of a majority which long ago forgot the meaning of the word.
And that is why, in today’s column, Mr Armstrong counsels the Greens to make the same Devil’s Bargain that he has been forced to accept. Right and wrong, good and evil, in the revised edition of Armstrong’s political gospel, haven’t the slightest purchase in contemporary governance. If you want to “get things done”, then compromise is the only game in town.
The only problem with that advice, John, is that once Russel Norman, Metiria Turei and the Greens start compromising, how will they know when to stop? Purity, once abandoned, is very hard to recover. And, if Dirty Politics has taught us anything at all, it is that power without purity is Democracy’s most dangerous enemy.
This essay was posted on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog on Wednesday, 10 September 2014.