A Fraction Too Much Friction: Those high-drama, high-risk moments in a nation’s history, when the political adrenalin is coursing through the body politic, are precisely the moments when rushing to any sort of judgement – let alone action – is the worst possible thing politicians, journalists and political activists can do.
I’VE ONLY EVER MET ONE serving agent of the Central Intelligence Agency. As far as most of us lefties knew he was a liberal American academic; friendly, generous, with a fund of interesting stories to tell. Outwardly, at least, the man seemed harmless. It was only when he was driving three of us away from a late-night exercise in radical derring-do that the thought occurred to me that there might be more to this guy than met the eye.
As our wheel-man whisked me and my comrades away from the scene of our “symbolic action” he gave us a piece of extremely good advice.
“The moments after an action such as this”, he said, “are always the most dangerous. Your bloodstream is full of adrenalin and you feel invincible. The truth of the matter, however, is that your judgement is shot. That’s why it’s in the immediate aftermath of high-risk activity that people are most prone to making the sort of stupid mistakes that get them caught. So, I’m just going to drive around for the next half hour or so. Give you guys a chance to decompress: for the adrenalin to work its way out of your system.”
It occurred to me that we were probably listening to the voice of experience. And something told me that the high-risk activities our driver had been involved in were almost certainly a whole lot more hazardous than a bit of symbolic protest action.
A few months later, our American friend was engaged in a discussion about political radicalism and let slip that he had once lectured a roomful of Northern Irish internees: IRA and UDF hard men. That set me thinking. What sort of security clearance would you need to be given access to political prisoners of that ilk? And who would issue it? British Army Intelligence? MI5? MI6? The guy simply had to be a spook.
Thirty-five years later, at an end-of-year party in Auckland, I mentioned my suspicions to a mutual American friend. He gave me a sharp look and grinned. “Well spotted”, was all he said.
Over the years, I’ve become convinced that our American friend’s advice applies with equal force to the after-effects of collective – as well as personal – excitement. Those high-drama, high-risk moments in a nation’s history, when the political adrenalin is coursing through the body politic, are precisely the moments when rushing to any sort of judgement – let alone action – is the worst possible thing politicians, journalists and political activists can do.
John Key’s resignation, for example, was just such a moment of high political drama and risk. People got excited. Adrenalin flowed. Our collective judgement was shot. All sorts of stupid mistakes – and statements – were made, and all sorts of silly stories were published and posted. What the country needed was someone to drive it around for a while and give it a chance to decompress.
Because Bill English is not some sort of Jesuit torturer just aching to draw blood with his newly acquired political instruments. Nor is Paula Bennet a whip-wielding Westie dominatrix in spiked heels and a leopard-skin corset. These two human-beings are nothing more, nor less, than National Party politicians – and by no means the worst of their breed.
And, before you start reeling off all the many and varied sins of this government, it is, perhaps, worth considering how very similar it is to the government which preceded it.
Who was it who pioneered the policy of moving beneficiaries from welfare to work, and kept their children poor? Allowed the public housing stock to rot where it stood rather than build new state houses? Refused to re-empower the trade unions, or rescue public broadcasting? Which party was it that signed the New Zealand-China FTA and set in motion the diplomacy that culminated in the TPPA? Who persecuted Ahmed Zaoui and masterminded nuclear-free New Zealand’s rapprochement with its “very, very, very good friends” the Americans?
The “continuity” represented by Bill English being sworn-in as John Key’s successor extends backwards in time well beyond the 2008 General Election, and will extend forward well beyond any change of government in 2017.
But, if it’s the excitement of dis-continuity you’re after, then for God’s sake try to remember that collective good judgement is generally exercised in inverse proportion to the amount of collective adrenalin coursing through your political system.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 13 December 2016.