He’s got the fire and the fury
At his command
Well, you don’t have to worry
If you hold on to Jesus’ hand
We’ll all be safe from Satan
When the thunder rolls
We just gotta keep the devil
Way down in the hole
─ Tom Waits, “Way Down In The Hole”
WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE about Stuff Circuit’s Fire and Fury? It’s a well-made documentary of the sort New Zealand television used to make, but now only produces intermittently. It seeks answers to the questions many New Zealanders have been asking themselves since Parliament Grounds went up in flames on 2 March 2022. The driving force behind Fire and Fury, the highly-experienced journalist, Paula Penfold, has delivered on her promise to go behind the events of that day and name the names of those who were, at least in part, responsible for the disturbing scenes that marked the end of the weeks-long anti-vaccination protest.
Why, then, has the documentary left me feeling vaguely uneasy? And, before you object – “It’s meant to! – my uneasiness has nothing to do with the unsavoury cast of proto-fascist conspiracy theorists and “influencers” whose faces and words feature so prominently throughout the documentary. Sure, these people are loathsome, and their comments teeter alarmingly on the brink of outright criminality, but that is entirely unsurprising. From the get-go, the tone, sound-track, and crepuscular palette of the production cues the viewer for the darkness of its subject-matter.
Borrowing their title from Tom Waits’ Way Down In The Hole suggests that the makers of Fire and Fury see their subjects as being down there with the Devil. Perhaps that’s it? Perhaps it was my unconscious conflation of “Jesus’ hand” with the hands of the documentary’s producers, that gave me the uneasy feeling that I was being led to someone else’s holier-than-thou explanation for the rolling political thunder of our times.
Bluntly, Fire and Fury relies much too heavily on the “expert” commentary of Kate Hannah, a principal investigator and director of The Disinformation Project, a state-funded research exercise run out of Te Pūnaha Matatini at the University of Auckland. In an interview with Dale Husband on the Māori radio station, Waatea, Hannah revealed that The Disinformation Project had been set up in February 2020, immediately prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 Pandemic, to counter the anti-government, anti-scientific, and anti-medicine narratives that the authorities were clearly anticipating.
What is it that disturbs me about The Disinformation Project? Surely, having people monitor the misinformation and disinformation being spread deliberately during a major medical emergency is an entirely sensible government initiative? Any undermining of the collective effort to protect the population from the effects of a potentially deadly virus is prima facie evidence of evil intent. Many would say that identifying and neutralising such anti-social elements is an important state responsibility.
True enough, but why bury such a unit deep in the dense undergrowth of academia? And why appoint as its director a woman whose Masters thesis was on Nineteenth Century American literary culture, rather than a qualified medical administrator? If such a unit was needed, then why not set it up within the Ministry of Health, and make it answerable to the then Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield?
The problem is, the moment you start asking questions like this you immediately run the risk of being branded a conspiracy theorist. And that just circles the whole argument back to its starting-point: the dark narrative of evil intent which lies at the heart of Fire and Fury.
The question, never satisfactorily answered, which lies at the heart of the heart of Fire and Fury is – Why? What is it that prompts individuals to create false political, economic and cultural narratives in the first place? More importantly, what is it that makes otherwise perfectly sensible and caring people follow these fantasists down their rabbit holes?
Well, what led Alice down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carrol’s famous children’s story? Wasn’t it the sight of a waist-coated white rabbit consulting a pocket-watch and muttering “I’m late!”? Who wouldn’t want to get to the bottom of a sight as peculiar as that!
Many people find themselves caught up in events over which they exercise no control, and which they do not understand. Since, in small matters, they find it easy to identify cause and effect, they assume (wrongly) that big events can be equally easily explained.
This is by no means an unreasonable assumption, given the propensity of governments to explain large events in the most simplistic terms. Those who remain unconvinced by these official versions, all too often discover their scepticism is entirely justified. Nothing encourages the growth of conspiracy theories faster that citizens discovering that their own governments have conspired to deceive them.
In Fire and Fury, Kate Hannah explains the concept of what she calls “necessary” or “protective” violence. Once a group of citizens convinces themselves that their government, motivated by pure evil, is “coming after their kids”, then there is nothing they will not contemplate to keep their loved ones, and their homeland, safe.
Step this argument back a few paces, and it is possible to grasp how individuals of an authoritarian and/or paranoid temperament, having learned that their government has deliberately lied to them, decide that striking back with lies of their own is not only justified – but also the only effective way to balance the scales.
Like the evil wizard in the tale of Aladdin, the conspiracy theorists come offering “new lamps [lies] for old”. And, like all good liars, they mix in a hefty portion of the truth in with their falsehoods. “Why is it,” they ask, “that you will never encounter people with information contradicting the government’s claims in the mainstream news media?” While most people will respond by pointing out the idiocy of spreading false information during a pandemic, a not inconsiderable minority will accept the conspiracy theorists’ explanation that the news media are nothing more than the paid mouthpieces of a government unwilling to tell its citizens the truth.
It is a great pity that Paula Penfold and her team did not spend more time talking to the fiery and furious individuals around whose behaviour the documentary was constructed. A pity, too, that they did not explore in greater depth the popular conviction that the Public Interest Journalism Fund – which paid for Fire and Fury – is proof of the conspiracy theorists’ contention that the mainstream news media has, indeed, been bought and paid for.
Yes, there is an argument to be made that it is better to allow these “influencers” to condemn themselves out of their own mouths, than it is to interview them one-on-one. Equally, there is an argument for doing both: broadcasting their views – and also asking them to explain why they continually engage in such dangerous speech. Watching Fire and Fury, it is easy to apprehend its makers’ fear of “the mob”. The hostility directed towards journalists who were “just doing their job” by militant anti-vaxxers certainly was frighteningly intense.
And yet, these people are New Zealanders, too. And perhaps that is what, in the end, made me feel so uneasy about the Fire and Fury documentary. Watching it, the viewer cannot help being struck by the vast epistemological gulf separating its subjects from its makers.
Listening to Hannah and the other, equally disdainful “experts” consulted by Penfold and her team, the viewers could be forgiven for thinking that they was listening to a team of anthropologists describing the cultural practices of a particularly belligerent tribe of indigenes. Certainly, the inclusion of Rebecca Kitteridge, Director of the SIS, among that commentary team does not bode well for the future safety of this truculent tribe.
Fire and Fury didn’t quite call them “deplorables” – but it came close.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 15 August 2022.