|Take Me Home: Bowalley Road, North Otago. The long gravel road after which Chris Trotter’s blog is named. Near the road’s end is the farm where he spent the first nine years of his life.|
ONE OF THE JOYS of blogging is the instant feedback you get. Certainly, there are the trolls who strive to disrupt your blog’s community of readers, but they are easily dealt with. More than anything else, a troll wants to register the damage he (it’s almost always a he) works so hard to inflict. Decline to post his deathless prose, however, and there is nothing for him to register. Like the proverbial tree falling unheard in the forest, he makes no sound. This enforced inadequacy generally persuades the trolls to bugger-off.
From the community of your blog’s civilised readers, however, flows a never-ending stream of comments. Some terse and pithy, some that go on-and-on until the blog’s software intervenes – cutting them off in full-flight. From these comments, an attentive blogger is able to glean a reasonably accurate impression of the blog readership’s mood. Irrespective of where those commenting place themselves on the ideological spectrum, their ideas and grievances are what, collectively, constitute the zeitgeist.
Challenged to sum up the mood of this moment, 134 days out from the General Election, I would have to say: “disillusionment”. Unlike the feeling that gripped the nation 134 days out from the 2020 election: that giddy pride at how well we had been led, and how stoically we had come through the frightening Valley of the Shadow of Covid; New Zealanders are feeling disgruntled, discouraged and disappointed by what passes for political leadership in 2023.
Everything that happened after the 2020 Jacindafest, the uncovering of so many clay feet, has made a great many of us feel like chumps. The Prime Minister turned out not to be a saint – not when there was the devil of a pandemic deficit to pay. Then New Zealanders proved with fire and fury that they were very far from being a united team of five million. After the scenes in Parliament Grounds, we began to look at each other sideways, uncertain as to whether our fellow citizens were friends or foes.
Most of all, we fell out of love with our leaders – especially Jacinda Ardern. Her successor, Chris “Chippy” Hipkins, seems like a nice enough bloke, but we cannot overlook the fact that he was right there, in the thick of it, when Labour veered off the rails. Not that the National Party’s Christopher Luxon offers much by way of improvement. If it looks like a corporation man, talks like a corporation man, and spouts clichés like a corporation man, then, chances are, it’s the Leader of the Opposition.
Like The Who, New Zealanders are getting down on their knees and praying “We don’t get fooled again.” In fact, we are determined not to.
And in that determination lies our vulnerability. What those commenting on my own and other blogs reflect, apart from their disillusionment, is a profound and corrosive cynicism. But, that’s not all. Alongside their bitter refusal to go on believing in politicians or their politics, far too many commentators display a dangerously naïve willingness to believe wholeheartedly every vicious and outlandish charge levelled against them. Is there anything more dangerous than this bizarre combination of cynicism and credulity?
The general mood of disillusionment is hardly surprising, however, when, in addition to our politicians not working as intended, neither does anything else. New Zealand seems to be on a trajectory which will take it from the First World to some place considerably less comfortable. The country that was once feted internationally for the success of its national institutions and the obvious well-being of its people, is slowly but unmistakeably sliding down the international tables of achievement.
Back in 2005, the American singer-songwriter James McMurtry released “We Can’t Make It Here” – hailed by one critic as the best song of the 2000s. It describes the slow decay of American competence and coherence, and the corresponding loss of faith by working-class Americans in their country’s future. I think about that song more and more in 2023, as our health and education systems creak and groan, and potholes multiply in the nation’s highways.
And it occurs to me that I may have been too quick to consign the trolls to the outer darkness of the blogosphere. Maybe – just maybe – their reading of the situation, singed though it undoubtedly is with fire and fury, actually comes closest to the truth.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 2 June 2023.