What if We’re Wrong?


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IT’S ONE OF THE MOST MEMORABLE SCENES in American cinema. Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are cruising innocently along a straight stretch of blacktop in the Deep South of the United States when they are overtaken by a battered pick-up truck. “Why don’t you get a haircut?” taunts the gat-toothed, slack-jawed, southern man sitting in the passenger seat. Billy gives the shotgun-totin’ redneck the finger and is shot in the chest at point-blank range. As Wyatt roars away to get help, he too is gunned down. The pick-up truck drives on down the highway as Wyatt’s bike burns and the credits roll.

The tag line for the cult 60s classic, Easy Rider, read, simply: “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it … anywhere.” It is hard to tell, so many years after the film was made, whether the irony of this claim was accidental or deliberate. Because Wyatt most certainly did find America – it just wasn’t the America he was looking for.

Easy Rider was an instant hit with student activists and hippy drop-outs because, unlike the implausibly innocent drug-courier, Wyatt, they knew America had gone to the bad. In the five years prior to the movie’s release young Americans had witnessed the murder of civil rights activists in Mississippi, race riots in Newark and Detroit, the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King and Senator Bobby Kennedy, a massive military escalation in Vietnam and the election of Richard Nixon. They understood what Billy refused to accept: that giving the finger to redneck America could get you killed.

Those who line up proudly with the progressive combatants in America’s “culture wars” should bear in mind that it was the so-called “Love Generation” – whose ideals and prejudices informed cult classics like Easy Rider and Billy Jack – who started them.

Ordinary Americans had real difficulty in understanding why Wyatt and Billy – whose ill-fated road-trip was funded by a cocaine-smuggling expedition from Mexico to Los Angeles – should be regarded as heroes at all. Nor did they recognise themselves in director Dennis Hopper’s crude caricature of the America beyond Greenwich Village, Haight Ashbury and the Hollywood Hills.

Not every Southerner’s first reaction to a long-haired biker was to attack him with a shotgun. Watching Lynyrd Skynyrd sing Sweet Home Alabama to thousands of long-haired Southern Men amply confirms that hirsuteness was more than just a Northern affectation. Nor was every hippy commune dedicated to peace and love. The year Easy Rider was released, 1969, was also the year the “Manson Family” went on its murderous killing-spree in Los Angeles.

Towards the end of Easy Rider, the script has George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) an alcoholic lawyer and card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union say: “You know this used to be a hell of a good country, I don’t understand what’s goin’ on with it.”

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And that, really, is the point. Unlike the genuine chroniclers of the American experience – social historians like Studs Terkel, and Howard Zinn – the “counter-cultural” critics of “Amerika” did not understand what was “goin’ on with it”. All they knew was that a great deal of it was wrong, wrong, wrong. So, all those who refused to accept that they, the dissidents, were right, right, right must be the enemy. The inherited dispositions of, and the mitigating influences attributable to, one’s age, class, race, gender, religious convictions, regional loyalties and (most important of all) personal experiences, were no excuse for failing to recognise the essential rightness of the progressive credo.

Progressive Americans weren’t alone in adopting this holier than thou, if you’re not with us, you’re against us, approach to social and political issues. In New Zealand, too, the Left’s acute awareness of being in the minority on a broad range of political issues, and the social isolation it fostered, could hardly fail, given the fierce strength of their convictions, to encourage an “us and them” mindset.

This sense of alienation; of not being part of “mainstream” New Zealand; was made even more intense by the emphatic rejection of the Kirk-Rowling Labour Government in 1975. The election of Rob Muldoon hit the progressive members of the baby-boom generation with the force of a redneck’s shotgun.

Looking back over that period in 1997 I wrote:

“I did not play the Godwit in my youth. Before going to university I wanted to get to know New Zealand and New Zealanders. Such choices were easier then. The papers bulged with job vacancies and money was easy to get. For three years I worked at a multitude of jobs – trying everything from factory work to script-writing. In between the city jobs I hitch-hiked along sun-baked highways, rode trains along rain-swept coastlines, and crunched the gravel of empty country roads. And everywhere I travelled, I chatted, joked and argued with my fellow citizens; hearing their hopes and their fears, their prejudices and their premonitions ….. I had heard the working-class kids I went to school with cheering Rob Muldoon in the Upper Hutt Mall and watched them sneer at the Labour Party hecklers who carried aloft placards proclaiming Labour’s intention to “Build a New Society”. My old schoolmates wanted a new society too – but not the one Labour was contemplating.”

How much has really changed, I wonder. In the week that Russel Norman compared John Key to Rob Muldoon and Al Nisbert flicked the blind on the unreconstructed private racism of so many New Zealanders, should the Left be asking itself: “Are we still the embattled little island of progressivism amidst a sea of raging social conservatism that we took ourselves to be forty years ago?”

Did the nine years of Helen Clark’s government, and all the pent-up progressivism unleashed by Labour, the Alliance and the Greens between 1999 and 2008, lull the New Zealand Left – particularly its younger members – into believing that all the big battles against racism, sexism and homophobia have been won?

What if we’re wrong? What if the only battle we won was the battle to suppress the expression of ideas we don’t like to hear? What if, beneath that enforced silence, all the poisons in the New Zealand swamp continue to steam and bubble?

What if all the Right is waiting for is a pick-up truck?


  1. The war was lost long ago and the Orcs won.

    Corporations carried out a coup, and now everything and everyone have been reduced resources to exploited or tradable commodities. The corporate model requires that all resources be consumed until depletion causes collapse. Birth, life and death are all commercial opportunities. Land, water forests, fish, coal oil, gas, air……are all resources to be consumed in an orgy of insanity.

    And now that corporations have buggered up so many of the natural systems that make life as we know it possible, e.g. the jet-stream, we are very close to the crash-and-burn stage, and are on course for extinction of our species.

    Therefore national politics has become largely irrelevant. National, Labour, Greens…….it’s all bullshit, completely disconnected from reality. (it always was bullshit, of course, but the extent of the bullshit was no so apparent in the past.)

    • I agree with most of your depressing comments but surely our left wing political parties are a little better than the totally destructive gNats!

    • @Afewknowthetruth
      I thumbsed-up [grammer?] your comment, but would add a lesson from those groaning under the heel of oppression over the millenia. The fate of all empires is disintegration, and as most recently demonstrated in Afghanistan:

      Just because you can’t win, doesn’t mean you should stop fighting.

      • After a day’s perspective, I think I should re-examine this statement. As a new member of the Green Party, I am committed to upholding our policy of non-violence in my resistance. The Afghanistan comment seems; in retrospect, to have an overly militant edge. Still, a people who can resist subjugation by the; British, Russian, & American; empires, through sheer bloody minded determination, is most admirable. Though this has not come without a price; these conflicts have left many scars upon their land, and psyches (for which Aotearoa Zealand bears a portion of guilt).
        Non-violence requires no less courage. I think of the WWI conscientious objectors; crucified and hung out to die in no man’s land, would I have that level of determination? Resistance is the key, that persistant refusal to acquiesce even when utterly outmatched. Or as the film says:

        “You can’t win, but there are alternatives to fighting.”

        [BTW: “The War of the Stars” starring Alec Guiness, is a scungy grindhouse delight after the Luke-arsed up grandiosity of the CGI enhanced editions.]

  2. Well, IMHO the liberal strand of democracy had a pretty good run for a while. I don’t think the racism of the Nisbet cartoons is quite the same as racism 40 years ago. Nisbet’s seems to take aim at brown people qua the underclass, not qua being of a different race. It’s now more explicitly about class than race.

    The “five fingers” as you call them seem to have moved in fits and starts away from the liberal form of democracy to a more authoritarian populist form (more in line with the character of the majority of the electorate).

    It’s strange that you bring up Muldoon. For all his faults, he was prepared to actually argue his point in public – an art that has now disappeared from politics. Case in point: the famous “dancing cossacks” ad. Not many people remember, but that cartoon was a minor preamble to a much longer clip of Muldoon sitting at his desk and patiently explaining his policy and why he disagreed with Labour’s. It’s unthinkable that such a clip would air today. The idea that a leader would feel compelled to treat voters as rational and autonomous seems to have died out, so the past was more liberal than it seems (if not necessarily more socially liberal).

    But I think Chris is right. We on the “left” just have to accept that a majority of New Zealanders are, for want of a better term, psychologically authoritarian, and that the age of liberalism was an anomaly in which the rational elements in society exercised political power over the majority (much of the complaining about “political correct minorities lording it over us all” is quite genuine, after all). If you don’t believe me, visit the Trademe message boards.

    Perhaps we should just give up democratic politics as hopeless and stupid. Personally, I’ve got better things to do than fight with ignorant, racist rubes all the time. No matter what they do, they can’t make idiocy compulsory, so we would be better off finding something else to do and ignoring them.

  3. What if the only battle we won was the battle to suppress the expression of ideas we don’t like to hear?

    That battle hasn’t been won, as demonstrated by the publication of Nisbet’s cartoons and the (lack of) official response to them. Which is a good thing. It would also be good if this wasn’t a battle the left was so keen on winning.

    • There was an “official response” to the Nisbet cartoons.

      “It would also be good if this wasn’t a battle the left was so keen on winning.”

      Of all the battles that should be won, the struggle against racism and bigotry is right up there at the top of the list. At one stage or another, prejudice affects us all, Milt. Unfortunately, some more than others.

      • The fact that you conflate a struggle to punish bigoted people for speaking their minds with a struggle against bigotry illustrates the problem nicely.

        I’m aware there was an official response to the Nisbet cartoons. I added “lack of” in parentheses on the basis that many on the left felt there should have been a much stronger response – you were one of them, weren’t you Frank?

        • Interesting that you mention a “response”, Milt.

          Gosman suggested a means of response.

          What response do you think would’ve been fitting for Nisbet’s racism?

          What response is suitable?

          • Gosman suggested a means of response.

            Sorry, I’m not sure what you mean by this. I don’t recall seeing it.

            As to what response to Nisbet’s cartoons I think would be suitable, no official response whatsoever is suitable. It’s not the government’s place to hire officials to make pronouncements on the acceptability of newspaper cartoons – the fact that we’ve allowed governments to do so ought to be a source of shame.

              • Fitting responses would be those available to people who find an artwork offensive: tell your friends, complain to the publisher, write blog posts, tweets etc expressing disapproval. All those options seem to have been taken following the publication of these cartoons.

                What would not be a fitting response would be to call on government officials to, as Chris Trotter puts it, “suppress the expression of ideas we don’t like to hear.” Unfortunately that option was also taken following the publication of these cartoons.

  4. I suppose in the past there was more “honesty” – your “enemy” was in open sight, a “standing army of discrimination”; the overt racist, sexist, homophobe, etc. The reforms by progressives may’ve made such attitudes unacceptable in public and the “enemy” now an “underground army of discrimination”. The numbers may’ve waned but their existence is still evident by the social “sabotage” they inflict – the link between discrimination and disadvantage.

    That pick-up truck can arrive anytime. A global financial crisis can be thought of as a lottery where the pick-up truck is a prize. With the prize can come prosperity. After all the pick-up truck is useful for many insurgent armies on the modern battlefield.

    It’s intriguing how those who’re gentle, peaceful and well-intentioned can inspire so much fear and loathing in others – beneath their defiance seemingly lurks many insecurities.

  5. Muldoon’s government never screwed over the poor and workers like the governments after his.

    True he talked tough about unions and “maoris”, etc, but that was just tough talk for the swivel eyed loons.

    New Zealanders in the 1970’s didnt have to worry about where to find the money for the rent, power or food, nor did they have to rack up huge amounts of debt to get a tertairy education, and work was more or less plentiful, and it paid a decent amount, infrastructure was operated for the public good (not profit), and schools focused on giving kids and education, not making them selves look good for the Chinese students. Moreover, we didnt dump the mentally ill in boarding houses with a $150 a week sickness benefit, and we could rely on access to healthcare when we needed it, without having to travel too far.

    And what’s more there was decent stuff on TV and the radio.

    Muldoons NZ was paradise on earth, rednecks in pickups notwithstanding.

  6. The left in this country are condescending and whinny all at once. They dismiss us on the far left, with a tone of superiority that makes me sick. It has come to the point were I’d rather enter into a discussion with a libertarian, than most on the left in this country. They at least see the state being used to oppress and suppress people. They too, see freedom and liberty as worth while fighting for. Whilst the left, limp, and wimp along – patting itself on the back over small victories – and are unwilling or cowardly to think grand. They fail to embrace freedom, they think a few choice words will win people over to there mediocre plans and planning. Labour make me sick, putting there petty little games before people. The greens rule spin – they waft in the wind. Mana has Hone – and he at least has a honest distrust of the state.

    Yes there are those on the left who think the state is nasty, and all the tinkering in the world only opens the door for nasty vicious bastards to come in and screw people down more. Yeap the far left, hate this country for being a stateist nightmare. That right, the state here has becoming all invasive, and the left do nothing. The other states on the planet invade you computer, you living room and your life and the left do nothing. What the hell – the left were once the home to lovers of liberty, equality and fraternity. Now it seems the bastion on liberalism, mediocre, and tinkering.

    As an old fashioned Libertarian socialist I don’t think people like authoritarianism – I think people are conditioned to it. By not having courage and by not having conviction the social democrats have weakened people. The inability to have vision or see totalitarianism is always at the door – makes many on the left, weak.

    • It has come to the point were I’d rather enter into a discussion with a libertarian, than most on the left in this country. They at least see the state being used to oppress and suppress people. They too, see freedom and liberty as worth while fighting for.

      You’ve been talking to different libertarians than me then. One of the ones that I was talking too was against democracy because it stopped rich people from doing whatever they liked with their property. The end result of such thinking is oppression.

      • One of the ones that I was talking too was against democracy because it stopped rich people from doing whatever they liked with their property.

        Funny in’it… Libertarians want everything privatised – except the military and the Police. I guess the reason is fairly obvious; the 1% wealth Libertarians would need a massive para-military to protect their property from the remaining 99%. (Much like the occupation of Wall Street.)

        Curiously though, I’m not sure how they’d fund a miliary/police force: they don’t believe in taxation.

        More on New Zealand’s Libertarianz: http://fmacskasy.wordpress.com/2012/09/30/neo-liberal-libertarian-holds-up-victorian-england-as-model-for-success/

        Judge for yourselves.

      • Draco, it sounds like you’ve been talking to Objectivists, vulgar Randists who usually describe their simplistic ‘big business = good, big government = bad’ politics as “libertarianism”. This includes much (but not all) of the cadre surrounding the “LibertariaNZ” party, who seem to take their political line from the far-right of the US Repblicans, like their conservative counterparts who read the Wisharts’ Investigte magazine.

        It may seem strange for a left-leaning anarchists like Adam and myself to be defending libertarians, until you realise anarchists self-identified as ‘libertarians’ for 100 years before the cult of the Invisible Hand hijacked the term. Also, to be fair to Ayn Rand, just as Marx was not a Marxist, Rand was not a Randist. Her work needs to be read in context, as a reaction to the deeply disturbing personal experience of watching the direct-democratic structures created after Russian revolution reabsorbed into a horrific hyper-centralized dictatorship.

  7. What a good article. I feel this could be some subtle allusion to the $nz
    getting unceremoniously blown off the road.

  8. Chris, I still hitch-hike around the country, working in a wide variety of situations, and talking to a wide variety of people. After reading the Hollow Men, I started to notice that many of the comments on online newspaper sites were just a sentence or two reiterating “key messages”, and often exactly the same comment would be posted on multiple sites.

    On this basis, I believe that blog comments and TradeMe fora do not accurately represent the view of the mythical mainstream. Online discussion is heavily skewed by a combination of paid PR shills peppering any online forum they can with key messages, and useful idiots spewing “crazy talk” (see Neil Postman’s comments from the book ‘Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk’):

    Adam White, I know exactly what you mean. Have you read David Graeber’s book about the history of debt? He makes a strong historical case that states and empires created cash-money based markets to fund wars of expansion, and that the use of financial derivatives to finance US wars is a continuation of that history. Even Michael Moore’s – the liberal’s liberal – has put out a film (Capitalism: A Love Story) which is explicitly anti-capitalist, and admits the degree to which the US state (and US client states like ours) has merged with Wall St banks and other corporations. To blame the evils of capitalism purely on “the market” and “business”, as if the the problems of capitalism can be solved by increasing the power of the state, is disingenuous or deluded.

  9. This quote from Neil Postman sums up the situation nicely, from the foreword to his book ‘Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business’:

    “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preocuppied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

    “This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”

  10. “Did the nine years of Helen Clark’s government, and all the pent-up progressivism unleashed by Labour, the Alliance and the Greens between 1999 and 2008, lull the New Zealand Left – particularly its younger members – into believing that all the big battles against racism, sexism and homophobia have been won?”

    This is what a strong political minded person may ask him- or herself, Chris. Most people are regrettably not so politically minded at all, they are preoccupied with following personal ambitions, with getting a good education or vocational training, so they can earn money to afford themselves a hopefully reasonably comfortable lifestyle for the rest of their lives.

    The 9 years under Clark and Labour with their support parties were not necessarily all that progressive, apart from bringing in some moderate socio economic adjustments for most, for cushioning hardship and perceived injustice. That was largely for the middle class. Beneficiaries did not necessarily enjoy a “progressive” time during those years, and even the slightly better offs were finding it hard to cope with increasing house prices, rents and general living costs, with inflation, that ate away pay increases.

    So I fear that few saw the years as substantial improvements, although there were some.

    New Zealand largely remained dependent on exporting the same primary products, earned from yet more tourists and foreign students, so only limited advances were made economically, to create a more value added productive and service industry.

    Australia grew faster for most the time, so many left to there – already then.

    Clark and Labour changed little in the business environment, apart from increasing the top tax rate and bringing in some small improvements in labour laws for workers. While big and not so big business were not really “cosy” with Clark and her governments, they could live with it. New Zealand continued to live with corporates dominating much of the economy, same as farmers and Fonterra, which emerged as a monopolistic dairy company, based on a collective of farmers.

    People continued to be inundated with commercial media and advertising, consumerism increased, same as individualism and people following personal agendas. It was not a time of marked “collective” awareness.

    So once the housing bubble came close to burst, the economy slowing down, too many feeling times were hard for them, and the opposition dangling the carrot of tax cuts and less government intervention in personal affairs, the people voted Labour out.

    Since then we know where things have gone. They are hardly better, rather worse for many, apart from some that happily took the tax cuts. Bailouts handled fallout of the GFC and government borrowing will pay in part for the Christchurch rebuild.

    I feel that it is the materialistic self interest of most, that has undone what politically aware may have perceived as “progressivism”. People have fallen into a trap, the trap of selfishness, and the middle class wanted to save their living standards (partly on borrowed money), which is at the expense of those at the bottom, who have to tighten belts.

    Yes, in some ways it is a return to the “dark ages”, especially in social affairs and democracy, but people are all tied into a system of dependence and bondage, into debt and the need to earn money to pay their ways. So that is the ultima ratio – money and the financial and economic system dominated by large banks and corporates, effecting small and medium size businesses, these are the things controlling people day in and out.

    It is like a society that has sold it’s soul. Add to that a very much more ethnically and culturally diverse society, where suburbs in some urban areas have turned into ones familiar to large US cities, and the picture is in some ways more of “division” than that of “unity”. It is a totally different New Zealand now, than it was under Muldoon, so very hard to compare with.

    Just having a spirited, competent and ideas rich “leader” of the major opposition party could make a difference, if such a person could “lead” that party along a new path and agenda. But we do not have that, do we?

  11. I don’t actually think most people consider themselves left or right, conservative liberal or progressive. I think people’s views are more often formed on a case by case basis. I am also not sure this is the wrong way to do it.

    But then I could just be in an arsey mood.

  12. I sent this article to a friend in the USA and received the following reply:
    Being” left or right – identifying with progressivism or conservativism – is the problem. As Brian Weston and George Lakoff have pointed out, simply identifying with these crude poles only fires up a string of neural fortifications, trenches in which to hide. Neither the left of the right, either here or in NZ, have developed the next big idea, the big goal to which the country agree to aim. The big idea needs to be a bright light that draws the eye, raises heads above the trench lip and inspires people to meet in no-man’s land a la Joyeux Noel.
    So current politicians should be exposed, not just for their pettifogging, but for their complete lack of imagination, and their inability to see beyond their own trenches.

  13. There is I think one assumption you make and that “big battles against racism, sexism and homophobia” is something that the left holds to its own – you are still looking at notions of left and right in terms of a 1950’s definition. What has changed is the notions of left and right.

    People are sophisticated and have a range of ideas that just do not fit into a two class system. They just did a study in the UK and it basically showed the left/right class divide was no longer appropriate. For example to my mind the Green Party one would assume to be a party of the left with its ideals on social justice in terms of wealth distribution, but equally it has conservation side which in terms of a wealth distribution an analysis of the “Green” movement I believe shows that it is the more educated and wealthy people who focus in that space and have the leisure time to do so. Hence a right wing party if you divide left and right just on wealth as some do to suit certain arguments.

    The so called Right wing PM played quite a large part in pushing the Gay marriage act through – no he didn’t start it but he certainly supported it, some of the most homophobic people I know are in terms of old definitions left wing to the extreme. The movie Billy Elliot for example showed that – and yet also showed that people can change.

    No I do not think we are loosing the battle on any issue, whether it be poverty, race, sexual preference. Sure the tides go up and down – sure financial pressures have an impact for periods of time which can be quite long and now is probably as hard a time as we have had in a while – but we keep progressing. After all at one time we were all African and over 100K plus years we evolved – similarly in much short time periods.

    To me your worry is just a tangential viewpoint on an wiggly line that is trending upwards.

    Even the easy rider view that they once had a great country – was a very subjective view on top of a lot of history some of which was not great.

    Don’t ever think you can get rid of prejudice in its basic form we all pre-judge based on prior experience, knowledge and teaching it is human nature – that which is not familiar can often scare you – the point is we must take care and not let this prejudice get the better of us.

    I am in a mixed racial marriage and so perhaps my viewpoint is skewed. But I see a very bright future – equally lots of issues to solve.

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