DOES THIS MORNING’S PROTEST outside the Viaduct Events Centre advance or retard the progressive cause in New Zealand? Some would say that bearing witness against the horrors of war and calling to account arms manufacturers is, unquestionably, a good thing to do. Others would argue that this is a quasi-religious position which takes no account of public opinion and is, therefore, both apolitical and unhelpful.
At the heart of the debate lie two very different assessments of what politics is about. The first views society as both corrupt and irredeemable: ruined by humanity’s predisposition towards greed and violence. That being the case, it behoves every individual strong enough to resist these twin evils to encourage as many others as possible to do likewise. In other words: politics is not about you changing the world; it’s about striving to prevent the world from changing you.
It’s a view of politics which encourages its adherents to divide humanity into those who “get” how corrupted the world has become, and those who don’t. And because the latter almost always outnumber the former, the ability of democracy to deliver meaningful change is questioned. In a world where greed and violence are accepted as the prime drivers of human affairs, isn’t it more likely that democracy will end up entrenching, rather than eradicating, these evils? And if that’s true (and doesn’t the election of Donald Trump prove it?) then attempting to influence public opinion is a waste of time.
Opposing this view are those who see humanity as being neither wholly corrupt, not wholly irredeemable. Yes, greed and violence occupy a distressingly prominent place in the conduct of human affairs, but they are very far from being the only impulses that drive us. Human-beings are also motivated by generosity, solidarity and compassion. The history of human civilisation is, essentially, a record of the struggle between our worst impulses and our best.
The key arbiter in this endless struggle between selfishness and altruism, violence and compassion, is human reason. Without a belief in humanity’s capacity to be moved by rational argument, politics – especially democratic and progressive politics – makes absolutely no sense.
Which is why, faced with poll results indicating that a very substantial majority of New Zealanders are positive about the rapprochement between their country and the United States, reasonable progressives would have been disinclined to organise a protest against the participation of a US destroyer in the New Zealand Navy’s 75th anniversary celebrations.
That disinclination would have been vindicated entirely by the events of the past few days. Far from being seen as a symbol of American imperialism, the USS Sampson – now on its way to assist earthquake victims stranded in Kaikoura – is being welcomed by the vast majority of New Zealanders as a symbol of American friendship and solidarity.
Those same New Zealanders are unlikely to look with any sympathy upon this morning’s protest action on the Auckland waterfront, and the core messages of the protesters themselves are unlikely to be received. Indeed, they are almost certain to be misinterpreted and/or disregarded.
Hemmed in by police and sneered at by an unsympathetic news media as “the usual left-wing suspects”, the viaduct protesters view of themselves as a prophetic minority bearing witness against a corrupt and violent world will undoubtedly be reinforced. Their hearts and minds will remain pure.
Unfortunately, the hearts and minds of the rest of us will remain unwon.