Many of the great civil rights movements of the postwar period stemmed from the desire of populations to be freed from something or another: racism and segregation; capitalist oppression; fascism and dictatorship; class bias; gender inequalities and so on.
In such formulations, the state being requested is ‘freedom from’ attitudes, values, laws, regimes and forms of social organisation that prevent some other outcome: an equal society, perhaps, or a redistribution of goods.
Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Negative liberty is the shedding of shackles that constrain the human spirit. The outcome is the ability to meet one’s potential, to be fully human, to “fly free”. It is heady stuff. It should not be under-estimated.
And I saw, in Brian Tamaki’s deplorable gathering at the weekend, a strong yearning in the audience for freedom from the current system.
I am certain that they have come to believe that they are being unreasonably oppressed by the system. Watching them sing and sway, it took me right back to the 1960s when, at the age of about 12, I sang ‘We shall overcome” with such passion, such conviction, that masked the fact that I had no understanding at all of what we were trying to overcome.
I am sure that my common comment was “I just want to be free”. There was certainly a lot of shaking out of my long, thick, curly hair so that only my glasses peaked through the mess. Hair was important in those days. It drove my parents mad, to the extent they noticed (sober, before about 5pm).
I have always thought that protest songs are most powerful tools. You feel it right down in your gut: the pain, the passion, the struggle. And I saw this in them.
But now, I find myself firmly establishment in the matter of freedom from masks, vaccines, lockdowns. I support the government and think it has done as well as any can against such a slippery enemy. I am strongly against hosting superspreader events, condemning of those who do, railing against the stupidity of people holding a rally in the middle of a pandemic.
Generally speaking, the protests of the 1960s were, in the UK at least, peaceful. Peace was one of our things, of course. I did not see violent protests until the grim marches against the forces of the state during the Springbok tour, many years later. Some of the footage shown in recent months on the 40th anniversary renewed those traumas.
The protestors on Saturday called for freedom. This is a negative freedom. Whether it is freedom from masks, lockdowns, state mandates, Treaty breaches (I noticed a couple of tino rangatiratanga and United Tribes (He Whakaputanga) flags among the banners), poverty, ideologies or what, they definitely meant business. For a wide range of reasons (see Martyn’s excellent blog on the fractions that make up the protest movement), those people were determined that the barriers of life far outweighed the benefits at the present time.
Their feelings of oppression are not going to be fixed by kind words. They are certainly not going to be fixed by violent action. Calls for protestors to be arrested for breaches are misguided – you would simply set up martyrs, and further increase the barriers that exist between the majority ‘us’ and the passion-filled them. You can’t discipline people out of their beliefs, only their actions.
It is not news to anyone who reads this blog that there are big gaps between groups in society in wealth, power, status, goods and access to resources of all kinds. That they have come to crystallize around an anti-lockdown, anti-vaxx movement is perhaps not all together surprising, but it does involve a lot of ironies and realities.
The first is that the most vulnerable to infection are putting themselves and their families and associates most at risk. While the rest of Auckland might be mildly inconvenienced, the Covid spreading that may ensue will occur primarily among those who are not vaccinated.
The second is that Brian Tamaki is a terrible leader. The promised land that he is leading his followers to will not remove shackles and bring freedom – perhaps just replace some shackles with others.
Finally, we face a long, hard road to bring vaccination rates up to 80%, let alone 90%. We are getting to the sharp end now, where pressures to re-open New Zealand will continue to build. The government is going to get bombarded, as in this past week, with numerous contradictory views. The political management of Covid has been, relatively speaking, a breeze to date, but may become a hurricane over the next little while.
Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.