Critics and supporters alike spend an inordinate amount of time talking about John Key’s smile. But it’s the eyes that have it, not the smile. The eyes are the secret to his success. But more about that later.
I’ve read a lot of Noam Chomsky over the years and I was lucky enough to hear him speak in Wellington at the St James Theatre many years ago. Noam is amazingly informed, insightful and clear (never concise) and perfectly demonstrates a serious problem on the Left: the Left believe that in a democracy if you just provide the information to people, they will see the truth and change their votes and their ways. That is fundamentally flawed and historically inaccurate.
I now watch a fair amount of Parliament TV (streaming whilst I do other things at work). The Left in Parliament demonstrate the same blind spot as Chomsky. Most clever Question Time remarks and longer speeches in debates from the Left really show little or no cut and thrust; they’re a series of pontifications, executed to a level that accords to the ability of the member speaking. If the member threatens to include evidence, make a causal link with something or inspire someone, the members opposite can be relied upon to shout that member down and our Speaker is becoming more reliable in his threats to eject the Left from the House. The parties of the Left want to believe that if they provide information to voters about what is acutally going on, the Left will win at the election. John Key and friends have, in this instance, a better grasp on how voters actually work: fear wins votes, not facts.
I don’t want to accept the view of the Right, but the release of Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics may very well force me to do so. I honestly believed I was difficult to shock. I’m easy to excite; I like the drama of politics, I like the small tragedies and comedies, but I’m used to politics by now and admittedly a little titillated. Yet Nicky Hager’s new book Dirty Politics of which I have only seen snippets and summaries has sincerely shocked me. I had heard rumours of connections between bloggers, strategists and Parliamentarians like anyone else who spends a little time with politicians. But when their interactions are put in black and white, a toxic cynicism and hate drips off the page. The actions of Jason Ede, Cameron Slater, Judith Collins, et al. demonstrate a genuine disregard for anyone who is not them. Other people are not humans, but opposition or fodder. They damn themselves with their own words; sociopaths are running our country.
My reaction should not surprise you; my other writings have never demonstrated a great sympathy for the right of NZ politics. But this strikes me as more extreme than what I could have imagined and out from under the norm of our collective political apathy into an arena of lust for power that most people I know would be uncomfortable with.
However, I try to imagine what my Dad, a long time National Party supporter, would say to all of this. First of all he would not accept that John Key knew anything about it, evidence be damned. He will be very angry about the particulars fo Cameron Slater’s comments on Christchurch as a resident of said city. He would think that the people who did it need to go, but that they are bad apples, not a reflection of the tree itself. I think in this I am describing how most people who vote but are not really interested in the drama or politics will react.
Unfortunately my Dad, and most others like him, will not read Nicky Hager’s book. They will read media commentary about it, and media commentary will take a “two sides to every story” and “fair go” approach to this story. The media will moderate and dull the impact of the book. John Key and friends will direct attacks, ride the wave and look concerned but never worried. And people like my Dad will likely be consoled. He and others will be consoled because they are seeking consolation.
Where the Left plays to facts, the Right plays to fear. Fear of Islam, fear of Māori, fear of crime, fear of poverty, fear of youth, fear of the neighbour, fear of each other. The Right tells voters to fear because the world is a “scary place”. Then they offer a leader who will protect you in this scary place. Which brings me back to John Key’s eyes. John Key has a direct, cool gaze. His eyes don’t smile as much as his mouth. People like his eyes because they are the eyes of an archetypal father: distant, not cruel; emotionally neutral, not emotive. John Key is forgiven all sins because John Key strikes people as the one who will protect them from the world.
Yet there is one thing that time and again has defeated the politics of fear in democracy after democracy: vision. People respond to a vision that shows them the better society they can have and the better people they can be. Hager’s Dirty Politics is not a vision (that’s not a criticism, just a reality) and so it will not inspire change. But if the Labour Party could get past their excitement at the evidence of wrongdoing and co-ordinate the Left to focus on a vision for change: that might just make a difference, even at this late hour.