An NZ Herald article on Saturday titled ‘She’s Back – The Return of the Nanny State’ claimed that the National Party government has engaged in forms of social coercion to force behavioural changes as the previous Labour government did. The concept of the nanny state always misses the point. Subtle measures and incentives for ‘correcting’ social behaviour are used by whoever is in charge – whether centre-left or centre-right – but built on different concepts of both the social good and the relationship between citizen, the market, and government. These concepts typically dominate mainstream confines of both camps. This two part series addresses the rationale and consequences when both centre-left and centre-right overreach.
Helen Lovejoy: “You’ve got to lead our protest against this abomination!”
Marge: “Mm, but that’s Michelangelo’s David. It’s a masterpiece”.
Helen: [gasp] “It’s filth! It graphically portrays parts of the human body, which, practical as they may be, are evil”.
Marge: “But I like that statue”.
Helen: [gasp] “I told you she was soft on full frontal nudity! Come on, girls…”
This isn’t about lightbulbs and showerheads – rather the roots and consequences of the modern mainstream left approach to inequality and oppression prevalent in the modern public discourse – rooted in politics, journalism, and social media.
Since the 1970’s and 80’s, mainstream left wing politics in the Western world has become dominated by conservative rather than radical elements of social movements working within the establishment, whose approach has emphasised racial, gender, and ethnic identity rather than class as the cause of oppression and inequality. Chris Trotter effectively highlights the resultant dominance of the NZ Labour Party caucus by middle class managers – teachers, social workers, academics, civil servants, parliamentary staffers, and trade union hierarchy – rather than formerly working class heroes such as Norman Kirk. From this time, centre-left parties have implemented gender equity legislation, gay anti-discrimination and couple rights laws, and racial quotas while simultaneously have enacted and/ or maintained economic deregulation, privatisation, and tax reforms similar to conservative parties.
Mainstream journalism equally transformed though the inclusion of sexually and ethnically diverse viewpoints but with a decline in discussion of working class viewpoints and commentary on welfare and poverty dominated by opinion columnists lacking personal insight or solicitation of the opinions of those who do. Consider this thoughtful piece from the perspective of a working class American woman on why poorer people are perpetually in debt – an exception rather than a rule. Similar claims could be made of the blogosphere.
Without class, elections and public debate are centred on social issues: gay rights, law and order, gender rights, racial equality, and modest adjustments to economic policy – all within the acceptable realm of modern free market economics. Within the context of identity, the working class is seen as the cause of social ills and poverty as a disease – bogans, chavs, white trash and helpless victims – in which the cure is to end class and transform everyone into socially tolerant middle class consumers. The villains in this reality are not structures and cultures but individual broadcasters, politicians, and corporations. Public debate is centred on language, words, and purchasing power. Often the broad thrust of social media is similar to mainstream media in harnessing our demand for instant justice – a cyber pitchfork if you will – to fight individual enemies with invective.
The use of consumer boycotts has become a popular tool. Notable in America, these have included the movement targeting Wal-Mart and McDonalds as exclusive evils – with those including myself as a young polemicist-reading politics student having boycotted such businesses on ethical consumer choice alone. More recently this has extended to public language such as the attempted boycott of US fast food chain Chick-Fil-A over homophobic statements by its CEO; and this year in New Zealand over the John Tamihere and Willie Jackson’s infamous Roastbusters interview, the Metro Magazine joke debacle, and moves against Bob Jones for backwards comments about sexual violence towards women.
The flaws of this approach – especially Tamihere and Jackson, Metro, and Bob Jones – reminds me of The Simpsons episode ‘Itchy and Scratchy and Marge’ – where Marge founds Springfieldians for Non-Violence, Understanding and Helping (SNUH) to demand an end to cartoon violence as the cause of youth violence. Successful in its aim, SNUH tries to rally Marge to lead a campaign against Michaelangelo’s David on display at a gallery Springfield. When Marge disagrees with the premise, she is confronted with the hypocrisy of opposition to one form of public obscenity but not another – resulting in both Itchy and Scratchy being revived and David being displayed in Springfield.
The effective discouragement or attempted removal of offensive words, views, and media being broadcast within the public sphere is a noble aim but whose focus wrongly implies if individual public concepts or figures are taken down or forced to change then the problem has been destroyed. The precedent is the selective choice of targets – in which we often base on our political and cultural biases rather than consistency. Selective consumerism can channel public rage for easy, temporary victories that often fail to address the institutional, political, and cultural roots and often backfires spectacularly – like Chick Fil-A, which made more profit in backlash. That Wal-Mart and McDonalds are bigger than ever in spite of ethical consumer choice is reflective of the ability for corporates to change only as a purely market response.
Movements must have concrete aims to change laws, institutions, and culture to be effective. Gay liberation movements worldwide have been effective through focusing on concrete changes legislative changes to legalise consensual same sex acts; anti-discrimination; institutional cultural changes within police, judiciary, and the education system; now towards gay marriage and adoption. Denial and attempted public removal of opposing views – no matter how heinous they might be – can isolate otherwise flawed citizens who may not be closed to change who could be engaged through public debate to break myths.
The anger at the so-called nanny state associated with the modern left (the right will be addressed next post) is less about regulating environmentally-unfriendly lightbulbs, showerheads, and junk food and more a perception of overemphasis on immediate tolerance of diversity and correct consumer action rather than working to address myths and the roots of cultural and structural behaviour. All voices short of incitement to harm have the right to be included within the public sphere. Personally, my favourite figures on the left are those who effectively use satire to reduce the most threatening institutions, scary garbage people, and their garbage views to rubble – far more effective than boycotts. If this piece accomplishes anything, it will be more people listening to the Bugle just to get the idea.