Politicians have come under increasing assault in recent years, their bodies being attacked over their ideas. How did this come to be? James Robins wonders whether personality politics can be blamed.
At whatever protest gathering I care to tarnish with my presence, I glance quickly around the assembled placards looking for cheap entertainment.
Veteran agitator Penny Bright is guaranteed comedic talent. You’ll find her holding a mock Tui billboard bearing an accusatory epithet directed at the Prime Minister, followed by a withering Yeah Right!. Themes vary, but the tone never changes. Sometimes people give up on allusion and come right out with it: “F*ck John Key!”
First the put-downs, then the mud and muck and dildos start flying. A witty insult is something worth savouring, but when did it all become so salty and distasteful?
Politics has always been a battle of personalities, but in recent years morality and ideology have been jettisoned completely. This country is wallowing in a political culture which finds great entertainment in bodies rather than brains, charisma instead of genuine character – like a high school adaptation of Hamlet or test match cricket. To stretch the metaphor a little: too much time is spent playing the man, not the ball.
‘Personality politics’, or the politics of personality, is not inherently damaging. Often it’s our only introduction to a debate. We come to know ideas or events or movements through their most famous faces: Che Guevara’s stencilled features as a stand-in for sexy revolutions, or Hitler’s toothbrush whiskers as a symbol for pure evil. Studying or critiquing people is often easier than arguing policy or negotiating the labyrinthine intricacies of a scandal.
But personality politics has led directly to Gerry Brownlee and Steven Joyce joining John Banks and Don Brash in a rogue’s gallery of public figures who have been personally assailed. Where has this tactic come from?
We follow a pattern set by our leaders, it seems. Playing personality politics to get elected and maintain power can be immensely successful. The National Party apparatus is an exquisite example, a masterpiece engineered to keep John Key’s ‘brand’ afloat despite tides rising ever higher. Regardless of his actual character, the public-facing Key is incongruous and unmoved by any non-manufactured emotion, pumping out a sense of breezy charm (“Look, at the end of the day I think all New Zealanders…” and so on). Put him before the press and he’ll answer anything (including whether or not he pisses in the shower). Key is the Party, and the Party is Key.
So if the ruling class have decided that one man is enough of a representative, what about its enemies, the people who refuse to be massaged in such a way? Rather than rise above it, they tend to indulge this ridiculous game. Most of the Left’s attacks on the government are pernicious diatribes aimed at the PM. “Once a banker, always a banker” is the catchphrase, its rhyming innuendo never far from mind.
Aural assaults will only get you so far, especially against a titanic enterprise which has made an art of brushing aside criticism. Throwing stuff seems to be the last resort. Indeed, the gunk flung at Gerry Brownlee on Monday did not come from nowhere. Five years of Brownlee’s domineering over Christchurch - neo-brutalist bank headquarters being built at the expense of social housing, stadiums erected instead of potholes in streets being filled – is provocation enough. Exhaustion, frustration, fury, and being told that you’re “carping and moaning” too much by a powerful figure in public office tends to have that effect.
In a media atmosphere where personality is the only currency being traded, grievances, either real or imagined, now get a full airing when a public figure’s body is attacked. If you had serious concerns about the TPP and felt they weren’t being paid attention to, wouldn’t you find another use for a sex toy?
I won’t argue about whether assaulting powerful people is justified. Nor will I insist that cosy group hugs are a cure. That’s for pundit professors and salaried talking heads. Instead, it would be a better thing to refuse the lie forced upon us: that politics is a beauty contest or a New Zealand’s Got Talent variety show in search of the next messiah to miraculously cure our political sins. Substance should be valued far more than style. And at the risk of sounding like an absolute bore, the issues ought to matter more.
We only need look across the Pacific to see what the endgame is. The spectre of Donald Trump is haunting the United States, hoovering up the Bigot Vote by trading purely in sensation and feeling. Trump doesn’t need to be credible or trustworthy. The illusion of his charisma does the trick.
No matter how much they might deserve a manure cake to the face, remember that the emptiness of Trump or Brownlee or others like them is only the consequence of a broken system, and that broken system is the source of your grievance, not the smug politician who never answers a straight question.