Was Politics Always This Dirty?

I refer of course to the recent book by Nicky Hager that has wrong-footed John Key and further obscured the release of various policies from Labour to National over the past two weeks. The question I ask is inspired by the shrugging cynicism about not only the matters raised in the book, but the entire fabric of politics. Some people I have recently crossed swords with have assured me that this is nothing new, that politics has always been this way, and that I am naive to consider that there is anything to be gained by close inspection. I resent the implication, and I resent the patronising dismissal of my point of view. 

While I can accept (although grudgingly) a counterargument based on reason, it is quite beyond my tolerance to accept a blatant dismissal based simply on aged authority. The interlocutors I refer to are speaking from what they believe to be experience (which I lack and am grateful to receive if it is actually genuine), but they mistake their weight in years for intellectual currency — they lazily expect to buy acceptance with it. While wisdom is the by-product of experience, weary presumption coupled with crows feet and wrinkles stands as pretender in its stead. It is bullshit, and it is a terrible thing to bullshit the young. 

So I won’t swallow that kind of manure (that isn’t the only reason why I won’t) and will probably continue to alienate and engage people in equal measure with my argumentativeness. But the point of this exercise is to look at the degree of grubbiness in politics — whether that has changed. Here the naysayers convict themselves of a chronic bitterness. To look at politics and conclude that there is no need to investigate the connection between bloggers and Government ministers because we’ve always known it was dirty is the ultimate expression of tired cynicism. It is a pervasive feeling, and valid to an extent. But it is not an argument. 

To be honest it is downright arrogance to presume such omniscience. A call to provide evidence makes sense here, but it’s hampered by the fact that negativity tends to stick in the mind better than its counterpart. Muldoon was a bully who drove some officials to tears, he accused a Labour MP of homosexuality and the MP subsequently resigned (Colin Moyle, his departure after one of the most disgraceful events in Parliaments’ history led to the irony of Muldoon’s future successor David Lange winning the by-election in Mangare). Those events stick overwhelmingly in the mind to the point where Sir Robert Muldoon’s achievements languish in obscurity. A false picture of Politics emerges.

But that is not to say that examination of the theory and practise of Muldoon/Key/Collins should be abandoned. Uncovering of the methods they use to throw mud helps ensure those methods will have to change. Will the mud stop flying? No, of course not. But the process enables us to partially reclaim politics from the mire — if only for a time. The attempt to make things fairer and more positive is worth it for its own sake. This is particularly valid where it concerns such appalling public shits as Cameron Slater. (Please pardon my language, Slater has a knack for bringing out the worst in people).

We decide first as individuals, then as a greater community what we value in this world. Politics is trapped in an existential struggle to reach the unobtainable ideals we set to guide it, just as we are to some extent in our own lives. ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ is a fine phrase, and a lesson that the journey is of more importance than the destination. Politics often falls so miserably short that a cynical state of mind is not an unreasonable side effect. But so long as the yearning to be better than ones nature survives intact the journey will continue, and occasionally there will be instances where politics really is all it promises to be. As John-Paul Sartre observed: 

‘Life has no meaning a priori [from the earlier]. Life itself is nothing until it is lived, it is we who give it meaning, and value is nothing more than the meaning we give it.’ 

In the same way Politics has no more meaning and value than what we give it. That’s why Hager’s book matters. To glance behind Oz’s curtain and see the geezer tugging at leavers and seeing which ones he’s using. Instead of drawing bitterness from that, how much better it would be if we draw strength, and a resolve to improve politics a bit. It’s only an extension of ourselves — as good, bad, and ugly as we are.

It is a smear, against promiscuous smearers.

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