Gordon Campbell on why we politely fake the obituaries for politicians

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. A government implements the latest round of a fuel tax. This tax has been increased annually by successive governments for yonks, but this time the increase co-incides with a temporary spike in global oil prices. The public feels furious. It vents about the smaller element in the price increase equation (the fuel tax) because… well, it just seems so typical of an uncaring, out of touch government.

To make matters worse, the public also receives a lecture on how they should be embracing the fuel tax increases. In France, the Macron government told the public that the price hike was a green tax imposed on fossil fuels, while (here in New Zealand) the government defence was that hey, we increase it every year and all the money being raised goes directly into making our roads safer to drive on. A mere drop in the bucket and also very good for us, right?

Here’s where the parallels between what happened in France and what occurred in New Zealand begins to break down. Here, we grumbled and complained but forked over the extra money until – unexpectedly – the global oil price fell sharply, and took some of the pressure off household budgets. In France, they did a lot more than grumble. As the French often do, they took to the streets. They began smashing things on a major scale, right in the heart of Paris. Emmanuel Macron and his government quickly backed down. This year’s fuel tax increase has been scrapped and the entire programme of using petrol price hikes to reduce carbon emissions now looks to be in jeopardy.

That will come as bad news for Sir David Attenborough, and for the planet. In the same week that Attenborough warned us all (at a climate change conference in Poland) that the survival of civilisation and the animal kingdom depends on us being willing to take urgent action, France has just shown us that the general public has limited will (or ability) to soak up the costs involved in making this transition.

It is symptomatic of a wider problem. Too often, green taxes (and urban cycleways) are seen as ideological impositions aimed at changing the feckless behaviour of the masses. The masses tend to resent this. As France has shown, they may well dig in and fight back. The lesson from those riots on the Champs Elysee? More than ever, it seems that saving the environment is going to have to be tackled as a social justice issue. If it is to be successful, the response to climate change cannot be divorced from tackling income inequality and job insecurity, at the same time. Otherwise, it will readily be seen as yet another example of the elites passing the buck, without passing the bucks.

ghw-bush-imageGeorge Bush, Culture Hero

One unfortunate side effect of “personality politics” is that when prominent politicians die, the niceties we observe at the death of private individuals get automatically extended to them as well. It would feel a bit churlish not to do so. After all, we “ knew” them so well, because they were in our living rooms every night for years on the six o’clock news. Yet the maxim ‘don’t speak ill of the dead’ can be downright misleading when it causes media obituaries to skate over the troublesome episodes in the careers of public figures.

This past week, this dodgy process has been evident in the eulogies for former President George H. W. Bush. In a process uncannily similar to what happened with Senator John McCain only months ago, Bush Senior has been celebrated as a beacon of America’s lost decencies, and the embodiment of a kinder time almost unimaginable in the bitterly divided politics of today. As happened with McCain, a sentimental narrative of Bush Senior’s life has been fashioned into a tool for beating up on Donald Trump.

As with most myths, there’s an element of truth to the tale. Over the past few days, the central artifact in the story of The Decent Bush has been the generous letter of advice and best wishes that he left behind for his successor, Bill Clinton. True, it is impossible to imagine Trump writing such a letter.

Yet although the Bush letter featured in almost every single one of the media obits, the striking thing about the obits (when taken as a whole) is that so much of the life of the 41st President was edited out of them. In one of the very few mixed verdicts, Slate mentioned the several allegations of sexual assault made against Bush in his old age. Reportedly, the former President was a serial groper, who deployed the same dirty joke each time he attacked the several women unlucky enough to get within range.

To be kind, such behaviour could be put down to a sick old man in his dotage, but as Slate maintained, this proclivity did at least deserve a mention in any full accounting of the man. In addition, the Columbia Journalism Review noted that the Bush Snr obits routinely contrasted his presidency with that of Trump, even though – ironically – the media studiously ignored the glaring similarities between the two.

Such as? Well, the CJR pointed out, only last month the media had resurrected the famously racist Bush campaign advertisement that featured the black recidivist convict Willie Horton. In 1988, Horton got used by the Republicans as the poster child for a wave of black criminal violence that would allegedly engulf the nation if voters should be foolish enough to elect a “soft on crime” Democrat to the White House. As CJR put it:

The Horton ad was explicitly compared to a Trump campaign ad painting migrants as bloodthirsty criminals. Likewise, the Brett Kavanaugh saga re- upped Bush’s appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court— Bush stuck with Thomas, as Trump stuck with Kavanaugh, despite credible allegations of sexual misconduct against his nominee. And Bush’s

decision, as he prepared to leave office, to pardon defendants in the Iran–Contra scandal to shield himself from further investigation chimes, at least in some small way, with Trump’s reaction to the Mueller probe: just last week, Trump refused to rule out a pardon for Paul Manafort.

So, was George Bush Snr really such a stark contrast to Trump and truly the embodiment of a gentler, more decent America? Maybe not. The archetypal example of the whitewashing that occurs in political obits was of course, the canonisation of Ronald Reagan after he died. As Glenn Greenwald complained at the time in Salon, the media coverage dutifully enshrined Reagan as the nation’s Great and Cherished Leader. As with Bush Snr, all evidence to the contrary was airbrushed out of the picture:

As media and political figures lavished him with politicized praise, there was virtually no mention of the brutal, civilian-extinguishing covert wars he waged in Central America, his funding of terrorists in Nicaragua, the pervasive illegality of the Iran-contra scandal perpetrated by his top aides and possibly himself, the explosion of wealth and income ushered in by “Reagonomics” which persists today, his escalation of the racially disparate Drug War, his slashing of domestic programs for the poor accompanied by a deficit-causing build-up in the military budget, the racially-tinged (at least) attacks on welfare-queens-in-Cadillacs, the Savings & Loan crisis resulting from deregulation, his refusal even to acknowledge AIDS as tens of thousands of the Wrong People died, the training of Muslim radicals in Afghanistan and arming of the Iranian regime, the attempt to appoint the radical Robert Bork to the Supreme Court….

At such times, why does the media routinely become too polite and reverential for its own – or anyone else’s – good? Insecure about its own status at the best of times, the media never wants to the one who farts at the funeral. In his book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe mocked the way that the media – commonly blamed for its sensationalism – instinctively reverts to the role of what he called The Victorian Gentleman. In Wolfe’s view, the media routinely edits out from the public discourse what is unruly and unseemly, and ensures the tone of public debate proceeds along lines where decency and rationality are encouraged to prevail, even on occasions when all the evidence points to the contrary. Greenwald made an argument along similar lines :

When someone dies who is a public figure by virtue of their political acts — like Ronald Reagan — discussions of them upon death will be inherently politicized. How they are remembered is not strictly a matter of the sensitivities of their loved ones, but has substantial impact on the culture which discusses their lives. To allow significant political figures to be heralded with purely one-sided requiems — enforced by misguided (even if well-intentioned) notions of private etiquette that bar discussions of their bad acts — is not a matter of politeness; it is deceitful, and propagandistic.

The Local Version

It would be comforting to think that such traits are peculiarly American, with little bearing on how us straight-talking New Zealanders see the world. That would be wishful thinking. As the Columbia School of Journalism report says, most obituaries of public figures are written well in advance, and given a hasty rewrite to update them when the time rolls around for their use. In some media vault right now, it isn’t hard to imagine the media narrative that’s already been written for the likes of say, Sir Roger Douglas.

It is probably a safe bet that when Sir Roger finally takes his leave, this country will be painted as having been a dull and dreary place yanked into the modern age by the Douglas reforms. There will be some likening of this country pre-Douglas, to a Polish shipyard. Good coffee was hard to find. Sure, some “pain” was wrought by Rogernomics, but said pain will be deemed to have been necessary (especially by those who never experienced it) and goodness… look at the quality of the coffee these days! What a vibrant place the country has become etc.

Only a disgruntled few will maintain that we continue to count the legacy of Rogernomics in the generational transmission of the misery it brought in its wake. As in France, it will be only if and when the decades of deprivation explode into public outrage that the narrative may change.

Prince of the Desert

Talking of the dear departed, Prince is reportedly soon to become the subject of a Mamma Mia-style Hollywood biopic, with music.

Apparently, the success of Bohemian Rhapsody has shown the way to the gold that can be made from resurrecting the dead guy, with a soundtrack. Yet as has already been pointed out, wasn’t Purple Rain a Prince biopic, with a soundtrack? What’s less well known beyond a cult audience, is that a Tuareg version of the Prince saga was also made into a movie a couple of years ago in Mali, under a title that translates as “Rain The Colour Blue with a Little Red In It.”

The film had the advantage of starring the terrific Malian guitarist Mdou Moctar. Here’s the trailer for the film, based pretty closely on the Prince story, motorbikes, distinctive title lettering and all:

And from this year, here’s a live cut with Moctar on guitar and vocals, recorded at KEXP studios in Seattle:

Finally, here’s a personal favourite from Moctar’s back catalogue. I can’t recommend too highly the Music From Saharan Cellphones series on the Sahelsounds label. This track “Anar” kicks off volume 2 in that series. Apologies for the dodgy video footage, that’s been taken from a totally unrelated 1984 desert romance: