Gordon Campbell On Becoming A Nation Of Political Paranoids

8ec585a79bc3bae426e0Reportedly, there’s a crime wave sweeping the nation, even though the vast majority of us are not experiencing it first hand. That’s partly because the crime rates in most categories – including youth crime, and crime committed by rangatahi Maori – have been dropping sharply in recent years.

“This latest report shows that offending rates among children aged 10 to 13 fell by 65 percent between 2010/11 and 2020/21. Over the same period, offending rates among young people dropped by 63 percent…This means that there were 2,900 fewer children and almost 8,500 fewer 14 to 16 year olds offending than there were 10 years ago.”

Maori still do figure disproportionately:

63 per cent of those under 17 coming before the courts in the last year identified as Māori, compared with 26 percent European, 7 percent Pasifika and 1 percent Asian.

But even so, some of the key trend lines have definitely been heading in the right direction:

  • the number of young Māori aged 14 to 16 who appeared in the Youth Court reduced by 51 percent from 2016/17 to 2020/21; from 1,383 to 673, compared with a 45 percent decrease for European/Other; and,
  • the Youth Court appearance rate fell by 54 percent between 2016/17 and 2020/21 for Māori compared with a 37 percent reduction for European/Other.”

All up:

….Rather than being out of control, youth crime now is much lower now than it has been for decades. The number of children under 16 being charged is just a quarter of those facing the courts 20 years ago.

So there’s a good news story to be told here, amidst all the rampant ‘law and order” panic. Plainly, the discourse could find a bit more room to explain just what society is doing right with respect to young offenders. Diversion, trauma counselling, drug treatment, upskilling, retraining and job placements all seem to be helping to resolve the problem, even though it is the criminal acts of a relatively small core of offenders that continue to dominate the headlines.

Point being: there are viable policy alternatives to the punitive, ruinously expensive and socially futile “We’re tougher on crime” approach that the centre-right parties continue to peddle for political gain, by stoking the fires of fear and outrage among the voting public.

Footnote One: The ‘lock’em up’ brigade would probably claim that the positive declines cited above are because the Ardern government is soft on crime. Yet that doesn’t explain how the same trends of a general decline in youth crime are also reportedly occurring in England and Wales, Australia, Canada and the United States.

Footnote Two: BTW, New Zealand already has one of the highest rates of incarceration per capita in the developed world. We’re living proof that the “lock’ em up” approach doesn’t work. Ultimately, government spending on programmes that foster rehabilitation, drug treatment and re-integration is still the best (only?) way to prevent the public from becoming tomorrow’s victims.

Footnote Two: This year, dairy owners have been given genuine reason to fear. Notably however, other serious crimes have been receiving nothing like the same media attention, and have not sparked the same public responses. For example: Reportedly,158 New Zealand women lost their lives to domestic violence in the decade 2010 to 2020 without generating anything like the same levels of political posturing and public handwringing. Far fewer people have been telling the media that they’ve “had enough” of our DV statistics, and that there has to be a crackdown on the crims (mainly men) responsible.

Paranoia Strikes Deep

“There’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” – Hamlet, in the midst of an argument over whether Denmark was or wasn’t, a prison.)

In a wider sense, the image of New Zealand as a nation under siege from criminals is a sign of a divided, fearful nation. Comparatively though, New Zealand remains one of the safer places on the planet. Our level of paranoia about crime – and the threat from gangs – is inflated, and has little to do with the actual threat. At the same time, there has been an equal rise in the paranoia levels about the government’s use of its powers. Our mundane social democratic state is being painted by some as a totalitarian regime.

As we saw during the protests at Parliament this year, lots of people have convinced themselves that Jacinda Ardern presides over a socialist tyranny. Allegedly, Ardern has spoiled/wrecked what used to be a wonderful little country. Yet despite these allegations of rampant socialism. New Zealand somehow keeps on topping the international polls for being the No. 1, least regulated place for free enterprise to set up and carry out its business. If this is socialism, it’s a remarkably light-handed and pro-capitalist version.

Unfortunately, the claims of tyranny are merely the most visible symptom of a country that gives every outward sign of being beset with greater or lesser levels of pessimism. During 2022, farming was sunk in terminal depression even while it was pocketing the best export returns in a decade. Business is also sunk in the permanent funk to which it is in prone whenever Labour is in power. That is still the case even though two years into the pandemic, the economy is roaring along at a pace that if a National government was in power, the current growth rates would be being praised to the skies as a triumph of good economic management and evidence that we’re a “rock star” economy again.

You have to ask: How on earth did a nation of “can do’ people blessed with Kiwi ingenuity and living in what is still a natural wonderland become this angry nation of sullen pessimists with a raging persecution complex? How did a nation that was among the first in the world in which women won the right to vote, end up being so women-hating that our Prime Minister is regularly compared to a horse? “ Just jokingly” of course.

Getting paranoid

How does a nation become cranky and paranoid? Nearly sixty years ago, the US historian Richard Hofstadter wrote the definitive text on the subject. In his 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” Hofstadter began by making the point that the paranoid mindset can characterise the thinking of people on the right or on the left:

I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.

Hofstadter also made it clear that he wasn’t using the term in a clinical sense:

In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to [people] with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.

Absolutely. People who otherwise appear normal also happen to think that Jacinda Ardern is the Tyrant Queen of Socialism. More often than not in history, the paranoid style has been associated with bad causes rather than good ones, but that wasn’t Hofstadter’s main concern either:

Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content. I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric.

Right. We need to treat much of our current political rhetoric as being a symptom of the country’s psychological condition, and respond accordingly. Hofstadter proceeded to illustrate the paranoid style by citing examples from what was then quite recent US history – McCarthyism, the John Birch Society, and the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign. But usefully, he also cited older situations in which otherwise normal people came to believe that other people and groups were secretly wielding immense power, and that this process was the root cause of their own personal problems. Moreover, it tends to be the case with this condition that only a few enlightened people such as themselves can see the puppet masters for who they really are.

Over the centuries, that list of secret puppet masters has included: the Deep State, the Wall Street bankers, the Club of Rome, the United Nations, the military industrial complex, the Church of Rome, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Jesuits, the Jews, the witches of Salem etc… Hofstadter cited an extract from a Texas newspaper in 1855 that seems no different in tone and content to the Qanon screeds and Alex Jones rants of today:

“. . . It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head [i.e. the President of the United States] is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism. . .”

With similar zeal, the “secret society” of the Masons was routinely denounced for much of the 19th century as “Hell’s masterpiece” It carried many of the fears that the prospect of co-governance arouses among some New Zealanders today, but with secret handshakes to boot:

Masonry was accused of constituting a separate system of loyalty, a separate imperium within the framework of federal and state governments, which was inconsistent with loyalty to them. Quite plausibly it was argued that the Masons had set up a jurisdiction of their own, with their own obligations and punishments, liable to enforcement even by the penalty of death.

Online and elsewhere, the protesters at Parliament this year alleged that a diabolical collusion was in play between the powers behind the scenes and the mainstream media, in order to suppress the truth. Exactly the same thing was claimed of the Masons nearly 200 years ago:

Since Masons were pledged to come to each other’s aid under circumstances of distress, and to extend fraternal indulgence at all times, it was held that the order nullified the enforcement of regular law. Masonic constables, sheriffs, juries, and judges must all be in league with Masonic criminals and fugitives. The press was believed to have been so “muzzled” by Masonic editors and proprietors that news of Masonic malfeasance could be suppressed. At a moment when almost every alleged citadel of privilege in America was under democratic assault, Masonry was attacked as a fraternity of the privileged, closing business opportunities and nearly monopolizing political offices.

Fear and resentment of the menace of Masonry had barely subsided when along came the Jesuits to engage themselves in a mortal struggle with Protestantism for the total control of the state:

“It is an ascertained fact,” wrote another Protestant militant,” that Jesuits are prowling about all parts of the United States in every possible disguise, expressly to ascertain the advantageous situations and modes to disseminate Popery. A minister of the Gospel from Ohio has informed us that he discovered one carrying on his devices in his congregation; and he says that the western country swarms with them under the name of puppet show men, dancing masters, music teachers, peddlers of images and ornaments, barrel organ players, and similar practitioners.”

You get the idea. A precious way of life is under attack by forces of whom the sheep-like majority are completely unaware, but whose machinations are visible to the enlightened few. What makes the modern paranoid style rather different is that beforehand, freedom’s guardians were sounding the alarm about the external threats posed by devious foreigners, alien religions, European socialists, and/or the Asian hordes of the Yellow Peril to their beloved country. Patriots, awake!

Today though, the threat is internal, and it resides in the topmost reaches of government and commerce. The motivating feelings are of (a) dispossession, and (b) betrayal by one’s own elected leaders:

[The country] has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old… Virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old, but major statesmen …at the very centres of… Power.

That, Hofstadter believed, marked a crucial difference :

Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right [and radical left] find conspiracy to be betrayal from on high….The whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media is engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal [patriots.]

In the past, these essential “truths” had to be communicated by pamphlets and street corner orators. Now they can reach millions via a mainstream media keen to monetise fear and outrage. At the same time, there are any number of populist politicians willing to stir up outrage and seek votes all along the spectrum of the fearful and the disgruntled – from people who feel only a sullen resentment of the powers-that-be, to the people intent on overthrowing the system, by force if necessary.

Why New Zealand?

For most of its almost 200 years of colonial history, New Zealand had largely been spared the mass waves of paranoia typical of other countries. So you have to ask: Why has New Zealand’s political discourse suddenly become afflicted with conspiracy theories that government is not only inherently incompetent, but actively malevolent?

If we take Hofstadter’s point that the modern paranoid style is driven by two basic feelings – dispossession and betrayal – then it becomes easier to name a few possible turning points. By and large, the dispossessed continue to include those who have been pushed to society’s margins for generations, by the impact of colonialism. More recently, they have been joined on the sidelines by the people cast aside when our previous egalitarian values were replaced by the zeal for market liberalism.

That’s where much of the current distrust of government was born. A country with strong communal bonds chose to replace them with a “winner take all” culture of winners and losers. In the process, whole sectors of employment were demolished, and some communities were all but abandoned to drugs and to homelessness. Little wonder that generations of people deemed surplus to market requirements now feel dispossessed, and angry. To some degree, that’s been a rational response to being treated as disposable.

The gaps between the pro-market rhetoric of successive governments and the realities on the ground have fed into the sense of betrayal, and of government being an agent of oppression whose statements cannot be trusted. Briefly, Covid did rekindle the sense of “we’re in this together” but the opportunity was not taken to put lasting structural changes in place – only temporary handouts, until the status quo could be resumed ASAP.

No doubt, the government’s use of lockdowns, border closures and vaccine mandates until vaccines became widely available did prevent the mass casualties seen elsewhere. It also saved the health system from being completely overwhelmed. But that success – given that it did not ultimately deliver any material advantage to the survivors of Covid among the dispossessed- has fuelled the leap into claims that no genuine threat had ever existed in the first place. Covid prevention measures came to be seen as a sham, and as yet another tool of oppression and betrayal.

The psychology involved means that these betrayals are also felt to be deeply personal. This country’s decline in social cohesion cannot have “just happened” – it has to have been brought about by deliberate will and intention. For the conspiracy theorist, as Hofstadter says, the response therefore has to be a militant one:

…The paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.

Basically… In the world of paranoid politics, nothing ever happens by chance or by mistake, or is merely the unfortunate downstream outcome of imperfect policies. This deeply ingrained sense that everything happens by plan is how we arrive at the ugly and intense personal abuse of Ardern. Because cruel and deliberate fore-knowledge is how the paranoid tends to see the actions of his or her elected leaders:

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us….he [or she] makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will.

How do we climb back out of this hellhole? Well, there are parties contesting Election 2023 who seem to be wedded to the same policies that did so much to create the dispossessed in the first place. Best avoided, if we want to avoid experiencing more of the same.

No doubt, the egalitarian values of New Zealand’s post war period may have been partly a myth, especially as far as Maori were concerned. Yet the state’s commitment to equality at the time was more socially benign than what has come after it. Since we’ve chosen to embrace the market’s jungle values, maybe we shouldn’t be totally surprised today that some people have begun to act like animals. Because… The winners take it all, don’t they?

Music playlist, on repeat

In case you missed it the other day, here’s the Werewolf holiday playlist: