Nov 4, 2008

Time For A Laugh

We have a lot of time for journalist David Barber. he is one of the few journalists who has really followed Asian affairs in depth. Even today, he was devoting his day to chairing an Asia Foundation seminar in Auckland.

David has sent in the following contribution which he has agreed we can publish under his name.

By David Barber

I figure we’re all going to need a laugh or two (apart from Winston Peters) this week. I offer this free of charge (just as well The Hive doesn't pay...)

David Lange was in short pants when his father took him to an election meeting where a candidate called Gotz indignantly rebutted criticism of his foreign name. He said his full name was Frank Leon Albert Gotz and his initials stood for the flag.
"Yeah mate, and like all flags you’re up the pole," yelled a heckler, instantly etching the exchange in the mind of the young Lange who decided there and then on a life in politics.
Those were the days when even the staid Sir Keith Holyoake could capture a crowd by rebuking a persistent interjector: "I am a hop-grower and you seem to be on the other end of the trade."
Regrettably, there are few laughs in elections these days. The campaign is largely fought on television with candidates’ meetings restricted to party faithful where hecklers are more likely to be thrown out than challenged with repartee.
Today’s elections are dry and humourless affairs - at least in New Zealand, which lacks a Sarah Palin and her Saturday Night Live alter ego Tina Fey to brighten the campaign.
But it’s not all laughs on the American presidential campaign trail either and Palin has spawned vitriol to a degree which makes the New Zealand election campaign look no tougher than a ballot for a kindergarten committee.
Consider this assessment of the woman who could be a heart-beat away from becoming the leader of the western world by Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi: "As a representative of our political system, she’s a new low in reptilian villainy.
"Not only is Sarah Palin a fraud, she’s the tawdriest, most half-assed, fraud imaginable, 20 floors below the lowest common denominator, a character too dumb even for daytime TV."
The nearest we come to that is in the blogosphere - today’s replacement for the spirited public meetings and hecklers of the past - which was described by a commentator during the last British election as "an explosion authored by political snipers tearing chunks out of the bombast pouring from party media machines".
There is nothing new about so-called spin doctors and their attempted manipulation of the media to advance the interests of their own party, of course. There was a story that the British Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, on holiday, called his press secretary at Westminster to urge him to keep a damaging story off the front pages.
As it happened, news of an especially disgusting sex murder in London broke overnight and Wilson phoned the next day to say: "Henry, you’ve gone too far this time."
As humour has disappeared from the election scene, so sadly has the art of oratory. Fifteen second soundbites for the six o’clock news are poor substitutes for the spine-chilling speeches of Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.
New Zealand has had no political orator worth the phrase since David Lange and as former BBC political editor Andrew Marr wrote about Britain, "there are as few people left in the country who can hold an audience spellbound for an hour by the sheer power of their language as there are sword swallowers".
Lange was the last Member of Parliament who could empty the offices of the press gallery, sending all its journalists to their seats overlooking the House of Representatives, when they got word that he was about to speak.
Oratory has been replaced by what George Orwell called Newspeak in 1984. "The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought," he wrote, clearly anticipating postcard-size manifestos and campaigns built on single word slogans like "Trust" and "Change".
Obfuscation is the name of the game, and you can tell it’s coming every time a politician starts saying: "I/We’ve made it quite clear...."
Stephen Franks - a former ACT MP now standing for National in Wellington Central – joining the ranks of politicians ready to change allegiance depending which party is most likely to help them elected, confessed to a trick of the interviewee’s trade recently.
"You’ve got to revive that ability to ignore the question and just say what you want to say, which is the mark of experienced politicians," he said.
That does not mean lying, of course, even though once on the hustings politicians are freed from the parliamentary shibboleth that bars them accusing each other of what Churchill once called a "terminological inexactitude".
Even that model of British rectitude Margaret Thatcher once confessed: "You don’t tell deliberate lies, but sometimes you have to be evasive."
An election, that astute American observer of the political condition H.L.Mencken once observed, was where "one party always devotes its energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed and are right."
And as you decide how to vote mark the reported sign on a septic tank truck in the US: "CAUTION: This truck is full of political promises."

Wellington journalist David Barber compiled the books of political quotes "Gliding on the Lino: The Wit of David Lange" and "Don’t Vote: It Only Encourages Them!", which was illustrated by cartoonist Bob Brockie.