Life is not a spectator sport

A SPLOG by Peter Matheson

In the  Spring of  1989  I was in   Halle, in  Communist  East  Germany,  for  a  history  conference. Although the natives were obviously restless   none of us there had a clue  that  the balloon was  about  to go up,  the  Berlin Wall to  disintegrate,  the  face  of  Eastern  Europe  to be  forever changed. Secret police control, army loyalty, party hegemony seemed unshakeable. One lives through life-changing  events but  is  seldom  aware of  them ahead of time.

Could  it  be  that  our  recent  elections signify a sea-change of similar magnitude,   that  they  are  much more than the usual  three year  political roundabout, more  than a  generational  shift?  Could it be that  the neo-liberal apple-cart  is  being upturned, and  that  the  common good  can  again figure  as  a political imperative?  Certainly the  sense of empowerment  during the election was  palpable,  the flow of energy  for  fundamental  and  redemptive  change.  A new  Prime Minister   actually spoke  about  kindness as a  prerequisite.  Capitalism’s need of serious revision apparently  made  the  case for  the  coalition  .

The  elections, of course, could have  gone  either way. We  won’t  forget  in a  hurry  the anxious wait  for Winston’s Delphic  utterances.  But  what  of the future?  Here in  Dunedin  Claire  Curran’s  sleep-out  in the  Octagon  had  already signalized  something new in the  air. When  we arrived  an  hour  and  a half  early for  Jacinda Ardern’s  Hunter Square  address we  barely  got  a seat.  The  atmosphere  was electric;  her brief talk electrifying. The same  at  the Univ  campus.  There is  a new  spirit in  the  air. David Clark amassed unheard of  support, a whole army of  enthusiastic  door-knockers.   For once cynicism and  resignation have been  at a  discount, grass-roots democracy vibrant, agency has been recovered.

There  had been, however,  as  much despair  around  as  hope. Professor  Jonathan Boston’s  critique  of political short-termism had long gone unheard.   Not  least in  respect  to the  environment. Teachers, social workers, nurses, psychiatrists  were often exhausted and short-staffed, weary of being fobbed off  with empty promises about social investment.   The  cheapening  of  social  discourse  seemed unstoppable as ‘alternative  truths’  piled up in the election campaign. Metiria  Turei,  a  figure of integrity  if ever there was one,  was  stopped in her  tracks  by a mixture of  selective moralization and media  assassination. This  was not  only a calamity for  the  Greens.  It  highlighted the  extent  to which we have become  two nations, the  prosperous  one blandly unaware  of  the  pressures on the other. Behind  all this lurked  the  convenient  myth of  the market, which would  eventually regulate  everything.

This  despair, however, has  become the  tinder for the  activism.  We are beginning to realise  that we  are living  through apocalyptic  times, nowhere  seen more  clearly than in  the  renewed spectre of nuclear war, the  self-mirroring lunacies of  Isis and  Trump. A succession of  weather calamities  is  at  last awakening  people  to the  “lethal realities” of climate  change, though,  as the London performance poet, Kate Tempest puts  it, “It’s  safer just  to see what we can bear”? 

“Business as  usual” is  a  mantra which no longer convinces. We know we have  to change. The  first  hundred  days of  the  new government  have begun with some élan, and  the silly obstructionism by the  National opposition which is already in evidence will  not go down  well.  Yet  the  challenges  ahead are formidable.  If, indeed, we  are on the cusp  of  a  more humane era the  resistance of  those  who  have profited  from  the previous dispensation  can be imagined. We cannot  leave it  all to the new  government.  We  will all have to put our shoulders  to  the  wheel. Life is  not a spectator  sport.