Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 6. 1967.
Letters to the editor
Letters to the editor
"No solution to dilemmas"
Sirs—The tears shed by Peter Quennell in his original article on demonstrators (Salient 2) over the mis-reporting, misrepresenting and taking out of context of their case, turn out to have been crocodile ones. In a second article. "Squint at Inner Workings" (Salient 4) he Claims to reply to my argu-ments in favour of demonstrations (Salient 3). Alas, I find difficulty in recognising some of the statements Mr. Quennell attributes to me; still more in seeing the point of some of his "replies." I invite readers to compare my letter with Mr. Quennell's "summary" of it for themselves; space permits me only a few comments here. Below are two of my arguments as reported by Mr. Quennell, with appropriate comments.
"Our opponents will heed no logic, therefore we will not give them any." How Mr. Quennell obtained this view from my letter I am at a loss to discover. My point was that logic and reason often need to be accompanied by politically-effective pressure tactics. "An illogical defence of the illogical?" Hardly.
Demonstrators "being misread, rewritten and generally taken out of context . . . results from a newspaper conspiracy." I am aghast! The thought that I may have credited the New Zealand press with sufficient ability run a successful conspiracy appalls me. Certainly no such claim was made in my letter. To state that prejudice and bad journalism are the way of life of our press is surely rather different from accusing them of conspiracy?
Similarly with Mr. Quennell's "replies" to my five points:
(1) I "presume rather much in saying that issues are what the demonstrators inflict upon the public." In the absence of supporting argument or evidence from Mr. Quennell, I shall presume once more—I consider that issues are indeed at the core of any demonstration, and challenge Mr. Quennell to prove otherwise. Assuming, that is, that he intended this point to be serious.
(2) "Hardheaded politicians just do not stay afloat in New Zealand!" Clearly Mr. Quennell and I differ on the mean-ing of "hardheaded;" also over the nature of New Zealand political response. Terminological confusion, how-ever, does not disprove my point, that with regard to op-position groups. New Zealand politicians heed those who speak from a position of established strength.
(3) What deters Governments is "the whole iceberg of opposition, not the out-standing tip of demonstrators." I agree, and made this point in my article when I pointed out that "a large body of committed (demon-strating) supporters . . . indicates the existence of a considerably larger body of actual supporters." It is my firm contention, however, that the tip remains the key to the iceberg, so far as the observer is concerned. From the strength of his visible opposition the politician estimates the total numbers of dissidents in the community.
(4) Winning over an Opposition party is "a tactical error of the most remarkable and devastating innocence." Mr. Quennell perhaps believes that Governments will cheer-fully about-face and join forces with protesters whose views they oppose. Or that, on an issue as fundamental as Vietnam. Government can be weaned from an entrenched position to compromise with a movement which poses no electoral threat. His faith is touching; his sense of political strategy unimpres-sive. Let us realise that any issue which becomes a major national concern through the action of effective protest groups will be taken up in some way by political parties in search of vote-catching causes. This being so. are the protesters to ignore or discourage parties which offer support, or are they to take advantage of the considerable advantages of alliance with a political party:
•Spokesmen with access to mass media.
•The rallying in electoral terms of a large body of otherwise uninterested people who will support the party if not the specific cause (a substantial propor-tion of Mr. Quennell's unreachable 90 per cent).
•The "legitimising" of ones cause.
•A voice in a Parliament which despite erosion of its power, remains an effective propaganda medium.
•The confronting of the electorate with the issue by an unimpeachably "respectable, "responsible," and non amateur body.
•And, of course, the real possibility of electoral victory and consequent Government sympathy.
To outweigh these considerations Mr. Quennell offers only the danger of a hardening of an already-intractable Government viewpoint.
(5) Mr. Quennell offers no rebuttal of my remarks on moral commitment.
A major point of my article was that the effectiveness and strength of a protest movement are generally judged by its public appearances and audibility. Mr. Quennell's opening provides a case in point. To recall: "If the Vietnam protest movement really is demoralised — as the present lack of noise strongly implies . . ." Thus Mr. Quennell, in common with many other people, tends to consider a silent movement an ineffective one. Protest must be made publicly -— and must remain publicly visible to convince the Quennells and others that it retains its vigour.
Apart from his sadly-misdirected attempts to rubbish me. Mr. Quennell makes some interesting new points, with which I wish to deal briefly. Firstly, he outlines very well the dilemmas faced by any movement of protest which wishes to have an effective voice and hence must seek to unite under its banner widely-divergent groups. To avoid fragmentation into splinter groups, the movement must constantly engage in a process of compromise among its membership. That such compromise is often imperfect, and that many conflicts are never really satisfactorily resolved, means neither that the protesters are unaware of the problems, nor that the cause must be abandoned. Mr. Quennell offers no solution to the dilemmas; the protesters are at least trying, and not without success. Having re-cognised the extreme com-plexity of the issues involved, Mr. Quennell should know better than to demand clear-cut solutions.
Secondly. Mr Quennell returns to the problems of demonstrations: repetitiveness, counter - militancy, loss of "moderate support." and so on. He adds also some value-judgements of his own — de-monstrations "substitute for debate," attract would-be "martyrs," "deaden members' critical faculties." With regard to the genuine problems, these are factors to which demonstrators are well-aware and with which they do seek to deal. I cannot agree that they are sufficient cause for abandoning the demon-stration as a tactic. Concern-ing the value-judgments, Mr. Quennell and I must agree to differ. I do not consider demonstrators intellectually bankrupt nor brainwashed; I do not find that demonstrations destroy other forms of dissent, nor that demonstrators fail genuinely to seek out and use alternative channels of protest: and, not surprisingly, I reject Mr. Quennell's analysis of the demonstrators' motives and frame of mind. The demonstrator syndrome" of "despondent self-pity and isolation from reality" may be fine ringing phrases, but they serve merely to illustrate Mr. Quennell's very evident isolation from the realities of poltical protest.
Thirdly, Mr. Quennell. from some mysterious and dusty hat. produces the remarkable notion that in the Vietnam debate "the Government is primarily the Chairman." and that the demonstrators are Ignoring the rules of debate. If the Government is indeed Chairman, it is making a travesty of the rules of debate as I understand them by be-ing openly, continuously and belligerently partisan. Alternatively, Mr. Quennell's analysis may be wrong. Take your pick.
Finally, may I sincerely, if briefly, thank Mr. Quennell for his attempt to provide constructive suggestions at the end of his article. As already indicated. I am doubtful of the wisdom of "softening up" and of "discarding Opposition party support." but can agree with the claim that organisation, public relations, and propaganda techniques are all open to improvement.
The Vietnam protest movement certainly is not unaware of this, nor inactive. Perhaps Mr. Quennell would care to offer us his talents as a "morally neutral influencer of opinion?" We would be happy to provide him with a worthwhile cause.
Peter Quennell writes: Like the Anglican Bishop a year or so ago who began his ser-mon on morals by saving that he did not think all sexual intercourse is necessarily wrong. I try to take a liberal view of your correspondent's defence. But I do suspect that all his dialectical hair-splitting blithely reveals the truly chronic confusion in his mind and permeating throughout the movement, on what our democratic way of doing things is all about. This, of course, is a theme requiring greater amplification than I can squeeze in here, but I do repeat the central, foundation point made all along, and so ably sidestepped by your cor-respondent. In baldly simple terms:
In our system, all protests are, at best, basically irrational. Whatever their defence, whatever rationalisation after the event is conjured up, protests are an irrelevant malfunction of the system, which are produced, in each instance, by disenchanted parties following the initial natural impulse of bludgeoning public susceptibility into acquiescing, in lieu of precipitating a coolly - plotted strategy. Protests are the product of a profound misunderstanding of the true nature of policy - making and public opinion, and. insofar as they try to work on them, are bound for quite predictable frustration. Where the channels for influence do exist (and they do here) all it takes is a moderately sophisticated procedure in their use and the world's your oyster. Others have done it. But ignore the usual approaches, put up fuzzy-minded alternatives like demonstrations, and not even the most divinely ordained cause will win through.
In Spain, in Indonesia, in any of the numerous dictatorships of man or party, such tools for pressing a point of view don't exist, and there, to my mind, is the sine qua non situation for demonstrations and mass action to succeed. But when people tell me that demonstrations here are anything but a morale-boost ing game which any protest movement can play — why. this quite strains my faculty of credulity
So this yet again, was the core of my argument. And if. in the light of it. I barely touched upon the tenuous points your correspondent rushes in to defend, and then only late in my article, you will understand why. They were certainly not as central as he likes to think I included them only to illustrate the "demonstrator syndrome" the rigid and inflexibly defiant frame of mind which is the bugbear that keeps the movement so earth-bound. Why does no one grapple with the four dilemmas that I suggest hog-tie the movement? Does its one great success up to now. the herding together of such a diverse gaggle of opinions under the one umbrella, leave it paralytic and powerless for any sort of relevant action apart from parroting the overseas movements?
Two final points:
(1) No group, with the notable exception of the Union movement (to which other channels of action exist for their purely political alms) gives total, unequivocal support to the Opposition and abuse to the Government, as research will soon show. Also: Mr. Kirk said only last week that the Vietnam issue was a red herring in the Election. created by the Government to divert attention from the economy. So much for Mr. Kirk's guile in letting the Government choose the issues, but the really illuminating aspect of this remark is what happened to the Labour Party's efforts to present an essentially intractable problem like Vietnam in blacks and whites as an election issue: it backfired! But despite your correspondent's minimal grasp of political strategy, his point that a fragmented movement presents no electoral threat is a good one.
(2) A movement which relies on emotive, gimmicky methods, as this one did. will, of course, sourly blame its failure on popular prejudice, misreporting. a blatantly biased and entrenched Government, and so on. How absurd. As I say, a pound of pressure misses out where perhaps an ounce of moderated persuasion and understanding might have carried the day. The acid test of the whole movement is its critical capacity for re-appraisals of what it is all about.
[ This correspondence is now closed. We apologise to writers whose letters have not yet been published. We will try to get them in the next issue. Would-be writers are advised letters over 300 words are accepted subject to abridgement.—Editors.]
How little is Congress ?
Sirs,—Last year Little Congress wasn't held because of insufficient applications by students. This year nobody's heard of any organisation for Little Congress. It's suspected that the current Cultural Affairs Officer doesn't even know of its existence. It would be a pity if this valuable event in the university year was lost again— especially an event with such a history! May I suggest that the Executive get off their backsides and prod the Cultural Affairs Officer.
To the editor alone
Sirs,—It is usually accepted as a matter of ethics in newspaper management that letters are addressed to the editor alone, and if a journalist is under criticism it is the business of the editor to inform him and extract a reply if necessary.
Obviously a letter of such length (over 1000 words) could not be included in the "letters to the editor" section, but as literally 27 per cent of it was a purely personal and frankly vicious attack on Mr. Quennell I would have thought it expedient of the editors as non-partisan newspapermen to either omit the parts irrelevant to the criticism of the article itself or to return the letter to its origin so that Mr. Wheeler may rehash it himself.
As a follower of the otherwise highly competent Bertram Quennell debate, one would hope that Mr. Bertram dissociates himself from the emotionalism of Mr. Wheeler, as it is surely damaging to his (Mr. Bertram's) argument and further that Mr. Bertram is not party to the irregular method of the presentation of Mr. Wheeler's letter.
A. E. Young