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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 4. 1967.

Quennell wrong, says Geoff Bertram

Quennell wrong, says Geoff Bertram

Sirs—In replying to [unclear: P] Quennell's article [unclear: "Demonstr] tor Finds Way to Cloud [unclear: Cor] plex Issues" (Salient March 31) it seems rather [unclear: fruitle] simply to expose its incohe ence and clouded [unclear: thinklr] since these characteristics [unclear: mu] be evident to even the [unclear: ca] reader. A mass of half-[unclear: dig] ted assertions drawn [unclear: uncrit] ally, and rather [unclear: indiscrim] ately. from "Evening [unclear: Po] editorials and uninspired [unclear: Po] tieal Science seminars [unclear: canr] be accepted as a critical a alyses of the role and [unclear: eff] tiveness of the [unclear: demonstral] in the New Zealand community. However since Mr Quennell seems to share his [unclear: m] conceptions with [unclear: numere] members of the public, I [unclear: sh] consider some of his [unclear: ma] points, and also add [unclear: so] more general comments of [unclear: t] own.

Mr. Quennell sees fit in [unclear: l] supposed wisdom, to [unclear: p] judgmenl upon the [unclear: moti] of demonstrators. Apart [unclear: fr] the well-worn cliches [unclear: ab] political misfits and some [unclear: t] commonly pseudo-psvcholo with which I shall deal [unclear: la] Mr. Quennell's [unclear: understand] of the alms of a [unclear: demons] tion is clearly very limit He sees it as purely an [unclear: a] peal to the public for [unclear: th] support which, because it [unclear: st] up resentment and is [unclear: mis] ported in the papers, must expected to fall in most [unclear: cas] From a politician, this [unclear: in] pretation could safely treated as propaganda. [unclear: Fr] a political selentist it can [unclear: on]be incompetence Political speaking, the aims of a [unclear: de]page 7[unclear: lration] are far wider, more [unclear: istic.] and rather more [unclear: tle] than Mr. Quennell [unclear: sug] They are:

To bring an issue forcefully [unclear: l] the notice of public and politicians, and simultaneasly to demonstrate the [unclear: istence] of strong dissent to [unclear: itablish] policy on this [unclear: atter].

To establish, for the benefit [unclear: e] politicians whose "hard-[unclear: eadedness]" often means [unclear: mply] a refusal to take [unclear: seri] anyone not strong [unclear: lough] to threaten them. That the movement in quesotion can produce a large body committed supporters—and [unclear: a] New Zealand this indicates [unclear: e] existence of a [unclear: consider] larger body of actual [unclear: pporters]. In a political [unclear: ene] dominated by the process of compromising [unclear: mongst] various pressures. Any dissenting group must stablish its position as a [unclear: rce] to be reckoned with.

In the short term, the emonstrator can hone, not [unclear: nmediatvly] to "topple governments" but certainly to [unclear: rce] them to tread warily.

The caution with which the New Zealand Government [unclear: oved] to commit extra troops [unclear: n] Vietnam is testimony to the impact of organised disent. and its relief at the abence of embarrassing proest was evident.

In the longer term, the [unclear: emonstrator] can hope to [unclear: in]. as a matter of political [unclear: trategy], the allegiance of an Opposition party, and hence the possibility of reaching the public with their case. The Labour Party would hardly have come out against the Vietnam commitment had it not felt confident that it would receive considerable popular support on this issue. The incompetence with which it proceeded to handle the issue in last year's campaign is no reflection on the demonstrators who made Labour's open declaration of opposition to the Government politically feasible.

5. Morally speaking, it has long been generally recognised that ordinary people have more than just a right to disagree with misguided government actions; if they genuinely oppose such policies, they have a duty to "stand up and be counted." The demonstration is the major means of doing so. and in "fulfilling this function it justifies its existence whether or not its immediate political aims are achieved. Posterity will recall that New Zealand was deeply divided on the justice or otherwise of our involvement in Vietnam; and I suspect that in retrospect we will recall our demonstrators more proudly than our Government.

To dismiss the moral commitment of demonstrators in disparaging psychological terms, as Mr. Quennell docs, is to misrepresent their beliefs and to display a lamentable ignorance of the principles upon which our political system, for better or for worse. is founded.

Throughout the article, one hears muted strains of the old cry of "vietniks. beardies and weirdies." Not in so many words, of course. Mr. Quennell prefers "irrational elements," "politically eccentric individuals." or "angry people . . . with blunt, obscene placards," seeking "a spiritual release ... of the most therapeutic value." To call this view inaccurate would be to concede that it meant something. Yet to ignore it is to invite disaster, for cant such as this is heard all too often nowadays. The "Evening Post's" attempts to convince itself that the presence of these Ill-defined "elements" at a demonstration must promptly alienate "the public" and of course ruin "the fine art of demonstrating" appear to have gone over 100 per cent with Mr. Quennell. But is not any dissenter "politically eccentric"? And is a beard or a duffle coat to be the distinguishing mark of the insincere, the irrational, and the frustrated? As a bearer of both these symbols. I find such thinking superficial and erroneous. And if Mr. Quennell is not referring to such conventional symbols of visible "irresponsibility," to what is he referring?

Surely, the "politically eccentric" are the lifeblood of any protest. For in New Zealand, the depth of thinking and strength of commitment which lead to public protest are eccentric. A community nurtured on ignorance and political apathy by politicians who find these qualities to be to their advantage must always react with some hostility towards those who by noisily dissenting disturb its political conscience. And that this instinctive reaction should channel its attack against specifically those demonstrators whose differentness extends beyond the political beliefs is also inevitable. The rather paranoic "safety-valve" mentality which Mr. Quennell attributes solely to the dissenter might more profitably be used to describe the political community at large, where the need to vent annoyance by abuse and focus fears on mythical enemies (such as the supposed Communist menace) is surely at its greatest.

Are the demonstrators, then, to evict from their ranks all who by their attitudes and actions command public attention? Are they, to use Mr. Quennell's rather unfortunate metaphor, to cease hitting the public with the force of a lead balloon, and instead sail lightly and "responsibly" up into the clouds, where they can safely be ignored? Because discord alarms the public, are we then to bow to the demand that we lower our voices? The fate of the now "respected" and "responsible" Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament should speak for itself.

The political dissenter in New Zealand, thus, faces a number of difficult problems. The refusal of Government to consider intelligent criticism of its policies intelligently, and its well-established habit of replying to criticism with abuse, certainly make dissent a very frustrating affair. And the New Zealand press, lacking both the inclination and the courage to publish controversy on the great issues of the day, forces the dissenter to seek other ways of reaching the public ear. Thus, denied a sensible hearing by Government and a public forum by the press, protest is characteristically forced to take to the streets both to make its existence known and to demonstrate its strength to politicians whose reflexes are trained to respond to pressure rather than reason.

That demonstrators' objects are generally "misread, rewritten and taken out of context" (Quennell) is true; but then it is surely unrealistic to expect a press of the calibre of ours not to misrepresent the issues. It is. after all, their way of life. What is important about demonstrations is that they force both press and politicians to admit the existence of disagreement. "Delegations, opinion polls, and letter writing" can all be. and usually are. misrepresented. The major advantage of demonstrations is that, unlike these other forms of protest, they cannot be ignored, nor their very existence denied. In the New Zealand context, the credit for much of the political dialogue which does occur must go to the man with the placard, standing patiently in the rain before Parliament.

Geoff Bertram