Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 5. 1967.
Squint at inner workings
Squint at inner workings
If the Vietnam protest movement really is demoralised— as the present lack of noise strongly implies—the movement could do far worse than taking time off for a good cold squint at its own inner workings. Isn't this the acid test of any protest group, the test of vigour and maturity— a critical capacity for reappraisals of what it is all about?
Certainly, the whole movement's central failing has always seemed to me to be its glaring lack of positive forceful direction—hence the duplicating of the old mistakes, the squandering of scanty resources, and the chronic undercutting of its own gains. If the top poobahs really are able and inclined to take due stock of things, perhaps they could nail once and for ever these four absolutely incipient dilemmas.
Does the Vietnam movement as a whole desire to:
1. Conduct a reasoned debate, or a mass promotion campaign?
2. Influence foreign policy makers, or public opinion?
(These two, as I later contend, are tenuously related.)
3. Stay non-partisan on the war ("both sides more wrong than either right"), or point the bone at aggressors?
4. Invoke government / public sympathy for its cause by appeal or militancy?
Strangely enough, these four central dilemmas never have been publicly resolved. The phrase "as a whole" up there is the clue to why. The irresolution almost certainly mirrors a confusion in the ranks, of this nature: "How can the highly intense support of the few be put to work in comfort with the much broader-based, but less intense, general public support?" Probably the incompatibility within the movement of some strange bedfellows largely explains the backwash of disenchanted supporters back into a politically neutral limbo.
The militancy of demonstrations, as I once remarked (Salient 3) now constitutes the movement's Achilles heel, a self-defeating and exhaustively overplayed tactic. Demonstrations are appallingly predictable, a regular circus—mass meetings, picketing, "welcoming groups," mass lobbying of politicians, sundry exhibitionism, the full catastrophe.
In their early formative days, the demonstrators' classic defence was very sound: the massive spontaneity was a vigorous shocktactic, wakening the apathetic, the focal point of visible dissent, the last-ditch lever for opinion. What happened? This early shock-tactic inexorably became the present mutation, the rather frenetic and over-rehearsed ritual too often seen. Not only are the present breeds useless in themselves, but I contend they are actually damaging to all other kinds of dissent and dissenters.
They substitute for dialogue—a surrogate for debate. Demonstrations are the most exotic form of tub-thumping conceivable. They cloud the air with inarticulate irrelevancies. They are the great Non-event staged as a fallback device by intellectually bankrupt factions. They are unsophisticated in message and unselective in audience, when the only good strategy is "Divide to Conquer."
Militancy generates militancy. Demonstrations create the spiral to vicious intolerance. As such a blunt instrument, they invoke a reciprocal reaction upon the protest and spark off Intolerance or apathy like a manufacturer who selects to advertise brashly and without tact, and makes no sales. Particular causes. I maintain. Justify civil disobedience—after the legal remedies are genuinely exhausted.
They repel moderate supporters. Methods cancel out aims they dissipate the support of those anxious to exercise not leg muscles, but articulators. And they attract the martyrs to whom the crucifixion is more vital than the cause.
They sabotage the protest movement. Like a therapeutic drug, demonstrations, by deadening members' critical faculties, sabotage any search for viable alternatives. They substitute, possibly enjoyably, for alternate channels and lead to the common quite chimerical complaint that other channels do not even exist.
They play into opponents' hands. The delight of the rabid Right and the defeat of the libellous Left, their rudeness and bossiness makes a very transparent defensive mask. And if protesters cannot rise above the slanging match, why on earth should anyone else?
In sum, demonstrators are unwittingly engaged in their own self-immolation. I suspect that rather more is at stake in this mordant state of affairs than this specific protest—certainly the healthy flourishing of minority opinions in the face of growing majority intolerance, possibly also even the future of such leftist movements.
Traditionally, and in my mind, the liberal Left is the source of progressive policies on equality of opportunity and the more equitable handing-round of the economic goods. It can pursue these ends both as the Government and in Opposition. Not, however, when fragmented, intolerant and discouraged. Isn't the danger too obvious? Essentially, of course, the danger spouts not from the demonstrations themselves, but from the "demonstrator syndrome," the rigid frame [unclear: c] mind which can produce them.
Why demonstrate? Partly I suspect, as a parroting [unclear: o] the overseas movements; partly also, in ignorance of alternation tives; partly because the demonstrators themselves have progressively caused the alternatives to dry up. The "demonstrator syndrome" [unclear: o] superbly displayed by a [unclear: dem] onstrator, a Mr. Bertrar (Salient 3). He [unclear: rational ises] his actions in a curiously circular argument, in effect "Our opponents heed no logic therefore, we will not give them any!" An illogical defence of the illogical, [unclear: o] course. Axiomatic to a whol defence of this kind is [unclear: th] proposition, "This is a last [unclear: a] ditch resort." But it [unclear: skirt] the much pricklier question [unclear: o] why this is so.
Mr. Bertram continues the case for his species. [unclear: Thei] aims are "wide, [unclear: realisti] subtle," but sadly "misunderstood by numerous member of the public, the [unclear: hardheade] politicians, and newspapers"— and a minority group composed of me.
1. They forcefully bring issue to the public.
2. Show hardheaded politicians a force to be reckon with.
Make Governments tread warily.
Win ultimate allegiance from an Opposition.
Provide the "only" way of standing up to be counted. The parentheses are mine.
Bertram shows here a [unclear: arkably] revealing [unclear: pen] it for pugilistic [unclear: meta res]! But his taste for logic [unclear: ess] advanced, as we find [unclear: imposing] of his 5 defences. [unclear: t], he presumes rather [unclear: h] in saying that issues what the demonstrators [unclear: et] upon the public.
Second, when a delicate feel [unclear: t] pressures and a talent for other-propaganda are the qua non of political [unclear: life-ship], "hardheaded politics just do not stay afloat [unclear: t] for long.
Third, Governments which [unclear: id] warily" in a [unclear: demon- ble] fashion do so in the of the whole iceberg of [unclear: isition], not at the [unclear: out- ding] tip of demonstrators. [unclear: urth], if a protest movement [unclear: s], unequivocally, win over [unclear: a] Opposition, this can only tactical error of the most markable and devastating [unclear: cence]. What does this This immediately makes [unclear: ssue] one of party politics, [unclear: ing] the Government's [unclear: d] firmer more inflexible, less pragmatic. Opposition "allegiance" is entirely negative and damaging to the protest cause. Actually, in the light of Australian experience, the Labour Party did well to equivocate last year on just this allegiance. It got the anti-Vietnam vote while giving little in return.
Finally, Mr. Bertram, biting on the bullet, admits to being "misread, rewritten, and generally taken out of context." This, we are blandly told, results from a newspaper conspiracy! But surely, newspapers everywhere treat demonstrations with due circumspection? There is little solid evidence of political suppression, as distinct from chopping out the tediously repetitive. And surely in our newspapers the ads are kept apart by almost nothing but those ineffably boring interest-group handouts? Also, sad but true, the editorial bias of a right-wing press is usually unashamedly right-wing.
What, then, is to be done? Strategy: that is what the protest groups need more of, for any remote chance of success. This first calls for slithering out of the claustrophobic Turkish-bath atmosphere of despondent self-pity, and isolation from normality, which forms the basis of the "demonstrator syndrome," After this effort, strategy heavily depends on what resolution (if any) is found for the Pour Dilemmas.
For example: Is the target to be public opinion, or the foreign-policy makers? This calls for assessment of the aims and the situation.
Foreign policy has traditionally been non-partisan, and only indirectly geared to opinion on the matter. Opinion tends to be diffuse, uninformed of all the factors, and insignificant. This is substantially the same situation in almost all countries. Policy in Russia. China. Britain. New Zealand and (less-so) America is all decreed by, at most, a small handful of leaders largely impervious to the masses. It calls for a cold, pragmatic appraisal of national interest for its viability. It is rarely subjected, anywhere, whatever the appearances, to rigid ideology, myths and sentiments within the society.
The Communist leaders, who co-exist with as many archaic myths as anyone, clearly show in their guarded foreign manoeuvrings just such pragmatic reality-testing. And little powers have remarkably small sway over the big ones.
The NZ Cabinet, having a lion's share of publicity, can invariably rally opinion to its overseas causes. It is unlikely that the country is deeply divided over Vietnam, if it ever was. I suggest the true situation to be one of diminutive strongly pro and con groups, with the balance of the population (90 per cent?) camped in between, indifferent or neutral, and thus acquiescent to Government policy.
Nevertheless, coherent dissent is still central and vital to the running of democracy. Democracy itself is, basically, a vast multi-partisan debate about the national interest. In this, the Government is primarily the Chairman— which explains to the protesters demanding that it enter the debate itself, why it has this irritating and unique capacity for double-talk. It never narrows itself to specifics, if it wants to survive contentious issues. If protesters cannot grip the nature of this vast debate—learn the rules they obviously don't know—their residual ill-feeling will considerably outlast the duration of the war.
What does all this imply? Basically, that no radical change in policy or opinion will come of the protesters' efforts alone. It implies that the only rational strategy is one of softening-up, moderating and humanising. I look forward to it. The following non-exhaustive list of things to do is offered in this spirit.
Rebuild Group Efficiency. Overhaul the organisation: Is the leadership, spearheading the operation, sincerely representative of group feeling—or of a faction? Is the "feedback" of membership opinions to the leadership occurring?
Develop Political Skills. There exists no major reliable poll of opinion on the war— why not? I suggest the Opposition support be discarded, in favour of straddling the parties, and that more contacts with the National Party be cemented. The opposition to the anti-Vietnam movement was largely of its own making—a bogy incarnated, incidentally, in politics, who pays the piper gets to call the tune. Trade unions, not protesters, sponsor the Labour party machine. And Union interest is sectional, narrow, domestic and inwardly inclined.
Remake Group Image. Retain the temporary services of a PRO, social psychologist or advertiser, to plug the drain on useless spending of resources and manpower, Ingratiate the sympathisers, don't make them feel party to a giant conspiracy. Select exhibitionist group members with delicacy: the tantrums of a few defeat the moderation of many.
Create Publicity Skills. Alternately preaching to the converted, and abusing the opposition (however justified), make a very odd publicity campaign. Propaganda is not brainwashing, but a morally neutral process of influencing opinion. It seeks to soften up and win over fellow-travellers, potential sympathisers, neutrals and indifferents—while isolating and ignoring the actively hostile. Propaganda must, for effect, stimulate pre-existing attitudes and felt needs—especially in this case, where no one of consequence is a "blank slate" on the war. It must be a broad diet of the pros and cons, positive and with the irritating war-partisan slant ironed out, delivered with due tolerance and humility.
Characteristically, the propaganda of both sides is unacceptably dialectic, surety the product of moralistic old bores. It is often blurred, in the attempt to be all things to all men, reflecting the sombre confusion in the mind of the source, Primarily, the heavy emotionalism, sparkling invective and dogmatism are undescribably naive, and must be siphoned off, For a jumbo-sized mouthpiece, why not amalgamate the present proliferation of left-wing journals into something worthy of respect?
My quarrel is not with the aims, purely the ponderous methods, of the dissenters, so this is not an oblique attack on the anti-war effort. Corked-up dissent can only breed intolerance and disenchantment, as it now does. Democracy, more than any system, hangs its success on people's understanding and personal integrity. The "demonstrator syndrome" is a nasty thorn in its flesh. Here's to rationality!