Over dinner on Monday, Jon and I got into a rather sombre conversation about the last days of Hemingway, which he spent in Ketchum, Idaho. When the similarly doomed Hunter S Thompson retraced Hemingway's footsteps – right to the very last – he came to the conclusion that he was, like Hemingway, no longer connected to the zeitgeist. His life as a writer had, therefore, finished.
I hadn't really made this connection before, but whether it's “news sense”, “nose for a story” or a “sense of the people”, the connection to the zeitgeist is at the core of this, whatever it is that I'm doing to lead you to read this. It was an articulation of my fear about coming back to New Zealand – to be so disconnected from the underlying currents of the times, that I could no longer do this.
It's a bit like land. You wouldn't think twice about it when you're standing on it, but once you go beyond the horizon, it becomes abstract – and you wouldn't know where to start looking for it.
I had really dreaded wading into the EFB debate. I felt completely clueless. Not so much about the facts or the arguments. I walked into a conversation between Graeme and a National researcher at their Christmas party last week; the legal arguments were amusingly byzantine, but manageably incomprehensible.
No, the real mystery was the ferocity and shrillness of the debate. I'd witnessed the continual escalation of the debate from afar, and fuck, it was scary. It got louder and louder, became painful and completely incoherent. The strands of arguments made sense in their own right, but they were escorted by increasingly thuggish rhetoric, and threaded together by a narrative that I just plain didn't get.
And, like the equally painful noise around the TSA, it wasn't just a narrative. It was a worldview. The arguments came out of a meta-narrative about what's going on in this country, and it wasn't the New Zealand I knew.
My reintegration into Wellington has been a relief. It hasn't taken me long to remember what the Wellington machine is – a giant, noisy smoke machine. The nation is not ablaze; they just left the smoke machine on for too long.
I chalk it up to a concept that I would like to coin rhetorical hyperinflation. It's the effect of continual oneupmanship, where each outraged hyperbole and bitchy namecalling has to be more outraged and bitchy than the last.
But it's not a frivolous metaphor – with each upward spiral of vitriol, the value of the words decreases.
Contrary to appearances, the debate hasn't been getting more heated. It's been dying a slow, desperate death. Even as the voices grow more shrill and the words more angry, people are becoming more cynical about the debate itself and the institutions responsible for it.
People are losing faith in the currency of politics.
But Labour's “people don't care so shut up” position is cynical, too. Sure, the debate has gone way out of proportion, and the shrillest of the bill's opponents have done their cause a great disservice, but now Labour is trying to get a free ride out of this just because the opposition have overplayed their hand.
There are genuine issues there, and today's Herald editorial show precisely how the debate has been fucked up.
The debate can boil down to two basic interpretations. One, which is the view of this paper, is that the Bill makes democracy in New Zealand less free. The other is that, yes, it does do that, but it is a necessary evil to rid the country of covert manipulation from the likes of the Exclusive Brethren. National should be seizing its chances to hammer home that first point and ensure that the public realises that from January 1 political discourse will be restricted. A simple message needs simple communication”
The first “interpretation” is an argument in the second. It's not an argument in its own right. Why? Because all electoral laws, by definition, make democracy in New Zealand less free. 3 month campaigning period? Less freedom. No electioneering on polling day? Less freedom. No buying votes? Less freedom.
Laws are restrictions on freedoms. Electoral laws are restrictions on democratic freedoms. The point is not whether the EFB restricts democratic freedoms – it's an electoral law, of course it does – the point is whether, on balance, the restrictions promote a healthier democracy, and whether those restrictions unfairly favour or disfavour specific groups in society.
The “simple communication”, as the Herald puts it, doesn't even get people started on the real debate. Of course, if the Herald was actually concerned with debate, then it wouldn't have criticised John Key for making arguments that were “too low-brow, too detailed and too open to argument”. By low-brow, I assume they mean that he didn't ratchet up the rhetoric to the Herald's mighty standards, and by too open to argument, I guess that meant he wasn't restating meaningless truisms.
It may be imprudent of me to think that I have a better grasp of the zeitgeist than that grand dame of New Zealand, the organ that Paul Holmes would look like if he was fed through a printing press, the New Zealand Herald. Perhaps. But they've really pissed in the pool on this one, soiling the debate, and that will remain, even if people are still willing to swim in it.