Friday, 19 September 2014

Looking through dirty windows into an empty room

A colleague of mine once described how he'd felt when interviewing a particularly nasty person who'd been engaged in some very unpleasant behaviour at work. 

He said that looking into the man's eyes was like, 'looking through dirty windows into an empty room".  

I don't know if he'd read that somewhere but I thought it was expressive - all the more so when I later met the man in question. I was as repelled by the person as I was fascinated by what made him behave in such a viciously anti-social way.

I kept recalling some lines from a Euan McColl poem,  "Items of News" about the violent deaths of some young people who

"once possessed a singularity, 

beyond the comprehension of their killers 
who stare at the camera lens 
with eyes as blank as bottle tops."

I get that same sense when I venture into the internet gathering places of the lowest of the low-effort thinkers, the storm troopers of the Right - the Amygdala Brigade.  The sort of people who are rioting in the streets of Glasgow as I write this. 

They're scary. As individuals they're bad enough, in a group, their viciousness can be both contagious and exponential. 

We may feel somewhat buffered from that in New Zealand - because we are such a moderate little place. We don't tend to take to the streets in a torrent of drunken, adrenaline and testosterone fuelled belligerence, beat the shit out of anyone who isn't one of us, and try to burn down the offices of a newspaper that offends us. 

But, there is a deep vein of conservatism in NZ which tolerates and, on occasions, encourages extreme views - and extreme views can lead to extreme acts very easily.

A sanitised expression of this deep conservatism can be found in the YahooNZ news poll, which almost always comes down with a large majority in favour of a very right-wing response to the issue the poll is addressing.   Its location on the YahooNZ website has been changed recently and the numbers voting on it have dropped - which may reflect the number of people who abandoned the site because it's recently been revamped into an irritating, advert-ridden mess - but the proportions haven't changed. 

A few days ago this question was posed on the poll:  

"Are you concerned by illegal mass spying of governments?"

  • Yes, of course (1220)  25%

  • Depends who's being spied on (1013)  21%

  • No, let them do it (2106)  42%

  • I don't care (575)  12%

Key words : MASS ILLEGAL - SPYING - GOVERNMENT  - and 75% of  YahooNZ poll respondents are OK with it. 

A poll the following day on the same issue was more neutrally worded but still reflected the same division - about 1 in 4 thought it is an issue, the rest are ok with it - they don't care, they believe that it's necessary, or they think that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

It may be that this poll is inaccurate or it may be that a majority of the people who visit the YahooNZ site are right wing and stupid. 

I add 'stupid' because I know there are some right wingers who do not think it's a good idea to allow an agency of the state to spy on all its citizens. They're politically aware enough to understand that these agencies develop an internal culture that can lead people within them to behave inappropriately unless they are kept in check by strict policy that has been framed democratically, and that is properly applied by the incumbent government. 

Just as the heads of the NZ Defence Forces can lose sight of their remit when they're playing with the big boys, so can the nation's spies - the more so because, of necessity, they operate covertly. 

We've had quite a few glimpses through some dirty windows  over the past few weeks and the rooms we've looked into are empty of all the things they should contain: ethics, good judgement, compassion, respect, decency. Even common sense has left the building.

We've been given a glimpse of the nature and extent of dirty politicking and the nature and extent of the surveillance state - courtesy of people of courage and integrity who decided it was necessary to clean a bit of the window to allow us to peek inside. 

Without suggesting which party anyone should vote for on this most important of election days - anyone who hasn't already made up their minds should be voting for the people who will clean the windows, take steps to keep them clean and make sure that the rooms of state are busy with people doing good things for the country as a whole, not just the top 10%. 

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