Winston takes Deng Xiaoping for a drive
"I don't care whether the doctor is black or white or brindle", Winston Peters had said, leaning over his lectern and attempting to hold the gaze of a wavering television camera, "as long as that doctor, male or female, can fix me".
Peters used this curious formulation during an argument with other party leaders over the problems of Maori in contemporary New Zealand. After condemning the 'separatism' which the Maori seats in parliament and Maori-language schools supposedly foster, Peters had argued that lack of educational and economic opportunity, not racial prejudice, was to blame for Maori problems. By junking kohanga reo and other 'separatist' educational facilities and creating more jobs, a New Zealand First government would, Peters suggested, make sure more young Maori moved out of poverty and into the middle classes. The slogan about black or white doctors was apparently supposed to underline Peters' argument that the route to achievement was the same for all young New Zealanders, regardless of their ethnicity.
Peters' slogan appears to have been cribbed from Deng Xiaoping, the effete, guttural-voiced dwarf who fought alongside Mao during China's Revolutionary War, was persecuted for his insufficient revolutionary fervour during the Cultural Revolution, and finally became effective leader of his country after the Great Helmsman's death in 1976.
In the 1980s Deng opened the Chinese economy to market forces and foreign investment, while at the same time machine-gunning students and workers who had the temerity to demonstrate for freedom of speech and free elections.
Attempting to justify his departure from Maoist economic orthodoxy, Deng coined the slogan 'It does not matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice'. That phrase may have been less resonant than 'All power grows from the barrel of a gun' or 'A revolution is not a dinner party', but it became the cornerstone of 'Socialism with Chinese Characteristics', which replaced Maoism as the official doctrine of China in the '80s (for some peculiar reason, the term 'Dengism' has never caught on, although it is sometimes used in a derogatory way by hardline Maoists opposed to China's new paradigm).
I'm not sure what Winston Peters' supporters would think of him quoting a Chinese communist. As a young National MP in the 1980s during the chilly last years of the Cold War, Peters was fond of 'reds under the beds' rhetoric. In 1986 he bemused parliament and the media by claiming that the Mikhail Lermontov, the Russian cruise ship which ran aground and sunk in the Marlborough Sounds, had been on a secret KGB mission.
In the mid-'90s, after parting ways with National, Peters firmed up support for his fledgling New Zealand First Party by running a scare campaign against Asian immigration to this country, speaking in RSA clubs and Housie Halls up and down the country about the dubious loyalties and criminal tendencies of slanty-eyed Kiwis. Although Peters' Asian-bashing has become less pronounced over the years, it is still a part of the arsenal of New Zealand First. In the lead-up to the 2008 election New Zealand First Deputy Leader Peter Brown warned of 'a flood' of Asians arriving in this country, and at the beginning of this week Grey Power, an organisation with close connections to Peters and his party, asked the Auckland City Council to consider whether Asian immigration to New Zealand's largest city should be curbed.
But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Peters has found a slogan in a strange place. The man's speeches and interviews have always been collages drawn from the most diverse and contradictory sources.
Peters can take inspiration from high as well as low culture. In a speech he gave to a mass meeting of Grey Power in 1992, when he was courting expulsion from the National Party by opposing its plans to cut the old-age pension, Peters quoted Dylan Thomas' famous elegy for his father, urging his audience to "Rage, rage against the dying of the light".
A decade later, when he was under fire for his Asian-bashing campaign, Peters discussed some of the linguistic and DNA research which had established that what we now know as mainland China was the ultimate ancestral homeland of the Austronesian peoples. Peters pointed out that he was a Maori, and that Maori are a Polynesian and therefore Austronesian people. How then, he asked, with mock bewilderment, could anyone accuse him of racist attitudes towards Chinese people? Clearly he was himself Chinese! Peters didn't mention that the Austronesians left the land now known as China more than eight thousand years ago, long before the emergence of Chinese culture.
Peters can bowlderize high-falutin' literature and breaking research in the human sciences, but he's also happy to work a dodgy joke or two into his performances. He's fond of saying that, because he has both Maori and Scottish heritage, he has the advantage both of a natural suntan and an understanding of the importance of fiscal restraint. In the early '90s he caused controversy by telling a joke about a Jewish man who knelt in his synagogue and prayed for a winning Lotto ticket. As nervous laughter spread through his audience, Peters described how the walls of the synagogue began to shake, and God's thunderous voice delivered the message "Give me a break, Jew, buy a ticket". This joke was so good that Peters apparently retold it in 2005.
A lot of political commentators have described Peters as an outdated figure, an old man who cannot hope to maintain his political career in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Arguably, though, Peters' contempt for logic and conventional political categories and his chaotically entertaining style of exposition make him a very contemporary figure.
The British sociologist Gregor McLennan has talked about how, with the end of the Cold War, the decline in class struggle in most Western countries, and the dumbing down of popular culture and the media, many politicians have ceased to identify themselves with the left or the right of the political spectrum, and instead embraced a 'vehicular' approach to ideology. According to McLennan, politicians like Tony Blair have became adept at adopting an idea, 'driving' it to a particular political destination, and then abandoning it.
In New Zealand, Winston Peters has been a pioneer of vehicular politics. During his nearly four decades in the political game he has reinvented himself again and again, 'driving' one set of ideas and slogans after another. The right-wing Peters of the 1980s was replaced, in the early '90s, by the social democratic Peters, who defended pensioners against the neo-liberal policies of the Bolger-Shipley government, and who had come to see the value of Maori seats. Peters took a turn to the right when he joined the Bolger government in 1996, and rediscovered his distaste for Maori 'separatism' at the end of the decade, after falling out with the New Zealand First members who had won the Maori seats off Labour. Peters moved left again when he joined Labour in government in 2005, and he has even appropriated some of the slogans of the Occupy Wall Street movement in recent weeks, in an attempt to play to the mood of disgust with the financial sector which he detects in his audiences.
As this blog has noted, Peters is not without his youthful supporters. It can be argued that, with his preference for resonant soundbites over extended argument, and his disdain for hoary notions of left and right, Peters is well-placed to appeal to a generation raised on twitter and on claims that the old ideological battles of the twentieth century are dead. Winston may be driving for some time to come.
[Posted by Scott/Maps]