Dumbstruck: What the progressives forgot, and the reactionaries remembered, is that while the human bell curve is, indeed, moveable; it can be moved in both directions.
AT THE HEART of the progressive vision is a single, very powerful idea: that the human bell curve is moveable. Humanity can become healthier, smarter, more cultured and more caring – by its own efforts.
The average height of the Roman legionary was just 165 cms. Fifteen hundred years later, the soldiers of Napoleon’s Grande Armeé weren’t much taller. From the middle of the 19th Century, however, Europeans enjoyed a century-and-a-half of “betters”: better sanitation, better medicine, better education, better housing and, of course, better diet. As a result, the average height of the European male rose steadily from 165 to 180 cms – roughly one centimetre every ten years.
No wonder they called it “The Age of Progress”.
For much of the 20th Century New Zealand was the international exemplar of Progress. In World War I the Kiwi “diggers” towered above the English “Tommies”. Denied the ordinary New Zealander’s protein-rich diet, the English troops stood half-a-head shorter than their colonial cousins.
Our famed Plunket Society turned out healthy mothers and healthy babies. Fluoridated water supplies and free school-milk gave Kiwi kids bright white smiles and big strong bones.
Big strong morals, too, were no less a feature of the progressive society bequeathed to posterity by Seddon and Savage – the fathers of New Zealand’s welfare state.
We were a nation of joiners and helpers. New Zealanders were renowned the world over as people who could get along with just about anybody, and who were never afraid to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in. They could not, however, abide the “stuck up”. People who gave themselves airs and believed they were a cut above everyone else offended the ordinary New Zealanders’ egalitarian instincts.
It was our greatest strength, but also our greatest weakness.
BECAUSE WHAT HAPPENS when the only bell curve left to shift is the bell-curve of knowledge and culture? In an egalitarian society, how do the aristocrats of talent in the arts and sciences, win themselves an audience? How is the nation’s cultural wealth, formerly the preserve of the ruling elites, to be equitably redistributed across the whole of society?
The answer, both here in New Zealand and across the world, has been for the state to create and maintain a broad range of publicly-owned media dedicated to making the sort of cultural experiences hitherto restricted to a wealthy few available to the whole nation. Public libraries and public broadcasting, a state-funded orchestra and ballet company, generous state support for scientists and artists of all kinds: these were the starting-points for the progressive democratisation of knowledge and culture.
They were also the starting point for all those reactionary forces whose steady retreat before the forces of progress had left them with nowhere to look but down. A society which had already given its entire population access to health, housing, education and employment really had nothing left to seize from their reactionary masters except the crucial cultural tools required for transforming a comfortable subaltern existence into a full, free, self-actualising life.
FACED WITH THIS last great surge of progressive social action, the forces of reaction made a fateful decision. Rather than surrender, and let the people come up, they would come down. What had been the prized tools of individual growth and liberation would now be derided as the ultimate symbols of elite domination.
Knowledge and culture, the reactionaries told a New Zealand public already highly suspicious of intellectuals and artists, are the weapons your enemies use to oppress you. Who are these so-called “experts” to tell you the earth is getting warmer? These elitists who pour scorn on the TV programmes you watch and the music you enjoy? Why are all these novelists and artists so determined to undermine your values. Why should taxpayers fund institutions that belittle their way of life?
The right to rule, which had for centuries been associated not merely with brute force, but with the accomplishments of civilisation – with virtue – would henceforth be associated with the rulers’ promise to protect the people from those very same accomplishments. All that will separate the rulers from the ruled in the reactionaries’ dystopic future is the width of their wallets.
SO, WELCOME to “The Age of Stupid”; to the great “dumbing down” of New Zealand. The place where educational standards are being reduced to readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic. Where the universities are already very close to becoming public-private investment partnerships for turning out the officer corps of global capitalism. Where “public television” turns out to mean installing a couple of cheap video cameras in Radio New Zealand’s studios.
Let no one try to convince you there isn’t method to this madness. Because what the progressives forgot, and the reactionaries, facing extinction, finally remembered, is that the human bell-curve may, indeed, be moveable, but that its movement is in both directions.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 23 August 2011.