Two Men Enter. One Man Leaves: Does Labour need another hero? David Shearer's failure to pull the metaphorical sword from the stone bodes ill for his looming battle with the National Party's (and the nation's?) "monomythic" leader.
“WE DON’T NEED ANOTHER HERO” sings Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It’s a curiously contradictory song because, if you listen to the lyrics, it soon becomes painfully clear that a hero is exactly what these captive children, “the last generation”, need: someone who does “know the way home”; someone who can lead them “beyond Thunderdome”.
Perhaps the popularity of the 1985 hit recording is attributable to the worldwide collapse in the public’s – and especially the young’s – faith in political leaders and political ideologies. This was, after all, an era dominated by the polarising figures of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, leaders who made it very clear that they would rather be dead than red and were quite willing to enlist the rest of us in proving the point. Mad Max was itself set in a post-nuclear-apocalypse world. In the eyes of many young people, heroes weren’t the solution – heroes were the problem.
And yet, as even the most cursory glance at the historical record makes clear, people not only need heroes but they are ready and willing to follow them. Indeed, modern political marketing is about little else. Just take a look at a professionally produced campaign ad. Note the camera angles, the lighting, the music, the symbolic references: the entire exercise is devoted to making the candidate look taller, wiser, braver, more patriotic, more heroic that his or her rivals.
The great American socialist, Eugene Victor Debs, warned his working-class followers against putting their faith in leaders:
I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now the capitalists use your heads and your hands.
By the same token, however, Debs never came close to being elected President of the United States and his Socialist Party remained forever in the shadow of the Democratic Party.
Nor is it certain that Debs’ contention is even true. Ramsay MacDonald, Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister, was hailed as a hero by his working-class followers as the world spiralled into financial ruin in 1929. But when, in 1931, bereft of ideas about how to stem the rising tide of unemployment, MacDonald threw in his lot with the Conservative Party and led a rump of Labour into a coalition “National” government, he was vehemently denounced as a traitor to both his country and his class.
The notion that a hero is someone who wields great physical and/or moral power in his own right, though widely held, is misconceived. A hero isn’t something that you are, it is something you become. Joseph Campbell, in his seminal 1949 work The Hero of a Thousand Faces, describes what he calls the “monomyth”, the narrative structure common to all hero tales:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Heroes succeed because they embody the virtues and have acquired the skills necessary to overcome or divert the forces their communities feel most threatened by. The hero is the distillation of collective aspiration, not its creator.
Local Hero: John Key is the distillation of New Zealanders' aspirations - not their creator.
John Key’s extraordinary success as a political leader owes a great deal to how closely his own career conforms to the heroic monomyth.
The story begins with John, an ordinary Kiwi joker with a head for figures, setting out on a risky journey into the fantastic world of high finance, where all but the hardiest and most cunning traders are eaten alive. Having mastered the magical art of making money, and acquired a vast fortune, John returns home from his adventures determined to put his hard-won skills to good use among his own people.
It is difficult to imagine a “hero” better suited to the needs of twenty-first century New Zealand. John Key’s very ordinariness confirms his “Everyman” status, and amplifies the potency of his success. The power he wields is not his own, but a weapon forged from the capacities inherent in every Kiwi: those mysterious qualities that allow New Zealanders to “punch above their weight”; that national essence which sanctions John Key’s followers’ vicarious participation in his personal and political success. He is Us, and We are Him. It’s why, until an even more emblematic hero comes along, John Key will remain invincible.
For a while, it looked as though Labour had found just such an emblem. David Shearer’s story, like John Key’s, begins with an ordinary bloke setting forth on a journey, during which he encounters all manner of monsters – from Somali warlords to murderous Israeli settlers – learning in the process the magic spells for opening the human heart to compassion, justice and reconciliation. He, too, returns to his people and, at the crucial moment, steps forward from the shadows to declare that he is the one destined to lay low the National Party usurper.
Except he hadn’t learned the spells, or, if he had, he could no longer remember them.
Forgotten Magic: What if the Once and Future King had grabbed the sword in the stone - and it hadn't budged?
It’s as if Arthur stepped up to the sword in the stone, gave it a confident tug – and nothing happened. Instead of a sword flashing in the sunlight above his head, proof positive that he was “rightwise King born of all England”, the weapon stays exactly where it is, and the hero, with an embarrassed shrug, picks up a guitar instead.
There are, of course, many variations on the classic hero tale. Instead of acquiring forbidden knowledge and inheriting mysterious powers, the hero is often required to overcome a series of obstacles and/or eliminate a host of adversaries before completing his quest. In doing so he blazes a trail and lays a path for those who follow after him. Think of the Labours of Heracles, or Theseus’s struggle with the Minotaur, or Luke Skywalker’s destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars.
Does Labour have another hero? And, if it does, can we assume that the first obstacles and adversaries he must overcome are all inside his own party?
In the words of the Bartertown mob in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: “Two men enter! One man leaves!”
Or, as Savannah Nix (more generously) declares in the movie’s closing sequence:
Still in all, every night we does the tell, so that we ‘member who we was and where we came from ... but most of all we ‘members the man that finded us, him that came the salvage. And we lights the city, not just for him, but for all of them that are still out there. ‘Cause we knows there come a night, when they sees the distant light, and they’ll be comin’ home.
We DO need another hero.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.