Fighting symbolism with symbolism
Posted on 08:15, April 8th, 2010 by Lew
So the Crown, having had their appeal against the Waihopai 3′s acquittal (about which Pablo wrote an excellent post) dismissed, is considering a civil case against them, to recover the $1.1 million cost of the damage to the dome and fences surrounding the satellite dish.
In politics it is usually best to fight symbolism with symbolism; once a topic or policy matter is being debated in symbolic terms, in general no amount of fact or logic or reason will prevail against it. This often promotes an arms race — the party to a debate who introduces symbolic aspects to their discourse gets to set the agenda, to define what the debate is about, and this is clearly so with the Waihopai 3. While the customary analysis of the protest action is that it took place one morning in April 2008, with a slight return in the criminal court during March 2010, but all this demonstrates is that people don’t really understand the nature of this protest. It is ongoing. This morning, Peter Murnane responded with some puzzlement to Sean Plunket’s question “Do you have any further protest actions planned?” by saying “No [...] well, we’re busy with this one.” That’s the point: Defending their actions on truthful, legitimate and principled grounds in the full glare of public scrutiny is the protest. Contrary to another current case, the Waihopai 3 have stood up and said the non-blasphemous equivalent of “you’re goddamned right I did”, and are willing to accept the consequences of their actions — but only once they’ve made their position clear. And they expect that their commitment to principle and legitimate due process is reciprocated by the Crown, and if sued will call for representatives of the GCSB to face them in court. This places the Crown in an invidious position: it cannot permit senior intelligence and security staff to be dragged into this matter, but if it fails to do so it will cede the symbolic field to Ploughshares, and the legitimacy of its position will be further eroded.
For the Crown to seek reparation would be fair and just: the actions of the Waihopai 3 cost the NZ taxpayer money and the Crown has a right to recover that via legitimate legal means. But because the Waihopai Three have set the terms of the symbolic debate and have everything to gain and nothing whatsoever to lose from the case, it is a fool’s errand. While, as Bill Hodge says, the Crown has an “invincible case” in the civil court, the battle is not being waged in the court, but in people’s hearts and minds. The Waihopai 3 claim they have no money, and this seems plausible. So the only reason for the Crown to take a case against them is to demonstrate that the organs of power are not to be trifled with, and that even if a jury will acquit for a good cause, an appealing idealistic argument, or an integrous and principled stand such actions cannot be undertaken with impunity. A display of power, if you like, though not an especially vulgar one. Such a display may serve the social purpose of quelling the urges of overenthusiastic and legally (not to mention ethically) illiterate anti-abortionists, and will have some currency among the not-so-closeted authoritarians who bayed for the blood of these peaceful protesters in April 2008 and again in March 2010. But to the extent that the government seeks to retain its dignity, this will be cold comfort indeed.