Fighting symbolism with symbolism

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.


4 thoughts on “Fighting symbolism with symbolism

  1. Does the decision of government to pursue those responsible for damaging public property set an precedent for all those appointed to positions of resposibility for management of public assets deemed to have economic value?

    I was thinking of Ecan. But I suppose if “negligence” is part of the plan they are working to, then I suppose they have immunity.

  2. Good post Lew. If recent history is a guide, the Crown will persist in its civil suit even if it knows that its victory will be phyric. The reason is that it can extract its pound of flesh from the Waihopai 3 via the costs of their defending the case, in which the time honoured tactic of continuous motions, delays and appeals will prolong the process and thereby force the Waihopai 3 (or perhaps Plowshares Aotearoa) to expend more time, energy and money on it–resources that they could use elsewhere, either collectively or individually. The point is to embark on a death by a thousand legal cuts strategy in order to exact a toll on the defendants regardless of the court outcome (just ask Ahmed Zaoui).

    Such a scenario is currently being played out with regard to the case of the Urewera 18.

    More importantly from the Crown perspective, this legal strategy could prove to be an effective deterrent to others inspired by the “defense of right” argument.

  3. Should you be so confident that the Crown will not allow security experts to comment?.

    I favour the deterrent view, but perhaps the timing is also more about preceding the publication of the legal review of the protestors’ successful defense?.

    The argument may be ” protestors can’t pay, therefore taxpayers will, we should change the law to ensure such vandals will become criminals”.

    Taxpayers should pay – we should have provided sufficient security to prevent expensive damage to a legal installation by casual protestors armed with sickles.

  4. Bruce, indeed — overnight, in what I believe will be a spectacular own-goal, the GCSB has spoken. Who knows what else they’ll do.

    But intelligence agencies can’t fight rumour and innuendo like this. All their opponents have to say is “well, just tell us what it is you do then — if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. When they are inevitably unable to do so — for perfectly good reasons — Nicky Hager wins. Better to just retain the sober dignity and mystique of Doing Important Classified Business About Which We Are Unable To Comment.


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