This is a long detailed post. Half of me says I shouldn’t bother doing this, but I think it would be useful for the record to illustrate that the very deceptive practices that Nicky Hager condemns in The Hollow Men, are in fact used by Hager in The Hollow Men.
The material I am going to focus on has been used by Nicky Hager in the Hollow Men, and has featured in the play and in the just-released film.
If you attended the Wellington premiere of the Hollow Men last weekend will have been given a flyer for the film. On the front page it features a quote from what is said to be an email from Peter Keenan to Don Brash. The line is: “Political war is about evoking emotions that favour one’s goals….while mobilizing passions of fear and resentment against your opponents.”
That rather nasty quote, along with others in the book, is used to introduce the alleged malicious intent behind the Orewa speech on Treaty issues. Hager would have you think Keenan was telling Brash that this is how he should operate and in Hager’s book (refer bottom of p85) this line is presented as Keenan “quoting with approval United States Republican strategist David Horowitz”.
But, as with pretty much everything in the Hollow Men, Hager stripped out the context of the quote to distort the meaning. In fact in this case he manages to reverse the meaning entirely.
What Hager failed to mention was that those words were actually from a six page bullet point summary, sent as an attachment in an email, of essays in two books by David Horowitz. The attached document was a straightforward summary of what somebody else had written. Those that want to check what follows can simply get the books: The Art of Political War and other Radical Pursuits, and How to Beat the Democrats, and other Subversive Ideas. They are interesting essays, regardless of what your political views might be.
The so-called quotes from Peter Keenan, are actually direct quotes from the summary he compiled of the Horowitz articles. This was not an instruction or advice from Keenan to Brash on what Brash should do, but part of a six page book summary.
It turns out that, in the articles summarized by Keenan, Horowitz was describing how the political left conduct their political battles, and pointing out how hopeless the political right is by comparison. He is reminding conservative politicians that they need to engage at an emotional level if they want to be as effective politically as the left. The quotes attributed to Keenan are in fact Horowitz describing how those on the left operate.
Here are a few more quotes from that bullet point summary to give you the flavour of what it was about. Hager didn’t use these. To put this in an NZ context, I have substituted “the left/left-wing” for Democrats, and “conservative” for Republican.
“The right often seem to regard political combat as they would a debate at the Oxford Union, as though winning depended on rational arguments. The audience is not made up of academics. You have 30 seconds to make a point. Even if you had time to make an argument, the audience in the middle (the ones you need to reach) are not paying attention or would not get it.”
“The left come to party politics out of socialist organisations, trade unions, and an assortment of social crusades (abortion, racial grievances, and environmental concerns). They are combat-ready before they begin their political careers. Conservatives train in boy scout troops and graduate to chambers of commerce and rotary clubs. Except for the pro-life missionaries in the conservative coalition, Conservatives are innocents abroad when it comes to political war.”
The so-called Keenan “quotes” that have been referenced in the Hollow Men book, play and film, are drawn from a section which summarises what Horowitz calls the Four Principles of Politics: ie. politics is a war of Emotions, of Position, is about Fear, is about Hope. Hager pulls quotes from the summary explanations of these points. I will give you the full quote (which was itself a summary of a fuller treatment by Horowitz in his book), and highlight what Hager used:
Politics is a War of Emotions: For the great mass of the public, casting a vote is not an intellectual choice, but a gut decision, based on impressions that may be superficial and premises that could be misguided. Political war is about evoking emotions that favour one’s goals. It is the ability to manipulate the public’s feelings in support of your agenda, while mobilising passions of fear and resentment against your opponent.
Politics is about Fear: You must not only convince a majority that you are their friend, you must get them to fear your opponent as their enemy. Anger, fear and resentment are the most potent weapons in the Left-wing arsenal. They are powerful emotions that drive voters to the polls, and if they are not countered these emotions will bury your Gold Stars every time.
Horowitz used the term “Gold Star Republican” to describe the typical managerial type of conservative who thinks he can have a calm, rational debate on policy and win the day.
Thus, by stripping all the context from this “quote”, Hager completely misrepresents Keenan.
If you look at the e-mail in context, the obvious and reasonable interpretation of all of this was that Keenan was warning Brash what he was up against, and encouraging him to try and connect emotionally with the audience, use less technocratic language, and so forth. In the fuller treatment in the book, regarding the politics of fear, Horowitz writes:
“No matter how much conservatives may deplore such tactics, no matter how fervently they wish that electoral contests would turn on good policies and good principles, it is not in their power to change the reality of political war”.
Lets finish here with another couple of bullet points from that summary document, quotes that Hager could have used, but for obvious reasons did not.
“The left rely on Bribery and Fear. Much of the electorate has an enthusiasm for big government. Voters look to government for entitlements, looking to the political left to supply them. And the left recruits its supporters through taxpayer-funded programmes that buy their votes. The obstacles to this tendency is the individualism of the culture, the bankruptcy of most of the left’s programmes (poor incentives, no allowance for individual responsibility), and the political right itself which is infused with middle-class energy and entrepreneurial values and collectively represents the politics of reform.”
“Marxism may be dead, but a Marxist morality play provides the ordnance for left-wing political attacks…..In political battle the political left provides the search and destroy teams that accuse the right of racism and sexism, of polluting the environment and of abusing old people, women and children. The passions that motivate the political left are self-righteousness and hate.”
Looking back at the Labour Party’s 2005 campaign, and the way Hager has operated here, this analysis looks rather perceptive.
What is clear from all this, is that the use of that quote in the flyer for the film, and in the book, and in the play, was shamefully dishonest. Hager in his book, Dean Parker in the play, and Alister Barry in the film, all feature this astoundingly dishonest so-called “quote” – deliberately out of context and misapplied – to cast a malicious light on some simple briefing material forwarded to Brash.
Hager and Barry, if they wish to display the integrity they claim to champion, should order the current flyer to be shredded, and the film reworked to be at least marginally more honest.
Although integrity seems to be in short supply here. Some centre left bloggers have noted with disapproval that the film uses some covert filming of Peter Keenan. Grant Robertson said:
The only bum note in the documentary for me was the use of what appeared to be covert filming of Brash’s speech writer Peter Keenan. Shots of him opening his curtains in the morning, and reading the paper just felt a bit creepy to me.
I am yet to see it, but when I heard about it, creepy is indeed the word for it.
And Danyl at the Dim-Post:
Even more ill-conceived are the other shots of Peter Keenan. One of the most interesting characters in Hager’s book the former economist privately disagreed with his leader’s racial policies even while he was writing the speeches promoting them. Keenan’s emails are quoted extensively in the film over shots of him wandering around inside his home watering his plants and reading the newspaper. The footage is hand-held and appears to have been shot covertly from a distance; Keenan does not seem to know he is being filmed and these sequences all have a queasy, paparazzi-cum-stalker like quality to them. Instead of questioning Kennan’s ethics as a speech-writer I found myself doubting Barry’s ethics as a director.
Danyl also noted:
As with his previous films, Barry makes extensive use of archival footage accompanied by voice-over narration; various experts including political scientist Jon Johansson and Christchurch Press political editor Colin Espiner provide additional commentary (although Espiner agreed to be interviewed by Barry he was not told it was for The Hollow Men).
Stephen Stratford at NZBC comments:
Why on earth would Barry not have told Espiner the purpose of the interview? And having interviewed Espiner, why did he not interview Keenan instead of stalking him in this, frankly, creepy way?
If you won’t front up to your subject and talk to him, you shouldn’t pretend that what you do is journalism. And if you don’t tell someone whom you do talk to what the real purpose of the interview is, you are engaged in deception. Isn’t that what The Hollow Men was all about?
The irony is rich isn’t it? A deceptive book and a deceptive film that take the moral high ground to lecture on deception?
Finally let’s finish on a lighter note. The flyer to the film also features a quote from a Keenan email to Brash, this time a genuine one. It is “the secret of success is sincerity and conviction…once you can fake that you’ve got it made”. That quote is so obviously Peter winding Don up, with a joke that reworks a well-known line by Groucho Marx, that it is amazing Nicky Hager didn’t get it. So Hager quotes a Groucho Marx joke as if it was serious political advice.
Hager, Parker and Barry need to get out more. Those on different sides of politics hold different views about which policies will build a better nation. When you start assuming that people who hold different views from you are in some way evil, then what you need is to get counseling – not write a book, play or make a film. But hey when the Government will give you money to do so, one can understand some of the motivations.
Now this all raises a wider question: given the scale of misrepresentation in this instance, it is impossible to take anything else in this book at face value. If you can make something sinister out of material like this, you can do it with anything. Removal of context is the simplest way to deceive.And unlike blogs where you can link through to the full quote, Hager’s works leave you blind as to the context.
Hager subtitled his book, A Study in the Politics of Deception. It was indeed – but maybe not in the way he intended.