(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 20.)
One of the hallmarks of a liberal democracy is its tolerance of stirrers and agitators.
After all, democracy is built on the contest of ideas, and nowhere do the rules say that only safe ideas – those acceptable to the mainstream – are permissible. If that were the case, there would be little impetus for change.
Democracy sometimes depends on extremists to stretch our thinking and challenge us with new ideas that drag us beyond our comfort zone. Freedom of expression and a free press allows us to test and debate radical views, and if they have merit they ultimately get political traction.
Even if the ideas of stirrers and agitators fail to win mainstream acceptance, we put up with them because the freedom to irritate and antagonise your fellow citizens is a measure of the health of democracy. The moment governments start to suppress ideas simply because they don’t conform to comfortable majority thinking, democracy is in deep trouble.
As with so many other things in a democracy, however, it’s question of striking the right balance. The right to stir and agitate is not unlimited – which brings me to the subject of this column.
John Minto is a career stirrer and malcontent: a man who appears to bear so many grudges against the system that it must be a constant challenge deciding which one to vent on any given day.
In 1981 he was a leader of the protests against the Springbok tour. Most of his fellow agitators from that time have since settled into comfortable middle age. Their once red-hot political passions have mellowed to an autumnal gold. (Geoff Walker became the boss of a big publishing company; Alick Shaw put on a smart suit and became deputy mayor of Wellington.) But not Minto – his ideological fire burns as brightly as ever.
He has the gaunt, intense expression of a man obsessed – indeed you might say haunted. It seems that in Minto’s fevered imagination the world is populated by honest, working-class battlers who are helpless against the plotting of heartless capitalists, politicians, warmongers and imperialists. Or at least they would be helpless, if it weren’t for Minto heroically manning the barricades.
His paid job is as an organiser for the Unite union, in which capacity I saw him a year or so ago marshalling a picket line outside a McDonald’s outlet in West Auckland. But he also sounds off frequently on education issues, representing something called the Quality Public Education Coalition (how many members, I wonder).
Ironically, where education is concerned, Minto generally argues passionately for the status quo rather than for revolution. That’s because he likes the system pretty much as it is – controlled by central bureaucrats, left-leaning academics and the teachers’ unions at the expense of parents and parental choice.
The third string to Minto’s bow is an organisation called Global Peace and Justice Auckland – an organisation that sounds like a hangover from the Cold War era, when communists afraid to declare themselves sheltered behind front organisations supposedly dedicated to peace or opposition to racism and nuclear weapons.
It was in his capacity as chairman of Global Peace and Justice that Minto and a group of supporters spent several days earlier this month haranguing lone Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer at the WTA tournament in Auckland.
It seems that in Minto’s warped mind, the hapless Peer bore the guilt of her country’s behaviour toward the Palestinians. In the eyes of the protesters she was here not as a tennis player but as a representative of a murderous regime, and her very presence on the court at Stanley St was an implicit endorsement of the Israeli government and therefore a propaganda victory for Zionism. So it was not only legitimate but honourable to do whatever Minto and his fellow protesters could to distract her from playing and detract from the enjoyment of those watching.
It is at this point, I believe, that any public tolerance of Minto’s antics evaporates.
Peer’s personal position on the Palestinian issue – assuming she has one – is not known, to the best of my knowledge. But that aside, she was here lawfully to play tennis, and a paying crowd of enthusiasts lawfully paid money to watch her.
All this is of no consequence to Minto, who is so wrapped up in the righteousness of his cause that he pays no regard for the right of others to go about their lawful business without interference. He appears blind to all rights and all causes but his own.
I found all this strongly reminiscent of 1981. I opposed the Springbok tour and marched against it in Wellington and Napier (choosing the latter location deliberately, knowing that in rugby-mad Hawke's Bay, my home province, the anti-tour movement would have difficulty mustering a respectable number). But I believed my right to protest stopped short of interfering with the right of others to go about their lawful business. So I parted company with my fellow protesters the moment they began deliberately blocking streets, motorways and airport runways in an effort to disrupt the tour and obstruct those wanting to watch or play rugby.
The hard-core anti-tour protesters were so convinced of the correctness of their cause that they felt morally entitled to impose their views on others. They apparently couldn’t see that in a democracy, their right to push their views had to be balanced against the rights of other people to go about their lives without let or hindrance, to use a quaint legalism.
Nearly 30 years later, Minto still doesn’t see it. If anything, he’s even more of a zealot now than he was then.
And while I initially rejoiced at the news that he had been arrested while protesting with a megaphone outside the Stanley St courts, my pleasure was curtailed when a friend pointed out that Minto probably considered his arrest a triumph – a validation, of sorts, that confirmed all his beliefs about the brute power of a repressive, conservative state being brought to bear on a champion of freedom.
Sadly, that’s the way such minds work.