An over-familiar State
There is a scene in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, where Winston, the rebellious protagonist, gets ambushed while helping fix his neighbour Mrs. Parsons’ sink by her unruly children. “Traitor!” they yelled while dressed in the uniform of the Junior Spies, “Thought-criminal!” A mere nine and seven years old, they adored the Party, and would do anything for it—including turning their own parents in to the Thought Police.
They were just playing, but Winston described it as feeling like he was surrounded by tiger cubs, who will one day grow up with a bite to match their roar.
I was reminded of the Junior Spies when the Prime Minister proudly shared a letter she’d received from a young girl. ”My dad is not washing his hands properly,” the girl scrawled in red writing on the back of a postcard addressed simply to “Jacinda,” “he is not putting soap on his hands and rubbing for twenty seconds.” “I will work on this with him,” she reassured Ardern, who responded: “love the offer of support right at the end there.”
A young girl, without realising it, expressing allegiance to the Government over her own parents.
This made the news mostly as a feel-good story. It’s fair enough to say this is all a bit of a light-hearted amusement: a junior member of the Team of 5 Million getting one-up on her buffoon-like father. Just playing.
But for me at least, there is also something unsettling here. A young girl, without realising it, expressing allegiance to the Government over her own parents. To be clear, this Government isn’t training Junior Spies like that in Orwell’s world. Ardern isn’t sending out Thought Police to force errant fathers to wash their hands. But by using the Team of 5 Million language and promoting informing on our neighbours who are “letting the team down,” there is a powerful, shifting cultural narrative at play that promotes a democratically unhealthy intimacy in the relationship between individuals and the Government.
It’s effective too, with over 63,000 New Zealanders reporting rules breaches of the COVID-19 Act last year. Surveys by IGPS showed that the “trust in our neighbours to make informed choices about the future” dropped by about 4 percent in the past 4 years, while “trust in the government to do what is right for New Zealand” rose by 14 percent. We now trust our neighbours similarly to our Government.
There is a powerful, shifting cultural narrative at play that promotes a democratically unhealthy intimacy in the relationship between individuals and the Government
The letter and these statistics are symbolic of a deep—yet subtle—sense of over-familiarity that serves to erase our awareness of the massive power imbalance between Government and individual citizens. Just ask the noted South Auckland KFC worker how it feels when the warmth disappears. At a time where “lockdowns impose the most extensive restrictions on New Zealanders’ lives seen for at least 70 years; perhaps ever,” as Professors Andrew Geddis and Claudia Geiringer said, we must not forget that the State, albeit a “nice” one, is still the state—not our family or friends.
We’re fortunate that our Prime Minister isn’t in any danger of becoming Big Brother, and New Zealand isn’t a dystopia. But to maintain our civil democracy in these extraordinary times, we must balance our over-familiarity with a healthy emotional distance.go back