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Wednesday 10 November 2010


Pragmatists, Activists and Populists

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 6th December 2009

There are three predominant modes of democratic political engagement- pragmatism, activism and populism. How are they reflected within LGBT politics?

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Activism used to be the major political tactic that early gay liberationists and lesbian feminists used. It was white capitalist heterosexist male dominated society that was corrupt and irredeemably. We dreamed of 'smashing the state' and ushering in a pluralist, diverse civil society that recognised Maori as tangata whenua, ended male legislative and civil society domination over women, dismantled heterosexist social institutions and other utopian objectives. We've moved on from this, as has most of the sixties New Left social movements within New Zealand society. HIV/AIDS and the secularisation and liberalisation of New Zealand society made this probably inevitable. Today, we sigh at the naivetie of those early days.

Populism is the tactic that our political opponents seem to prefer. They spin themselves as the "average citizen" or "average parent" and claim to represent "universal" or "normative" "common sense" or "the people." Whereas they used to accuse us of being 'against nature,' nowadays we are apt to retort derisively that they are 'against science,' particularly when it doesn't reinforce their oppressive social structures and advocacy of discriminatory social policies.

One particular case in point was the Section 59 reform debate. The Christian Right denounced mainstream pediatrics and developmental psychology research and mainstream child health, welfare and development lobby groups, primarily because they opposed the continued refusal to prosecute parental physical punishment of children. Faced with professional expertise, Labour and National acknowledged the propriety of reform. However, it is indicative of the Christian Right's populist bias against professional evidence based public policy that it did not. We can expect similar populist rhetoric when the time comes for inclusive adoption reform.

They also tend to elevate referenda to a ridiculously effective extent, as it is seen to short-circuit deliberative, evidence-based public policy and provides the illusion of substantial democratic participation.

Pragmatism is the third option. Today, it is the form that New Zealand LGBT communities have embraced. In this framework, we abandon activist rhetoric and embrace practical and methodical engagement with central government, local government and professional associations. We stockpile amenable and robust relevant research, we convince professional associations to develop requisite strategic alliances with our communities, we establish lobby groups to press for change and communicate it through independent LGBT media, we march, we make parliamentary submissions and we write letters to straight media and political figures. Most other successful New Zealand social movements also embrace this strategy.

Occassionally, there are combinations of the two. LGBT communities contain mixtures of pragmatists and activists. ACT appears to be treading a fine line between pragmatism and populism. New Zealand First combined populism and activism, while the Alliance came apart over clashes between its pragmatic and activist currents.

As for social movements, the movement against genetically modified crops embraced pragmatism when it came to presenting a scientifically plausible case against genetically modified crops, then lapsed into hardline activism when the Clark administration refused to accept a total ban on such controversial agricultural products earlier this decade. As for the Christian Right, it consists predominantly of populists. If one becomes a pragmatist, one distances oneself from the Christian Right, as the Maxim Institute has done over binding citizens referenda.

Largely due to its adolescent populism and scientific illiteracy, the Christian Right will ultimately lose its remaining battles against LGBT rights in New Zealand and we will prevail, due to our own predominant pragmatism.


Craig Young - 6th December 2009

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