I keep promising to review Anat Shenker-Osorio’s book Don’t Buy It. I’m getting there, I promise. My copy is almost more Post-It Note than paper at the moment.
But there’s a chapter in which she discusses different ways to frame talking about the economy and the country, and one example cropped up almost word-for-word in New Zealand politics yesterday, so I thought I’d give a sneak preview:
Labour leader Andrew Little says ethnic restaurants should be employing New Zealand Indians and Chinese chefs instead of bringing in staff from overseas.
“At times when our economy is creaking, we need to be able to turn down the tap a bit,” Mr Little said.
“Immigration is positive for any country. But there are times also when our country’s going through some growing pains … and it is right to say ‘let’s just turn the tap down a bit’.”
It’s interesting to think about how Andrew Little is using language. What’s the subtext? People who migrate to New Zealand are a flow of water, a natural thing, but a bad thing if too much of it happens, you end up with extra Chinese and Indian chefs all over the floor. And we’re at risk of that happening, apparently, because we’re “creaking” under the pressure of all this water.
The “growing pains” phrase grabbed my attention, because it’s one Shenker-Osorio specifically addresses (not that I can find the relevant quote in amongst the forest of Post-Its):
Once we’re primed to understand the economy as most aptly akin to a body, periods of good and bad health are natural and therefore expected. Moreover, we know most conditions a body experiences go away unaided. So by applying body language, we’re telling audiences to expect that periods of prosperity and recession are normal and emphatically don’t require government intervention.
This is kind of bad news for a party whose foundational principles are all about the ability of the government to intervene, to stop ordinary people getting smashed under the wheels of capitalism.
I don’t think New Zealand is undergoing “growing pains”. I think we have a government focused on short-term business profits, neglecting the important social services which keep people happy and healthy, and stripping back the rights which keep people healthy, safe, and unexploited at work. There’s nothing natural about that, and it’s clearly not going away by itself if the Opposition stops scratching it.
Beyond the narrative metaphor-building nerdery, though, there are two more tiny problems with this rhetoric,.
The first is that it’s racist dogwhistling gutter trash.
The second is even if that doesn’t bother you, there are no votes in racist dogwhistling gutter trash as long as Winston Peters breathes.
After drafting this, Labour put out a response to the general commentary. There’s a whole other post’s worth of stuff to say, but it’s late, I’m tired, and all I can say is this: there’s a reason people find it entirely plausible that Labour would engage in race-baiting rhetoric. And it’s not the media’s fault.