“Don’t follow leaders, watch your parkin’ meters.” So sang Bob Dylan in 1965 as the counterculture was just getting warmed up in America.
It’s a line from Subterranean Homesick Blues, a Chuck Berry-inspired, Rimbaud-infused, Beatle-driven rock song.
If the song is about anything, it would be the freedom of the mind. Keep your intellectual guard up, don’t be sucked into believing society’s prevailing myths or its leaders.
That one line, with its outrageous rhyming of “leaders” with “parkin’ meters,” has the ring of profundity, but is also gleefully absurd. It often pops into my head. Sometimes when I’ve cause to be sceptical of leaders who want so much to be followed.
Don’t get me wrong, we need people to step up and give direction to political ideas or achieve tasks that a community or society sets for itself. Effective leaders unite people, usually factions or groups of us, never all of us, that’s definitely a myth.
At the same time, being status sensitive creatures, we’re not always keen on people thinking that they up there on stage, in Parliament or on TV, are better than us. And so we can be scathing in our criticism and rebellious in our attitudes if leaders claim a status that’s unwarranted or not useful to us in some way. This is why powerful people all through history have put so much effort into projecting an image that might be favourably perceived by other elites as well as the common masses.
Which leads me to the picture of the New Zealand’s Prime Minister on the cover of TIME magazine. She wears a stark white shirt, a look of grave, thoughtful concern on her face. It’s as manufactured as any statue of a king or queen.
It would be interesting to know what the process for deciding the cover was. Who chose to wear the white top? Ardern herself, or was it the outcome of a negotiation between TIME magazine and Ardern’s PR people? These aren’t innocent decisions. This is Prime Minister as Mother Mary, make no mistake.
If you’re a keen supporter of Ardern, this image creation probably doesn’t even register, it’s just what’s needed to win at the political game. All successful politicians do it.
To her credit, we are asked by Ardern in the TIME magazine article to judge her government by its deeds. And so we must.
We, as lay voters, a long way from the mechanisms of power, should maintain a sceptical attitude, even to the leaders we like and broadly support. Believing too much and we risk being deceived, and ultimately disappointed. Believing not at all, however, presents the other danger of falling into an ineffectual cynicism. Best avoided, trust me.
The political process may be distasteful in many ways. The deception, the manipulation of facts, the manufacturing of an image, can all be a big turn off. Yet turning off or tuning out, as some in the 1960s counterculture advocated, isn’t really an option. You can’t completely shut out the politicians and the effects of their decisions on our lives.
That’s part of the reason I’ve come back to writing a weekly column after a break of 12 months. I want to participate again in the conversations about the future direction of Northland and New Zealand. Perhaps I can bring something to those political debates and have some influence on public opinion and the leaders amongst us.