Girl Power.

  • Fri, 2, Oct, 2020 - 5:00:AM

Sorry, but we need to stop stanning politicians

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, U.S. Supreme Court justice / Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States, Photographer: Steve Petteway / Wikimedia Commons

Fresh from writing about the pure joy of being a stan, I'm about to make one of the fastest 180s you've likely ever seen. 

Actually, that's not true. When I wrote a few weeks ago about "the pure joy of being a stan" I was referring to pop stars. I argued that "enjoying a work of popular art to the point of excess is one of the few out-and-out delights we can experience right now" - and I stand by the sentiment. Extrapolating, the same argument can be applied to film stars, authors, poets, even YouTubers. 

But it shouldn't apply to politicians. Nor high court officials.

"Stanning" (fangirling, obsessing, stalking) is different from admiring. I deeply and wholeheartedly admired the late Justice Bader Ginsberg. I'd even say I loved her. I am wholly grateful for the work she did - especially the work she did in the name of women's rights. I know I'll never make anywhere near the same contribution she did to progressive causes. But I try to steer clear of calling myself a "stan".

Being obsessed with someone blinds you to their foibles. That's ultimately harmless when it comes to entertainers (justice for ARTPOP), but when it comes to elected officials and public servants, blind loyalty is dangerous. It exalts people to a god-like status and sets up a dangerous precedent: anything this person does is correct - therefore, it doesn't matter what they do. 

The former point (that stanning someone turns them into a god) was on full display when, in 2018, an 85-year-old Ginsberg fell and broke three ribs. 

Irin Carmon, a co-author of Ginsburg fan-book The Notorious RBG quickly hopped online to assure us we shouldn't freak out. "I am not RBG's doctor, but I am one of her biographers, here to testify to her resilience," she wrote in The Cut. RBG is a superhero, she alluded. She'd beaten cancer twice - there was no way a few broken ribs would bring her down. Looking at the statement with a bit of hindsight, it's clearly delusional. This was a frail 85-year-old woman they were talking about. An 85-year-old woman with health issues. Being a good person doesn't shield you from your mortality - but I can see why people wanted to believe it would. Hell, I wanted to believe it. 

Here's where things get hairy: I think Justice Ginsberg should have retired in 2012. 

Please! Put down your pitchforks!

It's not that I didn't love RBG, I did. I just love reproductive rights more. I stan reproductive rights. Had RBG retired in 2012, or thereabouts, President Obama could have safely replaced her with a young(ish), pro-choice Justice. RBG could have enjoyed a proper retirement and there would have been at least one pro-choice voice on the Supreme Court of the United States for decades to come. Instead, RBG's seat may be handed to a woman who seeks to undo her predecessor’s life work.

By viewing politicians and bureaucrats as a means to an end - in RBG's case, an advocate for reproductive rights - we see them more clearly. We can make more clear choices (say, calling for her retirement in 2012, when she was 79) and make choices that advance the cause. When we blindly devote ourselves to a politician's personal journey, we are far less strategic. By indulging RBG's desire to work into her late 80s, because we loved her, we have potentially taken an axe to much of what she fought for. We'll have to wait and see. 

The canonisation of elected officials is hardly unique to RBG, and New Zealand has rarely stanned a Prime Minister harder than Prime Minister Ardern. (I suppose a few people "stanned" John Key, too – different circles.) This is with good reason. Jacinda Ardern is a firebrand of a leader. Through catastrophe after catastrophe, she's lead the nation with serious aplomb. But I'll be giving my Party Vote to The Greens. 

As much as I will eagerly lap some inspiring Jacinda content (if someone started a blog devoted to analysing her earring choices, I'd read it) I try not to let that get in the way of my political desires. I want a centre-left government. I believe you get that by voting for the left, not the centre.  

I have serious admiration for Prime Minister Ardern, as I've written about previously, but I try to keep my admiration to a level where I still feel comfortable critiquing when necessary. 

Critiquing our public officials, when we feel they've gone wrong, is an essential part of a healthy democracy. We need to remember that they work for us. That sentiment is at odds with fandom. There will always be politicians I deeply admire, even some that I'd venture to say I "love". But I try to keep it in check. 


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