How Shallow is Intellectual Life in New Zealand?

It is not what Eleanor Catton said about the government, but how we respond to what she said.

Sean Plunkett’s intemperate attack on Eleanor Catton is a reminder of just how superficial is tolerance of dissent in New Zealand. I leave others to defend the exact interchange – Danyl McLauchlan was as I normally expect of him. Aside from the squall I am interested in how revealing it is about intellectual life in this country – which was, ultimately – what Catton was speaking about.

Yet while it is one thing to say we do not value public intellectuals (unless they spout the conventional wisdom) it is unusual to see so clearly how they are dealt with. Don’t expect Catton to appear on any program Plunkett is involved in. With few exceptions she will not be invited to elaborate her views elsewhere in the media and in the long run will be avoided if at all possible. That Plunkett is a senior and generally respected journalist (or he was until this outbreak), illustrates just how thin is the public tolerance that the media generally presents of itself. McLauchlan reminds us that universities are meant to be bastions of free speech, but so are they.

I’ve been struggling with these issues while I have been writing a history of New Zealand. It is normal in such texts to duck our intellectual life (a few paragraphs about our writers and artists aside). Yet at the heart of our history has been the shallowness of the role of public intellectuals. Had there been more of them and they had been more respected, it is unlikely that the extremism and mistakes of Rogernomics would have occurred to the same degree. It is an old problem. One hundred years ago André Siegfried, New Zealand’s de Tocqueville, wrote:

“[New Zealanders] outlook, not too carefully reasoned, and no doubtful scornful of scientific thought, makes them incapable of self distrust. Like almost all men of action they have a contempt for theories: yet they are often captured by the first theory that turns up, if it is demonstrated to them with an appearance of logic sufficient to impose upon them. In most cases they do not seem to see difficulties, and they propose simple solutions for the most complex problems with astonishing audacity.”

I am also struggling with the meaning of ‘neoliberal’ and its relationship to the current government. Catton said

“At the moment, New Zealand, like Australia and Canada, (is dominated by) these neoliberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture. They care about short-term gains. They would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want. I feel very angry with my government.”

I don’t think we have a ‘neoliberal’ government. Recall the short shift Key gave to Don Brash (who is definitely a neoliberal). In fact this government is, as Catton’s subsequent adjectives say, a business-oriented one. Business took on a neoliberal stance in the Rogernomic unwinding of the economic regime which Muldoon represented. But they don’t any longer. Rather they actively use the government to pursue their interests. The Sky City deal was not neoliberal.

Catton is also wrong when she says the government does not care about culture. They have a different definition from hers. They care very greatly about rugby in particular and sport in general. But as far as ‘high’ culture. Key did not cover himself in glory when he commented on ‘The Luminaries’. There may well be better New Zealand novels than it, but his nomination ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is certainly not.

Catton is right that the government’s focus is on short term gains, and while ‘they would destroy the planet’ may be an exaggeration, I think it more likely that they give such a low priority to sustainability, that they will do so by neglect.

So we should reflect on what Catton said. It would be great – if out of character – if we do so in a temperate considered way that public intellectual life should; refraining from the ad hominem approach, playing the ball not the man (to use a rugby image). As Voltaire almost said: ’I may not agree with what you have to say, Eleanor, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.’