Debating current affairs
Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Final navigation through world's conundrums

Today I bow out after 12 years as a  Herald  columnist. Photo / Supplied
Today I bow out after 12 years as a Herald columnist. Photo / Supplied

According to the show business adage, you should always leave them wanting more. Today I bow out after 12 years as a Herald columnist hoping that is indeed the case.

I started in April 2004 with the private ambition of emulating my predecessor, Gordon McLauchlan, who filled the space for 15 years. That was not to be, although if there's anything to the theory of accelerating change - that the increasing rate of technological development is causing ever faster and more profound change - then perhaps 12 is the new 15.

Stephen Glover, a co-founder of the Independent and a columnist for 25 years, reckoned "anyone can knock out five or 10 columns if they really try, but to turn out 100, 500 or 1000 is another matter."

Just as All Black selectors value consistency above all else, columnists should be judged on their ability to deliver week in, week out. Thus we shouldn't attach much significance to the columnists' category in journalism awards since entrants are judged on three or four columns of their choosing.

Clearly anyone who can't produce a few decent columns a year shouldn't have the gig. More to the point: what were the others like? How bad were the worst?

Glover went on to say that "editors believe readers want columnists to help navigate them through the conundrums ... of the modern world and, ideally, to entertain them in the process."

That was written 20 years ago; in the intervening years several of Glover's underlying premises have been called into question. Navigation requires knowledge. Specifically, navigating the conundrums of the modern world requires a knowledge of history since where we're going is largely dictated by where we've come from. Yet these days one of the most overused and misapplied words in journalism is "unprecedented".

Furthermore, the media - suicidally, I believe - increasingly treats the modern world and celebrity culture as one and the same. The navigational device of choice in celebrity culture is social media, the defining characteristic of which is glibness.

A by-product of celebrity culture is celebrity journalism, hence the number of high-profile broadcasters who moonlight as columnists. I don't discount what it takes to be a successful broadcaster but, if you aspire to be entertaining in print, it helps if you write well, as opposed to serviceably. Few of these household names regard writing as a craft.

It's a pity the term "opinion" looms so large in this discussion. To refer to columns as "opinion columns" and columnists as "opinion columnists" encourages the notion that expressing an opinion - and the more strident, the better - is an achievement.

But everybody has opinions; the achievement lies in the argument that underpins them. Vociferous assertion merely infuriates those who see it differently or vindicates closed minds. It may work as click-bait but it doesn't make you think.

It has been said that columnists really only have four or five subjects to which they keep returning, sometimes in a roundabout way to conceal the fact. I suspect over the years I've tried readers' - and possibly editors' - patience with the subject of American politics.

We live in the American age. Where America goes, the world tends to follow. What America does, the world has to live with. The implications of Donald Trump becoming president are enormous and profoundly troubling. For the most advanced, most powerful, most influential nation, the leader of the free world, the champion of western values to elect a dramatically unqualified demagogue would, among other things, bolster economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe's thesis that democracy is "the god that failed".

For parting words I can't improve on these from the late Christopher Hitchens, the greatest columnist/essayist of our time, delivered at his final public appearance: "There are no final solutions; there is no absolute truth; there is no supreme leader; there is no totalitarian solution that says if you will just give up your freedom of inquiry, if you will simply abandon your critical faculties, a world of idiotic bliss can be yours."

I would merely add that Big Brother wears many masks, some of them, at first blush, relatively benign.

Those who do want more should check in on from time to time. Otherwise, thank you for having me.

- NZ Herald

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