Bryce Edwards
Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at University of Otago

Bryce Edwards: The politics of Eleanor Catton and public debate

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Author Eleanor Catton. Photo / Doug Sherring
Author Eleanor Catton. Photo / Doug Sherring

The huge uproar and debate in response to Eleanor Catton's critique of New Zealand and the Government says a lot about the state of New Zealand politics, society and the media.

There have been dozens of strongly held arguments put, editorials written, blog posts published, and debate everywhere. Much of this has related the Catton controversy to issues of the national psyche, New Zealand's Establishment and elites, and the state of intellectualism and public debate in this country.

A sample of this brouhaha can be seen in the cartoons of my blog post, Images of Cattongate.

Why have Catton's comments and the reaction to them sparked such a big debate? Partly because the issues resonate with many concerns that have been bubbling below the surface for some time. And the saga also relates - for some people - to the more recent Dirty Politics scandal.

How healthy is public debate in New Zealand?

The leftwing public intellectual Bruce Jesson used to characterise New Zealand as a 'hollow society'.

By this he meant that that there are very few institutions that contribute in a meaningful way to public life. Public debate, according to Jesson, has always been relatively weak and anti-intellectual in this country. This has meant that although democracy exists, it is neither robust nor particularly deep.

This hollowness of public debate, and of the media and politics, is increasingly of concern to some academics, researchers, and journalists. Hence the Catton controversy has become a lightening rod for various dissident public intellectuals to vent their concerns. By standing up for Eleanor Catton, a critique is made against what appears to be yet another attempt to suppress dissenting voices and criticisms.

Metro magazine editor Simon Wilson used the controversy to welcome the advent of greater public debate from intellectuals: 'Eleanor Catton is a leading New Zealand intellectual, and clearly she is not afraid to build a profile as a public intellectual. Hallelujah. We have far too few of those and we desperately need more. Why? Because public intellectuals have the job of helping us think more insightfully and critically about things that might really matter to us as citizens. The more we do that, the healthier we become as a nation' - see: Eleanor Catton Confronts the Men with Scythes.

Wilson has also reacted against the notion 'that we should "leave politics to the politicians". Actually, it's the end of democracy when that happens. It's the very last thing we should do'.

Tim Watkin also makes a strong case for the need for artists and intellectuals to challenge 'received truths and traditions' - see: Putting Eleanor Catton among the pigeons. He outlines why it's important to 'shine a light and stick a stone in our shoe', because it is 'Better that we are seen as an open, intellectually lively country than one where debate is squashed'.

Economist Brian Easton has also argued that the strong reactions to Catton indicate just how little public intellectuals are valued in this country - see: How Shallow is Intellectual Life in New Zealand? . Easton also suggests that the reactions to Catton have, ironically, reinforced her arguments.

For an extended essay looking at how and why New Zealand society is so 'hollow', see Mark Rickerby's Land of the Wrong White Clowns. Rickerby laments, like Jesson once did, the lack of participants in public debate: 'Honesty is stifled by interlocking circles of groupthink where insiders are rewarded for reinforcing aspects of corporate-friendly collective identity and outsiders are punished for questioning it.

As a consequence, New Zealand has failed to develop cultural institutions with strong roots that can withstand political pressures. The sort of institutions that would nurture a respect for social criticism and learning from mistake'.

It's also worth noting that a while back an even more indepth discussion of New Zealand's apparent anti-intellectualism was published in the edited book, 'Speaking Truth to Power' - you can read, for example, my review of the book: Where are all the public intellectuals?.

Of course, New Zealand does have some history of artists criticising and examining the status quo. This is a point nicely made by blogger Scott Hamilton, who says 'New Zealand's writers have long been critical of their society and its various governments' - see: From Rushdie to Catton. As examples, Hamilton points to James K Baxter, RAK Mason, and Frank Sargeson.

Musician Neil Finn is another artist who made an interesting and savage critique of the Helen Clark Labour Government back in 2007, which I blogged on at the time - see: A bouquet for Neil Finn.

This is what we should expect of artists, says Martin van Beynen in his must-read column, Eleanor Catton should speak the truth as she sees it. Amongst many other good points, he explains why we shouldn't be surprised by Catton's views: 'Not many people engaged in the creative arts or intellectual pursuits are happy with the status quo or the slice of the public pie allocated to their activities. Nor should anybody be shocked Catton doesn't have much in common with the views of a middle-of-the-road Right-wing government. Writers come in all sorts of political hues but most are by nature anti-establishment, even if they always have their hands out for grants from the establishment trusts and boards. If Catton, or any other writer worth their salt, was openly supportive of the government of the day, I would be worried'.

Dirty Politics Mark II

Does the Catton controversy signal - once again - that democracy is under attack? Anne Salmond says the response to Catton is symptomatic 'of fragility in democracy in New Zealand' - see: Je Suis Eleanor. She details the many ways in which democracy can be seen to be under attack: Journalists 'have been intimidated and attacked'; 'Institutions that are intended to be the bulwarks of our democracy are being undermined'; 'the civil service, which is supposed to offer informed, impartial advice to government, has been brought under ministerial control'; 'The freedom of the press has been compromised'; 'The independence of the judiciary and the rule of law have been eroded'; 'Independent statutory bodies are brought to heel if they criticise the government'; and 'Freedom of thought and inquiry in universities and Crown Research' has waned.

Others see a direct comparison with last year's Dirty Politics scandal. For instance, Danyl Mclauchlan says 'this is a reprise of National's two-track communications strategy we spent so much time talking about last year. Sean Plunket isn't just a talk-radio dofus: he's very close to the National government and, just like his mate Cameron Slater, Plunket is there to smear and bully and intimidate anyone who speaks out against John Key or National' - see: Back to two-track.

Green Party blogger Chris Ford also suspects that the National Government might have orchestrated some of the extreme responses to Catton: 'I have to admit that Plunket was probably expressing his own views in his Radio Live show on Thursday. However, it wouldn't surprise me if he hadn't had contact with powerful movers and shakers in the right-wing political world who had come to form this view of Catton and his conversations with those shakers (if any were had) had likely reinforced his own sentiments. It wouldn't surprise me either if the Beehive didn't have some hand in orchestrating some sort of populist smear campaign against Catton as well' - see: Eleanor Catton - contracted out Muldoonism is it National? .

Political scientist Grant Duncan fears that the Catton episode is just one more example of how politics in this country is becoming 'neo-authoritarian' - see: Is NZ becoming like Russia?.

For blogger Morgan Godfery the reaction to Catton shows how the Establishment attempts to intimidate those from 'marginalised groups' including women: 'Key's government has form attacking women who criticise it. One critic, academic and former New Zealander of the Year Dame Anne Salmond was labelled 'shrill' and her criticisms of government spying laws were compared to 'McCarthyism' and 'Nazi Germany'. Actor Keisha Castle-Hughes, the youngest Oscar nominee for Best Actress, was told to 'stick to acting' after campaigning for climate change action' - see: Burn the witch: on the attacks against Eleanor Catton.

But is free speech really under attack? Danyl Mclauchlan points out that John Key's response to Catton wasn't really that strong: 'I'm not particularly outraged by Key's response because if you accuse the Prime Minister of being a 'neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, shallow and money hungry politician' while speaking on the international stage he's going to hit back' - see: Literature and politics collide!.

Mclauchlan also wonders if 'people are getting a bit too carried away while diagnosing the inner-most soul of New Zealand over this Eleanor Catton thing' - see: And all of it will happen again.

And isn't there some sort of double standard at play for those that think Catton can criticise but shouldn't then face criticism? That's the argument made by David Farrar: 'I find it strange that people think that their harsh critical remarks about others are free speech, but if people then in turn make critical remarks about the speaker it is not free speech, but a conspiracy to silence' - see: Herald on Catton.

Could it be that New Zealand's 'liberal elite' is too easily outraged? Certainly on Twitter there has been a huge response to the initial spat - see my blog post, Top tweets about Eleanor Catton vs John Key. On a more lighthearted note, see also, Top tweets about #JohnKeyLiterature.

And what of 'Mr Dirty Politics', Cameron Slater? The blogger has run a series of posts on the Catton saga. Unsurprisingly, Slater criticises the author in strong terms: 'Basically, She's just a stuck up liberal elite bludger on the whinge. A Canadian ungrateful; for all the taxpayer support, she can kiss goodbye to getting any more. Whinging tart. A perfect example of why subsidies are evil' - see: The Eleanor Catton Saturday series: Part IV.

But in the same post, Slater has a more thoughtful point about what Catton has said: 'But the whole issue would have been worth a serious discussion. There is something to be said about putting people on pedestals and countries taking 'ownership' of achievements that they haven't really earned themselves. It would have been a good point to deliberate, if Catton hadn't just turned it into a toxic left-versus-right Government bashing opportunity'.

Tall poppies and elites

Much of the Catton debate has also focused on the issue of elites and how much recognition or criticism of them is warranted. In many ways, Catton herself is now part of New Zealand's elite - albeit a less traditional or conservative element - which has meant that she has become inclined to 'play the Tall Poppy card' according to her critics. This is most strongly conveyed in Steve Braunias's typically biting column, The secret diary of Eleanor Catton.

But for the most trenchant criticism of Catton's use of the tall poppy syndrome, see Mark Blackham's must-read blog post, Uppity poppy syndrome.

Blackham's anti-Establishment analysis is that Catton has joined the elite and now wields their tools: 'This syndrome does not exist. It was created by the elite to "explain" to themselves why they are insufficiently loved by an ungrateful populace.

What the masses do have is an acutely tuned sense of when someone is getting uppity - when they are beginning to believe their own bullshit, and when this self-belief is undeserved. The uppity poppy syndrome can be found in all cultures.

It isn't unique to NZ. Pomposity-pricking is a bulwark against the contorted logic and self-justification of those who decide they are cleverer and better than the rest of us, and that their way should be our way'.

Blackham sees a sort of clashing of elites being played out in the Catton controversy: 'There's a terrible history of the elite, especially the literary elite, looking down on the masses... Catton is attempting to join this group. She made those comments to ingratiate herself to international literary snobs... The elite think it's okay to criticise John Key because he's not one of them - he made money through grubby means and he doesn't have enlightened ideas. He speaks to the masses'.

For a similar argument, see also Heather du Plessis-Allan's We like winning, but just don't diss us and Paul Little's Key and Plunket prove Catton's point.

As to Catton's claim that she lost the main New Zealand Post book prize on account of being a tall poppy, this appears to be universally rejected in the ensuing debate. For example, Simon Wilson says: 'But does anyone seriously think this was because the judges wanted to cut Catton down to size? That they believed she'd already had enough glory and now it was someone else's turn? If that were true, Catton would be right to complain about the tall poppy syndrome. But I don't believe it. I don't believe there is any possible explanation other than the obvious one: the judges made a considered (and presumably agonising) decision that the biography was the better book' - see: Eleanor Catton Confronts the Men with Scythes.

Martin van Beynen's column, Eleanor Catton should speak the truth as she sees it, also makes some useful points about the tall poppy issue, and challenges the notion that Catton's success hasn't been fully celebrated, and nor does he think that it has been appropriated.

Two Herald editorials have also questioned Catton's use of the tall poppy syndrome - see: Let Catton live down ill-considered words and Catton funding money well spent. While The Press' editorial, Catton learns more about tall-poppy syndrome, laments the criticisms of Catton and asks us to 'Imagine how our garden would look if we encouraged more tall poppies to grow'.

Brian Edwards also questions Catton's claim about being denied the main NZ Post book prize, but does agree about the existence of a tall poppy syndrome - one that he believes is strongly related to the national character of humility - see: I offer my humble opinion on Eleanor Catton's treason.

Understanding the National Government

One of the benefits of the Catton controversy has been to foster a side-debate about the ideological nature of the National Government. Catton, herself, denounced the Key Government as 'neoliberal' and 'profit-obsessed'. Many have disagreed with her evaluation, suggesting that National is far from being neoliberal.

Brian Easton suggests: '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' - see: How Shallow is Intellectual Life in New Zealand?.

Likewise, Danyl Mclauchlan disagrees with Catton: 'One thing Catton got really wrong about her critique of the government was calling it 'neoliberal' and claiming it didn't support the arts because they're profit-obsessed, etc. Like I've said before, these guys aren't neoliberal and aren't remotely 'profit obsessed'. They don't believe in free markets and market forces, and they give eye-glazingly large amounts of taxpayer money away to golf tournaments, yacht races, sports stadiums and other things that make no economic sense whatsoever' - see: On neoliberalism.

National Party blogger David Farrar seems to agree: 'This Government is so far from neo-liberal it isn't funny. The last budget was more money for free under 13 healthcare. The announcement this week was an extra 3,000 low income families to get larger subsidies for the rental properties. The Government spends hundreds of millions on subsidies for arts, science, innovation and the like. And the welfare system is one of the most generous in the world' - see: Herald on Catton. See also, Eric Crampton's Neo-lib anti-culture support for the arts.

Amongst the dozens of other contribution to the Catton debate, it's also worth listening to the 15-minute RadioLive interview Eleanor Catton's father and Sean Plunket discuss intellectualism in NZ , and reading Chris Trotter's Eleanor Catton and the Sociocultural Logic of Kiwi Neoliberalism , Andrew Geddis' Theme of the Traitor and the Hero , Glen Scanlon's Cattongate: Let the book do the talking , Gordon Campbell's On the Eleanor Catton rumpus, and Deborah Hill Cone's Catton success illuminated nation.

Finally, there have been rich pickings for satirists. As well as Steve Braunias' The secret diary of Eleanor Catton, there's a list of useful and humorous items worth reading: Scott Yorke's Dear Eleanor and A clarification , Ben Uffindell's three posts: Key says there were better New Zealand novels than The Luminaries, such as Lord of the Rings, Sean Plunket pre-emptively takes self to boss's office, stays there, and The Luminaries fails to win local baking award due to tall poppy syndrome, and Andrew Gunn's Let's be clear - Eleanor Catton started it.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZME.

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