Sections of the left-wing intelligentsia appear to believe the Eleanor Catton brouhaha says something disturbing about New Zealand. It doesn't. It does, however, say something disturbing about sections of said intelligentsia: that they can look at a thing and see something else altogether.

This isn't new. For much of the 20th century, some left-wing intellectuals had great difficulty acknowledging the obvious reality that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian monolith designed to crush the human spirit, a Nelsonian posture that led to the cul de sac of moral equivalence: insisting there wasn't really much to choose between the West and the USSR.

We saw it during last year's election campaign in the strenuous attempts to inflate the molehill of Dirty Politics into a mountain of corruption likened to Watergate. Some of the inflaters went on to portray the Internet Party as something it wasn't: a legitimate political force operating in the national interest.

And now Catton. Take this excerpt from Herald columnist Bryce Edwards' review of the reaction to the writer's remarks in India: "The 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 lightning 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."


A couple of things to note here: first, the assumption of intellectual superiority - "the hollowness of public debate and of the media and politics" consigns pretty much everyone else to the dunce's corner; second, the transformation of a normal event - the debate triggered by Catton's remarks - into something sinister - an attempt to suppress dissent.

The implication is that Catton and her fellow "dissident public intellectuals" are entitled to be as scathing as they like about New Zealand and New Zealanders and be listened to in respectful silence.

Leaving aside RadioLive host Sean Plunket's outburst - which was roundly condemned - in what way did the (by and large supportive) response to Catton's remarks amount to suppression? Why should a writer be able wade into the political arena - and even some of Catton's cheerleaders admitted her analysis of the Key Government was unsophisticated - without her robustly expressed views attracting critical scrutiny?

Politics is an adversarial activity. If you take one side of the argument, you should expect those of different persuasions to come right back at you. As they say in America, "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen."

At their most overwrought, these attempts to equate critical counter-argument with suppression slide into Walter Mitty territory, becoming a sickly fantasy of persecution in which some of the least threatened dissenters in history are being subjected to harassment and intimidation by a "neo-authoritarian state".

And mention must be made of the "Je suis Eleanor" motif, misappropriation and self-dramatisation on a nauseating scale.

When the delusional are in full cry, it's just a matter of time before conspiracism rears its deformed head. Thus Plunket isn't one talkback host shooting from the lip, he's part of a shadowy right-wing network (including, of course, the even more hideous bogeyman Cameron Slater) directed and controlled by John Key.

"It wouldn't surprise me," wrote Green Party blogger Chris Ford, "if the Beehive didn't have some hand in orchestrating some sort of populist smear campaign against Catton." Seeing he raised the subject of smear campaigns, another way Ford could have framed it is, "I don't have a shred of evidence to back this up, but I'm going to put it out there anyway".


Throughout this affair there's been much talk about public intellectuals, usually in the context of their being an endangered species in this country.

The late Christopher Hitchens, one of the leading public intellectuals of our time, became the target of denunciation from, er, the left-wing intelligentsia for differing from the left-liberal consensus around the US invasion of Iraq. (Hitchens' support for Iraqi regime change was misplaced but his identification of and staunch opposition to the inhumanity at the core of Islamism was validated yet again this week.)

Hitchens said a key requirement of public intellectuals was that they "care for language and guess at its subtle relationship to the truth". Alarmist, strident, paranoid and at times hysterical, our self-styled public intellectuals have in this instance failed that test abjectly.

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