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Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Eleanor Catton Controversy

Basically, an author speaks her mind, says nothing wrong and everyone jumps on her. Or did she say some stuff that was wrong? From Stuff.co.nz...
She said New Zealand did not have a lot of confidence in the brains of its citizens and there was a lot of embarrassment over writers.
 Catton said she grew up with the "strange belief" that New Zealand writers were less great than writers from Britain and America.
Yeah, I'm inclined to agree with this. I mean, in general, we seem to import almost all our media, cringe at the stuff that is made here reflexively and, as a result, make it have to work twice as hard as media from everywhere else. It doesn't help that a lot of it is, actually, bad. It's probably better when it comes to books and stuff because, frankly, no-one talks about them unless there's a film adaptation, an award or controversy. Which, I suppose, is just another way of saying she's write (hilarious).
"The good side of New Zealand is that there isn't all that kind of shallow literary fame where everyone's backstabbing each other."
The problem was New Zealanders were reluctant to express firm beliefs in anything.
Um, I'm not sure. It's pretty easy to not back stab each other when there's nothing to gain from it. At the same time, I think it is important to distinguish between "express firm beliefs in anything" and "express firm beliefs". We've got a lot of media nobodies willing to say stuff, but we don't really here or ask academics their opinions much. Maybe that's due to this, I cannot say.
Although The Luminaries won the Man Booker prize, it failed to win the New Zealand Post Book Award main prize.
"There was this kind of thing that now you've won this prize from overseas, we're not going to celebrate it here, we're going to give the award to somebody else," Catton said.
 "If you get success overseas, then very often the local population can suddenly be very hard on you."
This is called Talled Poppy Syndrome. Tall Poppies get cut down by those poppies who aren't so tall... in other words, the masses punishes success. It's a real thing but I don't think it happened to Catton. She possibly should've got the overall NZ based prize but maybe not. In general, though, people have been very pleased with her success with The Luminaries. Note, pleased with not pleased for her.
She was uncomfortable with the way the Man Booker was seen as a New Zealand award.
"It betrays an attitude towards individual achievement which is very uncomfortable. It has to belong to everybody or the country really doesn't want to know about it."
Obviously, I agree with this. And the thing is, a lot of people don't recognise that we always do this. The phrase is, I believe, Small Country Syndrome. We, as a nation, always look for the Kiwi angle. Always. There is a Theory of Everything and it says that, on some level, if we look hard enough, we can make this directly relevant to New Zealand. There is, though, one exception. It's called Russell Crowe. In that case, you do everything you can to not look.
She did not like being an ambassador when her country was not doing as much as it could for the intellectual world.
Why is she even an ambassador in the first place? Because she did something that attracted attention and now we can use her to make New Zealand more famous. Small Country Syndrome again, there.

Are we doing as much as we can for the intellectual world? Let's ask National if they have any further plans in their war on universities... oh, wait, they do. National and ACT also take a very "Job Training" perspective when it comes to education in general. So, yeah, this is obviously true. Objectively true. To deny it is to ostrich.

On a more cultural side, recall what I said earlier about media.
"At the moment, New Zealand, like Australia and Canada, (is dominated by) these neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture," Catton is quoted saying.
"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."
Sadly, completely and utterly true. Look at RMA reform. Look at our river quality (100% pure? More like 100% dangerous to touch, let alone swim in). Look at National's approach to education (job training, failed charter school model). Look at which parties object to the CRL and which ones fawn over motorways. Look at the NZ Herald's tendency to endorse urban sprawl. Practically any aspect of NZ society today shows this same message of today is the only day that exists. Catton is absolutely and completely correct.

John Key, of course, recognised this (he may have a lot of idiotic policies and come across as a complete moron, but he is not a stupid man) and decided he had to act. So, we get this:
Responding to Catton's comments, Prime Minister John Key said he was disappointed she felt that way, but not necessarily surprised. 
"She has been aligned with the Green Party, and that probably summarises the Green Party view of this Government.  
"I don't think that reflects what most New Zealanders perceive of the Government. If it was, they probably wouldn't have voted for us in such large numbers.  
"I'm disappointed she doesn't have respect for the work that we do, because I have tremendous respect for what she does as a writer, and that's why I think she's been so widely acclaimed."
 Okay, yeah, he's probably right about the Greens (er, I agree with Catton and voted Green for instance) but the point is that the Greens, despite being our third largest party, are still sufficiently marginal (especially after that homeopathy crackpot list dude's Ebola outburst) for that to serve as a way of marginalising Catton's view. Despite the current National government's obsession with trying to come across as being economically orthodox and orthodox economic's obsession with margins, Key has no problem in using marginalisation tactics to ignore issues he doesn't like.

The bigger issue is the idiocy of the "I respect you, therefore you must respect me" argument that Key also deployed to invalidate Catton's arguments in case the marginalisation failed to achieve the desired effect. Contrary to the opinions of the NZ Herald's writer Claire Trevett it absolutely is an attempt to "to gag Catton and [ridicule] her." This isn't even the only problem with Key's views on respect, from the comments section of Trevett's opinion piece and a user named Cathy:
i thought john key's comment was bizarre.
he respects Eleanor Catton's work so therefore she must respect his work. says nothing about whether the work is worthy of respect or not. if he wants anyone to respect his work then he should do something worth respecting. i have no difficulty understanding Catton's lack of respect for him.
  The most liked comment? Well, here are the words of Gandalf from St Heliers.
Eleanor Catton is right in her criticisms of the governments economic ideology, and about tall poppy syndrome. Intellectuals generally get cut down in NZ, and are accused of being left wing. All the articles dripping sarcasm, cynicism, and subtle government promoting rhetoric doesn't change that.
 Mind you, I think the online readership of the NZ Herald site is less keen on National and Key than the site itself.
Key said he was not concerned with the level of international coverage Catton's comments received. 
"In the end, it's a free world and people will judge New Zealand on its merits. 
"I'm certainly very happy with the reports and the overall progress the Government is making on behalf of all New Zealanders. We had an election and they judged that themselves." 
Actually, I think people decided that the entire left (rather than just the Internet-Mana Party) spent far too long altogether discussing corruption and then felt enormously let down when the election's main political figure (bizarrely*) turned out to have a really incredibly disappointing clincher of evidence. National's policies, unlike in the case of the partial privatisation in 2011, weren't really occupying any of NZ's collective thought space.

*I mean, that Dotcom was a central player upon the stage was bizarre. The evidence thing was probably predictable.

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