Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

"It shames me deeply as a New Zealander."

I once did an interview in Church with a politician. He was a top ranked Labour politician and I knew that several of our congregation were very active in the opposing National Party. I was intrigued that after the service these people were chatting in a very friendly way with this man.  He had opened up about the life of a politician in a very human and reasoned way and you could not help but like his understanding of the job. He is in my view one of the few statesmen we have had in Parliament in recent years. (He is now retired)  The thing that struck me was the tremendous amount of work involved in being a politician. He told us the sort of hours he worked and the things he had to do. It is a very stressful vocation and there are all sorts of things you simply have to know and keep in mind to contribute usefully. Then too, you have to be good at communicating what you think is important. I am reading the biography of Norman Kirk a politician who became Prime Minister in the early seventies and died in office. He virtually killed himself by the amount of strenuous work and effort he put into being a politician. I am amazed at his insights, the breadth of his knowledge and the depth of his thought, even though the book is very frank about his shortcomings. All that to say that there is a tremendous amount of skill and effort involved in being a top line politician. I admire their effort and would not have their job for all the money in the world. 
One of our writers Eleanor Catton has got into hot water by right wing media and the Prime Minister because she had the audacity to criticise the government. Our Prime Minister had this to say on Monday morning dismissing her comments as being ignorant.

'Appearing on TVNZ's Breakfast show this morning, Mr Keys said Catton's views on politics shouldn't be taken any differently than those of any other New Zealander.
"She has no particular great insights into politics, she is a fictional writer. I have great respect for her as a fictional writer [sic]."
Mr Key conceded he had read some, but not all of the Luminaries.
"Obviously it's done phenomenally well and I'm really proud of her, but it would be no different from Richie McCaw or the Mad Butcher or anybody else having a view on politics.
"They're absolutely entitled to do that, but her views on politics are no more authoritative than anybody else's.' (New Zealand Herald article)
His comments and his earlier comments, remind me of a former National Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon. (John Key often employs the same down putting, dismissive and arrogant approach as this divisive former leader.) When Robert Muldoon was Prime Minister the Churches, in a well thought out statement, raised concerns about policy issues and their impact on the poor in the country. Robert Muldoon basically told them to "stick to praying and keep out of politics." I disagree with Mr Key.
"This is not the New Zealand I want"
I would agree with Mr Key, Eleanor Catton probably does not know much about the work of a politician. As I say, it is a very skillful and difficult job which involves being aware of a whole lot of issues and often having to look into the future. But I do not think she is ignorant and can be dismissed. In Norman Kirk's biography there are a few statements which give a picture of the sort of New Zealand he wanted to create. 
"He wrote that New Zealand had to be a country which was fair to its people - 'a country that seeks the expression of its nationhood in the strength of family life, social justice and steady progress. Our objective has always been social justice for all people in a sense that everyone is able to live decently without having to face constant hardships..."  (The Mighty Totara - David Grant) 
There are other insightful quotes too. You do not have to be a politician to have that sort of vision! You do not have to know about politics to dream such a dream!  Eleanor Catton is a writer, a thinker about people, life and its meanings. She has a dream of what she would like New Zealand to be. She has a dream of the New Zealand that would make her proud to be a New Zealander and to be an international ambassador for her country in literary circles. But she knows New Zealand, as it is and in its current directions, does not fit her dream.  She feels embarrassed and cannot feel proud of New Zealand on the world stage, it is going in directions that deny the values she holds dear. She is allowed to be critical, and her words ought to be listened to. They express values well worth listening to. To be dismissed as just a "fictional writer" is shallow - and how the media, the right, Mr Key and his ilk love "shallow!" In New Zealand today, we do not need skilled and shifty politicians. We need statesmen and women who have deep values about life, justice and what is truly important. Mr Key could well do with learning from principled people!
Fiction communicates values
Mr Key's comments have written off fiction writers as being of no consequence. Some of the best communicators about issues of values, ethics and politics are fiction writers. Through their story telling they can address such issues, often placing a mirror in front of us so our underlying unspoken values are exposed. In his comments Mr Key undervalues fiction writers and writing in general and, in my view displays his lack of depth. 
Eleanor's comments...
The New Zealand Herald article writes of Eleanor Catton's response. To conclude I pass it on...
Catton responded to the accusations with a statement on her blog. In it she accused New Zealand's mainstream media of publishing "inflammatory, vicious and patronising" things about her.
In an interview in the Guardian at the weekend, she criticised "the scale and shabbiness of this jingoistic national tantrum", which she said "shames me deeply as a New Zealander".
"I believe it can be countered only with eloquence, imagination, and reasoned debate - qualities that might seem to have disappeared from our national conversation, but that persist, and will continue to persist, despite efforts to humiliate and silence those who speak out."
I, an ordinary New Zealander, retired minister, who loves this country watch and read our media and the discussions that take place and it "shames me deeply as a New Zealander." I listen to the sorts of things our leaders think are important and at the way they conduct their business and it "shames me deeply as a New Zealander."  I see the sort of impact Government decisions are having on the poor and vulnerable in our community and it "shames me deeply as a New Zealander." I really wonder about the future ethos of our community. It is becoming so lacking in depth and "Dog eat dog."


Keith Harris said...

You have articulated my opinion, Dave, as you very often do. Another thing that "shames me as a New Zealander": the leader of our nation is so lacking in English language skills that he often conveys an incorrect or ambiguous message. A major newspaper should never have to insert (sic) in a quote from a prime minister. A fictional writer? He is saying that Eleanor Catton doesn't exist in real life! She is a fiction writer.

Dave Brown said...

You are right! I knew that and yet I followed him in doing the same thing. What can I say - It was nearly midnight when I wrote my rant and I was a bit dejected about life in general. It is duly edited.

Keith Harris said...

My salvo was aimed at the PM - not at you!