Theme of the Traitor and the Hero

How do you think the kind of society that Eleanor Catton described in her (now infamous) interview would react to someone like Eleanor Catton saying such things in an interview?

I don't know if he ever got around to actually writing it, but somewhere there is a Borges story about a story that when read brings into being the very story that is the story that has just been read. That story, which may or may not exist, reminds me of the current kerfuffle over Eleanor Catton saying something that she thinks, John Key saying that she can think that if she wants but she really ought to understand how hard it is to run a country, Sean Plunket being a ninny and the media (social and "real") having a joygasm.

Because they seem to have attracted the most attention, despite being a few throwaway lines at the end of a longer and (frankly) more thoughtfully expressed disquisition on New Zealand's cultural/social environment and her place in it, I'll begin with Catton's comments about Key's National-led Government. She begins by expressing some disquiet about her perceived role as an "ambassador" for New Zealand, because:

At the moment, New Zealand, like Australia and Canada, (I dominated by) these neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture. 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.

In assessing the accuracy (or, if you like, fairness) of these comments, let us recall that  Key chose to open the New Zealand Literary Heritage Trail with the slightly unfortunate words:

I have always believed we should enhance the literary skills of our young people and while our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks, we still need role models to inspire us.

And let us also not forget that Key's self-professed favourite movie is Johnny English - check out what the critics think of it here - while his favourite book is "anything by John Grisham".

Against that background, is doesn't seem completely off-base to suggest that "culture" is not one of the things that sits at the top of Key's "stuff that matters" pile. Add to this the fact that the Arts, Culture and Heritage portfolio has been taken from Chris Finlayson (who now has spies to keep in line) and dumped with 20th ranked Maggie Barry and you could even say that his government as a whole shows little interest in the issue. Or, at least, if you did say it, you could argue it was for good reason.

As for the rest of Catton's assessment, it reads (as Key quite fairly pointed out) like something you'd expect to hear from the Green Party. Which, as anyone who follows the news at all should know, is completely unsurprising. After all, here is Catton speaking at the launch of the Green's election campaign in August last year:

Ms Catton told the crowd she loves New Zealand - so much so that she often bursts into tears upon landing at Auckland Airport.

She said foreigners saw New Zealand as a peaceful, beautiful and fair society and she was voting Green as she didn't want that image to be a lie.

So a Greens-sympathetic author expresses her unhappiness that her country (and other similar countries) are presently governed by center-right regimes that hold ideological and policy preferences other than her own. That's almost as shocking as Johnny Ramone saying "God bless President Bush and god bless America" at his inauguration into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I guess.

Of course, just why Key then thinks "it's just a bit sad really that [Catton's] mixing politics with some of the other things that she's better-known for" is a bit less clear. Is it "sad" like when Eric Murray, Israel Dagg and Jonah Lomu tweeted their support for him on polling day last year? Or maybe its "sad" like when business leaders made comments like this leading into the last election:

"The PM is a proven performer who is recognised as a world-class political leader," says Deloitte chief executive Thomas Pippos.

"The consistent opinion polls are no fluke," adds Forsyth Barr's Neil Paviour-Smith. "The political leadership has been superb at a difficult time for the country post-GFC and earthquakes."

Yet, strangely enough, I can't recall any suggestion from Key that these folk ought to refrain from mixing politics with their other areas of expertise. Perhaps someone might ask him to repudiate their actions now?

And quite why it is "treacherous" for Catton to speak as she did, as Sean Plunket seems determined to keep on claiming, is even more opaque. It seems somehow linked to the fact that Catton was employed by Victoria University [Ed: Manakau Institute of Technology] while she was writing The Luminaries, and so as the past recipient of taxpayer's cash she should not be permitted to criticise the present Government. That seems a somewhat ... dangerous line of reasoning from someone who from 1997-2010 was paid far more taxpayer money by Radio New Zealand to present Morning Report.

And as for his mansplaining claim that:

Now Eleanor, you say we're dominated by politicians, you're lucky enough Eleanor, to live in a democracy where people get to vote, so the Government and the Parliament and the make-up of the Parliament represents the people of New Zealand, so basically you are bagging all of us.

Well, the Greens have already taken care of that.

Of course, Plunket is just a humble shock-jock trying to work his station up from 11th spot in the ratings, so we can pass him by without any more ado. For what really is interesting about the whole response to Catton's words is how perfectly they prove the very point that she was making in the interview. 

Catton's main argument, before she gets on to talking about the Government at all, is that New Zealand (and hence New Zealanders) have a deeply conflicted relationship with the wider world around us. On the one hand, we crave validation and recognition. Consider how the term "world class" is considered the ne plus ultra (see what I did there?) of positive acclaimation, how events/actions that "really put us on the map" are to be strived for, while to say that something "could be in/from New York/Paris/London/etc ..." is  to mark it as exceptional. Unless and until something has been stamped with international recognition, we can't really be sure if it's any good. Because it's the Man Booker prize that lets us know that Catton is a really good writer, right? Just as Royals is a great song because it got to number one on the Billboard charts ... as opposed to Tiny Ruins stuff which may be OK for a local artist, but is hardly ... and you know the rest.

Yet at the same time we are somewhat suspicious of those who venture outside into that world and receive such acclamation from it. If external validation proves the worth of a person/novel/song/idea/etc, then those who receive such may develop a sense of entitlement, or a belief that they actually are better than those of us who have stayed "home". Which then feeds into our anxieties and uncertainties about our national self-worth - if on returning home these people act as if we are pedestrian and beneath them, then maybe we actually are that?! So we must make sure that they aren't allowed to act in that way - we want our heroes to be Ed Hillaries, thanks, and not Kanye Wests.

And even worse are those who venture outside into the world and receive such acclamation from it, only to fail to tell the world how completely wonderful New Zealand (and the people who live there) are. Because if the world has judged them "worthy", yet they are telling the world that we have problems, then what are we to think of ourselves? Our metric for gauging importance ("this person is world class, so must matter!") clashes with our basic insecurity ("the audience we desperately want to impress is hearing bad things about us, which means they will judge us poorly!")

And so ... cue anger and outrage. Treachery! You were one of us and we nurtured you, and now this is how you repay us? Whadda ya think you are, anyway - all you did was write a book!! It's not like you're even an All Black!!!

Which is exactly how the sort of society that Catton is describing in her interview could be expected to react to her words. Which it did. Thus showing that her words contain (at least a measure of) the truth. Which we don't want to hear, because we're the kind of people that she says we are. 

But at least it got Sean Plunket some attention.