Saturday, September 05, 2009

Pseudo-intellectual About Town

Earlier in the year, I was privileged enough to get free advice from one of NZ's most influential lobbyists. Mai Chen gave a lecture on myth busting the dark art of persuasion at Rutherford House. Verily, it was good.

One myth, don't try special pleading with MPs. It doesn't work. If your point is to be effective, it must be for the greater good somehow, not just your own little retainered fiefdom. It's the same principle involved, albeit with the telescope swinging the other way, when the public react to MPs special pleading themselves. Think Roger Douglas, Chris Carter and Bill English on perks. Little wonder if they get a black eye or a bleeding nose when it swings their way and they're not paying attention.

Another point Ms Chen made. If you hold a free lecture like this in Auckland, no-one comes. She said this to around 150 people or more in the Rutherford House theatre. I can fully believe it. It's why I never got around to writing up any Supercity crap. If Aucklanders don't give a shit, why should I? Auckland's more a Portuguese Man O War than a unitary confluence anyway. Good luck to anyone who can steer that squid. I'm busy preparing for Wellington's transition.

If for no other reason than Auckland's Not Interested intransigence (You'll never see a Hellfire Club started in Auckland), any Public Intellectual thinking will come from Wellington (No good social movements come out of Christchurch, although there's a few good people there. Maybe it's the Nor' Wester. Maybe it's the faux-English drag act that the city clings to like a gin bottle. But Christchurch is not a fertile home to big thoughts).

I say this after Pablo at KiwiPolitico's excellent post on NZ social thinkers snowballed Chris Trotter into a muse on truth to power. Bryce Edwards has said his piece too. It's fascinating stuff and obviously touched a nerve. I'm glad to see that the Left still has some spine.

Auckland used to have opium dens, along Nelson St at a guess. K Road used to have character and a hint of danger, before it lost its guts and blanded down to the slightly quirky strip mall it is these days. In fairness, Wellington's Cuba St has seen better days too. There's no Carmen to outrage the twinset and pearls brigade.

And Helen Clark's smokefree laws have banned any chance of dens of iniquity anywhere. No places where heresies can be exchanged, ideas collided (Camus, after all, was and always will be a smoker). Drinking Liberally is an attempt to reboot this vibe, but no speaker has really seized the imagination enough to compel my attendance.

It's a great shame. This place has so much potential. New Zealand has always been a grand experiment. European colonisation began with science. Abel Tasman dismissed the islands, but Cook's science field trip (to study the Transit of Venus among other curiosities) included New Zealand and it was that that started the really long migration. Karl Popper saw fit to visit and study our progress later on. He was the first of many academics to not hang around here for long.

It's not that the country is short on criticism. We're a nation of critics. You're doing that wrong, that's not how you do it, you can't do that. If in doubt, the answer is no. Consequentially we've developed to be icons of iconoclasts, each to their own and bugger the rest.

Whilst Trotter keeps snowballing the rogernomes, the rot set in much much earlier. Rogernomics did not give us Michael Laws or Lindsay Perigo. Anyone remember Norm Jones berating the Homosexual Reform Bill in the 80's, on the steps of parliament waving his stick has all those godless queers? Patricia Bartlett anyone?

We tend to be good at destruction but consider any creation with doubt, fear and trepidation. Say NIMBY. Wealth creation is seen as such a particularly dirty task, we leave it to foreign capital to pay for our housing fixes and petit indulgences. The NZ stockmarket never recovered from the '87 crash. Stocks and shares are a big boys' game anyway, seeing as how all those flashy prospectuses and TV advertising before the finance company collapses shows none of it was worth a set of adman's cufflinks. Fortune favours the insiders.

Rugby is taken more seriously than any other corporate religion, to the extent that Clark's Labour pushed for Rugby World Cup protection racket laws, discussed in the latest issue of Werewolf talking to Time Law Lord Walker. The closest most kiwis get to a passionate debate is watching rugby or netball on the telly.

We're not only critics but we're experts too. Public intellectual discourse is full of it on talkback shows, at DPF's and the Herald's YourViews section of the gutter. Our mainstream media is full of experts, from P experts such as Paul Holmes and Mike Sabin, through to philosopher kings such as Michael Laws, who have a near-divine private pool of wisdom. Certainly a monopoly on soundbites and media-whoring.

I can't remember the last time I saw a proper interview on the MSM box. There is certainly no signs of intelligence left on the free to airs. Paul Holmes displayed no greater example of just how much respect, professionalism and interest in his craft he has, than with his time talking at David Kilcullen on Q&A recently. He managed to mispronounce both his name and the title of his latest book, before reading out a number of non-contiguous questions obviously not written by him.

Russell Brown on Media 7 has been the best and most consistently impressive cross-examiner over at TVNZ ondemand. I might get round to watching Talk Talk too sometime, once I stop buggering my datacap.

But for all this bitching, I think the state of public discourse in NZ has never been better. In spite of the pervasive Nanny Statism, talkback vomit and occasional blog sewer, in spite of the likes of Ian Wishart and Bob McCroskrie being taken seriously, in spite of the lack of public spaces and private places where one can sit in warmth and comfort with consenting puffers and kind strangers. In spite of all this, I have hope.

The stereotypical academics are beginning to circulate outside the ivory towers of circular reasoning through a number of blogs, freeing interested readers and commenters from the constraints of time and space of public gatherings. Conferences and talks which most would have no means or contacts to go to in person are posted up for public consumption online. While the public spaces are tamed and anonymised into nothingness, social networking sites provide a platform for soapboxes of all shapes and sizes. Communication has never been easier.

Don't expect an avalanche of public intellectuals to suddenly burst onto the scene though. NZ is a country of part-time tinkerers and our thinkers are no different. The renaissance is here. We're soaking in it. But don't expect miracles.