Author Eleanor Catton speaks about her deeply held beliefs as she travels to world. And she has discovered that in her home country, New Zealand, the right wing government, and their cheerleaders in the mainstream media, do not like it when their government and its values are criticised.
An article in guardian books explains the latest developments – “Eleanor Catton blasts critics ‘jingoistic national tantrum’“. Extracts:
Eleanor Catton has hit back at figures in New Zealand who reacted with anger to her criticisms of the country’s “neoliberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians”, describing the vicious attacks she has suffered as a “jingoistic national tantrum”.
Key attributed Catton’s views to her association with the Green party, saying that while she is “a great writer … it’s just a bit sad really that she’s mixing politics with some of the other things that she’s better-known for”.
Catton condemned “the scale and shabbiness of this jingoistic national tantrum”, which she said “ashames 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,” she said.
Catton’s full statement is here. It ends:
The truly shocking thing would be the writer who only spoke in praise of her country; who was unequivocal in gratitude and platitude; who swore fealty to her government, rather than to deep-felt values or ideals; who regarded arts funding as hush money and a part-time teaching position as an intellectual gag. I hope that that author does not exist today; but if she does, she is the one who should make the news.
In future interviews with foreign media, I will of course discuss the inflammatory, vicious, and patronising things that have been broadcast and published in New Zealand this week. I will of course discuss the frightening swiftness with which the powerful Right move to discredit and silence those who question them, and the culture of fear and hysteria that prevails. But I will hope for better, and demand it.
Morgan Godfery, in his article “Burn the witch: on the attacks against Eleanor Catton”, explains well how the right wing-leaning establishment do not like a successful writer of fiction speaking out politically:
You may have the impression Catton committed some national sin, and you be might right – but only if it is a national sin to criticise the powerful. Or perhaps it’s just considered inappropriate to step outside the self-contained communities of the literary classes and venture a view on politics.
Catton is hardly advancing a new or particularly devastating critique. What, then, explains the vicious response? Beneath the barely concealed misogyny, the ad hominem attacks and the official disapproval is a very clear message: the role of the writer is not political.
It all serves a prosaic function – the quickest way to render a critique meaningless is to isolate the critic – but it also has an effect much harder to quantify: how many women will be discouraged from thinking in public? After all, Key’s government has form attacking women who criticise it. One critic, academic and former New Zealander of the Year Dame Anne Salmond was labelled ‘shrill’ and her criticisms of government spying laws were compared to ‘McCarthyism’ and ‘Nazi Germany’. Actor Keisha Castle-Hughes, the youngest Oscar nominee for Best Actress, was told to ‘stick to acting’ after campaigning for climate change action.
There may be no greater endorsement of the public intellectual and the activist than to invite the contempt of the establishment. But it would also be reckless to refuse to recognise how insidious the attacks against Catton could be.
Thank you to Eleanor Catton for speaking out. The negative responses to her criticisms have inadvertently shown just how far our media have slipped from any critical fourth estate ideal. It shows how unused the NZ right is to sincere and heart felt criticism from creatively successful public figures, who value democracy and a caring and inclusive society.