Thursday, January 3, 2013

Peter? Are you there?

I recently had an exchange here with New Zealand Herald senior journalist Peter Calder. It began with him challenging my statement that Auckland University academic Elizabeth Rata was Maori, but soon degenerated into a catty tit-for-tat exchange (the tone of which I accept some responsibility for) that probably no one other than the two participants bothered to persevere with.
To recap, I had drawn attention to a noteworthy piece Rata wrote for the Herald warning of the dangers of “co-governance” with iwi, a Treaty “partnership” model that Rata points out subverts the basic principles of democracy. Calder made no direct comment on Rata’s piece (though his opinion subsequently became very clear in the course of our exchange) but took exception to my statement that Rata was “one of very few Maori” with the courage to speak out against the concept of biculturalism.

That specific issue – whether Rata was Maori – remains unresolved. Calder wanted me to say she wasn’t, and claimed some personal knowledge because his wife is a university colleague of Rata. All I was prepared to do was accept that I couldn’t prove she was Maori, just as I suspect Calder can’t prove she isn’t. I find it interesting that after having said that Rata made a point of not disclosing her ethnicity, he stated categorically that I was wrong in saying she was Maori. Thus, having lectured me for being sloppy in asserting she was Maori, he appears to have committed the same error in reverse.
So I conceded that Rata might not be Maori, though equally she might be. Having spent time with her at a symposium years ago, I have no more reason to doubt her Maoriness than I do the many pale-skinned Treaty activists with European names who choose to assert their Maori ancestry over their European bloodlines, for reasons only they can explain. But ultimately, as Rata would undoubtedly argue herself, her racial background is irrelevant. I described her as Maori because I thought it a point of interest, but it’s incidental to the issue. What matters is the force of her arguments. And here’s where it gets interesting.

Having answered Calder’s question in the only way I could – namely, by acknowledging that I couldn’t confirm Rata was Maori – I put some questions to him. I asked him to admit that what really riled him was that Rata had the temerity to attack the wearyingly predictable (to pinch a phrase that Calder applied to my own “reactionary drivel”) orthodoxy of the left on Treaty issues; and what’s more, that his own paper had given her a platform. No answer. Missing in action.
I asked these questions because Calder has previous form. In an online journalists’ forum a few weeks ago, he sided with several non-entities who had argued that the media gave far too much coverage to people like Sensible Sentencing Trust man Garth McVicar, welfare watchdog Lindsay Mitchell and University of Canterbury law academic David Round (who, like Rata, is a trenchant critic of the Treaty grievance industry). Calder wrote then that he was proud to be in the same business (journalism) as two contributors to that online discussion who had attacked me for defending the right of people such McVicar, Mitchell and Round to be heard in the media.

As I remarked then, I found it ironic that people who considered themselves journalists were arguing that certain views should be suppressed just because they didn’t agree with them – a view that would have found favour with totalitarian regimes, of both the left and right, down through history. Intriguingly, that exchange was touched off by an editorial in the Herald that said we should disregard the views of “enthusiastic amateurs” campaigning on issues such as climate change and heed only the voices of experts. I understand Calder’s duties at the Herald include writing editorials, and it’s dollars to doughnuts that this was one of his. Do you see a pattern here?
As I say, Calder didn’t respond to my questions – he was interested only in trying to discredit me for asserting that Rata was Maori – so I put them again. I asked him to confirm that his preoccupation with this ultimately irrelevant issue was just a smokescreen, and that what really pissed him off was that the Herald provided a platform for an opinion that he couldn’t stomach. I went on: “You made it clear, by your recent support in another forum for two noxious fleas who argued that people such as Garth McVicar, Lindsay Mitchell and David Round should be ignored by the media, that you think any opinions that don’t conform to your own left-wing world-view should be suppressed, although how you reconcile that with your position as a senior journalist employed by a mainstream newspaper is a bit of a mystery. So why don’t you just give up the contrived indignation and declare honestly that you think people like Dr Rata should be silenced?”

Now I would have thought these were quite serious claims to raise against a journalist, but I’m still waiting for a response. Calder has gone to ground. He’s more interested in trying to discredit my post on Rata on the ground that she’s not Maori (although I challenge him to prove that, just as he challenged me to prove that she is). Presumably he thinks she dishonestly assumes a spurious credibility because she happens to have a Maori surname.
I don’t think I’ve ever met Peter Calder, but I feel I know him. He reveals a lot about himself by what he writes.

He’s something of a bon vivant. He reviews expensive restaurants in the Herald and recently enjoyed Stonyridge Larose ($45 a glass) during two days of wining and dining on Waiheke Island. In these hedonistic endeavours he is accompanied by someone he cutely refers to as “The Professor”, whom I assume to be his wife. I sometimes find his writing style pompous, but then he might well say the same thing about me.
He also writes film reviews, and like many film critics he grabs whatever opportunity he can to make a political point (for example, using a review of a documentary about Donald Trump to have a shot at the New Zealand government, which he says is “keen to bend the rules for rich foreigners”).

So he enjoys the good life. BUT (and this is a very important but), he also has a social conscience. He’s a champion of the poor and downtrodden, which must make him feel better every time he tucks in his bib at an exclusive restaurant or accepts a freebie from an airline or overseas hotel. He tugs at readers’ heartstrings with stories about the queues at the Auckland City Mission, the “hardscrabble” Housing New Zealand tenants heartlessly being “booted out” of their homes at Glen Innes (the bits about the government building new houses and the displaced tenants being offered accommodation elsewhere must have been edited out) and the heroic attempts being made, in the face of government indifference, to save the Maori language.
He gives himself away with telltale moralising (in this case, dropped into an admiring article about a 1960s-style collective) about “modern life having prized ruthless individuality over and above the greater good for a generation now” – a clear reference to Rogernomics, which 1970s-era lefties like Calder tend to view in much the same way as fundamentalist Christians regard Adam and Eve’s Fall from Grace in the Garden of Eden.

In other words Calder is almost the perfect embodiment of what has become known as the chardonnay socialist. There’s no shortage of them in journalism, which needn’t be a problem, just as long as they don’t fall prey to the conceit that they have a monopoly on virtue. That can easily morph into a conviction that anyone holding contrary views must have dodgy motives (greed, indifference, malice, racism, whatever) and should therefore be ignored, if not suppressed.
There are several things that intrigue me about chardonnay socialists. One is that they insist the government eliminate poverty but never bother themselves with the vexing question of where the money will come from. Another is that they are quick to condemn the wickedness of capitalism but never pause to wonder which economic system enables them to eat and drink in fine restaurants, live in tastefully restored Grey Lynn villas, accept free overseas trips and drive cute, environmentally responsible European cars.

But I digress. To get back to Calder, I’d be interested in his answers to the following simple questions: does he accept that Elizabeth Rata has a legitimate point of view on biculturalism and the Treaty, and does he agree that the Herald is doing what a good newspaper should do by giving Rata – along with people of contrary opinions – a platform? Yes or no will suffice.


Jigsaw said...

Well written! I was amazed that the NZ Herald published Elizabeth Rata's article and even more amazed that they published a series of letters broadly in support of what she had said and none against-did they not get any against?
As for people who often label themsleves 'liberal'-it is often curious how they cling to the idea without being able or willing to allow others opinions to be heard. Many of the people who work for Radio New Zealand would consider themsleves 'liberal' but by their lack of any discussion of any other point of view than the one to which they subscribe they show that far from being liberal they are determined to censor any other point of view because they are correct and nothing further needs to be said. Bring on the debate and may Elizabeth Rata,David Round,Lindsay Mitchell and everyone who needs to be heard get a fair go.
Roger Strong

Brendan said...

Well spoken Karl

I read the original article in the herald regarding climate change sceptics, and suspect it is one of the more ignorant and totalitarian editorials published by that paper. Of course it is editors like this gentleman that have discredited the main stream media, and reduced them to simple opinion pieces in support of their personal ideological pets.

Why purchase a newspaper when you can get opinion for free from the Internet, and sell your 'stuff' through trademe? They are the literally the authors of their own demise.

Peter Calder said...

Goodness gracious me, Karl! An entire column about me! I am flattered. I can’t wait to tell my mates.
Reading your blog, I cannot shake the image of a fire-and-brimstone preacher bellowing at a church that would be empty if it were not for the two drunks in the back row, sheltering from the rain. Setting aside our exchange of views last month, the average number of comments per post seems to be somewhere between 1 and 2. (Jigsaw and Vaughan, relatives, I presume) Many have none. Perhaps you could re-entitle it “The Sound Of One Hand Clapping”. Or another verb.
Plainly you prize your writing cheaply that you would do so much of it for such a small readership. I can understand that: I suspect it’s worth about what you’re getting paid for it. I, however, adhere to Samuel Johnson’s dictum that no one but a blockhead ever wrote but for money – the following notwithstanding – so you must forgive me if this is my Last Post, so to speak.
The answers to the two questions in your last paragraph are “yes” and “yes”. I would have thought that was self-evident, though a man who refers to his detractors as “noxious fleas” may well find it hard to understand that.
I never expressed any view on Rata’s column, though you inferred one and then constructed, ex pede Herculem, an entire architecture of ideas and ascribed them to me.
I certainly did not and do not think Rata’s views should be repressed. For the record, I thought her column an entirely legitimate expression of opinion, thought it has been widely circulated for about 20 years and is indeed one of the nubs of the Treaty debate ; one might have hoped for something more original and thought-provoking from someone who devotes her life to the matter, but there you go.
The only question I raised (and you seem to be having such trouble getting it even though I have been repeatedly explicit) was about Rata’s ethnicity. You said she was Maori. I asked what evidence you had. You had none, though it took you a very long time to say so. Doubtless shamed by having been caught out making an assumption you could not sustain (a cadet-level error) you then claimed quite speciously that her ethnicity was irrelevant (it was in your first para, and the fact that she was a Maori challenging the Treaty industry was the entire reason you wrote about her) and launched into an attack on me. I don’t know if you realise how silly you looked, wriggling like a fish on a hook, but I can tell you it caused mighty amusement up here.
Now I realise that facts don’t mean a lot to you – there are subs who have told me as much – but in closing I thought I would just mention a few factual errors in the piece above:
1. I am not “a senior Herald journalist”. I have not been one of those since February 2001. I am a freelance writer – just like you, Karl – and I make my living by writing for people who will pay me to write about whatever they want me to write about. It surprises me that another freelance writer would attack my choice of profession, but there is a lot about you that has surprised me in the past week.
2. I have only written one editorial for the Herald. It was in the late 1980s and it was about tax shelters for NZ-made films. It follows that I did not write the global-warming one you allude to. Betting dollars to doughnuts may pass for authoritative sourcing in your neck of the woods, Karl, but it really doesn’t pass muster in the big city. We have to check our facts. Of course, bloggers can write any old crap they like and nobody will question them. It must be great being your own sub and editor.

Peter Calder said...

3. I wrote (please note the past tense) editorials for the Herald on Sunday from early 2005 to about June this year. Lots of people confuse the Herald with the Herald on Sunday even though the names are different and HoS editorials are plainly marked on the website. One might have hoped that a grizzled veteran of the fourth estate like you would manage to make the distinction, but one might also have hoped for some semblance of coherence in your writing and that turned out to be a false hope. You may not care for what I write, in HoS editorials or elsewhere. But refer (1) above.

There was some other more minor stuff, but that’s about all I can be arsed writing, Karl. Good luck with the blogging. It probably serves a therapeutic purpose, even if no one reads it. You seem such an angry and troubled soul, so I am sure it does you good to get these things off your chest, even if you are barking at shadows a lot of the time.
Go ahead and reply. Knock yourself out. But as you hurl your invective, try not to picture that fire-and-brimstone preacher. If you do, it might put you off your stride. Certainly I won’t be reading. So you will get the last word. Enjoy it. It is, I imagine, one of the best things about writing a blog: you are never wrong, even when you’re wrong.
All the best,
Peter Calder

Karl du Fresne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karl du Fresne said...

'The answers to the two questions in your last paragraph are “yes” and “yes”.'

There; that wasn't so hard, was it?