Monday, December 7, 2009

Newsprint wrestling

A few months ago I was excited to pick up, in a secondhand bookshop, a copy of John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua. I'd long been curious about this book, widely admired in its day (the 1860s) and remembered as a highly accessible work of Victorian theology. When I began to read it, I discovered it was in fact a highly charged polemical shot in a bitterly personal ongoing argument between Cardinal Newman and the progressive, yet orthodox, Anglican clergyman Charles Kingsley.

I know, from personal experience, how one's best work can be provoked in the heat of verbal battle, and then sadly loses its pith, point and relevance when taken out of that context. Newman may have had the wisdom of a poet and a prophet, but today, without the context of Kingsley's snide insinuations, he comes across as a petulant teenager.

For this reason alone, I think, Newman should be required reading for anyone who wants to take part in public life. Moral: don't duel in print.

The New Zealand Herald's leading crusty-old-fogey columnist, Garth George, thought almost as poorly of Don Brash's '2025' task force as I did. Granted his reasons are slightly different from mine - he thought it was ideologically motivated, whereas I, I regret to say, thought it driven by the interests of corruption - but all the same I was pleasantly surprised, on the basis that he probably thinks like a significant constituency of Kiwis, to find myself agreeing with GG for a change.

Today, I was - what's a word that means simultaneously incredulous and amused? - slightly flabbergasted, perhaps - to see Dr Brash taking the time to rebut Garth's attack specifically. This abuse of newsprint is remarkable for its amateurishness. Dr Brash makes no attempt to hide his passive-aggressiveness, his theatrical aggrievement at being so misunderstood, for all the world like a sulky pre-teen:
Mr George also suggests that we recommended abolishing subsidised doctor visits, and implies that we are advocating an American approach to healthcare. This is again utter nonsense. We suggested targeting subsidies for doctor's visits at those who need them, either because they have low incomes or have chronic health problems.
I think I'm not the only one to hear this undertone, because the Herald's subeditor has given the piece a title that perfectly sums up the juvenile level of the debate: "Don Brash to Garth George: You're wrong".

Finally, Brash goes on to admit the central charge of his critics: that he basically cribbed the whole thing from OECD or IMF reports and right-wing 1990s manifestos. Well, that's not quite how he puts it. What he says is:
The recommendations of the 2025 Taskforce are actually totally in line with orthodox thinking in most developed countries, and are almost entirely consistent with the recommendations of the recent OECD report on New Zealand.
In other words, there's not a spark of thought or originality here - his $150,000 report hasn't told us anything we hadn't already been told by other people who mistake us for a wannabe tax haven.

Second memo to Don Brash: This is not an argument that's worth getting into. Arguing in newspaper columns is like mud-wrestling: no matter how well you do, there's no way to come out looking or smelling cleaner than you went in.

It feels odd to be giving this level of unsolicited advice to a supposedly experienced politician and former leader of the opposition. I mean, William Hague may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but even he would never have made himself look quite this dumb.


Anonymous said...

Since it's you, and since your writings are normally exemplary (as well as entertaining), it pains me to note two smelling pistakes. I suggest fixing (and feel free to keep this comment hidden).

vet said...

Thank you for your vigilance, BH. I should not dream of hiding your comment - it's the only reassurance I have that someone out there is still reading...