In defence of Eleanor Catton


A few weeks ago a fellow ex-Burnside High student, winner of the Man Booker literary prize and now social commentator Eleanor Catton made comments about the state of New Zealand that rattled the establishment. In her commentary, which started a media firestorm, she mentioned the state of the arts and her dismay with the obsession with making a profit. Although I could have very much written a blog item about this then, I deliberately let it sit whilst I refined my thinking. In doing so I came to understand the fear of the tall poppy that pervades New Zealand politics, of the successful academic or commentator making comments and of the imbalance between sciences and the arts.

When I was at University of Canterbury, I knew people from across nearly all faculties except that of economics. I started out as a geology undergraduate student intending to do my BSc with a long term view to being a volcanologist or working in the field. It was when I realized how much my mathematics had let me down, that I changed course and went into a geography major.

As my post-graduate study progressed in 2005-06 I undertook papers in geography that were more about culture and gender identity. One was about Maori resource management and their holistic view of the world, which completely revamped my understanding of Maoridom and gave it a respect I did not realize I had. I began to become appreciate of the discourse facing women around gender across the cultures. The boy who arrived, bent on being a volcanologist, with not much interest in philosophical matters, finished his undergrad with a profoundly different view of the arts.

I can understand Eleanor Catton’s comments would have annoyed those of a more conservative orientation, who possibly being of an older mould of social expectations, might have expected her to be grateful for the opportunities that she has been afforded and make her peace with the establishment. I have been told on occasion by people on the street whilst fundraising for Amnesty International that it is an organization that doth protest too much. I had no argument with them expressing their views and indeed the basic right TO express a view point is one of the fundamentals of human communication, and one that Amnesty recognizes under Section 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But those rights also extend to critics and it is not free speech to have rank censorship cutting down one or the other simply because of what they said.

Prime Minister John Keys attack was disappointing, not because he made the comments, but the manner in which they were delivered. His attacks came across as those of Prime Minister getting tired of the dissent that any democratically elected leader should expect to endure, however harsh. Although I should not be surprised. This National-led Government has been particularly harsh on the arts faculties across New Zealand, and most if not all have been forced to cut budgets and slash staff numbers in the name of cost cutting. To National, the arts are nice to haves, but not essential even though they greatly improve our quality of life, help to understand how society functions, the role of religion and politics – which one might have thought would be particularly important at the moment given the trouble with militants trying to hijack Islam.

It was however Sean Plunkett that angered me the most. His attack was degrading and lowered the standard that I had come to expect from N.Z. radio. I am not surprised Eleanor’s father returned the serve. If Eleanor had been my daughter I would have done the same.

I have to fundamentally disagree with the premise that Eleanor Catton is being ungrateful. Indeed I am actually pleased there are people of substantial intellect in this country who are willing to stand up for what they say. And I am disappointed that people in places with powerful mediums to express their opinion have decided to play the author who is telling some rather hard truths instead of playing the commentary. It is a low gutter snipe type of commentary that I would like to think New Zealand commentators in all mediums and regardless of their backgrounds are above.

So early in National’s new term, this should be a warning that New Zealanders are starting to get seriously fed up with Prime Minister John Key’s government. Arrogance like this will help ensure this is his last term as Prime Minister. And Sean Plunkett should clean his mouth.

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