An opine time had by all

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - STEPHEN MATCHETT

AC­CORD­ING to Doris Less­ing, the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks on New York and Wash­ing­ton were ter­ri­ble but not that bad com­pared with the IRA cam­paign against Bri­tain. It is an inane ar­gu­ment on many lev­els. The IRA never mur­dered as many, or did as much dam­age, on a sin­gle day as al- Qa’ida achieved. And for all their evil in­tent the Ir­ish ter­ror­ists had a ra­tio­nal po­lit­i­cal goal, whereas the Is­lamists did not much care who they killed in pur­suit of their mad mil­lenar­ian fan­tasy. In any case, what point is served by sug­gest­ing one na­tion’s mis­ery is more im­pres­sive than an­other’s?

Of course Less­ing is en­ti­tled to say what­ever she likes about any is­sue that ex­cites her in­ter­est or ire. And there is no doubt­ing that there will be a larger au­di­ence for any­thing she ar­gues now that she has won a No­bel prize, just as Pa­trick White went from be­ing a re­spected writer to an author­ity on any­thing he cared to com­ment on af­ter he won his.

There is a great deal of this about among ac­tors, au­thors and sundry other artists who as­sume that be­cause they have a creative tal­ent in some area or an­other they also have much wis­dom to im­part on all sorts of other is­sues, whether or not they know any­thing about them and even if they have not won a No­bel prize or any other au­gust award.

It some­times seems as if there is an arts com­mu­nity that is the equiv­a­lent of the UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly, re­flex­ively op­pos­ing any­thing the world’s de­vel­oped democ­ra­cies sup­port on gen­eral prin­ci­ple. In Aus­tralia, any­thing the main po­lit­i­cal par­ties sup­port is op­posed by a broad al­liance of pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cates for causes the Aus­tralian peo­ple ig­nored in the lead- up to this week­end’s elec­tion.

The curious thing is that to­day many im­pas­sioned ad­vo­cates do not use their creative work to en­gage di­rectly in po­lit­i­cal de­bates they know any­thing about or to ad­dress a spe­cific po­lit­i­cal is­sue, un­like in the past.

The great Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal nov­el­ists, from Theodore Dreiser, Up­ton Sin­clair and Robert Penn War­ren to Gore Vi­dal, all had cases to make, causes to ad­vance in their writ­ing. So did Vic­tor Hugo and Emile Zola. Any­body who has read Ge­orge Or­well’s A Cler­gy­man’s Daugh­ter knows he wrote bet­ter po­lit­i­cal pro­pa­ganda than he cre­ated fine fiction.

As Pauline Arm­strong demon­strates in her 2000 study of the writ­ing of per­haps Aus­tralia’s most fa­mous po­lit­i­cal novel, Frank Hardy and the Mak­ing of Power With­out Glory, the book was cre­ated by the Com­mu­nist Party to dis­credit its op­po­nents as the tide turned against it fol­low­ing the elec­tion of the Men­zies gov­ern­ment in 1949.

There is no case against artists us­ing their skills to ar­gue for a cause. If any­thing, pop­u­lar cul­ture would ben­e­fit from fewer plays, films and nov­els about the pol­i­tics of race, gen­der and sex­u­al­ity and more about the pol­i­tics of pol­i­tics.

Of course it helps if ar­gu­ments are in­formed. A voice with some­thing cred­i­ble to say cen­tre stage in a de­bate is more use­ful than one chant­ing slo­gans from the back of the hall in­tent on drown­ing out the other side’s ar­gu­ments. But the lat­ter is what we have had a lot of lately.

In 2004, for ex­am­ple, Jean Moor­croft Wil­son and Ce­cil Woolf col­lected the opin­ions of au­thors, in­clud­ing a few Aus­tralians, in Au­thors Take Sides: Iraq and the Gulf War. Some con­trib­u­tors stayed neu­tral but many more were ro­bust in de­nounc­ing the in­va­sion.

How­ever, few of them pro­vided ev­i­dence of any ex­per­tise in Mid­dle East pol­i­tics that made them any more qual­i­fied to write about the is­sue than the rest of us.

And this is where the Less­ing ef­fect be­comes sig­nif­i­cant. There is a great deal of dif­fer­ence be­tween ex­press­ing an ar­gu­ment well and hav­ing an ar­gu­ment of any sub­stance.

As Si­mon Cater­son put it in Re­view last month, ‘‘ it is not as though artists or­di­nar­ily have a spe­cial un­der­stand­ing of pol­i­tics any more than politi­cians have a par­tic­u­lar ap­pre­ci­a­tion of art’’. Those who do un­der­stand the is­sues some­times shut up be­cause they know enough to re­alise how hard it is to re­duce an is­sue to pam­phle­teer­ing. Or­well re­fused to par­tic­i­pate in the first of the au­thors take side se­ries, over the Span­ish Civil War, de­spite hav­ing fought in it.

There is some­thing not en­tirely eth­i­cal about artists us­ing their creative stand­ing as a plat­form to make a moral case, as dis­tinct from the rest of us who have to rely on the strength of our re­search and the force of our facts to make a case.

That peo­ple who do not know what they are talk­ing about are taken se­ri­ously oc­curs in part be­cause of the cult of cor­rect celebrity, which en­sures many in the me­dia will re­port what­ever any­body fa­mous says or does. It takes a demon­stra­tion of de­fin­i­tive ditzi­ness from any­body who ap­pears reg­u­larly on television to lose cred­i­bil­ity, no mat­ter how ec­cen­tric their opin­ions. If Paris Hil­ton had only stood on the steps of a Cal­i­for­nian court­house and de­manded a ban on coal- fired power sta­tions, she would have still had to serve her short sen­tence in the slammer, but greens would have made her a mar­tyr.

But as well as the cult of celebrity, there is its twin, the cult of credulity, which as­sumes that be­cause a creative per­son says some­thing it must be cor­rect or at least owed a hear­ing. As ob­servers at lit­er­ary gath­er­ings of­ten at­test, the best way for writ­ers to at­tract a sym­pa­thetic hear­ing is to de­nounce the gov­ern­ment. ( If La­bor wins I give Kevin Rudd six months be­fore the crit­i­cisms be­gin that he is not do­ing enough on global warm­ing, in­dige­nous is­sues, refugee rights or to end the US al­liance.) That Peter Gar­rett found the tran­si­tion to pol­i­tics so tough is surely due, in part, to the way he is held to a higher stan­dard of ac­cu­racy than when he was an en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist rock singer.

Per­haps artists, es­pe­cially writ­ers, who gen­er­ally toil in soli­tude for lit­tle fame or re­ward, en­joy the celebrity that ac­com­pa­nies tak­ing stands on po­lit­i­cal is­sues.

Per­haps they be­lieve their tal­ent alone makes any and all of their opin­ions im­por­tant. As in 2001, when Less­ing sug­gested that young women were un­rea­son­ably ‘‘ rub­bish­ing men’’. And ear­lier this year when the BBC re­ported her idea that men were ‘‘ a hap­haz­ard species’’ who ex­isted to ‘‘ pep up’’ the world of women.

Fact- free gen­er­al­i­sa­tions do not con­vince just be­cause they are ex­pressed by some­body fa­mous.

match­etts@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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