An opine time had by all
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