Intellectuals, fools, and hubris: Gordon McLauchlan responds to Roger Horrocks
When I reviewed Roger Horrocks' book Re-inventing New Zealand for Landfall recently, I gave the thumbs up to most of the text, but took issue with an essay called 'A Short History of the 'New Zealand Intellectual'.
I disagreed with Horrocks' claim that New Zealand was an intellectual wasteland for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and worried that his discussion of our intellectual history gave too little attention to the thousands of Kiwis who learned about and exchanged ideas outside the walls of universities. The working class autodidacts who studied socialist classics and Shakespeare at evening classes and summer camps, the Christian scholars who mastered Greek and argued about the nooks and crannies of their sacred texts, the tohunga who carried and extended Maori knowledge - all of these types seemed absent from Horrocks' narrative.
One of the targets of Roger Horrocks' essay is the veteran journalist and author Gordon McLauchlan. Horrocks offered an opinion piece called 'We Don't Need Formally Educated Fools' that McLauchlan wrote for the New Zealand Herald in 2003 as an example of the anti-intellectual attitude that he thinks infects much of Kiwi society.
McLauchlan's article discussed a conference he had attended in the United States where the question of the social role of intellectuals was raised. After a Latin American attendee had asked why American intellectuals were not doing more to oppose George Bush and his invasion of Iraq, McLauchlan had explained that, in New Zealand and other Anglo-Saxon countries, the word 'intellectual' was treated with some suspicion. In his article for the Herald Mclauchlan argued this suspicion was warranted, and that the judgments of 'clear-thinking everyday people' should be preferred to the 'vanity' of formally educated politicians and bureaucrats.
Back in June, when Horrocks was launching Re-inventing New Zealand, The Spinoff published his criticisms of McLauchlan under a jejune headline.
When I read Horrocks' arguments against McLauchlan I wondered whether he had properly appreciated some of the context in which the journalist had written his 2003 article. McLauchlan has been a stern critic of the neo-liberal 'reforms' that privatised and globalised the New Zealand economy in the late 1980s and '90s. He wrote a whole book, which he called The Big Con, to document the way that a small number of politicians and public servants seized upon the exotic and simplistic doctrines of neo-liberalism, and then inflicted these ideas on their country.
Like Bruce Jesson, whose books Fragments of Labour and Only Their Purpose is Mad cover some of the same territory as The Big Con, McLauchlan saw the conquest of New Zealand by neo-liberalism as a lesson in the damage that intelligent and powerful people can do when they lose contact with reality and escape the control of democracy. In Fragments of Labour Jesson shows how a circle of influential Labour Party politicians began to study neo-liberalism at the beginning of the 1980s, how they were converted to the notion that the smooth operation of the 'free' market offers the solution to society's ills, and how they turned that notion into the guiding principle of the Labour government elected in 1984.
I think that, when Gordon McLauchlan warned about the dangers of 'formally educated fools', he was remembering the disasters that Labour's neo-liberal clique wrought in the 1980s.
McLauchlan used part of his 2003 article to attack Helen Clark, who was then the head of the fifth Labour government. Clark was an intellectual, and McLauchlan worried that she was beginning to show some of the 'hubris' that had been such a characteristic of 1980s Labour.
Clark had won her government a second term in office in 2002, but by 2003 she was arguing with some of her Maori MPs about iwi claims to sovereignty over some of New Zealand's coastline. By 2004 Clark would be effectively expelling her most senior Maori MP, pushing the inflammatory Seabed and Foreshore Act through parliament, and hiding inside the Beehive while thirty thousand protesters descended on Wellington. Labour's loss of Maori support had a lot to do with its defeat by National at the 2008 general election.
I don't know whether Gordon McLauchlan was thinking about the foreshore and seabed shambles when he wrote his 2003 article, but I certainly think he was correct in warning Helen Clark about the dangers of hubris.
Last week I asked Gordon McLauchlan about Roger Horrocks' essay, and about that article from 2003. Here are some excerpts from the reply McLauchlan sent me, reproduced with his permission:
At [the conference in] Iowa [there were] twenty or so different people at the discussion...The Englishman (Ed Carey), the American and me...were ambivalent about what constituted an ‘intellectual’...
I have made the point that of all the Prime Ministers in New Zealand history between Balance and Jack Marshall, many of whom were daring legislative trailblazers, only one went to university (and was Prime Minister for a few weeks) and very few even went to secondary school. They were all self-educated and, therefore, even someone with as sophisticated a mind as Peter Fraser (left school at eleven) would not fit into Roger’s identity of the ‘intellectual’.
Footnote: the image at the top of this post was published in The Listener in 2012, alongside an entertaining interview with Gordon McLauchlan.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]