Monday, 2 February 2015

Catton and the establishment - a different kind of censorship

The Catton controversy rolls on still, with two important issues raised now well buried now midst name calling and invective. Let me see if I can resurrect them, since the two remain relevant.

The first is Catton’s point that it is her that won the Booker Prize, not you and me.  It was her achievement, not something you or I did. So good on her for not inviting New Zealanders to bask in her reflected glory.

But the second point is this argument about her taxpayer funding, which many anti-Cattonites feel obliges her to indulge in at least a little foreluck tugging, and more than a little flag waving when overseas.

To me, this touches on an important point that needs to be better spelled out.

To me, it’s not the amount she was given by Creative New Zealand that’s important here; it’s that Creative New Zealand pays out any money at all.

And here the issue here isn’t primarily the amounts that Creative New Zealand pays out; it’s the effect of the money they pay out.

Were you aware there is more than one way to curtail free speech? Organisations like Creative New Zealand are another.

Dave will demur, but I’m going to repost a piece from 20061, in which only a few names and some context have been changed to make this point…

This is a post about free speech.
It is not a piece about outrageous assaults on free speech committed in Paris last month, or by government censorship offices, or by successive NZ governments keen to curtail criticism during election periods. 
    No, this is a post about a different kind of attack on free speech. One more subtle, and no less chilling. One in which artists, musicians, scriptwriters, screenwriters, television producers and television production companies are kept afloat by government cash and government grants from Creative New Zealand and Te Mangai Paho and New Zealand on Air or their proxies, or in which many scientists are kept afloat by government grants or by employment in government research projects.
    The direct result of this is what Ayn Rand once called ‘The Establishing of an Establishment’2: not the sponsorship of creative souls to toe a government line, but a more insidious kind of greyness inciting would-be creatives to to a cultural line embodied by those doling out and reviewing these government grants.

    What's the problem, you might ask?
Well, think about this. There is more than one kind of censorship. In fact, I'd suggest to you that there are two. The first and most straightforward method of censorship is for a government to ban speech that they don't like -- that's just what National and Labour and the Greens and Gareth Morgan want to do at elections, and I hope you lot feel disgusted enough about that to do something about it. The second form of censorship is one that Ayn Rand called "the establishing of an establishment," and it is even more insidious and no less chilling:
Governmental repression is [not] the only way a government can destroy the intellectual life of a country... There is another way: governmental encouragement.
imageThat's right. Rather than simply banning opponents or banning expression, this form of censorship is much more subtle: it encourages expression (or scientific research) that is deemed acceptable, and by implication discourages anyone interested in career advancement from engaging in possibly unacceptable expression or research, .
Governmental encouragement does not order men to believe that the false is true: it merely makes them indifferent to the issue of truth or falsehood.

It makes them sensitive instead to what is deemed acceptable, and thereby lucrative -- it encourages and makes lucrative that very form of sensitivity – it invites all those lucred up by the process to band together against whoever they perceive as their ‘other’ [and no better target for that than the phoney shibboleth they call 'neo-liberalism'].
    This is what Rand referred to as "the welfare state of the intellect," and the result is as destructive as that other, more visible welfare state: the setting up of politicians, bureaucrats and their minions (the establishment) as arbiters of thinking and taste and ideology; the freezing of the status quo; a staleness and conformity, and an unwillingness to speak out – what Frank Lloyd Wright once called “an average upon an average by averages on behalf of the average” such that in interrogating any one modern artist you would get essentially the same answers as from any other -- in short "the establishing of an establishment" to which new entrants in a field realise very quickly they are all but required to either conform or go under.

If you talk to a typical business executive or college dean or magazine editor [or spin doctor or opposition leader], you can observe his special, modern quality: a kind of flowing or skipping evasiveness that drips or bounces automatically off any fundamental issue, a gently non-committal blandness, an ingrained cautiousness toward everything, as if an inner tape recorder were whispering: "Play it safe, don't antagonize--whom?--anybody."
imageIf you've ever wondered where this "special, modern quality" comes from, this is perhaps one answer -- through the intellectual mediocrity advanced by this less well-known form of censorship -- a censorship of encouragement. It's a much less obvious and much more insidious method of censorship, and no less chilling for that.
The [US] Constitution forbids a governmental establishment of religion, properly regarding it as a violation of individual rights. Since a man's beliefs are protected from the intrusion of force, the same principle should protect his reasoned convictions and forbid governmental establishments in the field of thought.

Think about it.

We can see for ourselves the defensive laager thrown around Catton by the conformists of the "arts community" who survive off or covet the same grants themselves, and who as a result share both her convictions and (frequently) the same modern literary style.

But Catton is on one hand the beneficiary of the this system (not only by the govt grants but also by the Booker Prize itself, judged as it is by folk who are themselves part of this “welfare state of the intellect”) but also its victim – breaking free of the herd to achieve a prize she feels his hers and hers alone, and wanting to proclaim that.

If we understand how an arts and literary establishment is established, we might better understand her unease.

1. Cresswell (1996), reposted with the generous permission of Dave Perkins.
2. From "The Establishing of an Establishment," republished in her book Philosophy: Who Needs It?, from which the otherwise unreferenced quotes above derive.
Highly recommended if you want to get to grips with this subtle form of censorship.


  1. I feel the same way about taxpayers being made to fund sport too - eg Ko. That is that ANY MONEY AT ALL is paid by taxpayers for sport!

  2. Too kind -- did your Xmas reading include 'Intro to Applied Victimology'?

    EC chose to be an apprentice on the floor of the state owned enterprise 'Important Literature Production Facility'.

    Risking all, with deep artistic courage she denounces the vile satanic mills under whose grinding wheels her bank account got so heartlessly direct credited & which produces such atrocious working conditions as the Michael King Writers' Centre. (Dostoevksy got merely imprisonment & a firing squad).

    Of course the oppressive ILPF should be closed down immediately for reasons you outline -- but EC ain't no victim. Spoilt child more. Let the sunlight shine in.


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