Of all people, it was Dunedin South MP Clare Curran who took to social media to attack as “fiction" my latest NZ Herald column on the party’s disastrous TPP policy. For good measure, she added I am “very bitter”.
Is it possible to overdose on irony?
Some weeks back, I revealed that Labour had ripped large chunks from magazine articles (mainly the Economist) and presented them as original work in a Future of Work discussion paper. A few hours later, Curran confessed and apologised.
Avoiding intemperate language like “liar” or “thief” or “she should resign from Parliament”, I wrote instead:
I feel a bit sorry for Clare Curran over this. The Future of Work Commission is Grant Robertson’s baby but clearly he has decided to palm it off to lesser colleagues whenever it soils its nappies. Hardly a profile in courage, but I can see that Robertson’s reputation, as Finance Spokesperson, is worth preserving.
So you can see why I might feel a tad hurt by Curran’s digs, since I went out of my way during the plagiarism episode to avoid disparaging her. (Curran also honed in on the Josie Pagani for retweeting my article: “Josie,” she snarled, "why are you so anti-Labour?”).
In my plagiarism posts, I presented several examples of Curran lifting entire sections from magazine articles and inserting them without attribution in a Labour Party policy paper. Neither Curran nor anyone else in Labour disputed my account. By contrast, when calling my column “fiction” and me “very bitter", Curran failed to produce a scintilla of evidence to support either claim. Just another baseless ad hominem attack. Ho hum..
This happens every time without fail. Some outlet or other publishes something from me that contains criticism of the Labour Party because I am genuinely exasperated by its unrelenting incompetence, and fearful that New Zealand is on the cusp of becoming a one-party state. The response from Labour is never to dispute the facts as I lay them out, or even to question my interpretation. I am simply attacked for being “bitter”.
For those who don’t know the provenance of this line of attack, it is this: I was shunned from Labour after my role in a doomed coup attempt against Helen Clark in 1996, and I’ve apparently yet to recover from the resulting sense of emotional and professional injury. In this account, I have spent the past 20 years in a state of broiling resentment at no longer having a job in the Labour Research Unit.
It’s hard to know where to begin, or whether even to bother.
Since 1996, the following has happened:
- In 1997, I came out as gay and left my then wife, ratcheting up by several notches my already-stupendous drinking habit.
- Six months later, I left New Zealand for Australia where I worked as an advisor to several ALP politicians, including: former Foreign Minister and deputy leader, Gareth Evans; former Defence Minister and factional supremo, Robert Ray; and Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks.
- In 2001, I left politics for a lacklustre stint as a PR and public affairs consultant – mainly as a means to fund my booze habit.
- On October 2nd, 2006, I gave up drinking. I wrote about it recently here.
- Since getting sober, I have often been severely, even debilitatingly, depressed. I wrote about that here.
- In 2009, I left for New York City where I lived on and off for four years.
- In 2011, I took a three year contract to train and supervise an emerging generation of communications professionals in the Rwandan public service. An extraordinary experience.
So yeah. My life’s been something of a shambles, punctuated by some interesting stuff and plenty of missed opportunities. If there’s one thing I want to take to my grave, it’s the dogged insistence that my life is what I made of it. No scapegoats, no excuses.
While I readily concede that calling me “bitter” every time I open my mouth is as good an insult as any, it doesn’t have the added benefit of being even remotely true. Given everything that's happened since, how can anyone seriously believe I have the reserves of cognitive or emotional energy to conjure feelings of bitterness – or any feelings at all, come to think of it – from events two decades ago?
So why do people choose the ad hominem attack over engaging on the substance of arguments to which they object? After all, I cop a fraction of what others with unfashionable views endure on a daily basis. Sadly, personal vilification in lieu of argument is a ubiquitous feature of the modern discourse.
On that point, I recently listened to a podcast discussion between noted atheist and philosopher, Sam Harris, and Yale Psychology professor, Paul Bloom. It’s a wide-ranging chat focussing on the ethical components of several high profile recent controversies. It’s worth listening to in full (below).
Sam Harris, who is subjected to unrelenting torrents of abuse for his views on radical Islamism in particular, expressed bemusement at the degree to which his critics go after him personally but resolutely refuse to engage with the substance of his arguments. Bloom, the thrust of whose academic work is that humans behave more rationally than usually acknowledged, has an interesting take. He asks Harris to consider how he would approach a hypothetical interaction with a Holocaust denier. Would we take time to weigh their views in good faith, or would we instantly conclude that possessing such views make this a bad person? Harris agreed, as I do, that the latter is far more likely. In this case, denying the truth of the Holocaust is such a reprehensible and offensive act that it is perfectly rational for us to want to deprive the person of legitimacy – not only rational, but the right thing to do.
Bloom then asks: what if, to his critics, Sam Harris' views on Islam and religion are no less offensive than Holocaust denial is to us? To Islamists and their allies, Harris is nothing short of a moral monster – and isn't it rational, when confronted with a monster, to hunt it down and destroy it?
It's a compelling insight. When I hear reports of ISIS throwing gay men off tall buildings, my instinct is not to engage in a back and forth about the scriptural justification for murdering homosexuals (for which there is plenty); it is to want to see ISIS destroyed.
To Bloom, the desire to vilify or discredit people of opposing views can be rational, even justified in some instances.
Circling back to the original point of this post, however, the problem for Labour is that they call in the attack dogs each and every time. All dissent amounts to apostasy. Every critic must be acting in bad faith: they are embittered over a factional stoush twenty years ago; they harbour ulterior motives; they're on someone's payroll. The impact on people like me who cop the abuse is neither here nor there; what should worry Labour supporters is that an ethos that delegitimises dissent makes reform impossible – and that, without reform, the party's future looks very bleak indeed.