Deborah Hill Cone's attack on my change analysis in today's Herald misses the point entirely, and seems to pine for a little bit of good ol' fashioned sexism and racism
One of the toughest aspects of being a columnist-for-hire is having to be ready by deadline with an instant opinion rather than a well-considered one, and I suspect it's that sort of pressure lies behind Deborah Hill Cone's piece in today's Business Herald.
In it, she has a go at me, specifically this piece I wrote when Labour MPs elected Phil Goff as their new leader ten days ago. Now it's fair game that Deb takes a swing. We act as each other's Newstalk nemeses each Friday at around 5.30pm on Larry Williams' drive show. But the substance of her argument is mis-aimed and, well, a little dopey.
I can't link to her piece because it's not online, but essentially she says it's becoming trendy to be ageist and to dismiss baby boomers as past it. She condemns such thinking as "bogus" and is "heartily sick of the youthquake". Her example is that I dismissed Goff and King as "a dusty choice not because they are ancient, but because they have too much of something called 'baggage'."
"Watkin is one of the many who spout the terribly boring rallying cry of 'change, change, change, oi, oi, oi': such a magnetic, meaningless mantra for signifying, well, nothing really."
Bless her black glasses, but apart from the fine alliteration that's nonsense.
My criticism of the new Labour leadership choices did not stem from ageism or youthquakes, but from political realities. Labour just lost an election to an inexperienced Opposition leader not because they were governing badly or mishandling the economy, but because voters were bored of the same old faces, the same old arguments and scoldings from former university lecturers. Hello? Given the political reality, does Goff – who fits that same, old bill exactly – give Labour the best chance of reclaiming the Treasury benches in three years? Perhaps he does, because Labour lacks an MP who can take them beyond the late-20th Century Labour party that they've been under Helen Clark and redesign them for the 21st Century. Which was the point of the piece really – Clark's poor succession planning.
I said nothing about the baby boomers inability to adapt, or about people over 40 being unable to change. Hill Cone may be surprised to know that I agree with her argument that the middle-aged and older can be better at change than the up-and-comers. She shouldn't be, however. All she has to do is look at the pundits Eleanor and I have brought together on this site to see how we value experience. David Beatson, Jane Young, David Lewis, Keith Ovenden... we wanted people writing here who had seen it and done it and done it again, exactly because financial pressures in the countries newsrooms mean the voices in our media are increasingly of those who are still in their journalistic short pants.
But political reality is something else again, and it's here that Deb seems to have missed the point. Politicians trade in mass perception and the public mood. In these things age and timing and baggage matter a great deal. Goff is associated in the public mind with both the fourth and fifth Labour governments, not the sixth.
My thinking of this has been influenced in part by the thoughtful pieces on this site written by Jon Johansson (here and here), in which he talked through ideas of political generations and transformation. Check 'em out, Deb, they've got nothing to do with a "puppyish infatuation with the newest thing". For example, Johansson says:
While epoch-defining events differ between Clark’s political cohort and my own–Vietnam, the pill, and counter culture (such as it was here) versus the Springbok Tour, Abba, and not much else–we are linked by something even stronger, something which Generation X assuredly cannot share with us. We traversed both sides of the 1984 transition.
Generation X has only known the post-Douglas freedoms, globalization, and the benefits of the information revolution. That is qualitatively different from those of us who straddled the Muldoon decline, the excitement and promise of change, and then settled in to the grim realities of Lange and Douglas’ new frontier. Freedom imposed costs alongside liberation.
Observing the change from a command economy to a deregulated one; from a pre-to-post treaty phase of (moral) restoration; and from pre-to-post ANZUS foreign policy, we baby boomers straddled two distinct eras of New Zealand.
But before Jon wrote his pieces the issues had been forefront in my mind after two years in the US. There, the politics of change has a very different meaning than it does here. From a New Zealand viewpoint, it might be reasonable to argue that the cry for change means "nothing really". John Key has not presented himself as a transformational figure; even if he's hiding a revolution in the back of his mind, he doesn't have a transformational mandate. National's "change" slogan was not substantial and did sell "change for change's sake", something Hill Cone is critical of.
But in America, Barack Obama is a transformational politician with a mandate to match. I realised quite how meaningful is cry for change is only after many, many conversations with Americans, many hours of news and talk shows, and piercing analysis such as this Atlantic cover story by the brilliant Andrew Sullivan back at the end of last year. Sullivan writes:
Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly—and uncomfortably—at you.
At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a momentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.
It's a far-sighted piece that goes on to point out that the arguments of the baby boomer generation are still endlessly picked over despite having been worn thin over several decades. In the US it's Vietnam, Roe v Wade, and Reagonomics. Here, it's state asset sales, race relations, and Rogernomics. Maybe Deb is just sad to see the era of her fellow free-marketers coming to and end, but given the crisis the world economy is facing we need to change the conversation, explore new ideas. In politics, that usually means a new generation.
It's hard to understand from New Zealand how much that culture war divides and defines America. Obama can move beyond it – for now at least – because he doesn't have decades of political baggage. He doesn't have to take sides in that debate, he can start talking about some new topics. Key has the same opportunity, and has grasped it in part with his deal with the Maori Party. The problem is that the shadows of bulk-funding, privatisation and Sir Roger Douglas hover over his coalition agreements.
So the political discussion of change isn't ageist. It's much more than that. Heck, look at Sarah Palin, who Deb defended as a great feminist role model. She's young, but full of the same old arguments and hopeless to boot.
But political issues aside, as I've said. I actually agree with Deb's point about the value and flexibility of experience. But her dismissal of "so-called yoof", or more particularly why she dismisses them, is just dopey. Hill Cone says that the 20-somethings today are conformists because they "were reared on a core syllabus of anti-racism and anti-sexism..." Oh the horror, people fewer prejudices! How dull! How timid they must be!
It's a ridiculous claim, that much more so from a woman whose career has benefited from all those who have worked so hard to shrink sexism to what it is today. Lacking prejudice is not the same as lacking spunk and creativity.
You might as well say that those enlightenment folk who wrestled radical ideas of respect and freedom into social norms were tedious dullards. They would be great people to explain to Deb just how meaningful change can be, regardless of age.