"Have a care when fighting dragons, lest ye become a dragon yourself." Nietzsche's famous aphorism remains as confronting as ever. To beat the likes of the Right's Matthew Hooton, should the Left attempt to match their Machiavellian amorality? Or, should it simply decide not to invite them onto "Table Talk" panels?
I LEFT the first Ika “Table Talk” for 2016 feeling very down – and I know I wasn’t the only one. The panel discussion, on “The Year Ahead”, could have been an enlivening rehearsal of the challenges facing the New Zealand Left in 2016 – but it wasn’t. Instead Ika’s patrons endured an hour-long demonstration of the Right’s remarkable skill at kicking the Left’s ass.
Moderated by broadcaster Lisa Owen (of TV3’s The Nation) the panel was made up of the ubiquitous far-right political commentator, Matthew Hooton (proprietor of Exeltium Public Relations) arbiter of all-things-Auckland, Simon Wilson (Editor at Large of Metro Magazine) and Maori educationalist, Dr Ella Henry (AUT Faculty of Maori Development).
Dr Henry adopted a position of wry detachment from her “bourgeois” audience of mostly inner-city leftists. Her comments throughout the evening suggested that she regards "Table Talk" as little more than an additional course which Laila Harré has tacked on to Ika’s menu. A heaped ideological platter in which, this time, the sour easily overpowered the sweet.
Only once did she cut through the relentless conservative discourse of her fellow panellists and that was in relation to the forthcoming local government elections. Her uncompromising description of the world inhabited by West and South Aucklanders: Maori, Pasifika and immigrant; was as compelling as it was unsparing. Intruding, as it did, a jarring note of brutal social reality to the proceedings, Dr Henry’s intervention was easily the most uplifting of the night.
There was a period in Simon Wilson’s life when he mixed almost exclusively with the sort of people who attend the Ika Seafood Bar & Grill’s events. As the Editor of the Victoria University Students Association’s newspaper, Salient, and later, as the Maoist President of NZUSA, Wilson’s youth was an emphatically left-wing affair. The journey he has undertaken since then, from the Left to the Right, has been a slow one. The Maoism he ditched early in favour of the well-mannered leftism of the Wellington liberal intelligentsia. It was only when he bade farewell to Wellington, and Consumer magazine, to take up the editorship of the yuppie gourmand’s glossy guidebook, Cuisine, that the shift to the Right began in earnest.
Wilson has a newshound’s nose for a shift in the political winds. As a Metro writer, he’d correctly predicted John Key’s comprehensive electoral victory in 2008, and two years later used his new position as Metro’s Editor to deftly reposition the magazine as the voice of the socially liberal, economically conservative and aggressively acquisitive Auckland middle-class. Nowhere was this repositioning more in evidence than in his choice for Metro’s political columnist. Where the magazine’s founder, Warwick Roger, had turned to New Zealand’s best left-wing journalist, Bruce Jesson, for political commentary, Wilson’s choice was the National Party’s leading ideological skirmisher, Matthew Hooton.
Those skirmishing skills were displayed to considerable effect from the get-go on Tuesday night (9/2/16) when Hooton accused the writer of seeing the 4 February anti-TPPA demonstrations as “the beginning of a revolution”. It is precisely this acidic mixture of smile and sneer that makes Hooton such a formidable opponent. That, and his ability to master a complex political brief very quickly and then fashion it into a political argument that is at once simple and subtle. Hooton, when he’s in control of himself, is both a superb manipulator of the truth and a master at identifying his opponents’ weak spots.
Out of control, Hooton can be rabid. One of the reasons the numbers were down for Ika’s first Table Talk for 2016 was that many people simply refused to be in the same room as the man who has constantly and viciously impugned the integrity of Professor Jane Kelsey. This penchant for abusing progressive New Zealanders publicly has turned Hooton into something of a hate figure, and it seriously undermines his political credibility. If he ever learns to control it, he will instantly become an even more deadly opponent of the Left.
As it was, the Good Cop/Bad Cop routine of Wilson and Hooton was deflating enough. Between them they succeeded in making their left-wing audience wince, sigh, squirm and shake their heads in disbelief. A different set of panellists may have blunted some of the worst thrusts from Hooton, but the one we “bourgeois” leftists had to endure on Tuesday night left Lockwood Smith’s political adviser; the man who makes RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan sound like a moderate; in undisputed possession of the field.
Now the more hard-headed leftists amongst us would no doubt say that Tuesday’s Table Talk was an important wake-up call for the Left. Unused to the punishing performance that Hooton excels at delivering, an hour-long pistol-whipping at his hands might be exactly what the Left needed if it is to muscle-up and become politically competitive.
But if the only way to defeat a dragon is to become a dragon oneself, then what’s the point? What distinguishes the Left from the Right is its belief that the world should be – and can be made – a better place. Against all the contrary evidence that the cynics and trimmers delight in throwing in their path, the world’s progressives must somehow continue to muster the faith, hope and love to continue fighting. That’s why Laila Harré’s gatherings at the Ika Seafood Bar & Grill are so valuable. They provide an opportunity for the beleaguered Auckland Left to recommit itself to a more just and equal future. The cause that Simon Wilson long ago abandoned, and Matthew Hooton openly despises.
So, Laila, please. No more dragons!
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Thursday, 11 February 2016.