Michael Appleton - student, Cambridge

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Summer clippings

1. Predictive qualities
Let us hope that I'm about as good at predicting US Presidential races as I am at picking the winners of upcoming cricket test series. To remind you: a few weeks ago, I wrote in these virtual pages: "My guess is that New Zealand will win the series [against England] 2-1, so long as the fickle weather lets them. The New Zealand side, its embarrassing loss to Kent notwithstanding, just seems to me more battle hardened and have more match winners than its opponents." Yesterday, I watched as England completed a comprehensive series victory, and all I could do was shake my head in disbelief and agree with former England captain Bob Willis, who opined that on the evidence of the first two tests New Zealand had the weakest attack in test cricket.

It's probably rare that a test side's batsmen have so comprehensively outdone its bowlers in class, temperament, and application. In both matches, New Zealand's batsmen have done enough to set up match-winning positions against a top-notch England side: sent in twice, the Black Caps made 386 and 409 on very difficult wickets and against an impressive attack boasting the world’s best fast bowler. Every batsman (with the exception of Styris) who has played in both games – from number one right down to number nine – has produced at least one innings of significance. By my count, there have been fifteen useful knocks so far, from Richardson (93, 101, 40), Fleming (97), McCullum (96, 54), Astle (64, 49), Cairns (82, 41), Oram (67, 39, 35*), Vettori (35), and Papps (86). But there has yet to be a single sustained, impressive spell of bowling from anyone, with the possible exception of Vettori’s useful but fruitless final day display at Lord’s.

So, from one deadly serious matter to another: George Bush will win this November’s election. Pollster Zogby famously said recently that this election was now John Kerry’s to lose. All my instincts say he will do just that. Why? Well, he is just too boring to win in a country where elections are all about spectacle. They have been about spectacle since the 1960s and have become increasingly so ever since. Say what you want about George W, but he gets people’s pulses racing: much like Clinton, he polarises. Boring candidates haven’t tended to win Presidential elections in the television era. And by “boring”, I don’t mean simply people who lack charisma; I also wish to include those without an exciting story to tell - a message that resonates with a large enough section of the American electorate. The only bores to have succeeded since television watching became prevalent - Lyndon Johnson and Bush père - did so with the help of incumbency and the legacies of more charismatic predecessors (Gore would have done exactly the same had he drawn Clinton close). Conversely, the only incumbents to lose their re-election races in that period – Carter and Bush senior - did so against candidates (Reagan, Clinton) people could get excited about.

And so one should ask of Kerry what was asked of Gore, the ultimate bore: what’s your story? What are you about? I’m usually the last person to turn to Mark Steyn for guidance on political matters, but his various piss-takes of Kerry should give those hoping for a Bush defeat pause for thought. The conventional thinking seems to be that Kerry’s not being Bush could just be enough. Unfortunately, US Presidential elections are not like parliamentary ones: it’s not enough to wait quietly in opposition for the government to screw things up. You need a counter-narrative, and Kerry simply doesn’t have a compelling one. And even if he did, it’s not one he has the charisma to tell convincingly.

2. Hitting the books
The best thing about being a graduate student doing work in the humanities: you get to spend all your time reading books. The worst thing: as undergraduates celebrate the end of exams and stream out of town for a summer of fun in the sun, you are left with six weeks till thesis submission and, already, it’s pushing thirty degrees Celsius. My current vocation, which is to continue for another three years hence, obviously involves more than reading books, but that is what I spend a lot of my time doing. And it is an interesting position from which to test a hypothesis I have forwarded for a while: that journalists and academics are, ideally, doing very similar things – i.e. finding out about the world and then communicating those findings lucidly to others.

I was thinking of this when I read recent comments by two of New Zealand’s three most perceptive media commentators, Russell Brown and David Cohen (the other being, of course, Warwick Roger). In a recent NBR column, Cohen offered a "how-to" guide to blogging, based on Brown’s recent work. In one entry, Cohen inferred that Brown – the undisputed doyen of New Zealand blogging – displayed in his web writings a disdain for knowledge acquired from books:
Literary allusions: Best avoided altogether … Successful bloggers are in too much of a hurry to read books, which requires much time and often leave the reader grappling with nuanced conclusions about the human state that cannot possibly be summed in 600 words. Much better to clinch your arguments on the great moral issues simply by presenting an exciting electronic link or two.

Whether this inference is fair, I don’t feel qualified to say (simply because I haven’t read Brown consistently enough), but what is interesting about most political commentary in blogs is that it is drawn primarily from material that can be accessed via the web. Does this matter? Well, one could argue that this is precisely what blogs are supposed to be: logs of what you’ve read on the web. But that’s not quite true in practice: the best bloggers – including Brown – show evidence of reading some material in hard copy, publications (newspapers, magazines) not freely available on the web. The interesting question is whether the work of commentators (whether in blogs or newspapers) would be significantly improved if they read high-quality non-fiction titles on the subjects about which they pontificate. Should someone like Brown be familiar with (as he may be), say, the work of Bernard Lewis, John Esposito and Nazih Ayubi on the history of, and current trends in, the Middle East before offering his views on the prospects of American success in Iraq?

There’s no right answer to that question, but it illustrates a key difference between most journalist-commentators and academics: the former are generalists, the latter are specialists. And, in general, once you get passed the jargon, academics have more interesting and informed things to say than journalist-commentators, not because they possess superior intellects, but because they have had more time to think about, read about, and investigate their issues than have journalist-commentators. All of this suggests to me that it’s a healthy thing that, in Europe and the United States, many people straddle the academy and the media, fulfilling roles as “public intellectuals”. It would be to New Zealand’s eternal benefit if more Kiwis could carve out such spaces with a foot in each camp, as have Steven Price (of Victoria University), Denis Dutton (of Canterbury University), and to an extent Jane Kelsey (of Auckland University). Reverence for academics is not something for which New Zealanders are renowned, but it would be beneficial for the quality of public debate.

3. Bureaucracies work!
At least since Weber, bureaucracies have had a bad name: inefficient, inept, more interested in self-justification and self-enlargement than providing the public with services. Well, an exception to prove the rule: I recently received an official polling card which will allow me to vote in this Thursday’s local and European elections. I found this very surprising, because I had not enrolled to vote, and the only organisations which know my address are British Telecom, the University of Cambridge, and my sponsors, the British Council. Therefore, I’m not entirely sure how the Electoral Registration Officer worked out both where I lived and that I was eligible to vote, but I am mightily impressed. And somewhat worried as to how easily my personal information has been passed around from government agency to government agency.

The elections are expected to be a disaster for Labour, unleashing another round of premature wonderings about Blair’s imminent demise. Judging from the material that has passed through my letterbox, Iraq, Europe, and university fees are the three issues the parties think will influence the way Cambridge students vote. The first two really turn on this country’s view of itself and its place in the world. The erudite Timothy Garton Ash (the paradigmatic public intellectual) – who actually comes across as even more intelligent and informed in person – has been offering Guardian readers samplings of his latest book (which grapples with these important issues of self-identity) over the past few days. The first three extracts can be found here, here, and here. I heartily recommend them.