Thursday, October 27, 2011

Turning off the Noise

It was the great English journalist Walter Bagehot who said that an inability to stay quiet was one of mankind's most conspicuous failings. The irony is that the only way of appreciating the wisdom of that observation is to turn off the noise for a while and see how it feels in contrast.

That's what this blogger has done in recent weeks, taking time off on the NSW north coast and in New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup, an event that brought a whole grieving country together in a way that kicked  into touch the daily political noise and flotsam and jetsam of cheap opinion mongering.

So what a joy to return to Sydney and find that the man the SMH hires as a professional troll, Paul Sheehan, had struck a rich seam of eyeball-generating outrage by condemning the violence suggested by the "throat-slitting gestures" of the All Blacks' Kapa O Pango haka. (For the uninitiated, the Kapa O Pango is a relatively new haka - first performed in 2005 and an alternative to the traditional 'Ka Mate' haka. It was devised to recognise the wider Pacific Island influence in NZ rugby and it is used on special occasions when the ABs want to show the strongest respect for their adversaries. So it was used in this World Cup mainly in the finals stages).

Essentially, Sheehan's snide, mean-spirited, condescending and racist diatribe against the Kapa O Pango was a personal dummy spit because the All Blacks - with a precision display of the code at its very highest level - had blown the Wallabies off the field in the semi-final at Eden Park.
"If some of the All Blacks persist in ending this latest version of the haka with a throat-slitting motion, they will be using a very big stage to remind people the Maoris once engaged in unspeakable conduct, which we don't discuss any more," Sheehan wrote.
 Reading that, one has to assume that the fragile Sheehan had slept through the last two decades of Australian cricket, in which numerous bowlers and wicket-keepers have sought to unsettle new batsmen with aspersions to their wives, racial characteristics and eating habits.  Of course, one could draw conclusions about the Australian cricketers' perfection of the art of personal sledging as an echo of their crude convict origins, but that would really be going too far.

Anyway, Sheehan got what he wanted. About 600 posted on the website version of his haka column, many of them making full and frank assessments of his character and motivations. So, having hooked a big fish the first time, Sheehan threw the line out again a week later with a second go at the haka. But this time he widened the attack to the sort of people who bothered responding to his trollery:
 "The overwhelming bulk of posted comments are anonymous, spontaneous and negative, with a heavy bias to vicious," Sheehan wrote. "So, you get a trifecta of ignorance. I'm not sure if this cheapening of the public discourse is what the media had in mind."
Really, Paul? You mean you didn't write that column knowing that you would get such a reaction? You never thought that you would generate a strong and bitter response by telling the Kiwis that 96% of the world doesn't care about their national sport - an expression of their culture every bit as important as cricket is to Australia - and describing the Kapa O Pango haka as a symbol of innate Maori savagery? I'm dumbstruck.

The truth is that Sheehan knew exactly what he was doing. Like all trollumnists, his key performance indicator at the SMH is to push people's buttons and get a reaction, the more spontaneous and outraged the better.  And because the contributors to the opinion cycle are growing exponentially, colummnists like Sheehan have to work ever harder at getting heard above the rest of the noise so his employers' advertising clients get value for their money. That's how the business works after all.

Anyway, you only realise how cacophonous and mentally and spiritually draining this noise is when you turn it off and when you walk around with real people in the open air outside the world of blogs and twitter and newspaper trollumnists. That's what I've been doing the past few weeks and I recommend it to you all. Just turn it off for a while.

Meanwhile back to the rugby. I snapped these French and All Black fans together before the final last Sunday. Does this behaviour by young NZ fans look like "dog-in-the-manger, chip-on-the-shoulder, small-country-small-minded, defensive churlishness on an industrial scale"?


  1. An unfortunate feature of broadsheet trollumnists is that though it's important they get the largely progressive readership all-indignant-like - a morning heart-starter as important as the latte, ho ho - and to do so predictably (to be predictable is vital - that's why no-one in the commentariat lost their job over the nonsense written in the lead-up to the Iraq war), you wouldn't want them writing irritating commentary that is intellectually taxing to refute. That would be tiresome so all the broadsheet commentators have to rightwing mental midgets. (Or cuddly pseudo-left). Definitely no clever rightwingers (insert standard joke) and definitely no-one to the left of your readers. That makes 'em feel all squicky and self-questioning - wouldn't want that.

    Of course, at the end of the day this means no-one bothers to read them - all you need is the byline and the subject matter and you can write the things yourself.

  2. I love the word trollumnist, so apt.
    As to silence, the paywall is a blessing. Although I have started laughing for no better reason than the thought of the Oz journos having to pay for the online content. lol there I go again.

  3. So Paul Sheehan is lamenting the "cheapening of the public discourse". That's the best satire I've seen in some time. Give him a bottle of water.

  4. ernmalleyscat got it right, preferably magic water

  5. Occasionally, if I was bored and had read Fairfax, the NY Times, Guardian/Observer, Independent, UK Telegraph, Vanity Fair, NY Review of Books, London Review of Books, Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker, I would sometimes flick the link to The Australian, just to see. This happened maybe once a month. However, now that The Oz has put the internet equivalent of a voluntary pre-commitment on its website, I am no longer a problem news junkie. Maybe they should try this with poker machines.

  6. By the way, welcome back, I'm pleased you enjoyed your holiday and feel refreshed. I understand what you say about getting away from the noise but I have to say that I've been missing your noise.

  7. I was one of the 600 odd visitors who commented on the original opinion piece. I normally don't bother to leave a comment unless I've got something to say about the subject of the article (and I normally don't bother with anything Paul Sheehan writes) but this was a vile piece of journalism.

    Sheehan fails to note in his follow-up that quite a few of the commenters were not outraged Kiwis, but in fact Australians expressing their dismay at how poorly written the piece was.

  8. We've missed you, Mr D.

    Paul Sheehan used to uncover some uncomfortable truths, now he's just a stirrer. He'd better not go on any holidays or else Fairfax might discover how little they get from him.