Please explain this elitist insecurity over language
Type the words “Steve Fielding” and “idiot” into Google and you get 14,300 hits. Many of these entries came in the past few days, most of them on blog sites, many of which have one author and as many readers, as the nation’s smarty-pants pundits seized on Fielding’s “fiskal” fiasco as proof that the guy is as dumb as a box of rocks.
Now I’m not going to pretend that my reaction upon seeing the footage of his doorstop spelling bee wasn’t one of unbridled hilarity. I almost spat my coffee out.
And when I’d regained my composure, I called my workmates over to ask if they too had seen the Family First Senator blundering his way through a doorstop where, after referring three times to “physical” policy instead of “fiscal”, he insisted he knew what he was talking about by offering to spell the word.
Unfortunately, as the entire country now knows, he spelt it with a k.
There is a big difference between having this kind of cruel but normal reaction among friends, and seizing on it to mount an impromptu public dissertation on how clearly ill-equipped the man is for public office. Especially when, as he soon made clear, it’s the result of a long-standing struggle with a learning disability.
Fielding is clearly disliked by a good many Australians because, with some 2 per cent of the vote, he’s lucked himself into a balance of power position in the Senate and stymied the Labor Government’s policy agenda on everything from alcopops to petrol surveillance to stimulus spending to the carbon pollution reduction scheme. He’s our very own Chauncey Gardiner, an accidental politician with the bon mots to match, stuck between two rocks and a hard place, as he memorably described himself over the first stimulus package, on pretty much every issue which comes his way.
His detractors went through three stages this week as they examined his clanger.
The first was to declare case closed on the question as to whether he’s a dill.
The second, upon learning of his learning disorder, was to say that there’s no shame in having a learning disorder and good on him for admitting to it, very courageous and so forth, but he’s a dill anyway because of the way he’s conducted himself in policy terms.
The third, after Fielding decided to offer himself up for a round of interviews and opinion pieces about his battle with the language, was to question his motives and say that maybe the whole thing was just a crafty publicity stunt after all.
Not bad coming from a nation which, in its European incarnation, was settled almost exclusively by illiterate criminals.
It’s a genuinely hateful kind of smugness from a supercilious core of educated Australians, some of them private people, some of them in politics, some in the the media, and it reflects an insecurity. None of us are as smart as we would like to think we are. When you see someone falling apart like Fielding did there’s a sense of schadenfreude, which at its essence is really nothing more than relief that you’re not the one making a fool of yourself.
The great modern benchmark for the middle-class hatchet job on a linguistically-challenged public figure who dared to get above her station is, of course, Pauline Hanson.
Having witnessed her term of office at close quarters in the Canberra press gallery, and having interviewed her on a number of occasions and seen her in full flight on her pet race-based issues, whacking on about foreigners taking “our” jobs or blackfellas living high on the hog, I’d say the departure of Ms Hanson from the national stage is one of the happier political developments of the past 15 years.
But I’d also say that her departure was, if anything, delayed by the ridicule that she endured from the Australian intelligentsia - turning her into a martyr in the eyes of less educated people by poking fun at her intellect, her speech, even her employment status as a fish and chip shop owner, as if that of itself was a sign that she wasn’t cut out for public office.
The killer moment in that campaign of ridicule came courtesy of Sixty Minutes, with the cooked-up “Are you xenophobic?” question eliciting the response “Please explain?” from the rattled member for Oxley.
Setting aside the fact that probably a quarter of the staff at Channel Nine didn’t know what xenophobia was either, or at best whether it was spelt with an x or a z, this cocky journalistic party trick would have gone down like the proverbial lead balloon around Australia’s living rooms that Sunday night. Most viewers would have thought - that poor woman, I don’t know what xenophobia is either, and if all these university-educated showponies are giving her this much grief, maybe she’s worth voting for after all. Which is exactly what one million Australians did at the 1998 election.
The official version of history puts this down to John Howard’s tactics (short of having her whacked, I’m still not sure what he was meant to do) but I’d give the credit to those who hated her so much that they humiliated her on the basis of of her clunky oratory and poor vocabulary.
I’m not suggesting the much more isolated ridicule Steve Fielding has endured will result in any significant kick-along for the Christian Senator and, personally, I hope it doesn’t, speaking as a believer not in God but climate change who enjoys the occasional alcopop.
Whatever you think of him, and even his motives, Fielding has done a few million Australians a service this week by putting his hand up as a sufferer of a learning disability. For all the campaigns we’ve seen on breaking down the stigmas associated with mental illness or HIV, suffering from dyslexia or a related literacy disorder really is one of the last taboos. I know a few successful people in business who pride themselves on never writing emails as a way of best using their time; I wonder whether they do so for different reasons.
The chief executive officer of The Smith Family, Dr Elaine Henry, wrote a terrific piece this week in her regular column on our website The Punch where she quoted 2006 research showing that a staggering 46 per cent to 70 per cent of adults in Australia had poor or very poor skills across one or more of the five literacy “skill domains” - prose literacy, document literacy, numeracy, problem-solving and health literacy - with the figures being only marginally inflated by immigration patterns.
She talked about kids being so ostracised on account of literacy disorders that many of them keep it a secret from their teachers and parents, if indeed their parents would even know.
Be it by accident or design Steve Fielding has lightened the load for all these people this week.
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