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November 25th 2010 print

James Allan

Pontificating

Writers on the left see the world in such Manichean terms (with themselves always on the side of the angels); that they become insufferably boring. It’s near-on impossible to think of who, on the left, is as funny and as self-deprecating as Mark Steyn is, say, on the right.

How would you sum up the job of an opinion piece commentator, the newspaper or blog writer who has something to say about politics or law or the economy or some social malady or trend? I ask not just because I do a fair bit of this sort of thing myself, on the side as it were, but also because I think my wife has as good an answer to this question as anyone going.

She says all such commentators are effectively pontificators. They’re in the business (paid or otherwise) of pretending to be infallible. They diagnose a problem or character flaw or failed response and then set about enlightening all and sundry as to how things should have been handled.

That’s the nature of the game. You can’t get away from the fact that there’s an element of being a puffed-up bag of wind that goes with the job. And of course it’s notoriously easier to say what you would have done, after the fact, than actually doing it as the situation arises.

It follows from that, from any honest sort of analysis of the ethereal and holier-than-thou nature of this game, that exponents and practitioners of this genre have to be exceedingly careful not to take themselves too seriously.

If there is anything in the world with a shorter shelf-life than newspaper opinion writing, I’m not sure what it is – except for blogging I suppose.

Try this test. Try to think of a newspaper writer from 30 or 50 or 75 years ago whose writings you’ve read. Ever. Okay, a few of us might, just might, answer H.L. Mencken. And if we’re generous with how we categorise people and what they do, then maybe Alistair Cooke might get a mention.

But that’s pretty much it for me. And even those two get a read today more for their reviews of then new novelists (in the case of Mencken) or transcriptions of their wonderful 12 minute weekly talks as Letters from America (in the case of Cooke).

Meantime I can’t think of a Canadian or New Zealand opinion piece writer still read today. Or any other Americans. Maybe a few of Winston Churchill’s newspaper pieces still get read today, but that’s not really because he was a timeless opinion piece writer as much as because he, well, played a huge role in saving Western civilization by being one of the all-time great wartime leaders.

As for Australian newspaper opinionistas from 50 or so years ago still read today, I leave it to you to tell me if any are still read. My guess is that you can’t come up with many, if any. Not if you’re honest.

So the ethereal, insubstantial nature of this commentating game is one reason people who play it ought not to take themselves too seriously.

Another reason is that everyone, whatever his views, is going to be proven wrong sometimes. And that’s the case no matter how much expertise the commentator might justifiably be able to claim.

To take some examples few readers of this website will have any difficulty poo-pooing, think of all the experts who were for appeasement in the 1930s, for nationalisation of industry in the 1940s, for picking industrial winners in the 1950s, for child-centred learning (if that’s not an oxymoron) in the 1960s, for price and wage controls in the 1970s, against an independent central bank in the 1980s, for joining the euro in the 1990s, and for constructive dialogue with North Korea this past decade.

And that’s just making fun of one side of the political spectrum. But both sides can play that game. The received wisdom on both sides has been wrong at times (though I would say more so on one side than the other).

So that’s another reason for opinion piece writers not to take themselves too seriously. And it follows from that, I think, that a bit of humour is a desirable accessory.

Now I’ve speculated in the past – and I mean this as a gross generalisation – that writers from the right of the political spectrum tend to have better senses of humour than those from the left. The latter just take themselves so seriously; they seem to think they’re doing God’s work all the time; they see the world in such Manichean terms (with themselves always on the side of the angels); that they become insufferably boring. It’s near-on impossible to think of who, on the left, is as funny and as self-deprecating as Mark Steyn is, say, on the right.

Whether you agree with that generalisation, or not, I think you would agree that being entertaining is also part of this job. Oh, and having a very, very thick skin to allow you to ignore the unsolicited hate mail and nasty, personal jibes that come with any well written column. If you’re not making enemies, you’re not standing for anything. So you need to be thick skinned. (If you doubt that, try writing a few anti-Bill of Rights columns for the newspaper and watch which people you’ve never met decide to contact you with all sorts of suggestions of what you might like to do with or to your sister or Mom this coming weekend.)

And that’s pretty much it. That’s my take on the game of Pontificating.

James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law, University of Queensland.