Monday, January 18, 2016

Old words for the new poor

It wasn’t so much the plagiarism as the vague, condescending explanation. I wrote the same piece ‘about four times,’ he said, ‘in various different places.’ And anyway ‘there's clearly no such thing as self-plagiarism.’ Unlikely words to come out of the mouth of an academic, someone who once would have been in charge of policing such behaviour among undergraduates, and fail them with haste if they transgressed.

Except this time the context was different. That is to say, arguably, worse. Dr Jamie Whyte wrote this in 2005 in The Times:
There is no poverty in Britain. Misery, futility, depravity, yes; but no poverty.
And in 2016 he wrote this in The New Zealand Herald.
There is no poverty in New Zealand. Misery, depravity, hopelessness, yes; but no poverty.

He went on:
The poorest in Britain are the unemployed. They receive free housing, free medical care, free education for their children and small cash sums to pay for food, clothing and transport. Most own televisions, refrigerators, ovens, and stereos. Many even own cars. That isn’t poverty.
And then, 11 years later:
The poorest in New Zealand are the unemployed. They receive free medical care, free education for their children and enough cash to pay for basic food, clothing and (subsidised) housing. Most have televisions, refrigerators and ovens. Many even own cars. That isn't poverty.

He would have got away with it, too, if it weren’t for the meddling Lamia I. She’s the one who tracked down the copied sections (there are more), which over the course of one afternoon caused the paper to print the author’s explanation and essentially disown the piece (‘The Herald accepted the article in good faith. It would not have appeared had the newspaper known the background.’)

Some folks later tut-tutted about the self-plagiarism charge, opining it’s not so bad when people steal from themselves, and that the poor quality of Whyte’s argument was the greater issue. Perhaps. I rather think that the literally recycled nature of the argument illuminates its poor quality. Whyte’s original piece was entitled ‘The only poverty is in the head,’ which in light of what transpired is deliciously ironic. Lamentably in the irony stakes, he left out from the recycled piece the part where he had impugned the intellectual honesty of left-wing politicians. A true shame.

This is the test for why the self-plagiarism is a problem. The correct way of doing things would have been to reference the old piece. Something like this: ‘Look, anti-poverty campaigners are at it again with their fallacious measures of poverty, so I’m forced to recycle this old piece I wrote. Look at how few changes I have had to make. I can even reuse my horribly didactic schoolboy example again.’ It would have been an openly disdainful move, of course, and one that the paper apparently would have taken a dim view of. To copy-and-paste without acknowledgement, on the other hand, is to appear to be engaging with an argument – in this case, Susan St John’s – without actually doing so. It’s not just lazy, but also dishonest, which is why such things are frowned upon so vigorously in the publishing world.

To be clear: not every text needs to be absolutely original. Nobody is going to expect you to come up with a new wording every time you put up a safety warning. But in a political context, verbatim repetition is the mark not of genuine opinion or argument, but of a talking point. Or, as it used to be called, of propaganda.

That is why Jamie Whyte reprinted his old piece ‘about four times’. Because it was an effective way, from a strictly rhetorical standpoint, to argue that poverty doesn’t exist in advanced deregulated economies, and he couldn’t think of another one, or couldn’t be bothered. This would be unacceptable for a writer or academic – as Whyte once was – but is perfectly logical for the director of a right-wing think tank, as he is now. The nature of the op-ed piece, where one is never drawn into a debate, but can mount a one-sided polemic, does the rest. Thus a legitimate if far too broad and schematic argument against the relative measurement of poverty slips into the denial that concrete, absolute hardship exists. Nobody from inside the text will ask the question: what of the symptoms of poverty that are not relative, Dr Whyte? What say you about the incarceration rates, the third world diseases, the food banks working over time? And how is owning a fridge a measure of not being poor, when a family is unable to fill it?

Image from The Child Poverty Monitor

As it happens, an old report – not recycled, just old – re-surfaced on social media at the same time as Whyte’s hand got caught in the jar. Entitled ‘What happens when you scrap the welfare state?’ and dated 13 March 1994, it examines – for the benefit of readers of the British Independent – the effects of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia in New Zealand circa the end of the first Bolger term. Its rough conclusion is that while in aggregate terms the economy was stronger, inequality had boomed and poverty had reached levels that had not been known for decades. It’s an interesting read, vivid in its reporting but not lacking in analysis or data. One concluding passage struck me in particular:
In the pursuit of economic recovery and the enterprise culture, those with the least gave the most. And, as they did so, they disappeared below the poverty line.

If ‘disappeared’ seems too strong a word, it is true in that sense of 'belonging to and participating in the community'. Some disappear from the market-place, relying on the food banks. Some disappear from the streets and housing estates, departing to the caravan parks of south Auckland.

That line about belonging and participating famously hails from the 1972 Royal Commission on Social Security, which regarded them as the fundamental conditions of not being poor. So it shouldn’t surprise us that those who argue, quoting liberally from themselves, that poverty doesn’t exist, start from defining it rather as the lack of basic material goods, or a demonstrable and chronic state of hunger. In this way, they ask that negatives be proven (say, the absence of refrigerators, or food), instead of taking up the burden of showing that belonging and participation occur – a far harder and more meaningful task.

Sadly, the debate has been debased across the board. I regret that we use the word poverty so much, and especially child poverty – as if the poverty of adults didn’t matter – and other words so little, like security, exploitation or emancipation. I don’t blame anti-poverty campaigners for this, the best of whom do our best work: it’s simply a sign of our narrowed down political field, of which Whyte’s writings are the distorted mirror. This is why, I hope without nostalgia, I sometimes advocate the use of an older vocabulary, or reading old books full of forgotten lessons. So, for example, when earlier this month we read about ‘The myth of how families in poverty spend their money,’ I was reminded that the question ought to have been settled just over a century ago by a wealthy, well-meaning liberal woman, who along with other wealthy, well-meaning liberal women set about teaching to the real housewives of Lambeth how they could stretch their budgets and improve the health of their families, only to find that they knew far better than she.

1 comment:

Tombrock said...

Amazing as it seems, the rich find it impossible to understand poverty - even if they were once poor. It is as though pride at their efforts or luck clouds their understanding of their world.