Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Pundit Lite

I’d never read the Guardian columnist George Monbiot until some recent dabbling which I won't be pursuing, although inevitably I’ve often seen him quoted in climate change pieces.

He is or was a bête noire of climate sceptics, but not a particularly serious one. From the quotes I’ve seen, his forte on climate and wider environmental issues leans more towards aggressive polemics than anything worth taking seriously.

However, from an early stage he seems to have seen what a disaster climategate was in terms of the credibility of climate scientists, so that's something.

Of somewhat wider interest is how people such as Monbiot get into the pundit line. Having a monied background seems to help. Presumably it helps financially, but as always in life it helps to be well-connected.

Monbiot has had his adventures and dodgy moments too and I don’t doubt his personal courage. I’m also sure he is genuinely committed to his environmental causes, but of course he can afford to be and in his line of work it pays to be strident, well-known, well-connected and ruthlessly simplistic. 

Working as an investigative journalist, he travelled in Indonesia, Brazil, and East Africa. His activities led to his being made persona non grata in seven countries and being sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia in Indonesia. In these places, he was also shot at, beaten up by military police, shipwrecked and stung into a poisoned coma by hornets. He came back to work in Britain after being pronounced clinically dead in Lodwar General Hospital in north-western Kenya, having contracted cerebral malaria. 

I’m reminded here of a story by Theodore Dalrymple who was once thrown into an Albanian jail merely for watching a demonstration. However, the previous evening Dalrymple had been dining with a senior Albanian government official and after half an hour in jail he was abruptly released with a servile apology.
As Dalrymple found, there is a considerable degree of safety to be found both in being well-connected and a prominent journalist. There is a peculiar sense of a courageous dilettante about the exploits of such people. While one admires the courage, the dilettante suspicions undoubtedly spoil the overall effect.

It adds a certain doubtful aura to their stories, blurring the line between commitment and grandstanding. Not as bad as the TV reporter pretending to hack their way through the Amazon jungle, but it still doesn’t quite convince or persuade even if apparently genuine.

At least Dalrymple’s life as a prison psychiatrist gave him a keen insight into human nature; if rather a bleak one at times. He also comes across as far more nuanced in his thinking - and better read too. I’m altogether more wary of Monbiot and not at all clear what he brings to public debates.

Unfortunately, one cannot wholly ignore widely quoted pundits even in the internet age. They seize a platform and know very well how to keep hold of their chosen audience by relentlessly hammering the right buttons. 

Monbiot comes across to me as a Boswell with no Johnson to restrain his fancies. Nobody to set him right with - Sir, clear your mind of cant.


Demetrius said...

George is always good for a read and you win a few and you lose a few. Sometimes you finish up agreeing thinking you were going to disagree. Sometimes on subjects you might agree with he seems to go off the road. Also there are times when you think he would be better doing something else. Life's rich tapestry.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - I haven't read much of his work, but enough to know I won't be paying a return visit.

As you suggest - he's erratic. Most of us are, but Monbiot is supposed to be a pro.