Like a number of other media outlets yesterday, we ran Steve Fielding’s assault on the English language. And some people weren’t impressed.
“Crikey‘s attack on Steve Fielding’s verbal slips is pathetic,” Miranda Devine tweeted. “Be honest about what you’re attacking, at least — climate change agnosticism.”
I wrote the piece, Miranda, and I confess Fielding’s “climate change agnosticism” as you so amusingly term it, was entirely absent from my mind, but perhaps in some sub-conscious way I remain enraged, rather than merely bemused, by Fielding’s inability to grasp basic maths.
Others pointed out there was a typo in my first sentence. There’s an ironclad rule, which I discovered during my blogging years, that whenever you bag someone else’s poor grammar or spelling you’re guaranteed to make your own howler while doing so. I’d only defend myself by noting that Crikey is run by, almost literally, three people and a dog (actually, a man who pretends to be a dog), and I’m the Canberra bureau in its entirety, and I reckon readers accept that Crikey will come with its fair share of typos each day.
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So I can guarantee you there will continue to be typos in my copy, at least. The mainstream media, alas, doesn’t have our excuse for typos, but that’s no reason why mine shouldn’t be mocked and jeered at along with everyone else’s.
The most amusing reaction was from reactionary lightweight David Penberthy at The Punch. Penberthy, ex-editor of that journal of record the Daily Telegraph and Adelaide Uni’s On Dit, when he was a Trotskyite and a particularly anti-American and anti-Murdoch one at that, painted Fielding as a courageous, unfashionable senator being victimised by “the intelligentsia”. Today he ran Fielding’s own defence, where the good Senator declared he had a “specific learning disability”, which unfortunately remained specifically unspecified.
While chuffed that I’ve been elevated to the ranks of intelligentsia, I’d suggest a couple of things have been ignored.
I don’t know if Fielding has a “learning disability”. Since he managed to complete an engineering degree (despite his apparent inability to read basic climate change graphs) and an MBA, I don’t think the phrase “learning disability” can be an accurate description of whatever condition he reckons he has anyway. But what’s particularly offensive is Fielding’s insistence that criticising him is tantamount to attacking people with genuine disabilities.
“It’s a bit like a hidden handicap. You can’t see it. You see someone in a wheelchair, you wouldn’t ridicule them, you wouldn’t put them down.”
Sorry Senator, but being unable to spell is not the same as being confined to a wheelchair or, as you seem to be suggesting, somehow worse.
And in any event, since when was confessing to a learning disability courageous? “Learning disabilities” have for years been trotted out by parents to explain the gross behaviour of their children, devaluing the term for the far smaller number of kids and their families who actually have to cope with them. It’s a bit like bravely admitting to sex addiction or confessing to a drinking problem — few celebrity resumes are complete without one.
And if Fielding does have some sort of condition that effects his ability to read and communicate in English, perhaps he shouldn’t have put his hand up for a position that is almost entirely about reading and writing. And strange that, as a condition for his support for the Government’s second stimulus package, he insisted on being appointed to a board that would handle applications for local government grants, a job which one might go out on a limb and suggest would involve some reading and writing.
The broader point is that, call me a grumpy old fascist, but I think there should be some basic standards in public life. Good use of the English language is one of them. Yes I’m a language snob, the sort of person who still gets angry about misused apostrophes (correction, apostrophe’s), incorrect usage of who and whom and the debauchery of words like “genocide” in public discourse (although I’ve given up trying to save decimate).
Governing the country — and Fielding has a critical swing vote — calls for high standards, and not just in English. It is not a primary school sports carnival where everyone gets a “Good effort!” ribbon. An inability to spell fiscal — hardly the most taxing of words, ha ha — and Fielding’s insistence on spelling it out is only a small part of a pattern of behaviour showing Fielding’s lack of fitness for the position he holds, regardless of his views.
It is part of a pattern of at-times incoherent policy positions, inconsistent voting and absurd stunts that involve dressing up or getting undressed. This is the senator, after all, who called a press conference earlier in the year to declare that he might have swine flu but he was going to continue coming to Parliament House anyway, so everyone around him should wear masks.
Is Fielding the only senator unfit to hold his august position? I’d wager not, but he’s the one who regularly advertises the fact. Nick Xenophon, a man not unacquainted with the occasional stunt himself, has shown how to be an effective independent senator capable of offering his own policies and negotiating with the other parties. It is a tough job, and he handles it well, although he admits to the strain on his staff. True, Xenophon is able to draw on his experience in the South Australian Parliament, but Fielding has been around since 2005 and still looks utterly out of his depth four years later.
I reckon the best take on F-I-S-K-A-Lgate (that’s a joke) came from Christian Kerr. “Steve Fielding admitted yesterday he has an embarrassing disability: he craves publicity.”