Already the spin is in – John Howard got knocked back for the ICC job because he opposed the Zimbabwean Government.

ABC’s AM asked the former Prime Minister this morning: So what forces do you think were at play?

Howard answered:

Look I can’t be certain because reasons have not been given. There’s speculation of course about the stridency of my criticism of the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe.

If that is one of the major reasons well I have to wear that as a badge of honour, because I thought it was a very bad regime and although there has been improvements with the coalition government and we must try and make that work, the criticisms I made pre-dated those changes and they were totally justified and I certainly would never walk away from them.

Sadly, it is much more complicated than that.

Personally yesterday was a bizarre day full of extraordinary coincidences – bombarded with emails delighted because Howard lost while just finishing reading Christopher Hitchens’ biography (Hitch 22), and belatedly starting Ian Buruma’s book (Murder in Amsterdam) about the murder of Theo van Gogh – in which all the Howard ICC issues suddenly seemed to me to be in a meta-context.

Together the two books and the event bring together all the arguments about cultural relativity; why the Right decided to finally co-opt the Enlightenment, which they had opposed for so many centuries, to their cause; why some on the Left have been willing to ignore Enlightenment values in the interests of supporting their enemies enemies; cricket politics; cricket history; why what one’s most visceral responses tell us might be wrong; why some and, how all that gets spun.

So – some hypotheses:

1. Whatever you think about John Howard he should not lose the job because of opposition from Robert Mugabe. Given a choice we should all vote for Howard instead of Mugabe and it is sad that some people need to be reminded of that.

2. Many of the countries who voted against him voted against him for the same reason we would have – ongoing support for regimes (eg the apartheid regime) which ought not be supported. It was also a reaction to historic Anglo-Saxon domination of the game combined with the poisonous politics of sub-Continent sporting administration. (And the small matter of Sri Lanka still bearing a grudge over Howard’s comments about a certain bowling style).

3. There are lots of other good reasons to oppose John Howard becoming ICC vice-president – not the least of which is that it was really New Zealand’s turn and we (ie Australia) behaved a bit badly about that.

4. The Right has suddenly discovered human rights and universal values (selectively of course) because their own values are not quite as convincing or persuasive as they once thought. Some on the Left are happy to embrace unsavoury characters and ‘identity’ politics as an alternative to articulating a new set of progressive values.

Why Hitchens and Buruma? Like the situation with Howard – however much you dislike an old Trotskyite like Hitchens for going to such literary extents to repudiate and re-write his past- there are regimes, as he says, about which you cannot practise cultural relativism. Mugabe is one of them. There are also important issues about what you tolerate and what you don’t. Cultural relativity is no justification for murdering Theo van Gogh or Pim Fortuyn.

Hitchens, in his biography — and what is probably his first really badly written book — twists and turns to explain his attitude to Islam (with lots of retrospective tidying up about what he did really think at various times and who he f….d) but has some important things to say about how you choose which side you should be on when faced with culturally relative claims. On the other hand Buruma considers why the Right has adopted the Enlightenment values (converting them into universal ones) and used them to hammer multi-culturalism.

John Howard probably hated Hitchens until he supported Bush on Iraq and, being charitable, he may not have read anything of Buruma’s other than his novel about the Indian cricketer, Ranjishinji.

But, in the next few days Howard supporters, Howard haters, cricket people and stacks of others will try to frame the Howard rejection in many different ways. The only defence against this is to realise that they are framing it thus for their own reasons and that the real reasons are much more complicated.

When Alexander Downer holds forth on why the Enlightenment values are absolute and universal, when Tony Abbott tells us how awful Mugabe is, and when Cardinal Pell unexpectedly gets involved — deconstruct the spin, ask the fundamental question cui bono? , don’t believe any of it and see what they say of NZ’s John Anderson and why he should have been the first choice.

RITUAL DECLARATION OF INTEREST: The author has had various cricket authorities and organisations as clients and is an old Trot.

Peter Fray

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