Thursday, October 18, 2018

Male power and control - the factor common to virtually all organised religions


(First published in Stuff regional papers and on Stuff.co.nz., October 17.)

Power and control. In the final analysis, that’s what most organised religion comes down to.

To those three words you can add two more: power and control by men. This is the defining characteristic of virtually all hierarchical religions. 

It's strikingly at odds with a society in which women have rightly demanded, and often obtained, equality in other spheres. But it has ever been thus. You don’t need a PhD in religious studies to understand that organised religion depends heavily on the ability of a small, male elite – a priesthood, in other words – to exercise control over its followers.

I have been more than usually aware of this in recent weeks, partly because of a couple of challenging films.

In the 2017 drama Disobedience, two women from an Orthodox Jewish community in London risk ostracism by rekindling an illicit relationship. It’s a film whose claustrophobic settings powerfully convey the stifling atmosphere of an insular society in which the rules are dictated by men for the benefit of men.

Even more unsettling, because it’s factual, is the Netflix documentary One of Us, which follows three people who face isolation and harassment after leaving an oppressive Hasidic Jewish community in New York.

By coincidence, I recently interviewed a man named Imtiaz Shams, co-founder of Faith to Faithless, a British-based organisation that supports people trying to break free from repressive religions.

Shams himself was raised as a Muslim, but Faith to Faithless welcomes defectors from all faiths. In Britain, former Jehovah’s Witnesses and Orthodox Jews as well as ex-Muslims have turned to it for help.

Many keep their apostasy secret out of fear, because “coming out” as non-believers often has serious consequences, not the least of which is estrangement from their families. The male leaders of these religions understand only too well the power of family ties, and how they can be exploited to deter prospective dissenters.

In One of Us, a Jewish mother is tormented by the prospect of being cut off from her children because she has exercised her right to leave the faith. In New Zealand, the Exclusive Brethren sect and the Gloriavale religious community follow a similar practice of shunning anyone who leaves.

This is a particularly cruel and effective tool of control. When someone has been immersed since birth in a tightly knit community that deliberately isolates itself from wider society, it takes an act of massive courage – or desperation – to walk away and start afresh in an unfamiliar and intimidating world.

Shams described this experience as like entering a black void. Islam so totally defined his existence that it took him a long time to realise he could leave. And when he finally quit, he thought he must have been first person ever to do it.

Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, the conservative strands of Islam and nominally Christian sects such as Gloriavale and the Exclusive Brethren all operate at the extreme end of the religious control spectrum.

The men who run these religions – and they are always men – impose their will by prescribing elaborate and often arcane rules that govern the way their followers must live their daily lives: the clothes they wear, who they should marry, the way they style their hair, the food they eat (right down to the ingredients and how it’s prepared) and, in the case of sects like Gloriavale, the names they go by.

There is little rationale for these oppressive rules other than that they provide a means of control and domination.

At the other end of the spectrum there are religions which seem to avoid male-dominated hierarchical structures and allow a reasonable amount of room for followers to act according to their conscience. The Baha’i Faith strikes me as one example; Quakers another.

In between these extremes there are Churches that we generally think of as liberal, such as the Church of England. But even here, there has been a marked reluctance by men to relinquish power. In British Anglicanism, the male establishment fought a determined rearguard action against the ordination of women.

Yet the Bible indicates that Jesus Christ respected and valued women. Would he have approved of religions in which women were expected to be subordinate to self-important men with a fondness for dressing in peculiar costumes? I don’t believe so.

As for Catholicism, you can only sigh. On the rare occasions when determined women such as New Zealand’s own Suzanne Aubert have achieved positions of influence in the Catholic Church, it has often been in the face of resistance and disapproval from the male hierarchy.

For now at least, men remain firmly in control of Catholicism. But they have made such a grotesque and scandalous mess of things that you have to wonder how long it will be before the long-suffering Catholic laity, male and female, demand that the whole rotten structure be torn down and rebuilt.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

When top-down solutions go bottom-up

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, October 4.)

It’s sad to see Chris Laidlaw’s career come to this.

A photo in The Dominion Post last week said it all. It was taken at a parliamentary select committee hearing where regional council representatives were called on to explain the multiple failings of the new Wellington bus system.

In Kevin Stent’s photo, Laidlaw, who as council chairman has had to soak up much of the abuse, looks brooding and resentful. His expression says he doesn’t need any more of this.

He might well be thinking, “I had a glittering career. Is this how it ends?”

He could be forgiven for harbouring bleak thoughts. Laidlaw has had a storied life: outstanding All Black halfback (he was rated one of the game’s greatest passers of the ball), courageous author (his book Mud in Your Eye led to him being ostracised by many in the rugby establishment), Rhodes Scholar, diplomat (he played a significant role behind the scenes in persuading South Africa to renounce apartheid), race relations conciliator, Labour MP (let’s not mention the taxi chits), broadcaster (he was Radio New Zealand’s Sunday-morning host for 13 years), and of course, regional councillor.

He’s one of several former Labour and Green MPs – another is his sister-in-law, Sue Kedgley – who have found a home in local government. 

I was tempted to insert the word “cosy” before “home” in that sentence because local government provides a normally comfortable late-life career. The pay’s not bad and regional councillors are mostly spared the close and fiercely critical scrutiny that city and district councils are subjected to.

All of which must have made the past couple of months particularly trying for Laidlaw. In my few encounters with him I’ve always found him personable, but I don’t think he’s a man to whom humility and contrition would come easily.

The bus furore was probably not what he was expecting, still less hoping for, when he became GWRC chairman. It’s not hard to detect a slightly petulant tone in his statements and a reluctance to acknowledge that the council cocked up spectacularly.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that Laidlaw is one of that school of social-democrat politicians who politically came of age in the idealistic 1960s and doggedly cling to a misplaced faith in central planning.

This is a model of government that imposes top-down solutions in the belief that bureaucrats and policy-makers know better than the punters who actually use the systems they devise.

Trouble is, the bureaucrats and theorists are often isolated in their own bubbles, unburdened by experience of how the real world works and what ordinary people want. We’re seeing this played out in Auckland too, where planners have created their own grotesque public transport fiasco.

I wonder if that’s the bigger issue here. As local government bureaucracies grow bigger and more centralised, there’s an increasing risk that they will get things wrong.

On paper, it often makes sense to have over-arching administrative structures rather than bitsy local councils all doing their own thing and protecting their own patches.

But the bigger a council gets, the more distant it become from the people it’s supposedly accountable to, as the Auckland experience shows. It tends to take on a life of its own. That’s why I’m still not convinced that a single council should replace the three existing ones in the Wairarapa, where I live.

The kindest thing that can be said for central planners and their political masters is that they usually start with the best of motives. But good intentions too easily morph into control-freak government by People Who Know Best.

The crux of the problem is that they expect the world to conform to their theoretical models rather than vice-versa. And when it all turns to custard they disappear down a rabbit-hole of butt-covering reviews and inquiries rather than simply admitting they cocked up and starting again from scratch.

I saw a classic man from Central Planning on TV3’s The Project last week. He was a transport planner – possibly the worst type – and he had the slightly crazed eyes of a true believer.

He was trying to convince a sceptical panel that Auckland needs a 30 kmh speed limit. Why? Because he thinks people should walk or cycle rather than drive cars, and if it takes a 30 kmh speed limit to force them out of their vehicles – well, so be it.

In other words, he was talking about compulsion by stealth. Never mind what people want.

Translate that attitude to Wellington and it becomes clear that if the bus system is a disaster, it's probably because the users don't know what's good for them. Clearly they must try harder to make it work.


Cultural stereotyping: a licence to sneer


(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and Stuff.co.nz on October 3.)

A fellow columnist – one whose work I usually enjoy – recently wrote: “Americans are not like us. They don’t get irony, for one thing.”

Whoa, I thought – let’s hold it right there. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard it said that Americans don’t understand irony, I could have retired by now.

The statement is usually made in relation to humour. Somehow, it has become accepted wisdom that American humour is irony-free whereas English humour is rich with it.

But hang on. Think of a comedy series such as M*A*S*H, which ran for 11 seasons and became one of the highest-rating TV shows in history.

M*A*S*H was drenched in irony. Hawkeye Pierce probably delivered more ironic lines than any other character in television history.

That’s not surprising, given that the series was created by Larry Gelbart. Gelbart was Jewish. Jewish humour oozes irony; that’s its signature. And Jewish writers and performers are the beating heart of American humour – think Mel Brooks, Roseanne Barr, Lenny Bruce, Judd Apatow, Jerry Seinfeld, Bette Midler, Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, George Burns and Joan Rivers, to mention a few.

Seinfeld (nine seasons) and The Simpsons (29 seasons)? All about irony. Most of the talent behind both shows was Jewish.

Join the dots. Jewish humour depends heavily on irony and much American humour is Jewish. Ergo, the argument that Americans don’t “get” irony just doesn’t wash. 

But it persists because it plays to a sense of cultural superiority. Americans are supposedly loud, brash, boorish and unsubtle.

Donald Trump fits this stereotype perfectly. One of the tragedies of his presidency is that he reinforces the prejudices of people who think all Americans are stupid. These prigs look at Trump and say: “See – there’s a typical American for you.”

It’s a theme that fuels countless dinner-party conversations in New Zealand. “Look at what Trump’s done now,” someone will say. “Oh God, those ghastly Yanks.” And off they go, sniggering at what a godforsaken country America is and pausing only for gulps of Central Otago pinot noir.

In my experience, such people usually have minimal experience, if any at all, of America. It’s a country they fly over to get to supposedly more sophisticated places like Britain, France and Italy – although sharing horror stories about the supposed ordeal of a stopover in LA is always good parlour-game material too.

The reason they don’t want to spend time in the United States – unless it’s in New York or San Francisco or a tiny handful of other American cities that the cultural priesthood deems cool – is that they have convinced themselves America has no redeeming virtues.

Anyway, why spoil their fun? As long as they remain ignorant of America, they give themselves licence to go on sniggering at Americans and congratulating themselves on their infinitely greater sophistication.

Another manifestation of anti-American priggishness, besides the “Americans don’t get irony” myth, is the prejudice often shown toward country music – again, usually by people who condemn it from a standpoint of ignorance.

Because some country music is crass (which can’t be denied), they dismiss it all as tawdry and mawkishly sentimental. Essentially it’s the same mistake made by people who assume Trump is representative of all Americans.

Where does this sense of cultural superiority come from? I suspect it’s basically a British thing.

The Brits never entirely forgave the Americans for breaking away and going it alone. But they console themselves that while America might now be infinitely wealthier and more powerful, the Mother Country is distinguished by its rich history, the refinement of its educated classes, its monarchy, its glorious imperial past and its … well, its sheer Britishness.

New Zealand, having drawn most of its cultural inspiration from Britain, seems to have inherited that sense of inherent British supremacy. You might say it’s in our genes.

I’m not blind to American failings. I cringe at American excess and brashness and I’m repelled by the religious and political extremes of American society.

But while these traits confront us daily in the media, they don’t represent the totality of American society. Spend time in the United States and you quickly realise that most Americans are not brash, loud, ignorant or extreme.

Try listening to America’s National Public Radio. NPR leans to the left politically, as public broadcasters invariably do, but it’s the flip side to the America of Donald Trump: rational, civilised, low-key, informed and articulate.

And I shouldn’t have to point out that America is the source of much of the popular culture and technology that New Zealanders enjoy: the music we listen to, the films and TV we watch, the clothing we wear, the books we read and the digital devices we depend on.

So let’s ease off on the conceited and hypocritical anti-Americanism that flourishes in some New Zealand circles. And while we’re about it, let’s bury the myth that Americans don’t “get” irony.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

An enemy of free speech and a dissembler too


(This article by me was published in The Spectator Australia on September 29.)

It’s taken a while, but the speech wars have reached New Zealand – and an Australian is in the thick of the strife. Problem is, she’s on the wrong side.

Jan Thomas, the vice-chancellor of Massey University, recently banned Don Brash, a former leader of the centre-right National party, from speaking at a campus event organised by a student politics society. It was the first occurrence at a New Zealand university of the ugly phenomenon known as no-platforming. Now Thomas, who came to New Zealand from the University of Southern Queensland, has been exposed not just as an enemy of free speech, but as a dissembler who was less than honest about her motives.

Brash had been invited to speak, along with other former politicians, about his time in politics. It promised to be an innocuous, low-key event. But incongruously, the gentlemanly septuagenarian is the man the New Zealand left most loves to hate. This can be traced back to the day in 2004 when, as leader of the Opposition, he delivered a speech to the Orewa Rotary Club in which he warned of a drift toward racial separatism and attacked the notion of special treatment for the Maori population.

Brash’s advocacy of “one rule for all” resonated with many New Zealanders. Subsequent polls showed a huge surge in support for National. In the 2005 election, the party came close to defeating Helen Clark’s Labour government – an extraordinary turnaround after National’s worst-ever defeat only three years earlier. But the “infamous” Orewa speech (to use the loaded adjective routinely applied to it by the left-leaning media) made Brash a marked man, and worse was to come when he formed a lobby group with the aim of ending race-based privilege. The establishment of Hobson’s Pledge (the group took its name from colonial administrator William Hobson’s declaration at the signing of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi that “now we are all one people”) made Brash the most vilified man in New Zealand.

Fast forward now to 2018 and Jan Thomas. A professor of veterinary science, Thomas was appointed vice-chancellor (in other words, CEO) of Massey in January 2017. But although a newcomer to New Zealand, she was quick to assess the political landscape and fall into line with the left-wing monoculture that permeates New Zealand universities.

The justification given for Thomas’s decision to ban Brash was that his appearance might trigger a violent protest, thereby putting students and staff at risk. That provoked an uproar, since the supposed threat turned out to come from a lone disaffected student who objected to what he called (quite erroneously) Brash’s “separatist and supremacist rhetoric”, and who later said he never intended to do more than wave a sign.

Thomas’s attempt to characterise the mild-mannered Brash as a dangerous demagogue provoked a fierce backlash, and not just from his supporters. Some of the most stinging condemnation of Thomas came from old-school leftists whose belief in Brash’s right to speak and be heard outweighed their visceral distaste for his neo-liberal leanings.

But if Thomas’s edict caused severe reputational harm to Massey, a second-string university based in the provincial city of Palmerston North, it was nothing compared with the damage when the real reason for the ban emerged.

Emails obtained under the Official Information Act showed that long before the supposed security threat arose, Thomas was inquiring about possible “mechanisms” for dealing with Brash in other words, excuses to ban him and telling her staff she didn’t want a “Te Tiriti-led university” to be seen as endorsing “racist behaviours”. She persisted even after a subordinate pointed out that the university was likely to be attacked for stifling free speech.

Readers should note Thomas’s impeccable command of politically correct New Zealand terminology. “Te Tiriti” is the Maori term for the Treaty of Waitangi, under which Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty to Britain and in turn were given the rights of British subjects.

The treaty is a short and spare document, but decades of judicial activism and ideologically driven re-interpretation have stretched and twisted its meaning to the point where its supposed “principles”, although never legally defined, intrude into areas of New Zealand life that the treaty signatories could never have envisaged – including, apparently, the vetoing of politically unfashionable speakers by university administrators.  

In another email, Thomas opined that Brash was “very racist” regarding the six designated Maori seats in Parliament, which he has rightly described as an anachronism under a proportional voting system that resulted in 29 MPs of Maori descent being elected in the most recent election. Thomas characterised Brash’s  views as “close to hate speech”, but there is no “hate speech” in New Zealand law – and even if there was, it’s hard to imagine the New Zealand courts, which are very cautious about curbing freedom of expression, being persuaded that Brash was out to harm anyone. By any criteria other than those applied by the neo-Marxist left and the media commentariat, his opinions on race politics are broadly in line with those of middle New Zealand.

At the time of writing, Thomas had gone to ground and left her PR staff to clean up the mess, but she was under huge pressure. Two censure motions will be tabled at the next meeting of the university’s academic board, National party leader Simon Bridges called on Thomas to resign, labelling her as dishonest, and the leader of the Massey students’ association, a Maori, said students had no confidence in her. Brash himself said, with typical restraint, that Thomas’s position was “almost untenable”.

If there’s a heartening aspect of the furore, it’s that condemnation of Thomas came from nearly all sides. As with the controversy over the recent visit to New Zealand by Canadian "alt-right" speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, the Massey veto on Brash galvanised a free-speech movement that was broader-based than anyone expected. Meanwhile Thomas, by presuming to decide what views New Zealanders should be allowed to hear, has succeeded in making herself the least popular Australian on this side of the Ditch since Greg Chappell ordered his brother to bowl underarm in 1981.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Good news: they're printing the local paper locally again


When we’re bombarded almost weekly with depressing news about the slow death of the media, and especially the print media, it’s a tonic  to report a positive development.

My local paper, the Wairarapa Times-Age, announced this week that it’s now being printed locally again instead of at Hastings, nearly three hours’ drive away.

The Times-Age has done a deal with Webstar, a big Masterton printer that was once part of the old Government Print.  It’s the first time in nearly 15 years that the paper has been printed in the region it serves.

It’s good news for a number of reasons. It generates more work for a big local employer and it should mean the paper will be able to bring forward its editorial deadlines, thus enabling it to cover later-breaking stories (although I haven’t been able to confirm this).

I imagine it saves money, too. Trucking papers 210 km every morning can’t be cheap.

But most of all, it’s a vote of confidence in the paper’s future. It continues a turnaround that began in 2016 when the Times-Age reverted to local ownership after 12 years as part of the old APN (New Zealand Herald) stable.

The Times-Age was a distant outpost of the APN empire and its future didn’t look promising under owners who were misguidedly ploughing all their resources into online content and running down their print products.

The decommissioning of the Times-Age presses was a particularly black day. Printing was originally moved to APN’s Whanganui site and later to Hastings in a cost-cutting exercise that was duplicated at many other regional papers as the two big corporate media groups, Fairfax (now Stuff) and APN (now NZME), pursued each other down a blind alley.

Centralising printing operations in distant cities saved money, but reduced papers’ ability to serve their local readers and inevitably accelerated the decline of the provincial press. I wrote at the time that shutting down presses sent a damaging message to readers and advertisers. After all, if the owners didn’t have enough belief in a paper to keep printing it locally, why should readers and the firms that supported it commercially?

I also wrote that if any papers could survive in the new media environment, it would be those that specialised in local news. Not only is local news important to people because it directly affects them in their daily lives, but it’s also the segment of the market that has been least disrupted by the internet. If you want local news, you must get it from a local provider; you can’t read Masterton news in the online editions of the New York Times or the Guardian, or even on the Radio New Zealand website.

It doesn’t surprise me, then, that the Times-Age appears to be thriving under the ownership of Wairarapa-born Andrew Denholm, formerly the paper’s general manager, who took a punt on it two years ago. Denholm had more confidence in the paper than his bosses and could obviously see potential for growth where they couldn’t.

As with most papers, circulation is in decline, but not to the same extent as provincials owned by the two major media groups. The latest Times-Age circulation figure of 5185 is down 4.2% on the previous year, but the bleeding is far less ominous than at titles such as the Southland Times (down 12.8%) and the Timaru Herald (12.3%).

But circulation figures are only one indicator of a paper’s health. As a subscriber, I can report that the Times-Age is a lively, smart, busy and relevant paper with an energetic editor and an excellent team of reporters who give the impression of enjoying their work. It’s a paper that connects with its readers and appears well supported by local advertisers.

And it does what’s most important in a local paper – namely, reflect the character and the concerns of the region it serves. If you want to know what's going on in the Wairarapa, you can't do without it.

As corporate-owned regional papers grow ever more bland and generic, with increased emphasis on shared content and less on local news, the Times-Age stands out as truly local – a distinction that can only be enhanced by being printed locally.


Friday, September 21, 2018

My shameful confession


(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz. September 20.)

I have a shameful confession to make.

On a gorgeous spring afternoon in 2017, I drove to Fernridge School, just west of Masterton, and cast my vote in the general election.

Virtually until the moment I entered the polling booth, I remained an undecided voter.

My electorate vote was straightforward enough. It went to Labour’s Wairarapa candidate Kieran McAnulty – mainly because I thought Alastair Scott, the sitting National MP, had done bugger-all in his first term other than turn up for photo opportunities, and therefore didn’t deserve to be re-elected.

In the event, Scott was returned, albeit with a reduced margin, and has been noticeably more active than when his party was in government. Perhaps the fright did him good.

But that’s not the shameful bit. For the crucial party vote, I ended up holding my nose and placing a tick beside New Zealand First.

I apologise now for this act of political vandalism. It was a moment of madness in an otherwise unblemished life and I will suck up whatever opprobrium comes my way.  

Voting for Winston Peters went against all my instincts, but I was able to rationalise an otherwise irrational act on the basis that I was voting for purely tactical reasons.

The polls indicated the result could be close. I reasoned that whichever major party formed a government, it might be useful to encumber it with a coalition partner that could serve as a check on its power. Tragically, the only party likely to fulfil that purpose was New Zealand First.

If Labour got in, and especially if it had Green support, Peters and his MPs  might be in a position to curb any wild ideological excesses of the type centre-left parties are prone to after long periods in opposition.

If a National-led government was returned, I foresaw a different problem. I didn’t fancy the thought of a smugly triumphalist National Party. The born-to-rule syndrome is not a pretty sight. Being in coalition with New Zealand First, I reasoned, might take some of the wind out of National’s sails.

Well, we all know the outcome. As the old saying goes, we should be careful what we wish for.

Some readers may recall a great deal of huffing and puffing in this column over the way Peters subsequently gamed the system to secure maximum advantage for himself and New Zealand First, leveraging his party’s piffling 7 per cent share of the vote into a commanding position from which he was able to dictate the shape of the government.

I was too ashamed at the time to admit my partial responsibility for this state of affairs. Only a trusted few knew my guilty secret.

No doubt I’ll be accused of hypocrisy for giving my vote to Peters and then professing to be appalled by what transpired.

Well, fair enough. But I would argue that it was possible to vote for Peters and still be outraged by the way he took control of the coalition negotiations. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the ease with which he was able to manipulate the other players - helped, of course, by Labour’s desperation to regain power after three terms in opposition.

And in mitigation I would point out that in voting for New Zealand First I was doing exactly what the MMP system was intended to do, which is to ensure as far as possible that no one party ends up wielding total power. The architects of MMP would be proud of me.

From a strictly pragmatic standpoint, I have to admit that things panned out pretty much as I envisaged. My tactical vote had the desired effect, which was to moderate the behaviour of whichever party formed the government.

New Zealand First has now jammed several sticks into the spokes of Labour and the Greens, to the teeth-grinding frustration of the Left. The government is looking shambolic and there must be doubts about its ability to run a full term.

No one should be surprised at this turn of events. Peters is a team player only if he’s in charge of the team. He might behave himself for a while, but in time his natural belligerence and contrarianism will assert itself.

The irony is that the Left now has to endure the agony of seeing their agenda frustrated because of an electoral system that the Left championed. But this was always on the cards, given the fundamental incompatibility between two socially “progressive” parties and one that draws inspiration from Muldoon-era conservatism.

It’s kind of perversely satisfying in an “I told you so” way, so why am I not celebrating? Probably because I don’t think this is how democracy is supposed to work.  

Thursday, September 20, 2018

If I've got cancer, I'd rather know than not know


(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and Stuff.co.nz. September 19.)

On talkback radio a couple of weeks ago, a succession of male callers talked about their experience of prostate cancer.

Prompted by the Blue September prostate cancer awareness campaign, the host had invited listeners to tell their stories. Several men duly phoned in and gave accounts of their diagnosis and treatment.

One caller said he had to go to three doctors before he found one who was willing to order a PSA test, which is the most common diagnostic tool for prostate cancer.

Another caller backed that up. He said he knew a number of men whose doctors not only discouraged them from having a PSA test, but refused to conduct a digital rectal examination – another routine diagnostic procedure.

Yet another caller said he had asked his doctor whether he should have a test and was advised: “Don’t go looking for trouble”. He got his test only after seeing another doctor. A subsequent biopsy confirmed the presence of cancer.

What’s going on here? If a PSA test is a simple first step toward determining whether a man has a potentially fatal illness, why do some doctors discourage patients from having one?

Just in case you’re wondering, the prostate is a walnut-sized organ between the bladder and the penis. It produces seminal fluid, so only males have it. An elevated PSA count, which is identified by a blood test and can signify the presence of cancer cells, is often the first indication that something is amiss.

The Prostate Cancer Foundation recently disclosed that it gets five calls or emails every week from men who wanted the PSA test but were turned down by their doctors. Yet one in eight New Zealand men will develop prostate cancer at some time in their life, and more than 600 die from it every year. It’s the third most common cancer in New Zealand.

So why are so many doctors apparently reluctant to act? A possible reason – and this is purely me speculating – is that prostate cancer can be a tricky disease to deal with. Some GPs throw up their hands, figuratively speaking, at the very mention of it.

First, it can be difficult to diagnose. The PSA test is a useful first step but it's not fool-proof and can give misleading results.

If it suggests there might be something wrong, it’s usually followed by the digital examination - the finger-up-the-bum test in which the doctor reaches inside and feels the prostate for any sign of abnormality.

Doctors don't enjoy doing this, for obvious reasons. The consensus among callers to the talkback show was that that GPs who were younger or female were more comfortable with it than older male doctors.

Patients don't much like it either. Some men seem to regard the digital rectal examination as threatening to their masculinity. There’s no getting around the fact it can be uncomfortable as well as undignified. But hey – if it can save your life, who cares about a little indignity?

Here, though, we encounter another problem. As one doctor explained it to me, the digital examination can be unreliable too.  The doctor can’t feel the whole prostate, so a cancerous growth may still escape detection.

If something’s found, the next step is a biopsy, in which tissue samples are taken from your prostate. This is an invasive procedure and it can be unpleasant. It also carries the risk of side-effects. For those reasons, some doctors hesitate to recommend it.

And again, a biopsy is a bit of a shot in the dark. As I understand it, there’s no guarantee that the samples taken will be taken from the part of the prostate that’s diseased. So again, the cancer may be missed.

That’s the thing with prostate cancer: there seems to be uncertainty at every turn. Treatment isn’t cut and dried either. Options include removal of the prostate, radiation therapy, hormonal treatment or brachytherapy, in which radioactive “seeds” are implanted in the prostate.

There seems to be no single “correct” or one-size-fits-all approach and there are potential downsides with every option, which may explain why some GPs seem tempted to put the illness in the too-hard basket.

I have prostate cancer myself. It was detected in 2016 after I went “looking for trouble”. A routine blood test showed my PSA level had risen slightly beyond the safe zone and a biopsy confirmed the presence of what's technically described as low-grade, low-volume cancer.

So far, my PSA remains relatively low and stable. I’m under “active surveillance”, which makes me sound like a suspected agent for a hostile foreign power, but simply means I have regular tests to make sure my PSA count hasn’t spiked .

I don't lie awake at night fretting about it. In fact I barely give it a thought from one week to the next. What would that achieve?

In any case, cancer is no longer the death sentence it was once regarded as. I know several men who were treated for prostate cancer years ago and remain healthy and active. If I stay lucky, I may be one of the many who die with the disease rather than from it.

But I’ll tell you one thing: if I’ve got cancer, I’d rather know than not know.