Friday, August 16, 2019

My one-millionth page view

This blog achieved a milestone of sorts yesterday when it clocked up its one millionth page view.

It’s taken a while to get there: the blog was launched in May 2008.

For a long time my readership averaged between 200-300 page views daily, but lately it’s been up around the 500 mark.

On a good day it can get as high as 2000. This usually happens when there’s a link to this blog from a much more popular site such as Kiwiblog or, until its recent demise, Whale Oil.

Who are my readers? I’m not really sure. Most commenters choose to remain anonymous, which is fine with me unless they’re engaging in a personal attack, in which case I want to know who my accusers are.

Speaking of which, I’m very grateful to the people who comment regularly – you know who you are – and take some pride in the fact that the comments, while often trenchant, are always intelligently expressed and don’t descend to the levels of abuse and malice often seen elsewhere in the blogosphere.

Anyway, that’s enough self-aggrandisement. On to the next million …

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Worthy things that I could have written about, but didn't

Yesterday’s Dominion Post included a letter from Victoria University academic Dolores Janiewski, in which she took a poke at me for my recent column about the transgender mountain biker Kate Weatherly (see “When gender politics morphs into craziness”, August 9).

Janiewski, a historian who includes gender, race, class and culture among her research interests – make of that what you will – has criticised me before, as she’s entitled to do. But on this occasion she seemed offended because I didn’t write about things she thinks I should be writing about.

She questioned my use of the phrase “peak lunacy” in a column about gender issues and noted that I failed to mention the killing of Walmart shoppers in El Paso. (She may also have noted that I failed to mention Hiroshima, the Manson Family, thalidomide, rising sea levels and Catholic sex abuse. Just trying to be helpful here.)

Janiewski went on to imply that because I didn’t write about the El Paso shootings, I must think transgender mountain bikers are every bit as mad and dangerous as white nationalists with guns. I believe this is called a non sequitur – or if you want to be fancy, a deductive fallacy.

Yes, lots of things – hundreds of things, maybe even thousands – happen in the world on any given day that are far crazier than a transgender mountain biker who insists on being regarded as a woman. But on the day I wrote that column I happened to be interested in Weatherly. In any case, thousands upon thousands of words were written all around the world about the El Paso shooting and America’s gun laws (which is what I suspect Janiewski was getting at), and anything I said would have merely duplicated the futile pontificating of innumerable other commentators.

It’s not the first time I’ve been criticised for not writing about what other people think is important. This assumes there’s some sort of consensus about the things that really matter and anything not on the approved list should be dismissed (or perhaps even censored) as being inconsequential, or a distraction from pressing issues, or deviating from ideological orthodoxy. Underlying this, it’s not hard to sense a moralistic urge to control the public conversation.

As for that phrase “peak craziness”, of course it was hyperbole – a journalistic device used for effect. It shouldn’t need to be explained to someone with a PhD from Duke University (Janiewski’s alma mater) that I wasn’t literally suggesting Western civilisation had scaled the ultimate pinnacle of insanity. That moment has yet to come and I hope I won’t be around when it does.

Janiewski also thought she’d skewered me because I approvingly cited a University of Otago study about transgender athletes. How did this square, she wondered (I’m paraphrasing her letter here), with my previously expressed theory that all universities are complicit in a neo-Marxist plot?

In fact there’s no inconsistency at all. It’s well within the bounds of probability that any university which employs neo-Marxist crackpots will also have academics on its staff, particularly in the sciences (and I don't mean the social sciences, which are not sciences at all), who are uncontaminated by ideology and prefer objective, verifiable evidence. There may be even a few of the latter at Victoria.

Finally, in what Janiewski probably thought was another “gotcha” moment, she said I hadn’t noticed that prominent lesbian and radical feminists, including Germaine Greer, had criticised transgender politics. “Perhaps noticing such disagreements would cause du Fresne too much distress at having to abandon his claims about a unified “Left” conspiracy bent on destroying gender, biology and rationality itself,” she wrote.

Actually, no. The original draft of my column included the following:

I’m not suggesting that Weatherly is consciously part of a neo-Marxist plot to take over the world.  But I do suggest that she’s in denial when she insists she’s a woman – and what’s more, despite her protestations, that she does have an unfair advantage over her female competitors.

I am supported in the former assertion by many feminists, including the redoubtable Germaine Greer and her fellow terfs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), and in the latter by old-fashioned and rather inconvenient science.

I took that latter paragraph out because I was over my word limit. So, no distress at all. On this issue, if not on many others, I’m on the same side as Greer and the terfs.

What’s more, I don’t claim there’s a “unified” leftist conspiracy, since one thing we can always rely on the left to do is tear itself apart in ideological squabbles (which is pretty much what seems to be happening right now on the gender battleground) while the rest of the world gets on with things that matter.

The voice of Western millennial entitlement

I happened to hear a BBC interview with the Swedish teenage enviro-wunderkind and media darling Greta Thunberg about her forthcoming trip to the United Nations Climate Summit in New York. (In case you haven’t heard, she’ll be crossing the Atlantic on a racing yacht so as to avoid leaving a carbon footprint.)

After discussing the privations of sailing on a yacht that doesn’t have a toilet (oh, the sacrifices this selfless girl is willing to make for the cause), the fawning interviewer asked what action Thunberg would be seeking at the UN.

The answer was revealing. “Our job is to demand the solutions, not provide the solutions,” Thunberg replied.

There you have it, really: the voice of privileged Western millennial entitlement. Don’t bore me with the practical realities that politicians have to grapple with. Don’t waste my time talking about the likely economic consequences of abandoning fossil fuels for unreliable renewable energy sources, or the downstream social impacts. Not my problem. Just fix it.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Another brilliant idea

Stuff reports today that Patrick Barrett, a senior lecturer in public policy and political science at Waikato University, is concerned that not enough young people vote in local government elections.

Fine. I agree that if only 33 per cent of eligible voters in Hamilton cast votes, as happened in 2016, a lot of people are missing out on an important opportunity to exercise their democratic right. Perhaps more to the point, low voter turnout can skew the result and lead to the election of a council that’s not truly representative of the community.

So what’s Barrett’s solution? He’s urging that the voting age be lowered from 18 to 16.

Brilliant. I wonder what makes him think 16-18 year-olds are any more likely to vote than all the millennials who don’t bother. I mean, really.

Friday, August 9, 2019

When gender politics morphs into craziness

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, August 8.)

History might well record that we reached peak craziness on July 20, 2019.

That was when I read a story in the sports pages about a champion New Zealand mountain biker named Kate Weatherly, who was born male but “transitioned to female” from the age of 17.

Weatherly was reported as objecting to a University of Otago study which found, surely to no one’s surprise, that transgender female athletes have an advantage over rivals who are born female.

Her own record seems to prove the point. According to the story, Weatherly went from being an “average” men’s downhill mountain biker to winning the women’s elite national championship. Some rivals – again, surely to no one’s surprise – say that’s unfair.

Weatherly resents being described as transgender and disputes the finding that she enjoys an advantage over her rivals. “I’m not a transgender,” she insists. “I am a woman who happens to be transgender. As a result I want to be able to compete with my fellow women.”

It was at this point that that I wondered whether we had reached peak lunacy. What civilisation has regarded for millennia as immutable truths are now up for redefinition in the light of personal preference. Down is up, wet is dry, night is day.

Weatherly’s perception of herself as “a woman who happens to be transgender” is a piece of semantic trickery. It plays into the fashionable ideological notion that virtually nothing is fixed and even words such as “male” and “female”, which until recently were considered to have a settled and universally understood meaning, are in fact infinitely flexible.

This in turn fits neatly with the neo-Marxist idea that sex and sexual identity are mere social constructs, imposed on people by a repressive, white, male-dominated, capitalist society, and must be overturned if people are to be truly liberated.

The underlying aim is to destroy social cohesion by magnifying minority grievances, and ultimately to subvert democracy by giving supposedly oppressed groups special rights over others.

I’m not suggesting that Weatherly is consciously part of a neo-Marxist plot. However I do suggest that she’s in denial when she insists she’s a woman - and that despite her protestations, she does have an unfair advantage over other competitors.

Weatherly may well have grown up wanting to be a girl. She may feel like a woman and think of herself as one. That’s entirely her right, and no one should stand in her way. She should be free to live as a female, as “trans” people have quietly done for decades.

But claiming to be a woman doesn’t make her one. It doesn’t eradicate that awkward XY chromosome conferred on her at birth. And it doesn’t oblige the rest of us to think of her as female.

More to the point, she can’t get away with the claim that she’s competing on a level playing field with mountain bikers who were born female.

You can see why this is a nightmarish issue for sports organisations, some of which have been intimidated into complying with the aggressive demands of transgender athletes. But the science is clear.

It was all coolly set out by one of the authors of the Otago University study, physiology professor Alison Heather, in an in-depth interview for the Stuff website.

Weatherly, who has been having hormone treatment since she was 17, says her testosterone is tested every three months and has never been above 1.4 nanomoles per litre, which is within the average range for “cis” women – those who are born female. The implication is that she enjoys no advantage from having been born male.

But as Heather points out, many of the physical advantages men have over women in sport – such as bigger and different-shaped bones, greater muscle mass, larger hearts and superior oxygen capacity – are formed in the womb and continue to develop through puberty.

In other words, they are fixed in place by the time a person is in their teenage years and can’t be undone by hormone treatment. This might explain Weatherly’s striking progression from an also-ran as a male mountain biker to podium-finisher as a female.

Of course you’re immediately branded as transphobic if you suggest that someone who transitions from male to female or vice versa can never be quite the same as someone who is “cis” gender. But transphobia implies fear and hatred, which is not what this is about.

Most New Zealanders, being a generally tolerant lot, probably accept that people should be free to assume whatever sexual identity suits them. It's only when they use their sexual identity or adopted gender to claim special treatment - or, in the case of sport, take unfair advantage over others - that it becomes an issue.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

An abortion provider has her feet held to the fire on Morning Report (yeah, right)

It’s day three of the Great New Zealand Abortion Debate, Part II (resuming after a 42-year interval), and it’s becoming increasingly plain that Morning Report – or at least Susie Ferguson – has little intention of covering the issue even-handedly.

She gave us a clue to her feelings a couple of mornings ago when she made a flippant remark about women having to pretend they were mad in order to get an abortion under existing law. No prizes for guessing what she thinks, then.

This morning Ferguson took up a claim by National MP Chris Penk that Andrew Little’s abortion bill will allow abortions up to full term, which the public would almost certainly regard as intolerable. But did we hear from Penk himself? Nope, not a word.

Ferguson would have been justified in grilling Penk about the basis for his statement, but Morning Report didn’t bother with that, perhaps because it would have given him a platform. Instead, Ferguson interviewed Helen Paterson, the chair of Abortion Providers of Aotearoa New Zealand – an impeccably impartial authority. I mean, who better to provide an unbiased assessment of the proposed law change than the people who provide abortions, whose business will be made much easier (and hence more profitable) if the bill proceeds?

First Ferguson invited Paterson to agree that Penk was guilty of misinformation. Then she gently guided her through a series of soft questions which brought forth an assurance that the proposed new law was “unlikely” to change things “significantly” for women whose pregnancies had gone beyond 20 weeks.

She didn’t bother to pin Paterson down on whether the bill might create a theoretical possibility that some babies would be aborted much later than under the present law, which was surely the crux of Penk’s concern. Instead Ferguson allowed Paterson to take refuge in a semantic discussion about the meaning of the phrase “late-term abortion”.

But it got worse. Ferguson then suggested the language being used in the abortion debate (she obviously meant by the anti-abortion lobby) resembled the rhetoric heard in the United States – thus drawing a parallel with a country where people opposed to abortion are portrayed as fanatics, religious fundamentalists and oppressors of women. Not surprisingly, Paterson agreed that the language tended to be “emotive”. 

Fearlessly, Ferguson continued with her relentless inquisition. “So the language being used is – what, unhelpful?” And astonishingly, Paterson agreed that it was. Offensive too, she added. Perhaps she was referring to the insistence by pro-lifers on using the word “babies” rather than the dehumanising “foetuses” favoured by the pro-choice movement.

Then the coup-de-grace. Was this emotive language a way of distracting people from the “bare bones” of the law change? (Translation: is the anti-abortion lobby trying to derail the bill by wittering on about the right to life?) “Absolutely”, Paterson said.

Talk about having your feet held to the fire. Somehow I can’t imagine Ferguson giving anyone from the anti-abortion lobby such a cruisy run. That is, in the unlikely event that they’d be invited on to Morning Report in the first place.

Disclosure: I am opposed to abortion on demand. However you don’t need to be pro-life to believe that a publicly owned broadcaster has an obligation to cover the abortion issue in a neutral and balanced way.

Now let's cross to Mt Eden Prison, where nothing is happening

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on, August 7.)

One night last week on NewsHub Live at 6pm, or whatever TV3’s news bulletin calls itself at the moment, I watched journalist Adam Hollingworth reporting “live” from outside Mt Eden Prison with the breathtaking news that an inmate had been diagnosed with measles.

I felt sorry for Hollingworth. It was dark and probably cold and he fumbled his lines.

For reasons that I don’t quite understand, any story containing the word “measles” seems to get editors’ pulses racing. But more to the point, it was impossible to see what purpose was served by Hollingworth reporting live from a locale where nothing was happening: no flashing ambulance lights, no stricken felon strapped to a stretcher, just a sign in the gloom identifying Mt Eden. 

He could just as easily have delivered his report from a warm, familiar newsroom where, if he fluffed his lines, he could start again – an option not open to him when he was speaking live to camera. But the assumption in both main TV networks’ newsrooms seems to be that “live” reports convey a dramatic sense of immediacy, even when there’s nothing to see.

Later in the same bulletin another NewsHub reporter, Cleo Fraser, reported from the scene of an incident in the Hutt Valley in which the rogue driver of a road roller had terrorised a gathering of boy racers.

Again, why? The event she was describing – let’s call it road roller rage – had taken place nearly two days before. (And no, the story wasn’t about the roller driver being hailed as a national hero, although it would have been no surprise if he was.)

Fraser was reporting from a darkened stretch of road that could have been anywhere. She could just as easily have been standing in a service lane behind the NewsHub studio. No one would have been any the wiser and her employers would have saved some petrol money.

Now before I go any further, I should disclose something. When it comes to the television news, I’m a fundamentalist. I like my news delivered without unnecessary embellishment.

For a start, I regard the dual newsreader setup favoured by both main TV networks as pointless gimmickry, and for that reason I often opt for the no-frills Prime News read by Eric Young at 5.30pm.

Imagine that – a solo newsreader! But it’s how all our TV news used to be delivered, and it’s still the method of presentation used by most respected broadcasting organisations overseas.

Our TV bosses, however, apparently don’t think we can be trusted to tune into the nightly news bulletin, still less persevere through a full hour of it, without endless frippery to hold our attention.

And so we get ever-more-intrusive window-dressing. It’s no longer enough, for example, for the bulletin to open with a boring shot of a newsreader sitting at a desk. Instead, he or she now often stands, ever-so-carefully posed, against a wall-sized backdrop representing whatever story has been chosen – usually on the basis of its perceived emotional impact rather than importance – to lead the “news hour”.

The emphasis on “live” reports when they add nothing to the story, and are often beyond the competence of nervous reporters, is just one of many pointless elements in a news format that can best be described as selling the sizzle rather than the steak.

Add to that the silly and awkward gesticulating and flapping of hands in an attempt to dramatise whatever point the reporter is making, the increasing use of elaborate three-dimensional graphics that distract the viewer rather than enhance our understanding of whatever’s being reported, the use of “vox pops” to tell us what ordinary New Zealanders think about the complex issues of the day (as if questioning half a dozen shoppers chosen at random in a mall reveals anything of value or insight), the reporting of hysterical tweets by social media non-entities and the contrived chumminess of the interactions between newsreaders and reporters, and it all adds up to what I regard as debasement of the news.

Oh, and did I mention the tendency of some newsreaders to comment on whatever item has just been screened, apparently in the misapprehension that we might be interested in what they think?

Meanwhile, basic but essential things – such as captions identifying the people talking on screen – are commonly overlooked, leaving us scratching our heads about who they are and where they fit into the story.

In an informed democracy, news deserves to be treated seriously. It doesn’t need to be propped up by gimmickry.

To surround it with silly contrivances indicates disrespect for both the news and for the audience watching it - a sense that the news isn't capable of standing on its own merit and must be gussied up to make it more appealing. But to borrow the nightly sign-off line of the legendary American newsreader Walter Cronkite, that's the way it is.