Friday, March 22, 2019

So now we know: we're a nation of racists and Islamophobes

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, March 21.)

You may have thought, as I did, that the Christchurch shootings were the act of a lone-wolf fanatic.
You may have thought, as I did, that no one saw it coming,

You may have thought, as I did, that New Zealand reacted with a genuine and overwhelming outpouring of shock, grief and anguish.
You may have thought that thousands showed their solidarity with Christchurch Muslims by attending public vigils, spontaneously setting up tribute sites and donating millions to a Givealittle appeal.

You may have thought that the Christchurch Muslim community, which could have been forgiven for withdrawing into itself, responded to the calamity with a remarkable spirit of openness, inclusivity and forgiveness.
You may have thought that our own shock was mirrored by that of the outside world, which was aghast that such terrible things could happen in a country viewed internationally as peaceful, tolerant and respectful toward minority groups.

Well, it seems we all got it wrong. Because in the days following the shootings, an alternative narrative emerged.
According to this alternative narrative, we are a hateful nation of racists, white supremacists and Islamophobes.

Not only that, but the massacre was no surprise. A sudden outburst of violent race hatred was bound to happen. Rather like the cataclysmic earthquake we are constantly warned to be prepared for, it was not a question of if, but when.
It was, we were told, the inevitable outcome of a society which condones hate speech.

The former narrative, the one most of us never thought to challenge, was the dominant one in the mainstream media, but the alternative version – let’s call it the “We told you so” version - gained a lot of traction on the online comment platforms favoured by the commentariat.
It’s a narrative of self-loathing that wants us to think the worst of ourselves. It’s a narrative that shamelessly seeks to politicise the killings and create a moral panic in the hope not only that we’ll tighten the gun ownership laws – no arguments there – but far more ominously, that we might be persuaded to discard such democratic niceties as freedom of speech.

We were told, for example, that Islamophobia is “deeply embedded in our society”. That comment came from former Green MP and lifelong sanctimonious far-Left finger-wagger Keith Locke, who quoted former Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy as saying that every Muslim woman she knew had faced racist abuse.
We were told that Muslims in New Zealand wouldn’t be safe until we had tough new laws governing “hate speech”, however that might be defined. We were urged to dispense with old-fashioned democratic notions of free speech and balanced debates.

According to this argument, some views are so self-obviously correct that no one should be allowed to challenge them and others are so self-obviously contemptible that they must be prohibited.  It worries me deeply that I frequently hear this line even from journalists, who should be the first to defend the barricades when freedom of speech is at risk.
We were told too that the Islamic Women’s Council had been trying for years to alert the government to the existence of extreme racists and Islamophobes in New Zealand.

But I found it hard to reconcile that statement with the interview I heard on the BBC with a Muslim woman from Christchurch who said she and her family came to New Zealand because it was safe. She told BBC correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes she had never felt threatened here.
This leaves me wondering exactly who the Islamic Women’s Council represents and what its agenda might be. None of the Muslims I saw and heard being interviewed in the painful days following the shootings expressed even a faint hint of recrimination. None blamed their adopted country or mentioned Islamophobia.

On the contrary, they gave the impression of cherishing their lives here and seemed as perplexed as the rest of us by the violence – which, we need to keep reminding ourselves, was perpetrated by a non-New Zealander.
Obviously, people like Keith Locke weren’t listening. Or perhaps they ignore anything that doesn’t align with their preferred narrative of a divided, oppressive society.

Yes, it’s deplorable that Muslim women are sometimes abused. But who should we allow to serve as the model that dictates the agenda: a few misanthropic cranks who haven’t yet got their heads around the new multicultural New Zealand, or the countless thousands of New Zealanders who attended vigils, donated money or quietly grieved at home for fellow citizens who happen to be Muslim?
Call me a Pollyanna, but the latter group says a lot more to me about the sort of society New Zealand is than isolated instances of abuse in shopping malls.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Long Bay: a reminder of what we value about living in New Zealand

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and, March 20.)
I’m writing this column in a camping ground at Long Bay, on the Coromandel Peninsula.
It’s Sunday morning. From where our caravan is parked I could almost spit into the sea, if I were of a mind to.

There are bush-covered headlands to the north and south of the bay and pohutukawa trees line the shore. Last night I heard the quintessential New Zealand nocturnal sound of a ruru (morepork) calling.
At the moment the tide is out and I can see kids fossicking on the rocks. The floating platform that people were diving from when we arrived here yesterday is virtually high and dry.

Earlier this morning I watched a family harvesting cockles. The sea is flat calm, the air is warm and there’s a gentle breeze blowing.
Beyond the bay I can see a string of pretty islands: Motukopake, Motuoruhi and other, smaller ones whose names I don’t know. Somewhere in the distance, hidden in the haze on the other side of the Hauraki Gulf, is Auckland.

Unlike some of the camping grounds my wife and I have stayed in over the past few days, this one is unmistakeably Kiwi. It’s not flash but it’s friendly and it has all the essentials.
Most of our fellow campers are tradies who have done well and bought caravans and boats. Dogs are permitted in the camping ground and behave themselves impeccably, with the exception of the camping ground owner’s one-eyed border collie, which runs in front of the camp’s maintenance ute barking furiously and trying to bite the tyres.

The maintenance man tells me the dog does this only with the camp’s own vehicles, never the guests’, so I suppose it’s okay.
Anyway, all this is by way of a long-winded pre-amble. Get to the point, I hear you say.

Well, I was in the camp kitchen this morning washing the breakfast dishes, and through an opening in the wall I could see the TV set in the adjoining lounge. The TV was on and although I couldn’t hear what was being said, I could see that the scenes were from Christchurch.
Because we’d been on the road for several days, it was the first TV coverage I had seen of the massacre and its aftermath. I assumed it was one of the local channels recapping last week’s events, but then I saw the Al Jazeera logo at the bottom of the screen.

I saw armed police in the streets of Christchurch. I saw Jacinda Ardern speaking with her familiar signer for the deaf at her side. I saw floral tributes to the dead piled high under a banner that said, among other things, “Kia Kaha” – stay strong.
Overseas viewers must have wondered what it meant. We know, of course, and on seeing those words on the screen I felt a sudden surge of emotion. It was a forceful reminder that this terrible thing had happened right here.

I was reminded of something my wife said on the night of the shootings as we sat in our caravan listening to radio news coverage. “This is something that happens somewhere else,” she said.
Well, New Zealand has become that somewhere else. It’s no longer possible to delude ourselves that we are somehow magically insulated against the evil we see reported nightly on the TV news from other places.

For 48 hours, we were the centre of world attention, and not in a good way. On the night following the massacre I streamed Newshour from the BBC World Service. It was almost entirely taken up by Christchurch.
Now call me perverse if you like, but I felt proud listening to the BBC’s coverage. Proud at the actions of my fellow New Zealanders who saw what was happening on Deans Avenue and stopped to help the victims, regardless of threats to their own safety. Proud at the many New Zealanders interviewed by the BBC who insisted they wouldn’t allow this catastrophe to change the way we are. And proud, too, that so many commentators overseas shared our own astonishment that this could happen in New Zealand, of all places – a country universally acknowledged as tolerant, open and respectful of human rights.

It’s not the terrible event that defines us, but how we respond.
And as I look out over Long Bay, where the tide is starting to come in and the boaties are backing their trailers down the launching ramp and the demented one-eyed border collie has just tried to round up a flock of seagulls, I’m reminded again of what we value about living in New Zealand and why so many people from troubled countries want to come here. It takes a lot more than a single terrible event to change that.

Friday, March 8, 2019

2018: the year of white noise

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, March 7.)

It’s said that when someone once asked the Chinese communist leader Zhou Enlai about the impact of the French Revolution, he replied that it was too soon to say.

This was in the 1970s, nearly 200 years after the event.

The message from this is that historical patterns emerge slowly and it’s unwise to draw conclusions too soon. Nonetheless I’m going to stick my neck out and predict that 2018 will be recorded as the year when New Zealand was irrevocably drawn into the so-called culture wars – the global contest between neo-Marxists, who view Western civilisation as rotten and oppressive, and the upholders of traditional mainstream values and beliefs.  

Consider the following:

It was the year when we had to acquire a new vocabulary to encompass previously unimagined variations of sexuality and gender identity. (I’ve learned that I’m “cisgender”, which means I identify with the gender “assigned” to me at birth, presumably on the flimsy basis that I had male organs.)

We became familiar with the word “transphobic”, for anyone who doesn’t unquestioningly comply with the agenda of transgender activists, and we learned a strange new adjective, “woke”, which denotes someone who has an ideologically correct line on issues such as gender politics, race and class oppression.

It was a year when we were encouraged to believe that far from being biologically determined, gender is a mere social construct, and that we should discard gender-specific pronouns such as “he” and “she” because they are tools of oppression.

It was the year when anyone who dared to dissent from the “woke” consensus on issues such as gender identity, multiculturalism and climate change risked being branded as a far-Right extremist and howled down.

It was the year when the sheer volume of white noise from a tiny but shrill minority of neo-Marxists almost succeeded in dominating the public conversation.

It was the year when the polarising effect of social media was magnified by algorithms that pushed people into extreme positions on both the Left and Right, to the extent that the centre-ground sometimes seemed almost to vanish from sight.

It was a year when universities, which were once places of edgy ideas and intellectual cut and thrust, slipped further into a state of rigid dogmatic conformity.

It was a year when free speech came under sustained attack, but in a highly selective way. Free speech was permissible if you belonged to an aggrieved minority, but not for anyone defending what might be called mainstream values. Then it became hate speech.

It was the year when people in positions of authority who should defend freedom of speech, such as Auckland mayor Phil Goff and Massey University vice-chancellor Jan Thomas, tried to prevent New Zealanders from being exposed to ideas that they decided were harmful.

It was the year when a biological accident of birth became the new Original Sin; when anyone who was white, middle-class and heterosexual, women as well as men, was deemed to occupy a position of privilege that disqualified them from expressing an opinion on anything.

It was a year in which that notion of “privilege” became ever broader, even to the extent that thin people were attacked for oppressing those who are overweight.

It was a year in which the once-honourable word “liberal” continued to be used, without a trace of irony, to describe people whose intolerance of differing opinions is the very opposite of liberalism.

It was the year when the New Zealand Left fractured in fascinating ways as the “old” far Left, which still believes in free speech, turned against the precious neo-Marxist Left which insists on the right not to be offended; and when hard-core feminists, who were accustomed to being at the cutting edge of sexual politics, suddenly found themselves in the unfamiliar position of being labelled as oppressors by the transgender lobby. 

It was the year when anyone rash enough to express even mild scepticism about climate change was equated with the denialists who insist there was no Holocaust. And it was the year when we learned of a phenomenon called presentism, which seeks to deny history by erasing all reminders of our past that don’t align with 21st century moral judgments.

The good news is that the vast majority of New Zealanders, not being susceptible to bizarre political extremes, remained largely untouched by the ideological wars raging around them. If they’re aware of them, their attitude is probably one of mild bemusement at the absurdity of it all.

But the not-so-good news is that while those ordinary New Zealanders get on with their lives, neo-Marxists are seeking to reshape society in profound ways, and they have the ear of the political elites.  Zhou Enlai would have found it fascinating.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Three white males despised by the left-wing commentariat

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and, March 6.)

Donald Trump. George Pell. Benjamin Netanyahu.

On the face of things, three men with not a lot in common other than that they are all white males who are (or were until recently, in Pell’s case) in positions of power.

That alone, of course, is enough to condemn them in a world where white male privilege has been identified – excuse me while I take my tongue out of my cheek – as the root cause of all oppression and suffering.

But these men share the additional distinction of being the three world figures most loathed by the Left-leaning elites that dominate the public conversation. North Korea's despotic Kim Jong Un? Venezuela’s lethally incompetent Maduro? Syria’s genocidal al-Assad? Not even in the race.

Let’s take Trump first. Last week his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, testified before the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform. 

The media hung on every word and would have been bitterly disappointed that Cohen failed to confirm suspicions that Trump had colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Never mind; the media eagerly lapped up Cohen’s other damning assertions about Trump’s character, apparently forgetting that only months ago the same Michael Cohen had been portrayed in the same media as a man who couldn’t lie straight in bed.

Is Trump a crook? On the balance of the evidence, the answer is almost certainly yes. His every action and statement suggests he’s a man with the integrity of a cockroach. Yet there’s something disturbing about the way once-reputable news organisations have abandoned all pretence of balance and objectivity in the way they report him.

I listen most days to America’s National Public Radio. I'm a great fan except for one thing: it’s  obsessed with Trump and spends endless hours analysing his iniquities. 

You would never guess, listening to NPR or reading the Washington Post, that Trump currently has an approval rating of 44 per cent – hardly stratospheric, but no disgrace either. Ronald Reagan, generally considered one of the most popular occupants of the White House, enjoyed only 40 per cent approval at the same point in his presidency.

As puzzling as it may seem to us, many Americans like what Trump’s doing. The US economy has surged during his presidency and unemployment is the lowest it has been for decades, but this is either ignored or played down in most of the media.

There’s something not right here. The American media are supposed to reflect the mood of the nation, but they invite the accusation that they are elitist and out of touch. Many Americans no longer feel they can trust their newspapers and broadcasting organisations – a fact Trump is happy to exploit.

Now, Cardinal Pell. Did he sexually molest two choir boys in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne? A jury decided he did, but at an earlier trial on the same charges, a different jury had voted 10-2 to acquit him. He was convicted the second time after a retrial. Other charges against him had previously been dismissed.

The Australian media decided early in the piece that Pell was a molester. He wasn’t helped by the fact that he’s an ecclesiastical conservative, which wouldn’t have endeared him to the liberal media, and neither did he do himself any favours by conveying the impression of being cold, aloof and unsympathetic to the victims of abuse.

The case is being appealed, but in the meantime it’s reasonable to ask whether a fair and impartial verdict was possible against a backdrop of public outrage – entirely justified – over the epidemic of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

The trial took place amid such a climate of public revulsion and media condemnation that it’s hard to imagine jurors not being influenced. The appeal judges will have the last word on whether Pell is guilty, but no one can rule out the possibility that he has been made a scapegoat for grotesque perversions perpetrated by others.

Finally, Netanyahu. The tough Israeli prime minister is facing corruption charges and most commentators can barely conceal their delight.

You can see why he’s not liked. More than once, I’ve seen Netanyahu coolly demolish smug, condescending TV interviewers who thought they could skewer him over Palestine.

Granted, Netanyahu is probably not a nice man, but effective leaders are often imperfect human beings. The sainted John F Kennedy, to take an obvious example, was an alley cat and a voracious sexual predator. Winston Churchill saved Britain from Nazism but he was coldly ruthless when it suited him.

Netanyahu may be a crook, for all I know, but I suspect that if I were an Israeli, surrounded by hostile forces wanting to kill me, I would be reassured by having him as prime minister.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Nelson and its magical-sounding place names

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, February 21.)

If the recent Nelson fires hadn’t caused such massive disruption and economic pain, they would have been a public relations master-stroke.

Think about it. What other part of New Zealand is endowed with such evocative place names as Teapot Valley, Appleby and Pigeon Valley? Thanks to the fires, the world now knows of these magical-sounding locations.

And that’s just the start. People familiar with the region - as I am, having lived there for four happy years in the 1980s - could rattle off plenty of other charming Nelson place names: Orinoco, Dovedale, Foxhill, Ruby Bay and Spring Grove, for example.

Or how about Aniseed Valley, Woodstock, Dun Mountain, Brightwater, Fringe Hill, Neudorf, Golden Downs and Haulashore Island?

Tolkien himself could hardly have done better. Who wouldn’t want to check out such localities for themselves and see first-hand the qualities that inspired the early European settlers to take poetic flight?

Nelson stands in stark contrast to the utilitarian place names otherwise bequeathed to us by our stolid, unimaginative forebears. Northland, Southland and Westland speak of a colonial society that valued dull functionality over euphony. But study a map of the Nelson region, and you could swear someone flitted across the landscape in the 19th century scattering pretty names like fairy dust.

And the marvel is that many Nelson localities live up to the scenic promise of their names, as TV viewers would have appreciated during the Tasman fires as they saw journalists reporting against an idyllic backdrop of gentle, wooded hills.

It wouldn’t surprise me, then, if one incongruous consequence of the Tasman fires is an increase in tourism – because once the last embers are extinguished, New Zealanders who have never previously thought to visit Nelson might well be motivated to remedy that deficit. And so they should, because it’s a matter of shame that Nelson seems to attract more visitors from overseas than from our own country.

Those who make the trip will discover that Nelson has a slightly other-worldly quality which has long attracted people seeking an escape from the rat race. I had uncles who moved there in the post-war years for exactly that reason. 

This appeal can probably be attributed, at least in part, to Nelson’s isolation. From every direction, you have to cross physical barriers to get there. And as with Gisborne, another charming city that’s hard to reach, you don’t pass through Nelson to get anywhere else. You go there for its own sake or not at all.

All this gives it a distinctive character that was even more noticeable when I worked for what was then the Nelson Evening Mail. I likened life in Nelson then to living in a warm bath. It was comfortable, soothing and not too challenging – an impression reinforced by the benign climate.

Inevitably, all this bred a certain insularity – you might even say smugness – on the part of Nelsonians. It was possible to live in Nelson and be largely unaware that the rest of the world existed.
All provincial papers subsisted on local news, but the Evening Mail more than most. If it didn’t happen in Nelson (sporting events excepted), it didn’t happen.

Minor local issues excited far greater passion than anything on the national stage. So unworldly was Nelson that when Pizza Hut proposed to open a local outlet, there were restive stirrings from citizens fearing … well, I’m not sure what. It was just that an American-owned pizza chain was outside Nelson’s realm of experience, and therefore something to be viewed with deep suspicion.

In many ways Nelson then was still like a large country town. Despite its reputation as a haven for hippies, stoners and alternative lifestylers, at heart it was representative of the conservative New Zealand provincial rump.

It’s very different now. By comparison with the 1980s, Nelson today is cosmopolitan and sophisticated. Its population has almost doubled since the 1970s, with consequential effects on house prices, and people complain about the traffic. 

But back to those place names. In Nelson, even some of the suburbs have charming names: The Wood, The Brook, Annesbrook and Enner Glynn. And what other city has a downtown carpark called Millers Acre, which sounds like something out of A A Milne?

Even where the European settlers adopted Maori place names – such as Mahana, which means warmth – they chose ones which conveyed a sense of pleasantness and wellbeing.

The origins of some Nelson place names appear lost to history. Peter Dowling’s book Place Names of New Zealand isn’t able to explain, for example, why someone named a settlement in the Motueka Valley after a South American river. But hey, who wouldn’t want to live in a place called Orinoco?

Oh, and did I mention Rainy River, the Shaggery (it’s not what you think), Oyster Island, Teal Valley, Delaware Bay and The Glen?

On the Pope's statement about clerical sexual abuse

It's funny how humbug in Italian still sounds like humbug.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Cultural appropriation is one of the means by which civilisation progresses

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and, February 20).

Complaints about cultural appropriation are a bit like earthquakes and outbursts of hysteria on social media. It’s only a matter of time before the next one comes along.

On Waitangi Day, Radio New Zealand broadcast an interview with expatriate New Zealand journalist Denise Garland, who was concerned about British breweries using Maori names and imagery to promote their beers.

New Zealand beer and hops were increasingly popular overseas and breweries naturally wanted to use New Zealand themes in their advertising, she said, but some “crossed the line between respect and offence”.

Only weeks before, controversy had arisen over an award-winning cheese called Tuteremoana Cheddar, which is produced by Fonterra subsidiary company Kapiti Cheese and takes its name from the highest point on Kapiti Island. 

Tuteremoana was also the name of a high chief who once lived on Kapiti, and Maori trademarks advisor Karaitiana Taiuru said putting his name on a food product was insulting to Tuteremoana and his descendants. In customary terms, it meant that people were eating him.

Taiuru, it turns out, has also been in touch with some of the British brewers mentioned by Garland. In all cases, it seems, the breweries were apologetic and responded by withdrawing the offending promotional material. They obviously had no wish to be disrespectful.

Similarly, although the Tuteremoana brand had been around without controversy for 10 years, Fonterra said it would review the use of Maori names in its branding and consult with iwi to make sure such use was “respectful”.

Clearly, this thing called cultural appropriation has become a minefield for image-conscious companies and their risk-averse PR advisors.  Even the mighty Disney empire buckled when complaints were made about the use of tattoos on kids’ costumes marketed to promote the movie Moana.

We can attribute this trend to the phenomenon known as identity politics, which brings with it a heightened sense of exclusive proprietorship over the symbols and traditions of specific cultures.

But as Garland acknowledged on Radio New Zealand, Maori culture is respected internationally. Attempts to mimic it appear to be driven by admiration rather than any desire to mock it. Shouldn’t that count for something?

As a country, we use Maori culture to promote our tourism industry. A Maori symbol, the koru, adorns the planes of our national airline. The haka is a ritual that precedes every All Blacks game.

This could all be seen as cultural appropriation, but no one seems to mind. At what point, then, does it become offensive? Where is the line to be drawn between what’s acceptable and what’s not?

A starting point, perhaps, is where there’s a clear intention to demean Maori culture. But even then, some wiggle room must be allowed for satire and free speech.

And here’s another thing. Guardians of Maori culture often give the impression that all things Maori are off-limits. But what’s striking about complaints of cultural appropriation in the Maori context is that they flow only one way.

Maori are free to borrow from other cultures, as they have enthusiastically done since their first contact with Europeans, yet they seem to expect their own culture to be treated as sacrosanct. Is that fair or consistent?

Maori eat food, play sports and wear clothing that were brought to New Zealand from other countries. They have become masterful exponents of reggae music, which comes from Jamaica.

Nobody objects, and neither should they, because every culture on earth has borrowed, stolen and adapted ideas from others since the dawn of time. That’s how civilisation progresses.

Virtually everything we do – the books we read, the ideas we adopt, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the language we use, the songs we sing and the religions we follow – came from somewhere else.

The Irish don’t seem too bothered, for example, that virtually the entire Western world has seized on St Patrick’s Day as an excuse for drinking, partying and indulging in over-the-top demonstrations of supposed Irishness, regardless of whether the revellers have Hibernian roots.

The idea that Maori culture must be fenced off or exempted from this rich global cross-fertilisation is wrong as well as futile, as is the notion that we can somehow raise the drawbridge and retreat into our individual cultural bunkers. 

In the case of Tuteremoana cheese, there’s an additional issue. This is the 21st century, and while cultural traditions are generally entitled to respect, there’s a point at which they should be dismissed as primitive superstition.

If the descendants of Tuteremoana want to believe they’re devouring their ancestor if they eat the cheese that bears his name, that’s fine, but they can’t expect the rest of us to go along with it. That would be like Christians insisting that everyone must believe in the virgin birth.