Friday, May 17, 2019

Some more thoughts on the Folau furore

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, May 16.)

Something’s not quite right here. The 21st century buzzwords are diversity and inclusivity, but they seem to be applied very selectively.

It seems we’re in favour of diversity and inclusivity if we’re talking about race, colour, gender and sexual identity, the latter two of which keep spinning off into ever-new permutations. But puzzlingly, we’re only partially tolerant when it comes to religious belief.

We are encouraged to be tolerant toward Islam, especially since the Christchurch massacres, and so we should be. The right to practise one’s religion, at least unless it interferes with the rights of others, is one we should all unquestioningly support.

This applies even when secular society disapproves of some of those religions, or scratches its collective head in bemusement at their practices and beliefs.

But if freedom of religion is one cornerstone of a free society, so is freedom of expression, which includes the right to subject religion, along with every other institution of society, to critical scrutiny and even ridicule.

Virtually all religions – whether we’re talking Catholicism, Mormonism, Judaism, the Destiny Church or the Exclusive Brethren – possess what, to non-believers, are quirks, absurdities, hypocrisies and cruelties that render them ripe for mockery and condemnation.

For decades, comedians and satirists have taken joyous, blasphemous advantage of this freedom. How people laughed, for example, at Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, with its wickedly subversive song Every Sperm is Sacred – a dig at Catholic teaching on birth control.

If it offended devout Catholics – well, tough. Freedom to ridicule is the flipside of freedom to worship.

Mainstream Christianity is still considered fair game by comedians and satirists, and no one bats an eyelid. But somehow, Islam seems to be off-limits. Even a cool, reasoned criticism of Islam is likely to excite accusations of Islamophobia.

The champions of diversity don’t seem to grasp that you can abhor the grotesque atrocities perpetrated by Islamic fanatics while simultaneously defending the right of peaceful, law-abiding Muslims, such as those in Christchurch, to practise their religion.

There’s no contradiction here. It’s only when criticism of religion escalates into incitement to hostility or violence that it becomes unacceptable.

Neither do the defenders of Islam seem to realise that by denouncing all criticism of Islam as Islamophobic, they give the impression of condoning a religion that, in its extreme forms, thinks it’s okay to stone homosexuals, apostates and adulterers to death.

All of which leads us neatly to Israel Folau, who condemned atheists, drunks, homosexuals and fornicators with equal vehemence, but seems to have been pilloried solely for his statement that gays will go to Hell.

The first point to be made about the Folau hysteria is that it was avoidable by the simple expedient of ignoring him. The people who have so energetically helped to spread Folau’s message are those who insist he should have kept his supposedly hateful opinions to himself.

I’ve been searching for the logic there, but so far it eludes me.

Equally perplexing is that while Folau’s detractors would scoff at the very idea that such a place as Hell exists, they apparently took his Instagram post seriously enough to whip themselves into a frenzy of outrage.

They could have smiled indulgently and let Folau’s post go unremarked, but that would have been too hard for the social media trolls who swarm around in cyberspace looking for things to get furious about.  It would also have meant passing up a chance to mount an attack on conservative Christianity, when obviously the opportunity was just too good to ignore.

So much for diversity and inclusivity, then. The attacks on Folau by people who profess to embrace difference are as fine a combination of sanctimony and vindictiveness as you’re ever likely to see. And it goes beyond mere criticism, because the purpose is to punish him.

If we truly believed in diversity and inclusiveness, we would accept Folau as part of humanity’s rich and varied tapestry, even if we don’t agree with him. Media bores like Peter FitzSimons, who has built a career out of being the Wallaby hard man who was really, all along, a sensitive liberal, would have to find something else to moralise about.

We would also acknowledge that Folau wasn’t trying to incite hatred against anyone. He was acting according to his Christian conscience, which calls him to save sinners.What’s more, his views are shared by many Pasifika people, and not long ago would have been considered unremarkable in mainstream society.

They are taken, after all, from the New Testament, which forms the basis for much of Western civilisation's moral and judicial framework. Perhaps that's the real target here, and the Folau furore just an appetiser.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

A journey rich in nostalgia

(First published in Stuff regional papers and on, May 15.) 

One definition of a pilgrimage is “any journey taken for nostalgic or sentimental reasons”. Well, I recently went on just such a pilgrimage.

It took me to the Coromandel. Note that I say “the” Coromandel, so as to distinguish the region from the town of the same name.

My pilgrimage satisfied the dictionary definition, being a journey that was heavily tinged with nostalgia. I was last in the Coromandel about 30 years ago, but my most enduring memories of the place date back to the early 1960s, when my parents got the camping bug.

On our first camping trip in 1960, when I was nine, we explored the East Cape. We set out from our home in Hawke’s Bay in a mini-convoy, Dad with some of the family in our old Austin 16, towing a trailer laden with gear, and the rest of us tagging along in my brother’s 1937 Chev. I was the youngest.

The following summer we were more ambitious, venturing further afield to the Coromandel. In 1962, we took advantage of the new Cook Strait ferry service to head to Nelson and on to Totaranui, in Abel Tasman National Park. We were usually joined on these trips by cousins, uncles and aunties.

But it was the Coromandel Peninsula, with its pristine sandy beaches, bush-covered headlands and mangrove inlets, that became our favourite destination.

My parents generally eschewed established camping grounds, preferring to seek out relatively untouched places, always by the sea. At Whangapoua, on the east coast of the peninsula, we first camped on the Denize family’s farm. In subsequent years we pitched our tent (an old-fashioned square one, the only type you could get then, with no floor and a heavy wooden centre pole) in a sheltered hollow amid kanuka trees at the southern end of Whangapoua Beach.

The beach was a 30-second walk away through the dunes and Whangapoua Harbour, where we fished from the jetty, was reached via a track that led across a headland covered in pohutukawa trees.

Conditions were primitive. We cooked on the fire or on an old camping stove and we hauled water from the creek. Dad dug a long-drop dunny and we hung a safe from a tree to keep the food from getting fly-blown. We relied on the sea to keep us clean and about once a week we would take the tortuous metal road to Coromandel town for supplies.

It was much the same at Ohui, further south. There we camped on land owned by a Maori farming family, the McGregors. Our campsite was under an enormous karaka tree by a ford.

I remember when one wheel of my mother’s tiny Fiat 500 (we had acquired an extra car by then) slipped into a ditch outside the McGregors’ farmhouse. A giant of a man – or so it seemed to me at the time – emerged from the house and without a word, effortlessly lifted the car back onto the track that passed for a road.

My memory of how we spent our time on those holidays is hazy. We swam a lot and we sunbathed. We went fishing and we read. At nights Mum and Dad and any other adults present would play Scrabble by the light of a Coleman lamp.

There was a lot of laughter and a lot of singing, accompanied by a ukulele which was ideal because it didn’t take up much space in the car. Sad Movies was a favourite song one summer, and I remember my mother and her sister Winifred singing a popular song from their youth: I Was Seeing Nellie Home. I can't hear it these days without getting a bit teary.

I don’t recall it ever raining, but I’m sure it did.

It won’t surprise anyone to hear that it’s all very different in 2019. Whangapoua is still a magnificent beach – nothing can change that – but the land was subdivided decades ago. It’s all built up now and there’s a big general store-cum-cafĂ© where you can get things we’d never heard of in the 60s, such as lattĂ© and pains aux raisins.

At Ohui I went looking for our old campsite but couldn’t recognise anything. What was once farmland is now subdivided into lifestyle blocks and covered in mature trees, exotics as well as native. Every narrow metal road ended in a sign that said “Private”. But you can still reach the beach via a public walking track and like Whangapoua, it’s still breathtakingly pretty. The day we were there, someone was having a wedding in the dunes.

Ohui remains relatively unspoiled, but everywhere else we went – Whangapoua, Hahei, Tairua, Kuaotunu, Whitianga, Coromandel town itself – the Auckland Effect was evident in the extraordinary proliferation of opulent homes, most of them vacant for 11 months of the year. It’s a display of affluence to rival the most fashionable parts of California.

Roads that were glorified goat tracks in 1961 – Uncle Bert’s Morris Minor barely got over the hill at Kuaotunu – are now wide and smooth. They have to be, to accommodate all the European tourists in their camper vans.

But it’s still a sublimely beautiful place, and not even the sight of a massive hilltop mansion with its own helipad at Whangapoua can erase memories of a time when things were different.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Seven Sharp and its "Bonjela hell" story

I don’t normally watch Seven Sharp. Somehow I don’t get the feeling I’m likely to miss anything important by not seeing it. But last night, for some reason, I found myself watching its opening item about a baby girl who reportedly almost died from an overdose of Bonjela.

That’s right, Bonjela – that popular gel people use for mouth ulcers and for soothing babies’ gums during teething.

Interviewed by Hilary Barry and Jeremy Wells, the parents cuddled their now-healthy baby as they explained how she was rushed to Starship Hospital after reacting adversely to the product. They said they were within minutes of losing her.

“Bonjela hell,” Wells called it, suggesting a promising future as a tabloid headline writer if he ever tires of television. Barry oozed empathy. “What a terrible ordeal,” she cooed.

The mother explained that they’d given the baby Bonjela and paracetamol because she was experiencing severe teething pain and the Bonjela seemed to soothe her. She said they had been in touch with health professionals who knew what they were doing.

How much Bonjela? “Quite a lot over a few days,” said the mother. “Over a 24-hour period, close to a tube.”

As it happens, we had a near-new tube of Bonjela in our bathroom. We’d used it only last week on our grandson’s gums. I went and got it.

The instructions on the tube say it should be applied no more than once every three hours and no more than six times over a 24-hour period. Then there’s a prominent warning in red letters: “Do not exceed the recommended dose. Excessive or prolonged use can be harmful.”

I would have thought that for a whole tube to be used over 24 hours was clearly far in excess of the recommended dose – in fact grossly excessive.

The instructions also say the gel shouldn’t be given to babies under four months. The baby in question was seven months old, but the warning can be taken as indicating that infants are at particular risk.

So you might think, in the circumstances, that the parents would have exercised a lot more caution. Yet I didn’t get the feeling they blamed themselves for what must have been a very scary experience.

However I’m not writing this to disparage them. You’d hope that they learned a lesson, even if they didn’t seem greatly troubled by self-doubt.

No, what appalled me was the absence of any journalistic rigour or integrity in the way Seven Sharp treated the item.

The hosts could have highlighted the warning on the tube (it was actually shown on screen at one point) and asked the parents whether they had bothered to read it – and if so, why they apparently chose to ignore it.

(At one point Wells even asked the parents: “Do you think Bonjela needs a warning?” FFS, there is a warning – it was right there on the programme, if he bothered to look.) 

They could have questioned the manufacturer of the product as to whether the warning was adequate,  or asked a health professional how the crisis could have been avoided (for example, by taking the novel step of following the instructions). They could have taken the elementary step of trying to find out whether other babies' lives  had been threatened by Bonjela (I think I know what the answer would have been).

But no. Instead, there was Barry simpering over the “adorable” baby (to be fair, she was very cute) and saying this was the sort of accident that happens when tired parents have to get up to distressed children in the middle of the night. I could almost hear thousands of parents chorusing: “No it’s not.” I mean, a whole bloody tube in 24 hours?

There was no balancing information, no expert opinion. Far easier to frame the item as (1) a tug on the heartstrings and (2) a scare story over a product that was portrayed as dangerous and irresponsible when it’s perfectly harmless, not to mention beneficial, when used as recommended - as most people obviously do.

I’ve since learned that Seven Sharp did interview a Ministry of Health doctor the previous week, when the case was first reported, and she was emphatic that Bonjela was safe provided parents followed the directions. But Seven Sharp shouldn’t assume that people would have seen that item, no matter how much they might like to think that New Zealanders religiously tune in to the show every night. It needed to be restated to provide some much-needed balance to last night’s overwrought item.

Whatever this was, it wasn’t journalism. I don’t think I’ll be tuning into Seven Sharp again in a hurry.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

My 10 favourite New Zealand songs, give or take three

Grant Harding wrote an editorial in my excellent local paper, the Wairarapa Times-Age, on Thursday marking the start of New Zealand Music Month. His reminiscences about the songs that had left a lasting impression on him reminded me that in an idle moment long ago, I began compiling a list of my own 10 favourite New Zealand records. I got only as far as seven, but for what it’s worth, here they are:

■ Tears (The Crocodiles)
■ Have You Heard a Man Cry (Corben Simpson)
■ E Ipo (Prince Tui Teka)
■ Outlook For Thursday (DD Smash)
■ Glad I’m Not A Kennedy (Shona Laing)
■ Time Makes A Wine (Ardijah)
■ I Hope I Never (Split Enz)

One of these days I might get around to deciding on the other three.

Friday, May 3, 2019

New Zealand, meet Paul Hunt - the man who will shape our human rights policy

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, May 2.)

We’ve finally been properly introduced to the man who will shape our human rights policy for the next few years, and who will almost certainly seek to tighten the boundaries around what New Zealanders can legally say.

British academic Paul Hunt was appointed as Chief Human Rights Commissioner last October but to my knowledge, hadn’t been wheeled out for public inspection until Kim Hill interviewed him on RNZ National last Saturday.

It wasn’t a reassuring interview. Hunt’s responses to Hill’s questions served only to confirm suspicions that he will push for tougher hate speech laws that could erode the right to freedom of expression.

He talked at length about wanting a respectful and inclusive debate about free speech, but at the end of the interview many listeners would have been left with the impression that he already had firm ideas about what the outcome should be.

Hunt failed to explain why the Christchurch mosque massacres had suddenly made it imperative that we review the laws governing speech. To put it another way, he didn’t satisfactorily answer Hill’s question about how tougher hate speech laws might have averted the atrocity.

The truth is that they almost certainly wouldn’t have. But the massacres gave human rights activists – and we can include Hunt in that category – a perfect opportunity to generate a moral panic. The objective is to stampede politicians into making changes for which there is no demonstrated need.

The push for tighter hate speech laws should be seen as an opportunistic and ideologically driven exploitation of a tragedy. The momentum is coming not from the Christchurch Muslim community, but from left-wing activists and a politicised, media-savvy faction of New Zealand Muslims who purport to speak for all their co-religionists.

As an aside, you might well wonder why the supposedly liberal Left so fervently champions the interests of a religion that, in its more dogmatic forms, oppresses women and persecutes homosexuals.

Equally contradictory is the neo-Marxist Left’s habit of condemning even the most reasoned criticism of Muslim practice and belief as Islamophobic, while simultaneously seizing every opportunity to deride Christianity (the name Israel Folau comes to mind). Don’t hold your breath waiting for the neo-Marxists to explain these inconsistencies.

But back to Hunt.  The question posed in my last column remains: is an English human rights careerist, albeit one who apparently also has New Zealand citizenship, the right person to be in charge of the Human Rights Commission?

Hunt comes from a political and cultural milieu far removed from ours. It grates when I see this newcomer writing about “our” multicultural values, or hear him telling Hill that “we” New Zealanders are very used to striking a balance between competing rights.

Securing a highly influential public position doesn’t make Hunt one of us. It doesn’t magically endow with him an intuitive knowledge of how New Zealand society functions.

On that note, readers may recall that I sought information from Justice Minister Andrew Little on the appointment process. Among other things, I asked who the other applicants were, who was on the interview panel and who made the final decision.

In his reply last week, Little declined to name the other contenders for the job on the basis that applications were made in confidence. Fair enough.

The panel that assessed the applicants consisted of Pauline Winter, former chief executive of the Ministry for Pacific Peoples, Sir John Clarke, former chief executive of the Ministry of Maori Affairs, and Al Morrison, then a deputy commissioner with the State Services Commission. 

Four candidates were interviewed and Hunt was judged to be the best suited to the job. Little accepted their recommendation.

I also asked Little whether the government was aware of Hunt’s involvement in British politics. (As disclosed in my last column, he was associated with the socialist Corbynite wing of the British Labour Party.) Little replied that he understood this came up in the interviews but was not identified as a conflict of interest or a disqualifying factor. Hmm.

Kim Hill homed in on this aspect too, and in particular, on Hunt’s support for Corbyn – a politician who has been widely and rightly condemned for condoning anti-Semitism. Hill wondered how this squared with Hunt’s championing of human rights. His answer could only be described as highly equivocal.

Oh, and an intriguing sidelight: Little’s letter revealed that Hunt’s appointment was made in line with a United Nations convention called the Paris Principles, which dictates how human rights commissioners should be appointed. New Zealand is a signatory so must comply.

You never heard of the Paris Principles? Me neither, and it raises an interesting question: what other binding UN agreements has New Zealand committed to without parliamentary debate or even public knowledge? So much for autonomy.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The warped moral values of the literary Left

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and, May 1.)

So, the revered James K Baxter turns out to have been a rapist.

A recently published book reveals that in a letter to a female friend in 1960, the sainted poet admitted forcing sex on his wife. He implied that she enjoyed it, noting that she seemed “10 times happier afterwards”. The tone seemed almost boastful.

That disclosure prompted a woman to divulge, in an article in Stuff’s Your Weekend magazine, that Baxter tried to have sex with her when she was a teenager at his commune at Jerusalem, on the Whanganui River.

He persisted despite her protestations. The only reason he didn’t complete the act was that he couldn’t get an erection.

She was 18. Baxter would have been in his 40s. The woman wrote that she was one of several female followers whom Baxter abused sexually. In his letters, he also casually mentioned impregnating “a girl in Auckland” who subsequently lost the baby. 

There is a parallel here with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, another counter-culture hero whose ashram became a mecca for his many celebrity followers, including the Beatles. A disgusted John Lennon wrote the song Sexy Sadie after the Maharishi made sexual advances toward Mia Farrow. 

I wonder what happens now. Will the New Zealand literary elite, who for decades have idolised and even mythologised Baxter, not only as a poet but as an inspirational cultural figure, quietly file him under D for deplorable?

After all, he doesn’t seem so different from the despised Harvey Weinstein and other celebrity male predators targeted by the Me Too movement. Yet the response to the rape disclosure has been distinctly low-key, which raises an interesting question: does a different standard apply when a sexual abuser is a bearded, barefoot poet as opposed to a Hollywood mogul?

Baxter is an iconic figure in New Zealand literature. He was also a spiritual guru to dozens of disillusioned and impressionable young New Zealanders who were drawn to his commune seeking meaning and direction in life.

He made much of his rejection of capitalism and materialism, his embrace of Catholic spirituality and his empathy with Maori. But I wonder how many vulnerable young women he hit on.

I met Baxter once or twice in the early 70s and can confirm that he certainly had a certain charisma, although it’s hard to imagine women finding him sexually attractive. He had long, lank, dirty hair and wore grubby op-shop clothes.

He didn’t look like a man who showered often, if at all. He possibly dismissed personal hygiene as a hang-up of the neurotic white middle classes. But he would hardly have been the first literary idol to imagine that he possessed some sort of sexual magnetism.

There are two striking things about the Baxter rape scandal. The first is the hypocrisy of it all; a man who paraded his humanitarianism and empathy with the underdog, sexually brutalising his wife and taking advantage of vulnerable young women who came to him seeking guidance.

The other is that although it’s shocking, it’s hardly unusual. There has never been any shortage of lionised males from the arts and literary worlds who combined a massive sense of sexual entitlement with apparent indifference toward the women they inflicted themselves on.

The glaring contradiction between this rampant male chauvinism and their professed embrace of sexual equality is rarely acknowledged, still less explored.

From the 1950s through till the 70s, the belief among the arty, left-wing elites was that all sex was liberating. Men not surprisingly took full advantage of this, often treating the women around them as sexual chattels. Their female acolytes played along, perhaps imagining that by doing so, they were showing their contempt for conventional bourgeois morality. 

This led to some truly grotesque behaviour – none more so than the recently revealed abuse suffered in the 70s by the two daughters of the Sydney novelist Dorothy Hewett. An author much admired by the Australian Left for her politically charged writing, Hewett encouraged her teenage girls to have sex with the men in her fashionable circle – among them the late Bob Ellis, a celebrity left-wing journalist and Labor Party speech writer.

Incredibly, when the two daughters wrote about their experiences many years later, they were savaged by their mother’s male contemporaries for damaging her reputation. Such is the warped values system of the literary Left.

Back here in New Zealand, a recent biography of Maurice Shadbolt by Philip Temple portrayed the acclaimed writer as a man whose treatment of women was so reprehensible that even some of his best friends abandoned him – although, to be fair, a woman of my acquaintance who knew Shadbolt told me that’s not how she remembers him.

In an interview with Kim Hill last year, Temple portrayed the New Zealand arts and literary scene of the 1960s and 70s as incestuous and promiscuous. The men slept around at will and the women, needless to say, humoured them. It all sounded sad rather than liberating, and certainly more seedy than sexy. 

Double standards, much? Yep, but there's nothing new under the sun.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Recommended reading

Juliet Moses has written a coolly rational but powerful piece highlighting the danger to democracy if people like Golriz Ghahraman are permitted to advance their hate speech agenda. Everyone should read it: