Thursday, December 24, 2009

One in the eye for the New Wowsers

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, December 22.)

I WAS DELIGHTED to read that more than 3000 motorists were stopped last Friday at a police checkpoint between Palmerston North and Wanganui and not one was over the legal alcohol limit.

This isn’t just good news for road safety – it’s also one in the eye for latter-day wowsers who want to convince us that New Zealand is a nation of helpless drunks, and that only a draconian rewriting of the liquor laws can save us from our own folly and fecklessness.

The New Wowsers have their tails up at the moment because they sense that the public, caught up in a moral panic over binge drinking and alcohol-related crime, will be receptive to a puritanical backlash against liquor consumption.

They are skilled in the selective use of statistics which paint a picture of a country gripped by alcohol addiction. One of their favourite claims is that 700,000 New Zealanders are “heavy drinkers”, based on World Health Organisation criteria.

But they ignore inconvenient statistics that show we are drinking slightly less alcohol per head than we did 30 years ago, and that New Zealand is ranked only 28th out of 190 countries (many of which ban alcohol altogether) for per capita alcohol consumption – well behind Germany, Britain, France, Switzerland and Denmark.

Even using the New Wowsers’ own criteria, the percentage of “potentially hazardous” drinkers has remained stable since 1996, despite the recent teenage binge drinking phenomenon.

The New Wowsers don’t want to acknowledge that alcohol abuse is confined to a relatively small – if highly visible – minority, and that most New Zealanders are moderate and responsible drinkers. And they can’t see, or don’t want to see, that our social drinking habits are vastly more civilised than they were before the liberal reforms of the 1980s and 90s. Cheers.

* * *

THE RUCKUS over the Mary and Joseph billboard outside Auckland’s St Matthew in the City Church reflected little credit on anyone.

On the one hand, we had a liberal Anglican clergyman eager to appear edgy and provocative in an attempt to make his church seem relevant, even knowing (as he must have) that the image of Joseph and Mary naked in bed and the caption – “Poor Joseph. God was a hard act to follow” – was bound to antagonise countless devout Christians.

On the other, we had cranky, wrathful Christian extremists who responded as if on cue, taking it upon themselves to defend God’s honour by attacking the billboard, first with a paintbrush and then, when the paint-splattered one was replaced, with a knife.

In the background, meanwhile, lurked M and C Saatchi, the advertising agency that created the billboard and doubtless rejoiced at all the publicity. This is the sort of attention-getting mischief that ad agencies excel at, and Saatchis must have congratulated themselves on Christmas arriving a week early.

All this played out as predictably as if it had been scripted.

But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the controversy is that the righteous Christians who attacked the billboard apparently believed that a weak and vulnerable God needed their protection against such blasphemy. It doesn’t appear to have occurred to them that a religion that has withstood persecution and oppression from ancient Rome to communist China might be robust enough to withstand this latest slight without their help.

If I were God, I think I would have been more insulted by their intervention than by the billboard.

* * *

WHO IN their right mind would schedule a major outdoor event in New Zealand during spring? It’s the season of equinoctial gales, when the weather is at its most unsettled and much of the country takes a battering from relentless nor’westerlies.

Wellington, especially, is at its worst in spring, a season of blustering, energy-sapping winds and oppressive, leaden skies that hang around for weeks.

What’s more, as all New Zealanders know, spring usually lasts till January. It isn’t until February that we start to enjoy a proper summer, and the really settled weather comes later again, in March and April. Yet event organisers repeatedly gamble on getting fine weather when the odds are against it.

The vagaries of the New Zealand spring have been amply demonstrated over the past few weeks with a succession of events – cricket tests, air shows, wine festivals and outdoor concerts – disrupted or cancelled because of foul weather. All par for the course.

Why, then, was the 2011 Rugby World Cup scheduled for September – the month when the annual meteorological mayhem starts? If we wanted visitors to get the worst possible impression of New Zealand, we couldn’t have chosen a better time.

The only possible conclusion is that the timing, like everything else in rugby, was dictated by the all-powerful broadcasters.

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