Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Daihatsu society with BMW pretensions

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, September 28.)

SEAN Plunket wrote a thoughtful column in this paper last Saturday in which he contrasted the media coverage given to two events in Auckland: one a conference on offshore petroleum prospects, the other the annual Fashion Week extravaganza.

One event was about New Zealand’s economic future. The other was about frippery, goody bags and celebrities most of us have never heard of. Guess which event got more attention.

There is a much bigger issue here. The New Zealand economy is a crock. We haven’t paid our own way in the world – by that I mean earned more than we spent – since 1973. Our leaders talk optimistically about catching up with other OECD countries, notably Australia, but we’re steadily slipping further behind. Yet we continue to live as if in a fantasy world where we can afford to pamper ourselves with every self-indulgent excess that the consumerist economy dangles in front of us.

We consider it our right to enjoy a standard of living that our parents would never have dared dream of (even though, paradoxically, the country was far more wealthy in their time than it is now). We want to dine in the trendiest restaurants, drink the finest wines, holiday in the most exotic locations and live in the most lavish homes, but we don't want to vex ourselves wondering whether the economy is prosperous enough to sustain this lifestyle.

A whole new genre of “aspirational” magazines fosters a sense of entitlement. These glossies, along with a slew of hedonistic TV shows, are devoted to the proposition that we should imagine ourselves driving the finest European cars, living in houses created by the most fashionable architects and wearing whatever designer-label clothes are currently deemed de rigueur.

We have even created our own faux celebrity culture to promote the idea that we are sophisticated, cosmopolitan, racy and prosperous. Auckland’s Viaduct Basin is our pathetic little pretend Riviera, where frou-frou types guzzle Mo√ęt (though they can’t pronounce it) and jostle to get their pictures taken for the social pages.

Problem is, our wheezing economy cannot sustain such delusions. We are a Daihatsu society with BMW pretensions.

The ancient Romans had a phrase for all this: panem et circenses, or bread and circuses – the buying-off of the populace with showy distractions to keep their minds off more important matters. The difference is that in modern New Zealand, we don’t wait for our leaders to supply the bread and circuses. We do it ourselves.

* * *

HOW SAD that the New Zealand Federation of Islamic Associations is insisting on an apology from Building Minister Maurice Williamson for his after-dinner joke about Muslims and stoning.

It’s plain that no harm was meant. That should be the sole test of whether Mr Williamson should apologise.

But there’s more to it than that. Many Muslim immigrants come from repressive, authoritarian states, and it seems reasonable to assume that one of the factors that attracts them here is our reputation as a liberal democracy.

Free speech is a fundamental tenet of liberal western democracies, and freedom of speech includes the right to upset others. It’s a tradition without which free and open societies simply couldn’t function. (This newspaper wouldn’t exist, for a start.)

Muslims must accept that this is the way we operate. Free speech is part of the price they pay to live in a country that enjoys an unparalleled reputation for freedom and human rights. When they come here, they buy the package.

They should also come to terms with the idiosyncratic New Zealand sense of humour, which holds nothing sacred but is hardly ever malicious.

Perhaps most important of all, Muslims should realise that nothing is more likely to arouse resentment against them than the perception that having migrated here, they now insist on us modifying our behaviour to suit them.

* * *

I AM no fan of the Pope, nor of the creaking ecclesiastical bureaucracy that he represents, but I thought the British media allowed its anti-Catholic bias to get in the way of fairness and balance in its coverage of the recent papal visit.

Stories in advance of the visit were overwhelmingly negative. Anti-Catholic feeling remains strong in Britain, and nowhere more so than in the aggressively secular media. Most journalists in the liberal press clearly wanted the visit to fail, and did their best to ensure that outcome by focusing relentlessly on the clerical abuse scandal and playing up planned protests.

They must have been bitterly disappointed that after all their hard work, the visit seems to gone off quite successfully.

The media bias was evident in the coverage of a comment by Cardinal Walter Kasper which touched off a firestorm the day before the Pope touched down. Kasper, a high-ranking papal aide, was quoted as describing Britain as a “Third World” country. Cue the predictable howls of outrage.

But when you read Kasper’s comment in context, it wasn’t the bald, sweeping statement that the media made it out to be. What he said was: “When you land at Heathrow you at times think you are in a Third World country”. Anyone who has been to London in the past 20 years, and seen what a polyglot society it has become, would know exactly what he was talking about. He wasn’t comparing Britain to Bangladesh or Zimbabwe.

A Vatican spokesman said the cardinal was making a point about Britain’s cultural diversity. He might have chosen his words more sensitively – Catholic prelates are not noted for their PR skills – but it was hardly the insult the hostile British media made it out to be.

The papal visit also provided an excuse for a fresh outbreak of Acute Sensitivity Disorder, a condition first identified in this column some months ago.

Pope Benedict said in a speech that Britain had stood against “Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society”. It’s hard to see how anyone could take offence at that – but no, the Humanist Society of Scotland decided it was a slight against atheists; that the Pope was comparing non-believers with Nazis.

“The notion that it was the atheism of Nazis that led to their extremist and hateful views or that somehow fuels intolerance in Britain today is a terrible libel against those who do not believe in God,” a press statement spluttered.

Now there’s a breathtaking non sequitur for you. Clearly the Scottish atheists weren’t going to let a papal visit pass without seizing the opportunity to make idiots of themselves.