(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, November 6.)
TV3’s RECENT prime-time documentary on child poverty in New Zealand had exactly the intended effect. Viewers were aghast at the evidence of sub-standard housing and preventable illnesses such as scabies and school sores. Anguished writers of letters to the editor wondered how this state of affairs could have arisen in a country once considered the best in the world for raising children.
In one respect, the viewer reaction was encouraging. It was a reminder that we are still a decent, compassionate society.
The problem is, the programme represented a very one-sided view. Its message was that the welfare state has failed our poor – and so it has, but not in the way that documentary maker Bryan Bruce wanted us to think.
The welfare state is now part of the problem. Originally designed to tide people over hard times, it has created a culture of long-term dependency, helplessness and entitlement.
There is ample evidence that dependence on benefits, more than any other factor, causes the poverty trap that Bruce professes to despise. Yet the solution he proposes is more welfare spending.
The documentary ignored the risk that more spending on benefits and state housing would serve to make a welfare-based lifestyle look more attractive and end trapping up even more people.
Neither did Bruce concern himself with the inconvenient fact that more welfare spending increases the burden on the diminishing productive sector of an already weak economy.
Socialists never bother to ask where the money comes from; they are interested only in spending it. But consider this: New Zealand in 1972 had 26 working people for every beneficiary. Today that ratio is down to 7 to 1 (in fact 3 to 1, if you include superannuitants).
This was a disgracefully simplistic, emotionally manipulative programme, but fortunately not everyone was fooled. This newspaper published letters from people who had grown up in state houses and pointed out that the mould Bruce was so appalled by in some of the homes he visited could be avoided simply by proper ventilation – in other words, opening windows – and wiping away condensation. But of course it’s far more dramatic to present state house tenants as the helpless victims of Dickensian indifference and heartless, right-wing politicians.
I agree with Bruce on one thing: child poverty is deplorable. But the problem is far more complex than this slanted programme would have us believe. As I wrote on my blog, a film maker could just as easily produce a documentary proving the exact reverse of Bruce’s thesis – namely, that the welfare state and the culture of dependency it encourages are the cause of, rather than the solution to, the poverty and deprivation that Bruce finds so intolerable.
* * *
I KNOW NOTHING about cricket beyond what I read in the sports pages. I managed to navigate my way through childhood without ever playing the game and it remains a mystery to me.
However I was intrigued by a recent article in Britain’s Spectator magazine, prompted by the death of English cricketer-turned-journalist Peter Roebuck, which examined the abnormal suicide rate among former cricketers and asked: “How is that cricket drives so many players out of their minds?”
The best answer it could give was that top players devoted themselves wholly to the game and were left feeling lost and bereft when their careers ended. With no team at the centre of their lives, many didn’t know what to do with themselves and succumbed to drink and depression.
It certainly seems true that cricket, being a game that lasts days rather than hours, requires players to spend a disproportionate amount of their life with other young men in pavilions and hotel rooms. I wonder whether this results in some being emotionally stunted – trapped in an eternal adolescence of high-fives and howzats – and thus less able to cope with the rigours of ordinary life. Certainly some first-class cricketers give the impression of being unusually self-absorbed and perhaps even mentally fragile.
Spending a large part of your life in the company of other blokes, especially at a time when you’re biologically programmed to search for a long-term female partner, just seems downright unnatural.
Of course I didn’t grasp any of this when I decided never to play cricket, but I’m pleased that I made the right choice.
* * *
ANOTHER outbreak of Acute Sensitivity Disorder has made headlines, this time in Britain. Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson said on TV that striking public sector workers should be shot – taken out and executed, preferably in front of their families.
It was a typical Clarkson line, clearly intended as a provocative joke. But even the Poms have lost their sense of humour.
The BBC, intimidated by unionists’ howls of outrage, apologised. Worse still, so did Clarkson.
When political correctness stifles humour and free speech in the country that once gave us such outrageously irreverent and wickedly funny programmes as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, we should all be very afraid.