Friday, March 25, 2016

We still call Britain 'Home'? Really??

I didn't have strong views on the flag referendum (although I voted for change), but this comment piece is the sort of arrant, sentimental tosh that makes me want to throw up. It could only have been written by someone who has lived in Britain for 40 years and eaten far too many pork pies.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

How identity politics has changed language

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, March 23.)

What a minefield language has become since it got mixed up with identity politics.
In her acceptance speech at the Emmy Awards last year, Viola Davis – named outstanding lead actress in a TV drama series for her performance in How to Get Away with Murder – talked of herself as a "woman of colour".

I wish we could make up our minds once and for all.
Fifty years ago, black Americans were referred to as Negroes. “Coloured people” (or “colored people”, in American spelling) was a more formal alternative.

“Negro” and “coloured” have long since ceased to be acceptable terms, although ironically the latter term is retained by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the leading black civil rights group.
There’s nothing intrinsically offensive about “Negro”, which is simply Spanish for black, but it fell out of usage because of its association with the highly pejorative "nigger", used by white racists.

Similarly, “coloured” ceased to be used because it was seen as the language of a time when black people were regarded as inferior and subservient.
I was reminded of this when I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, several years ago (it's located in the former motel where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated) and saw signs from the 1950s saying “Colored entrance only” and “Colored Seated in Rear” – grim echoes of a time when racial segregation was enforced.

As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the mid to late-1960s, “black” became the preferred term. Its adoption coincided with the emergence of the black consciousness and Black Power movements.
Nina Simone sang in a 1969 hit about being young, gifted and black. It was an affirmation of black identity and pride.

Then the 1980s rolled around and we started hearing a new term: African-American.
“Black” became not so much unacceptable as unfashionable. African-American was a bit of a mouthful (it’s hard to imagine Simone singing “young, gifted and African-American”), but the mainstream media, anxious to avoid accusations of racial insensitivity, fell into line.

It seemed the issue was finally sorted. Then along came Viola Davis last year, and suddenly we had to reckon with the phrase “people of colour”.
There’s a slightly different nuance here. “People of colour” doesn’t refer only to black Americans but to all non-whites, who are supposedly bound together by the common experience of racism.

According to Wikipedia, “people of colour” is preferred to “non-white” because rather than defining people by what they are not (i.e. white), it frames the issue in positive terms.
I get that. Nonetheless, I wish the arbiters of politically correct language would settle on something and stick with it. As it is, right-thinking people have to keep adapting their vocabulary to keep up with the shifting fashions of identity politics.

Besides, I’m left scratching my head over the distinction between “coloured people”, which isn’t acceptable, and “people of colour”, which is. It’s all very confusing.
We have been through all this before. “Queer” was once a term of derision for gay men, but now the word is proudly embraced. Being different from the mainstream, once seen as a stigma, is now something to be celebrated.

That’s what identity politics is all about: minority groups defining themselves by their point of difference and using it to get political leverage. 
Nowadays, no one but an out-and-out racist questions the right of black people – or people of any race, for that matter – to be referred to in a non-discriminatory way. But it’s almost as if there’s a race to be first with the latest politically correct terminology.

It’s a game of linguistic one-upmanship in which you risk being scorned as some sort of bottom-feeding reactionary if you don’t keep up.
New Zealanders, being essentially a liberal lot, have demonstrated over time that they’re willing to change their vocabulary where it’s clearly discriminatory or stereotypes people.

“Hori” was once considered unobjectionable as a synonym for a Maori (the Howard Morrison Quartet even used it in the song My Old Man’s An All Black) but is now rarely, if ever, heard. Similarly, “Japs”, “chinks” and “Chinaman” have been consigned to the linguistic dustbin because of their demeaning connotations.
But the politics of language can be perplexing. For example, we no longer describe people who are physically or intellectually impaired as “handicapped”. That’s verboten. “Disabled”, however, is permissible. 

The distinction between “handicapped” and “disabled” seems purely semantic. But for whatever reason, one is deemed to be derogatory and the other isn’t.
It wasn’t always like this. We know that “handicapped” used to be an acceptable term because it’s the “H” in IHC, which originally stood for Intellectually Handicapped Children.

Similarly, CCS – as in CCS Disability Action – originally stood for Crippled Children’s Society. But try using the word “crippled” today and see how far you get.
What happened to make words such as “crippled” and “handicapped” objectionable? I have no idea. But I do know that the whole area of disability has become highly politicised, often with no obvious benefit to many of the people afflicted.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

I barely recognise my fellow New Zealanders

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 18.)

In his best-selling 1976 book The Passionless People, journalist Gordon McLauchlan famously called his fellow New Zealanders smiling zombies – basically decent, but smug and complacent.
I wonder what he makes of the extraordinary kerfuffle over the flag.

Every so often in New Zealand, an issue comes up that seems to rouse us from our inertia. It happened in 1981 when the Springboks came and it’s happened again, albeit without the flour bombs and Minto bars (the affectionate name given to the long  batons wielded in 1981 by the police), over the past few weeks.
The flag debate has exposed an ornery, cranky streak in the national character.  I keep waiting for the tumult to abate, but the letters to the editor keep coming and the radio talkback lines continue to run hot.

Who could honestly say they saw all this rage and fury coming? I bet John Key didn’t.  
He probably thought this was his best shot at making history – the one potentially memorable act of a political career otherwise defined by carefully calculated pragmatism in the finest National Party tradition.

What he surely couldn’t have imagined was that the flag referendum would lift the lid on a seething, boiling, often contradictory mess of emotions, some of which are only tenuously connected with the flag.
I barely recognise my fellow New Zealanders. McLauchlan probably doesn’t either.

We’re normally a stolid, easy-going lot, but the referendum has ignited unexpectedly intense passions encompassing wildly conflicting notions of nationhood, identity, culture and history.
The problem, for those who make it their business to understand such phenomena, is that it’s impossible to detect any particular pattern in the rage. We’re all over the place.

For some, the vote on the flag is a referendum on Key. Regardless of how much they might like the idea of a new flag, it’s an irresistible chance to inflict a damaging blow on a prime minister whose imperturbable blandness is almost as maddening to them as his popularity.
For others, the debate is all about our British heritage. They see the alternative silver fern design as a denial of who we are and all that we’ve gained as a result of Britain’s civilising influence.

Other traditionalists have convinced themselves that New Zealand soldiers died fighting for the current flag and that to change it would dishonour their memory.
Then there are those – let’s call them the anti-beach towel camp – who are favourably disposed toward a change of flag but withering in their contempt for the Kyle Lockwood design. For them, it’s largely about aesthetics.

Oh, and I almost forgot those who  complain bitterly about the cost, although the same objection - "a scandalous waste of money!" - could be applied to any vaguely contentious government initiative.
Good luck to anyone trying to find a common thread here. As I wrote in a column last year, there are four and a half million New Zealanders and four and a half million opinions on the flag.

Not only does everyone have their own idea about what the flag should look like, but many can’t understand why other people don’t agree with them. This translates into a cantankerous, one-eyed intolerance that is strikingly at odds with our reputation as easy-going people.
What’s clear is that there will never be a consensus. Whatever the flag design, some people are bound to hate it. It follows that arguments about the flag are doomed to go around in circles, which is pretty much what’s been happening over the past few weeks.

This is one instance in which the democratic process turns out to be imperfect. It can be a prescription for permanent paralysis.
If the referendum results in a “no” vote, as seems likely, we’ll either be stuck with the present flag in perpetuity, or a new one will have to be imposed on us.

Actually, that mightn’t be so bad. Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson championed a change of flag against intense opposition in 1964. The people had no direct say. But Canadians are happy with the unique and distinctive maple-leaf flag that resulted, and who knows – perhaps New Zealanders could eventually learn to love the Lockwood flag too.
Is it the best possible design? Of course not. There can be no best possible design, because that’s a subjective judgment. (In any case, it could only be the best possible design until someone comes up with a better one.) But I don’t think it looks like a beach towel.

And despite what the jaundiced critics and Key-haters say, the selection process was impeccably democratic. It just delivered a slightly weird outcome.
Now it’s down to us, the voters. If we genuinely believe in democracy, we’ll graciously accept the result whatever it is.

And if we end up opting for the status quo, it won’t have been a complete waste of time. If nothing else, the debate has shown that we’re a more devoutly patriotic lot than we thought, and not quite as passionless as McLauchlan supposed.  

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Perhaps not this time, but there will be a change of flag

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, March 9.)
Even as I opened the envelope containing the ballot papers for the flag referendum, I wasn’t sure which way I was going to vote.
I surprised myself by seriously considering giving my tick to the status quo, despite being in favour of change.

That might seem perverse, but I reasoned that if we’re going to have a new flag, it should be one that the country is prepared to unite behind.
Clearly, that’s not going to happen. The flag debate has uncorked a lot of anger and resentment. I don’t think anyone (least of all John Key) expected it to be so inflamed.

Much of that anger has little to do with flags. Even so, it can’t be ignored.
A flag is supposed to be a symbol of national unity. It would be a bad start if a large segment of the population hated the new ensign and deeply resented having it imposed on them.

I thought that perhaps the best option in the circumstances was to accept that the flag issue had been irreversibly contaminated by politics, and to buy time by voting against change.
I reasoned that once the heat had subsided – which would probably mean once Key has moved on, since much of the opposition to the new flag is about him – we could revisit the issue.

Perhaps we could then have a calmer discussion.  We might also be able to draw on the lessons of the past few months by coming up with a fresh range of alternative designs.
That was another factor that made me hesitate before I cast my vote. In last year’s referendum, I favoured Kyle Lockwood’s red, white and blue design.  

Most New Zealanders who supported change did the same, but democracy can yield imperfect results. The design that voters ranked as their favourite in the referendum finished second, by a hair’s breadth, once votes for all the other options were taken into account.
So we ended up with what I and many others regarded as a second-best option. Lockwood’s red, white and black design was not one that I could feel wholly enthusiastic about.

That was the thinking, then, behind my hesitation over which way to vote. But in the end, I came back to my original position in favour of change.
Why? Principally, because I believe the present flag is an anachronism dating from a time when we were content to see ourselves as a distant appendage of a faded colonial power.

It’s one thing to value our historic ties to Britain, but quite another to be defined by them in the 21st century. The Union Jack represents a past that has become largely irrelevant.
We surely should feel sufficiently mature as a country to have our own distinct, instantly identifiable flag – one that’s in no danger of being confused with that of Australia.

There will never be 100 per cent agreement on what that flag should look like. But as the expatriate New Zealand entrepreneur Claudia Batten points out in the latest Listener, symbols, once entrenched, acquire a power of their own.
Not all Canadians wanted a change of flag in 1964, still less the maple leaf, but they grew to embrace it once it was adopted. There’s an important lesson there.

And another thing. People sneer at the Lockwood design as resembling a tea-towel or a corporate logo, but you could say the same – and worse – about many nation flags. In any case, I have yet to discover what mystical quality distinguishes a flag from a logo.
The truth, I suspect, is that many of those who criticise it on aesthetic grounds have other reasons for resisting change. Aesthetic objections often serve as a smokescreen for political emotions.

Here we get to the core of the hysteria – not too strong a word – over the flag.
I accept that many people oppose change for perfectly legitimate reasons: tradition, for example, and loyalty to New Zealand’s British links. But unquestionably, the debate has been distorted by extraneous factors.

For many voters on the left, the referendum is seen as an opportunity to strike at Key. That factor contaminated the debate from day one.
A recent One News Colmar Brunton poll gave a clue to the extent to which the debate has been politicised. Its most striking finding was that 76 per cent of Labour voters were in the “no” camp.

Given that Labour is historically the party of change, it was telling that on this issue its supporters appear to have discovered a hitherto unsuspected streak of conservatism. Perhaps they were taking their cue from the party’s leadership, whose position on the issue has been ambivalent, if not downright contradictory.
Having proposed a change of flag in its 2014 election policy, Labour couldn’t bring itself to support the proposal when Key picked it up, and instead grizzled endlessly about the process.

One reason I finally decided to vote for change, in fact, is that I resent the way political interests hijacked what should have been a reasoned, informed debate. I don’t want to give the hijackers the satisfaction of an overwhelming victory.
And while I’m almost certain to be on the losing side this time around, I’m confident that those who vote for change will ultimately be shown to have been on the right side of history.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The digital media revolution: 'Spotlight' reminds us what we've lost

(First published on on March 4.)
The strangest things are happening in the news media.
Everywhere you look, media outlets are abandoning their traditional areas of specialisation. They are no longer content to concentrate on what they have done – and often done very well – in the past.

There was a striking example of this when Radio New Zealand’s nightly current affairs show Checkpoint was relaunched in January as Checkpoint with John Campbell, a programme that’s video-streamed live online. You can now watch it as well as listen.
This illustrates the profound shift that has transformed the media.

In the past, newspapers did print, radio did audio and television did visuals. These were fields in which each medium developed its own particular expertise.
Now they have relinquished those crucial points of difference. Instead they are all competing head-on with increasingly similar products.

This is called media convergence, and it has become the new paradigm in the industry. But why stop focusing on something you did well, and that no one else did, in favour of something that everyone’s doing? At worst, it seems a formula for mutually assured destruction.
There have been many casualties along the way. Lots of wise, experienced journalists have been “let go”. There seems little room for people who don’t buy into the glorious revolution.

A significant pending departure from the industry is that of TV3’s long-serving head of news and current affairs, Mark Jennings, whose resignation coincided with the appointment of a gung-ho “chief news officer” known for his evangelistic embrace of the new way.
Multi-platform content and digital-first are the new buzz phrases. Journalists are encouraged to be “platform-agnostic”, which supposedly means that content is the key and the means by which it’s disseminated is secondary.

This sounds fine in theory, but the quality of that content has suffered because the demand for immediacy prioritises haste over depth. The race to be first is more intense than ever.
Radio, print and TV are all using similar tactics to attract viewers’ eyeballs. Inevitably, this tends to lead to a race to the bottom.  “Clickbait” – the industry term for online stories that appeal to the casual browser or trigger an emotional response – takes priority over serious content because it attracts more online traffic.

It was presumably to counter this perception that Fairfax Media, which publishes the Dominion Post, this week announced the appointment of a crack investigative reporting team. That’s a welcome sign that solid journalistic priorities still count for something.
Commentators refer to the media revolution as an example of disruptive technology – change which fundamentally reshapes traditional ways of doing things.

Disruptive it certainly is. It has changed the industry I spent my working life in to the point where it’s almost unrecognisable.
Whether it’s change for the better remains to be seen. I’m deeply sceptical, but then I’m a reactionary and a bit of a Luddite.

No one knows quite where it will ultimately lead, but I do know what we’ve lost in the meantime. I was reminded of it watching the first-rate, Oscar-winning film Spotlight, based on real events, in which a team of Boston Globe journalists in 2001 exposed a systematic cover-up of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
I was unexpectedly moved by a scene in which the edition carrying the story is shown streaming off the Globe’s mighty printing press and a convoy of delivery trucks trundles out the doors into the frosty Boston night.

The Globe is still a great newspaper, but like others it has taken a serious hit from the digital revolution. Watching that sequence, I wondered how much longer such papers will be able to continue doing the sort of vital journalism that made the Globe a proud Boston institution and earned it 23 Pulitzer Prizes.
Could the more destructive effects of the media revolution have been avoided? I don’t know, but I do believe the newspaper industry made a mistake when it allowed itself to be panicked into putting content online free of charge.

Quality journalism costs money to produce, after all, and it seemed crazy that readers should be invited to read the news without having to pay for it.
People used to be fined for stealing papers from honesty boxes (remember them?), and here was the industry effectively putting up a big sign saying: “Help yourselves”. It didn’t make sense to me.

Unfortunately the clock can’t be turned back; this is the way it is from now on.  But accepting the reality of the media revolution doesn’t stop me from mourning what has been lost.

Footnote: This column was written for The Dominion Post, but the space it would normally occupy was devoted to a tribute to the late  cricketer Martin Crowe. The column was published online instead.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Not quite missing in action

My usual fortnightly column in the Dominion Post appears to have been pushed off the page this morning by tributes to Martin Crowe. However it's available here on Stuff. In it, I talk about the digital revolution that has transformed the media - and more specifically, the potentially destructive consequences of the phenomenon known as media convergence.