Wednesday, May 25, 2016

An opinion column with moving pictures

I forced myself to watch the Bryan Bruce documentary about New Zealand education on TV3 last night. Past experience told me not to expect an even-handed assessment of the issues, but the optimist in me hoped that Bruce might offer some insights into where our education system has gone wrong. Faint chance.
If there’s a word that describes Bruce’s broadcasting style, it’s tendentious – in other words, calculated to promote a particular cause.

Viewers might have learned something worthwhile had he approached his subject with an open mind, but no. He clearly started out with a fixed goal in mind. Bruce doesn’t like choice, doesn’t like competition and doesn’t like individualism. He despises Treasury and the disruptive neo-liberal reforms it has championed since the 1980s.
And he might have some valid points. Trouble is, he destroys his credibility by the way he cherry-picks information and opinions that support his own. He flies around the world (at our expense, incidentally – the doco was funded by New Zealand On Air) interviewing academics whose views he approves of, and then presents those views as if they’re incontrovertible.

In this respect he reminds me a bit of the American documentary maker Michael Moore, who’s similarly selective in the way he marshals and edits his evidence. The difference is that Moore’s sardonic wit, in contrast to Bruce’s earnest lecturing, is at least entertaining.
It doesn’t seem to matter to Bruce, or perhaps hasn’t even occurred to him, that his approach sometimes produces glaring contradictions. Hence he admiringly cites the Chinese education system for producing results that put Chinese pupils at the top of the OECD achievement rankings while New Zealand kids are falling behind. Then, later in the programme, he condemns test-based regimes and “authoritarian” systems. But hang on; the Chinese education system is both highly test-focused (as Bruce acknowledges) and about as authoritarian as it gets. He can’t have it both ways.

I noticed too that while he professes to deplore authoritarianism and “social control”, he included footage of pupils at Manurewa Intermediate – a school he obviously admires – chanting in compliant unison before a messiah-like principal. It reminded me of a Destiny Church service.  
Perhaps Bruce is so obsessively focused on proving New Zealand kids are the victims of a heartless neoliberal experiment that he’s prepared to disregard such inconsistencies in the hope that viewers won’t spot them.

Even setting aside the polemics, the documentary was seriously flawed as a piece of filmmaking; a string of unconnected ideas with little attempt to join up the dots. I’d mark it as a “fail”.
I find his style irritating and tiresome too. The meaningful downward glances, the hand gestures and the solemn lecture-theatre tone (Bruce is a former teacher, and it shows) are clearly intended to convey a sense of moral authority, but it’s a style that hovers on the edge of priggishness.

I’m perfectly prepared to believe there are a lot of things wrong with New Zealand education, and that some may indeed be the result of what Bruce calls neoliberalism. I’d quite like to see a robust, critical examination of the system by someone prepared to approach the subject without predetermined conclusions. But Bruce is not that person, and his much-hyped documentary was really just an opinion column with moving pictures and sound.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Catholicism's calcified celibacy dogma

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, May 18.)
On a recent Monday morning I sat at the press desk in the Wellington District Court and watched as a former Catholic priest was sentenced to six years and seven months in prison for historical sex offences.
Peter Joseph Hercock left the priesthood in the 1980s. He is 72 now, and married with a son. But in the 1970s he was a chaplain and counsellor at Sacred Heart Girls’ College in Lower Hutt.

The four women who pursued complaints against him were then pupils in their early teens. They were grappling with personal problems or came from troubled home environments – sometimes both.
They went to Hercock thinking he would help them. Instead he groomed them for his sexual gratification. He raped and indecently assaulted them in his bedroom in the Catholic presbytery and at a Kapiti Coast bach used by nuns.

One victim, then aged 14, vividly recalled a “wretched” Leonard Cohen record playing in the background as she was raped. Another was given two glasses of whisky and carried to bed.
Much as we have become accustomed to sordid stories of sexual abuse by priests, the women’s victim impact statements were painful to sit through.

All four told of long-lasting psychological and emotional damage. One had a breakdown, another tried to kill herself.
The betrayal of trust was breathtaking. One victim said her father worked two jobs to send her to Sacred Heart. His belief in the value of a Catholic education was rewarded by the rape of his virgin daughter.

She was later expelled for drinking and drug-taking. When her mother died, she didn’t attend the funeral. She was scared she would see Hercock there.
Another complainant said the girls had been taught that men couldn’t be trusted because of their lust and it was up to women not to tempt them. At the time, she blamed herself for corrupting Hercock.

As a priest, Hercock was supposedly dedicated to the care of his flock. In betraying those vulnerable girls he destroyed their faith. It’s impossible to overstate the breach of trust.
One victim said that her sense of cultural identity came from being part of a small Catholic community. Having been brought up Catholic myself, I knew what she meant.

Catholics of that era, living in a predominantly Protestant society, defined themselves by their faith. To have it betrayed by a priest would have been shattering.
Listening to the victim impact statements, I felt myself getting angry, but not so much with Hercock – he was finally getting his due punishment, after all – as with the Church that allowed this to happen.

Hercock entered the Catholic seminary at the age of 17 and was in his 20s when most of the offending took place. Few men at 17 have a clear idea of what they want to do for the rest of their life; fewer still have the emotional maturity to commit to a life of celibacy. Yet that’s what the Church expects them to do.
It is an expectation that priests often fail to live up to. The need for human intimacy isn’t easily suppressed, and when it is, it can lead to twisted outcomes.

Some priests end up having illicit but consenting relationships with women; a few even father children. Others, like Hercock, become predators.
You might call this Catholicism’s dirty little secret, except it’s not; it’s a dirty big secret. The shocking pain and guilt caused by the vow of celibacy is hidden behind a wall of silence and hypocrisy.

Before anyone accuses me of being anti-Catholic, a declaration: I’m not one of those bitter and resentful ex-Catholics. I value my Catholic upbringing; it’s a big part of who I am.
Moreover, I know far too many genuinely good and holy Catholics, priests included, to dismiss the Church out of hand.

Catholicism’s problem is that it remains in the grip of calcified, twisted dogma which is stubbornly defended by a male hierarchy that has a disturbingly ambivalent attitude toward women.
A good friend of mine who attended a Catholic girls’ boarding school says the nuns warned the girls about young priests. That confirms the Church knew some priests couldn’t be trusted to honour their vow of celibacy.

It almost makes the nuns complicit in what went on, yet I don’t entirely blame them. They were caught up in a warped system that required them to defer to male authority. In a sense, they were victims too.
An editorial on the Hercock case in the latest issue of the Listener says the Church should have been in the dock with him. That’s not an overstatement.

Despite its many apologies and payments of compensation (often given grudgingly) to victims of sexual abuse, the church still refuses to confront the harm caused by the cruel and unnatural rule of celibacy.
Other institutions change and move on when evidence of the damage done by their doctrines becomes too overwhelming to ignore. Why can’t the Catholic Church?

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Case studies in self-absorption and overkill

(First published in The Dominion Post, May 13.)
Is the world going mad, or is it just me?
On second thoughts, don’t answer that. But please consider, just for a moment, some of the issues that have been making headlines over the past couple of weeks.

First, Hilary Barry. The announcement of her resignation from MediaWorks was reported as if Earth had momentarily tilted on its axis.
Here I was thinking Barry was just a newsreader – a competent newsreader, admittedly (although her pronunciation and personal asides sometimes grate), but just a newsreader, nonetheless – someone who reads words written by other people.

Obviously I completely misunderstood her place in the life of the nation. If the media coverage of her resignation is any guide, she’s a totemic figure whose career moves are a matter of urgent and compelling public interest.
No doubt media people would justify the fuss over Barry’s resignation by saying it was the tipping point that led to the departure of the unloved MediaWorks boss Mark Weldon. But they didn’t know that then.

Even if they did, it was an example of media people being too absorbed in their own affairs, and assuming that the ordinary punter in the street shares their fascination. My advice would be to get over themselves.
In television especially, detached judgment in journalism is old-hat. The rule now is that if journalists are interested in it, it must be news.

Hence the deaths of David Bowie and Prince also dominated news bulletins. On TV3, Bowie’s demise in January took up the entire first segment of the 6pm news.
This can’t be justified by any objective measurement of public interest or importance. The reason the two singers’ deaths got saturation coverage, quite simply, is that the journalists who make decisions about what’s important are of the generation that idolises Bowie and Prince, and they insisted that everyone should share their grief and desolation.

Bowie was a unique talent, to be sure, but he hardly justified the emotional incontinence triggered by his passing. As for Prince, hmmm.
Now, the Panama Papers. After all the frenzied media coverage of the past couple of weeks, I have to ask: where’s the smoking gun, exactly?

Reporters eagerly burrowed through truckloads of leaked documents from Mossack Fonseca and came up with … nothing much at all.
The conspiracy theorists struck out here. The only damning disclosure related to John Key’s lawyer, who used his relationship with the prime minister as leverage to secure a meeting with Revenue Minister Todd McLay – a worrying blurring of the lines of propriety, but that's par for the course from a government that sometimes gives the impression of having had an integrity bypass.  

And oh, the schadenfreude. While media outlets that had been granted advance access to the latest Panama Papers leak struggled to find anything newsworthy in it, those denied that privilege (if that's the right word) took delight in pooh-poohing the whole affair as a non-event.

Hence TV3 political journalist Lloyd Burr triumphantly announced that no bomb had gone off. In other circumstances Burr, if he’s like most political journalists, would have been keen to find the bomb and detonate it himself. It was hard to escape the conclusion that he was more concerned with scoring a point against TVNZ, which was one of the media organisations that had the inside running on the release.
As for the general public, I imagine a lot of people would have switched off the moment they learned Dirty Politics author Nicky Hager was a key player in the leak. People are justifiably sceptical about those who describe themselves as journalists but pursue a political agenda.

There was a breathless post on the Radio New Zealand website about the thrill of collaborating with Hager in sifting through the supposedly incriminating documents, but RNZ and TVNZ severely compromised their credibility by aligning themselves with a man whose ideological crusades are a matter of public record. What on earth were they thinking?

For the third placing in this column’s trifecta of weirdness we must turn to the police, who have bullied two Canterbury secondary schools into cancelling after-ball parties under the threat of a $20,000 fine.
One of those parties has been run by the Ashburton Community Alcohol and Drug Service for 17 years, apparently without problems. Now the police have told the organisers they’re breaking the law.

It’s a sad commentary on law enforcement priorities that while 111 calls from victims of crime routinely go unheeded because police are supposedly too busy, they always seem to find the time and resources to crack down on soft targets.
Burglary clearance rates are a scandalous 10 per cent, brazen young thugs virtually rule the streets of South Auckland and hapless motorists are subjected to extortion by criminal windscreen washers, but don’t worry: you can rest easy in the knowledge that the police are fearlessly cracking down on the organisers of harmless after-ball parties, heavying law-abiding citizens with oppressive alcohol checkpoints at all hours of the day and supplying the media with a seemingly endless procession of officers eager to lecture us on our bad habits.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Wicked abuse of free speech

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 4.)
A good friend recently asked what I made of the fuss over Wicked campervans and their suggestive slogans.
He believes strongly in freedom of speech and knows that I do too. He thought the crackdown on the Australian-owned company looked disturbingly like a witch hunt.

Besides, he thought some of the slogans painted on Wicked’s vans were amusing. We need more irreverent humour, he argued.
I’m with him some of the way. But not far.

Where freedom of speech involves the right to express political opinions or to push literary and artistic boundaries, there is a legal presumption in its favour. It’s enshrined in our Bill of Rights Act.
But free speech has never been an absolute right. The American judge Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, for example, that it didn’t entitle someone to falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.

Limitations on free speech vary across different societies and at different times, according to what the community finds acceptable. There will often be powerful countervailing arguments, and the challenge lies in getting the balance right.
By and large, I would suggest we have it about right in New Zealand. We are certainly an infinitely more liberal society than we were 40 or 50 years ago.

The great censorship battles of the 1960s and 70s are far behind us. That was the era when the prosecutor in the famous Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial in Britain asked jurors whether D H Lawrence’s sexually explicit novel was one they would be happy for their wives or servants to read. His question was ridiculed as symptomatic of outdated paternalistic attitudes.
New Zealand had its own bizarre censorship controversies – none stranger than the film censor’s ruling in 1967 that a film adaptation of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses had to be screened separately to male and female audiences.

These days it probably comes as a surprise to many people to learn that we still have a censor – which brings us back to Wicked.
A couple of weeks ago, chief censor Andrew Jack ruled that the slogans and images on three Wicked campervans were objectionable and banned those vehicles from New Zealand roads.

It’s unlikely to be the end of the matter. Further complaints may result in other vans from the company’s fleet being ordered off the road – in which case, good riddance.
The banned vehicles were decorated with eye-catching images showing well-known cartoon figures – Snow White, Scooby-Doo and Dr Seuss – appearing to use drugs.

Other Wicked vans display sexually suggestive slogans. One was turned away from Piha Domain Camp near Auckland because it was decorated with the words “Blow job better than no job”. Camping grounds at Kaiteriteri and Queenstown have also told Wicked van renters that they’re not welcome.
The censor’s decision was unusual for more reasons than one. For a start, it’s probably the first time a vehicle has been judged to be an objectionable publication.
The ruling was also notable because it’s relatively rare these days for the censor to use such a blunt instrument as a ban. But having found that the slogans and images were offensive, Jack had few options.

Wicked posed an unusual challenge because while people make a choice to watch a pornographic movie or read a sexually explicit book, Wicked campervans are in people’s faces whether they want to see them or not. An R16 restriction is hardly effective when the vehicles use public roads and are visible to everyone.
But the censor's job was made easier in the case of the allusions to drug use, because the images could be construed as encouraging criminal behaviour. Ruling on sexually suggestive slogans will be trickier because it calls for judgment on matters of taste.
A recurring concern is that curious children, seeing Wicked vans, are likely to ask their parents what the slogans mean. Even the most liberal parent would probably struggle to explain “If God was a woman, sperm would taste like chocolate” to an inquisitive eight-year-old. But fellatio, unlike drug use, is not a crime - so the issue becomes one of defining what's injurious to the public good or highly offensive to the public in general, to quote the relevant legislation.

I not only believe the censor got it right in the case of the drug-related imagery, but that he would be justified in ruling against Wicked's use of sexually explicit signage on the basis that it's highly offensive to most people (my friend excepted).
Freedom of speech is one of the defining characteristics of a liberal democracy, but this crass and arrogant Australian outfit (I say "arrogant" because it didn't even bother to defend itself when complaints were made against it to the Advertising Standards Authority) is unlikely to go down in history as a heroic standard-bearer for human rights.

If anything, the company debases free speech by nakedly taking advantage of it purely to be provocative and to attract attention for commercial gain. In this respect it’s strikingly similar to the Hell pizza chain.
Wicked’s lawyers were unable to advance any compelling defence of political or artistic freedom. Instead, they tried lamely to justify Wicked’s slogans and images as humorous parodies.

Admittedly humour is subjective, but Wicked’s misogynistic brand of wit is hardly worth dying on the barricades for. It’s a smart-arse, advertising-agency type of humour that appeals chiefly to sniggering schoolboys.
In fact one of the striking things about the Wicked controversy is that the company’s supposed humour has managed to offend almost everyone, liberals as well as conservatives.  

My one reservation is that it was the police who took the complaint against Wicked to the censor and who will have the responsibility of enforcing his ruling. There’s a potentially dangerous blurring of roles here.
The job of the police is to enforce criminal law, and I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling uneasy about the prospect of them exercising power over matters of judgment and morality. No doubt they would argue that their intervention in this instance was justified on the basis that the campervans appeared to condone criminal activity, but I hope their involvement ends there. We get enough finger-wagging lectures from them already.