Tuesday, August 14, 2018

I'm a bit happier now than I was a few weeks ago

So where are we, after a month of fervid debate about freedom of speech?

Call me a pollyanna, but I reckon we’re in a slightly better place than before.

I didn’t feel so optimistic when Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux were barred from speaking in Auckland Council-owned venues, and even less so when the owners of the Powerstation in Ponsonby were intimidated into reneging on an earlier agreement to host the Canadians.

In both instances it seemed a victory for the enemies of free speech. The message was clear: all that’s needed to deny someone a platform is to make a lot of angry noise and threaten disruption. Presto – problem solved. The safety and security mantra not only gave risk-averse officials an out but, more importantly, got Gauleiter Phil Goff out of a hole after he had self-righteously taken it upon himself to decide what views his fellow New Zealanders could safely be exposed to.

At the risk of labouring a point, I should repeat that the debate wasn’t about the Canadians’ ideas, although the protesters tried to frame it that way. It was about the right of New Zealanders to hear them and make up their own minds. Even now I don’t know whether I agree with Southern and Molyneux on anything, because they never got a chance to tell us what they were on about.

Newshub’s Patrick Gower could have helped enlighten us when he interviewed them, but he blew his chance because he was more interested in trying to score points. By the time the Canadians flew out, the only conclusion I’d come to was that they were a pair of rather egotistical self-publicists and probably not the sort of people you’d want to be confined with in a small room.

So that was Round One of the great free speech debate, and I admit that it left me feeling pretty morose. I should know better than to take much notice of media opinion, which has probably never been less reliable than now as a barometer of what the public is thinking, but the hostility of the media commentariat toward Southern and Molyneux did lead me to wonder what hope there could be for free speech when the very people who depend on it, such as columnists and bloggers, were so vigorously attacking it.

But then Massey University vice-chancellor Jan Thomas did us the great and unexpected favour of introducing Round Two by barring Don Brash from the Massey campus, and suddenly the tone of the debate changed completely. The backlash against Thomas, from across the political spectrum and in media forums that had been uncertain about Southern and Molyneux, was emphatic, salutary and heartening. New Zealanders may have been uncertain whether the Canadians were suitable pinups for the cause of free speech, but they had no trouble deciding that Thomas’s attempt to portray the mild-mannered Brash as a dangerous demagogue and a threat to student safety was preposterous, and that the underlying reason for her objection to him must therefore be ideological.

Thomas apparently issued her edict on the basis of a single letter from an overwrought student railing against what he called (quite erroneously) Brash’s “separatist and supremacist rhetoric”. It was a spectacularly inept own-goal, made worse by public indignation that Thomas, an Australian and a relatively recent arrival at that, should consider herself entitled to decide what New Zealanders could safely say to each other. Ironically, the speech that Brash never had a chance to give barely touched on the divisive issues that Thomas was so nervous about.

So where does all this leave us now? Well, we’ve had had a useful and frank debate about freedom of speech. At times it has been overheated. I admit I’ve contributed to that febrile atmosphere myself, because few issues are more important to me and I sometimes have a rush of blood to the head.

It would be wrong to say a consensus has been reached, because everyone has their own idea of what free speech should look like, but I think we have a much better appreciation of how important free speech is. Most importantly, there has been a concerted pushback against those who want to restrict it. The strident alarmists who cry “hate speech” at the distant sound of a contrary opinion haven’t been silenced, but they no longer dominate the debate and I suspect their smug self-assurance has taken a bit of a knock.

There has also been an outpouring of support for Brash, who is unquestionably the most vilified man in New Zealand. Some of this has come from leftists to whom Brash’s brand of neo-liberalism is anathema, but who nonetheless uphold his right to be heard. In fact one of the most striking aspects of the entire debate has been the ringing defence of free speech from old-school Marxists. They have a particular reason to champion free speech, because restrictions on free speech have historically been used in an attempt to crush them.

This doesn’t signify any softening of their ideological line. It will be a cold day in Hell before they agree with Brash – but they understand, even if a younger generation can’t see it, that free speech benefits everyone; or to put it another way, that an attack on one person’s right to free speech is an attack on everyone’s.

That generational difference is something else that has emerged over the past few weeks. It’s the idealistic young – some call them snowflakes – who seem least comfortable with free speech, and I wonder whether they don’t value it because in their lifetime it’s never been seriously challenged. It’s a long time since the repressive Muldoon era, longer still since the 1951 waterfront dispute – when the right of free speech was shamefully curtailed – and longer again since World War Two, when New Zealanders died resisting fascist totalitarianism. Even taking those events into account, New Zealanders have little history of having to fight for our democratic rights (we’ve had no revolutions or wars of independence) and as a result we perhaps don’t cherish them quite as much as we should.

In fact I think all of us who have participated in the free speech debate, on both sides, are guilty of a certain smugness. We’re able to say exactly what we think without having to fret about the secret police banging on the door in the middle of the night. Would we be so heroically outspoken if we lived in Russia or Iran, or even Fiji? Somehow I doubt it. All the more reason, then, to uphold those rights we enjoy.

Difficult questions remain, and may always remain. Anjum Rahman from the Islamic Women’s Council, who appeared on Q+A last week, pointed out that real hate speech was allowed to prevail in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, with catastrophic consequences for humanity. How do we guard against that happening again? There’s no obvious easy answer.

Nonetheless I remain at the libertarian end of the spectrum when it comes to free speech. I support the right of Holocaust deniers to spout their crazy theories and of Valerie Morse to burn the New Zealand flag on Anzac Day, even if she then hypocritically seeks to deny others the right to give offence. I support the right of protesters to demonstrate when Brash speaks at Auckland University, but not when the purpose is to drown him out.

In a liberal democracy, all points of view should be exposed and all ideas tested, but there are no sharp, bright lines between what’s acceptable and what’s not. This argument will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.  But I’m more comfortable now than I was a month ago, when the needle on New Zealand’s tolerance-of-free-speech dial seemed stuck at the wrong end. It’s shifted since then to a point where New Zealand really does seem to be the open, broad-minded democracy I have long imagined it to be. The challenge now is to make sure it stays that way.

AFTERTHOUGHT: When I wrote this post a few days ago, I omitted one other very important point. When it looked as if protesters had succeeded in preventing Don Brash from speaking during a debate at Auckland University, the crowd insisted on Brash delivering his speech in full and without disruption. It was an emphatic rebuff to the protesters, and even more encouraging was the fact that it wasn't what you might call a Hobson's Pledge audience, but a diverse one in terms of age and sex. Free speech was very clearly the winner on the night.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Free speech and the illiberal left

(First published in The Dominion Post on August 9, but I've added an important footnote here.)

If the furore over the Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux achieved nothing else, it at least destroyed the myth of the so-called liberal Left.

Extremists on the Left have been misappropriating that honourable word “liberal” for decades, aided and abetted by news media that seemed not to recognise that “liberal Left” had become a howling contradiction.

A handful of genuinely liberal Leftists still exist, and some were brave enough to speak out in favour of free speech. But those few exceptions aside, the Left now stands exposed as the antithesis of classical liberalism.

No one should be in any doubt that free speech, a fundamental hallmark of liberal democracy, is under concerted attack. We have confirmation of that from Massey University’s Australian vice-chancellor Jan Thomas, who has introduced to New Zealand the repugnant practice known elsewhere as no-platforming – denying speaking rights to anyone who doesn’t meekly fall into line with leftist orthodoxy.

Thomas vetoed a talk by Don Brash, supposedly on the basis that it raised safety issues, but her accompanying comments made it clear she was swayed by personal ideological objections.

In any case, who was likely to pose a safety risk? Certainly not Brash, who is unfailingly civil even when under venomous attack, and whose proposed speech had nothing to do with the contentious issues Thomas referred to. The risk, if there was one, would have come from those who want to shut him down.

I believe the Left targets Brash not because he holds extreme views, but for precisely the opposite reason: a large number of New Zealanders agree with him. That makes him a potent threat.

But Thomas may have done us all a favour. She has laid bare the authoritarian bigotry that thrives in institutions which once stood for intellectual freedom.

She has also provoked an almighty backlash, much of it from people who didn’t quite know what to make of Southern and Molyneux but who certainly recognise censorship and suppression of dissent when they see it.

Now, back to that word “liberal”. Liberalism is defined as being open-minded rather than prejudiced. It means favouring individual freedom, tolerating different opinions and being open to new ideas.

The supposedly liberal Left are none of these things. They have closed minds and fixed world views. They are intolerant of people who see the world differently, to the point that they will they harass, intimidate and shout down anyone who disagrees with them.

They invoke the right of free speech for themselves while seeking to deny it to others, as was seen outside Parliament recently when a crowd of pro-choice protesters created a barrage of noise with the aim of overwhelming a quiet and peaceful pro-life demonstration.

They don’t like others sharing freedom of speech. They want it all for themselves.

They use the loaded term “hate speech” to denigrate ideas they don’t like and to demonise anyone who dares express them. But the only hateful speech I heard during the Southern-Molyneux furore came from angry shouters on the Left.

Anyway, who defines “hate speech”? They do, on their own self-serving terms.

Those protesting against Southern and Molyneux even had the nerve to label the people they sought to silence as fascists and Nazis, which shows no understanding of history and even less sense of irony.

Fascists and Nazis use coercion to impose their will. It follows that if there have been any fascists and Nazis active in New Zealand over the past two weeks, it’s those who were determined to deny New Zealanders the right to hear what the Canadians had to say, and to decide for themselves whether it was hateful.

But while the illiberal Left made sure that Southern and Molyneux were denied a public platform, we have at least had a useful debate about free speech – one which, thanks to Thomas, is bound to continue.

Interestingly, most mainstream media comment was openly hostile to the Canadians. An outside observer would have formed the impression that New Zealanders were united in their distaste for the visitors.

Perhaps that’s what encouraged prime minister Jacinda Ardern to make the presumptuous statement that she was proud her fellow New Zealanders didn’t share the Canadians’ views. But an opinion poll conducted by Newshub – admittedly not a scientific sample – showed that 78 per cent of respondents thought Southern and Molyneux should be allowed into New Zealand, and by logical implication that New Zealanders should be permitted to hear them speak.

In any case, the prime minister got it wrong. This debate was not about whether New Zealanders shared the Canadians' views. It was about our right, guaranteed by the Bill of Rights Act, to "seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind and in any form".

FOOTNOTE: Since this column was submitted for publication 48 hours ago, there have been many ringing declarations of support - triggered by the Massey ban on Brash - for free speech. Some of the most powerful and unequivocal have come from the left, and even the hard left. If I were writing the column now, I would have to draw a sharper distinction  between the honourable, old-school left who understand the value of free speech, and the fragile (and mostly younger) creatures who shriek with horror when confronted with ideas they don't like.    

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Arthur Miller's epigram no longer holds true

One of the most striking points to emerge from the free-speech furore has been the failure of the media to reflect public opinion.

In my column in the Dominion Post today, I noted that a Newshub poll – not a scientific opinion sample, but still an indication of what the public was thinking – showed that 78 percent of New Zealanders thought Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux should be allowed into the country. (This was when their immigration status was still in doubt.)

It can be inferred from this that the majority of people believed the Canadians should be allowed to speak here – and more to the point, that we should be allowed to hear what they had to say so that we could make up our own minds about whether their views were harmful or hateful.

But you would never have guessed this from commentaries in the mainstream media, which were overwhelmingly hostile to Southern and Molyneux. As I wrote in my column, an outsider would have formed the impression that New Zealanders were united in their distaste for the visitors. Those who spoke out in defence of free speech, such as Don Brash, were generally caricatured by the media commentariat as pathetic dinosaurs and even as a threat to public safety.

There is a jarring disjunction here. The American playwright Arthur Miller famously defined a good newspaper as a nation talking to itself, but something has gone seriously wrong when the media seem so demonstrably out of touch with what ordinary people are thinking – and worse, when some in the media treat those they disapprove of with sneering contempt, lazily labelling them as racists without attempting to answer their arguments.

There is no rule that says the media should fall into line with popular opinion (God forbid), but they do have some obligation to reflect it, especially if they wish to remain credible.

To be fair, the picture improved markedly with media coverage of Massey University’s decision to ban Brash, which resulted in some spirited (if somewhat belated) defences of free speech. But Massey’s authoritarian edict was such an egregious affront to democracy that it could hardly be ignored.

And even then, some in the media couldn’t help parading their bias. Today’s Morning Report included a travesty of a panel discussion in which the three participants, egged on by Susie Ferguson, all piled into Brash – like-minded leftists united in smug, bigoted, intellectually snobbish groupthink.

Radio New Zealand, as a public broadcaster, has a special duty to observe principles of balance but it is routinely ignored, and rarely more shamefully than this morning. RNZ seems to have decided that it need only cater to the demographic group known as chardonnay socialists, and to hell with everyone else. I feel sorry for the employees there – there must be some – who take its charter obligations seriously.

Incidentally, we’ve heard a lot of semi-hysterical hyperbole in the last few weeks about something ill-defined called hate speech, but the great irony is that the New Zealander most subjected to hateful vilification is the very man who’s constantly accused by the left of fostering it.  

The perils of imported appointees

(First published on Stuff.co.nz and in Stuff regional papers on August 8.)

I wonder if Shane Jones, the Minister of Macho Bluster, had a point when he called for a New Zealander to be appointed the next chief executive of Fonterra.

After all, our biggest company hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory under the leadership of the Dutchman Theo Spierings, who will quit later this year, or his Canadian predecessor.

And while it may be simplistic to assume that a New Zealander would do the job better, Jones has focussed attention on one of our more peculiar national quirks: namely, the assumption that important jobs are best given to outsiders.

We kid ourselves that we’ve outgrown the old cultural cringe whereby we automatically defer to people from supposedly more advanced societies, but the syndrome persists.

This is most evident in the public sector, where British appointees, in particular, are rife in both national and local government. It would be a rare Morning Report that didn’t include at least one interview with a bureaucrat whose formative work experience was gained in a country 20,000 kilometres away – one with a culture quite dissimilar to our own, and becoming less like us with every passing year.

Brits tend to be naturally officious, gravitating to jobs that often involve administering rules and regulations. They come from a more rigid, rule-bound society – one described last year by the British author Lee Child, who chooses to live in New York, as “very managed and precious, the epitome of a nanny state”. 

They also tend to carry a bit of nationalistic baggage from the days of empire, and with it a belief that British ways are naturally superior. This doesn’t always gel with our more casual, egalitarian culture.

No doubt many of them are competent administrators, but you have to wonder whether some bring attitudes, values and mindsets that don’t transfer easily to a New Zealand setting.

This probably matters less where decisions on pure policy are involved – as at the Treasury, where former British public servant Gabriel Makhlouf runs the show – than in jobs that call for an intuitive understanding of New Zealand culture and the ways in which it is unique.

Another risk with high-level imported appointments is that they may have no emotional stake in New Zealand or long-term commitment to the country. The New Zealand gig may be just another step on their career path. If they screw things up, they can walk away and start afresh somewhere else.

The public sector doesn’t have a happy record with overseas appointees. Remember the unfortunate Englishwoman Lesley Longstone, who lasted only 15 months as Secretary of Education? A Massey University academic euphemistically commented at the time that she was possibly not well-equipped to read the New Zealand mood.

Another Englishman, Michael Houlihan, brought big ideas with him when he took over as chief executive of Te Papa, but his disastrous four-year tenure resulted in massive financial losses and a lot of unhappy staff. It remains to be seen whether the man now in charge - a Welshman - has a better handle on what it takes to run a New Zealand museum.

Then there was the embarrassing case of Stephen Wilce, a senior Defence official recruited from Britain, whose dazzling CV turned out to be largely a work of fiction.

Questions might even be asked about the wisdom of putting an Irishwoman, Grainne Moss, in charge of Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry for Children.  

She’s obviously capable and committed (she swam the English Channel at the age of 17), but her background is in the aged-care and forestry sectors. There’s little in her CV to indicate she has the empathy and understanding necessary to run a ministry that’s up to its eyeballs in intractable social issues and has a very substantial Maori and Pasifika clientele.

Were there no suitable New Zealand applicants for these key jobs, or didn’t we bother to look locally? I have a friend in the corporate sector who claims that executive recruitment agencies prefer to cast their net overseas because it gives them an excuse to fly around the world and stay in posh hotels.

Part of the problem is that some of the most capable Kiwis end up taking their talent abroad because this country is just too small for them. Conversely I suspect we attract a lot of second-rate people from other countries because the bar is lower here. I suspect this is especially true in academia.

But it’s not just the public sector that seems to remain locked in a mindset that people from overseas have better ideas about how to run our affairs than we do. Under an English chief executive, New Zealand Football comprehensively lost its way and managed to alienate the entire Football Ferns team by importing an Austrian coach whom no one liked.

Both men are now on their way home, and deservedly so. But how often must we repeat these mistakes before the message sinks in?

FOOTNOTE: This column was written before Massey University vice-chancellor Jan Thomas issued her edict banning Don Brash from  speaking on campus. Thomas is an Australian who has been in the job since January 2017. Her background is in veterinary science. She is not a New Zealand citizen, but considers herself entitled to determine what New Zealanders can safely be allowed to say to each other. Whoever appointed her can now bask in the knowledge that she has done serious damage to Massey's reputation and probably succeeded in alienating more New Zealanders than any Australian since Greg Chappell.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Sick to the pit of my stomach

Where should I start?

Perhaps with the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. She told reporters on Saturday that she was proud her fellow New Zealanders didn’t share the views of the Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux.

But how would she know New Zealanders don't share their views? We never even got a chance to hear what their views are, still less decide whether we disagreed with them. That’s what this whole shameful episode was about.

In any case, I’m not aware of any opinion poll that showed what New Zealanders think about Southern and Molyneux. Does the prime minister claim some preternatural insight into what’s going on inside New Zealanders’ heads?

Then there’s Newshub’s Patrick Gower. Perhaps I should have started with him.

Gower interviewed Southern and Molyneux (it wasn’t screened, but you can see it online) and afterwards told newsreaders Samantha Hayes and Mike McRoberts that it was one interview he wouldn’t forget for a while, “and not for any good reason”.

Er, quite so. Gower complained that the Canadians’ response to his questions was “attack-like” and that they indulged in “intellectual nitpicking”. But it was Gower who set the tone of the interview with a needling, aggressive approach which seemed to proceed from the assumption that the two were purveyors of hate speech, whatever that might mean.

He can’t blame the Canadians if they fought fire with fire and left him floundering on more than one occasion. Interviewers who throw punches can’t complain if their subjects strike back.

It was not Gower’s finest moment. At one point he accused Molyneux of indulging in a rant – “rant” now being the favoured New Zealand way of dismissing any expression of opinion that someone else doesn’t like.

The Southern-Molyneux furore cried out for some sober, dispassionate journalism that sought to explain to New Zealanders why the Canadians have aroused such fury.  Well, Gower was not the man to provide it. In fact throughout this saga, the media generally have made little or no attempt to probe beyond the hysteria and the simplistic name-calling. (An example was Newshub’s panel show The Project, where “racist” – a word rendered almost meaningless by misuse – seemed to be the juvenile insult du jour.)

It’s not good enough to tell us, as Gower did in his news report, that Southern and Molyneux had made “controversial comments’” about indigenous Australians. What were these comments, exactly? If we knew, we could decide for ourselves whether they deserved to be called controversial, and whether they justified the hysterical hostility the Canadians encountered in Auckland.

Similarly, it was not good enough for Radio New Zealand to say they made “disparaging” remarks about Aborigines. Tell us what they were, for heaven’s sake, and let us decide whether they were “disparaging”. I don’t trust journalists to pronounce that something is “disparaging” or “controversial” and expect us to meekly accept their word that whatever was said was reprehensible.

A few facts would be helpful, rather than shallow, subjective judgments. But throughout this affair we have repeatedly been expected to accept unquestioningly that Southern and Molyneux are “fascists”, “racists” and purveyors of “hate speech”, as if there were settled definitions of what those overheated terms mean.

Now, where else could I have started? Oh, yes – that placard carried by a protestor at Saturday’s “Rally against Racism” in Aotea Square. “Fascist trash”, it said, in a clear reference to the Canadians. Another placard depicted a swastika with the word “Nazis”.

Pardon me, but who are the real purveyors of “hate speech” here? I have yet to see or read anything said by Southern and Molyneux that could be construed as hateful. Objectionable to some people, perhaps, but not hateful.

But to call someone “fascist trash”or a Nazi – now that strikes me as crossing the boundary between robust attack and crude, unreasoning abuse. It is, however, entirely consistent with the many other derogatory labels that have been promiscuously hurled around over the past couple of weeks as if undergraduate insults convey some immutable and settled truth.

Then there’s Shane Te Pou. Gower reported a verbal exchange in the reception area at MediaWorks involving Te Pou, who just happened, by a strange coincidence, to be standing at the reception desk when the Canadian visitors left after their interview.

Te Pou is a Labour Party activist and former Labour candidate, although Gower’s report omitted to mention that (which also seems a bit odd). Te Pou later told RadioLive that he had suggested to the Canadians that they catch the next flight home, “and don’t let the door hit you on the backside on your way out” (although I suspect that “backside” was not the word he used).

It was uncouth and unprovoked, but typical of the febrile rage that has spread like a contagion as the hard left mobilised and rarked itself up over the Canadians.

There are other players in this ignoble affair who deserve a special mention. One is the idiotic NewstalkZB talkback host Marcus Lush, who told callers on Friday night that the denial of a venue for Southern and Molyneux was a victory for free speech.

In Lush’s tortured logic, the people who bullied the owners of the intended venue into cancelling the Canadians’ engagement with only a few hours’ notice were exercising their right of free speech. ouseSomeone should try to explain to him that free speech actually doesn’t triumph if it deprives someone else of the opportunity to speak. That’s the triumph of the baying mob, pure and simple. And the lesson is that if you make enough noise, if you threaten violence and boycotts and disruption, then you’ll bully people into backing down.

I don’t know whether I agree with the views of Southern and Molyneux, and I suspect I might not like them much as people. Molyneux in particular strikes me as a bit strident and dogmatic for my taste. But New Zealanders are entitled to hear them and decide for themselves whether their views are poisonous. Our democracy isn’t so fragile that we need protecting from mere opinions. The Bill of Rights, after all, guarantees not only the right to express all manner of views, but for others to hear them.

Not that this matters to the smug, myopic prigs who celebrated in Aotea Square. It wouldn’t occur to them, in their overweening self-righteousness, that they are hypocritically insisting on their own right to free speech while denying it to others. Neither would it occur to them that a dangerous precedent is set for everyone – them included – if society decides it’s okay to silence anyone with unpopular opinions.  Who’s to say that couldn’t be used against the left in future? The sight of them congratulating themselves on suppressing someone else’s rights made me sick to the pit of my stomach.

The case against "constructive journalism"

Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch this morning featured an interview with Stuff journalist Nicola Brennan-Tupara, who’s promoting the notion of “constructive journalism”. She’s seen it in action in Denmark, where the Danish Broadcasting Corporation has evidently adopted a policy of not depressing the hell out of the Danes by relentlessly bombarding them with bad news.

It’s an approach I have some sympathy for. A good editor will always try to ensure that bad news is leavened with more positive stuff. But the inescapable fact is that news, by definition, is about the unusual; anything that’s outside the norm. And what’s outside the norm is often bad.

To give an example, it’s not news if the 6.47am commuter train from Masterton to Wellington arrives safely and on time. But it is news if the train breaks down and catches fire in the middle of the Remutaka Tunnel.

You can try to brighten up the news with cheerful items, but tragedy, misfortune and conflict are always going to make up a substantial part of any newspaper or TV bulletin, and editors would be failing in their duty if they set out to suppress it. After all, the function of journalism is to reflect, as accurately as possible, the world as it is, not as some of us might wish it to be.

Besides, “good news” journalism has been tried before and it doesn’t work. Some people might complain that they don’t watch the TV news because it brings them down, as Brennan-Tupara says (heck, even I sometimes give the 6pm bulletin a miss at the end of a gruelling week), but they will soon see through a bland, sanitised news diet that misrepresents what’s happening in the world.

Of course there’s scope for news items that present the better side of the human condition, which is what Brennan-Tupara seems to be on about. But a zealously pursued “constructive journalism” policy risks being misleading and even downright dishonest. It could also serve as a smokescreen for social engineering, of which we have a surfeit already.

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that much of the bad news that features so frequently in the New Zealand media – for example, stories about poverty, inequality, homelessness, climate change and obesity – is promoted by agenda-driven leftist reformers whose doom-laden claims are unquestioningly accepted by sympathetic journalists who shirk the hard questions.

Much of this is opinion dressed up as news and given a spurious aura of credibility because those pushing it have academic titles like “doctor” and “adjunct professor”. If there’s any category of bad news that could be dialled back (note that I say “dialled back”, not suppressed), I’d suggest this might be a good place to start.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Why we should be very suspicious of claims about "hate speech"

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, July 25.)

Hate speech. It’s a phrase you hear increasingly often.

I’ve used it myself as a label of journalistic convenience, but I’m not comfortable with it and never have been.

My first concern is that much of what is emotively described as hate speech isn’t hateful at all. Too often it simply means opinions and ideas that some people find distasteful or offensive. But merely being offended is no justification for stifling expressions of opinion in a liberal, open democracy that depends on the contest of ideas. 

More worryingly, accusations of “hate speech” can be used to intimidate people into silence and put discussion of certain issues and ideas off-limits. In fact I believe that’s the over-arching aim.

Anyway, who defines hate speech? The term is bandied around as if there’s some agreed definition. But there’s not, and freedom of expression is too precious to leave it to an aggrieved minority or an academic elite to define it and therefore determine what the rest of us may say.

It’s also an infinitely elastic term. In Britain, where police have the power to prosecute for hate speech, there have been some frightening cases of overkill and heavy-handedness. 

Better to set the legal bar high to allow plenty of space for free speech, as the courts have tended to do in New Zealand. By all means, draw the line at harmful acts, direct threats to people’s safety or incitements to violence against minorities. But the law already allows for criminal prosecution in such cases.

We have far more to fear from people who want to suppress speech than we do from those who say things that others find objectionable. The real issue here is language control – because if you can control the language people are allowed to use in political discourse, you can control the range of ideas people are permitted to articulate and explore.

This is not a traditional contest between left and right. Enlightened leftists understand that everyone benefits from free speech. The revered American left-wing intellectual Noam Chomsky memorably said that if you don’t believe in free speech for people whose views you despise, you don’t believe in free speech at all.

No, language is the latest battleground in what is known as the culture wars. The mounting clamour for tougher laws against so-called hate speech is an outgrowth of identity politics, in which minority groups are encouraged to see themselves as oppressed or disadvantaged because of their colour, ethnicity, gender, religious belief or sexual orientation. 

This has generated a demand for protection from comments that might be seen as critical or belittling – hence the frequency with which we hear people being accused of xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and misogyny.

No one likes to have these labels pinned on them, so people keep their heads down. Accusing someone of hate speech has the same effect. It’s a quick way to shut down debate.

Other code words that are commonly used in an attempt to de-legitimise valid opinions include “far-right” and “alt-right”. These labels are likely to be attached to anyone whose opinions are to the right of the political centre. You can even be labelled far-right for making statements that most people would regard as utterly unremarkable – for example, saying there are only two genders, as the Canadian commentator Lauren Southern did.

Southern is one of the two speakers who have controversially been barred from using the Auckland Council-owned Bruce Mason Centre – a ban which is now the subject of a legal challenge by the hastily formed Free Speech Coalition.

I am not a member of the coalition, but I made a donation to it and unreservedly support its goal of protecting free speech. As a journalist, I regard Auckland mayor Phil Goff’s authoritarian edict as dangerous to democracy. 

Over the past two weeks I have read many tortuously argued commentaries purporting to justify the ban on the Canadians. Stripped of all their prolixity, they can generally be summed up as “I absolutely support free speech, but not in this case.”

What especially dismays me is that I have read impassioned commentaries by idealistic young journalists who think Goff was right to ban the Canadians.

Journalists, of all people, should be ardent advocates of free speech because they have the most to fear if it’s abolished. In totalitarian regimes, journalists are often the first people to be imprisoned (as in Turkey) and even risk being murdered (as in Putin’s Russia).

But the most illiberal pronouncement I have read on the supposed dangers of free speech came from a university vice-chancellor who clearly thought that ordinary New Zealanders can’t be trusted to form their own sensible conclusions about contentious issues.

This pompous academic thought we needed guidance to keep us on the right path. And where from? Why, from universities.

We can infer from this that universities see themselves as having taken over the Churches' role as moral arbiters. God help us all.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Phew. For a moment there, I thought Noelle McCarthy was interviewing someone who was pro-Israel

I could hardly believe my ears when I tuned into Radio New Zealand this morning and heard an Australian academic describing how Hamas and Hezbollah, the Palestinian terrorist organisations, hide their arms caches, rocket launchers and anti-aircraft batteries amid the civilian population so that the Israeli Defence Force has no choice but to risk collateral damage – that is, deaths and injuries to innocent people – when it retaliates to attacks.

The speaker went on to say that the aim of Hamas and Hezbollah is to make the Israelis look like bastards and therefore win the campaign for international sympathy. This seemed extraordinary: an interviewee on Radio New Zealand actually admitting what Israel has been saying for years – namely, that the Palestinian terrorists deliberately put their own people at risk.

Oh, but wait; he hadn’t finished. Noelle McCarthy’s guest – Australian law professor Tim McCormack, whom the RNZ website describes as an international humanitarian law expert – went on to absolve Hamas and Hezbollah of any blame. “My response is to say ‘well, what do you expect?’”, McCormack said of the Palestinian tactics.  “In an asymmetric conflict where one party has overwhelmingly superior firepower, what’s the other side to do?”

So the end justifies the means, and never mind the innocent casualties. It seemed an odd position for a supposed humanitarian to be taking. But at least I was reassured that nothing has changed at RNZ, or its choice of interview subjects.  Earth hasn’t tilted on its axis after all.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

"Better abortion laws" - but for whom?

Last Saturday I heard Noelle McCarthy, filling in for Kim Hill on her Saturday morning radio show, interview the American abortion careerist Dr Patricia Lohr, who runs Britain’s Pregnancy Advisory Service. (Actually, judging by the interview, that’s a misnomer: if they were honest, they would call it the Abortion Advisory Service, or perhaps the Pregnancy Termination Service).

It was less an interview than an empathising session, since McCarthy and Lohr were clearly of one mind, whether welcoming the “inspirational” result of the recent Irish referendum on abortion or lamenting the obstacles women wanting an abortion are still said to face because …. well, actually, because society views the termination of a life, even in the womb, as a pretty serious matter, although anyone hoping this “interview” might explore some of the profound moral questions around abortion would have been sorely disappointed.  McCarthy and Lohr gave the impression the only moral right in play here is women’s right to have a pregnancy terminated without delay and preferably with no questions asked. I’m surprised no one has proposed drive-in abortion clinics; 10 minutes, no waiting. Perhaps they have.

What struck me most while listening to McCarthy and Lohr is that in a 28-minute discussion about abortion, they somehow managed to avoid a single reference to the word “baby” or even “foetus”. The abortion debate has evidently been so totally captured by feminist ideology, and so successfully framed as solely an issue of women’s rights, that the unborn baby is not only not at the centre of the procedure, but has been erased from the picture altogether. How convenient. Excluding the baby from the conversation neatly gets around messy questions about the morality of extinguishing a human life.

The closest Lohr got to mentioning babies was when she spoke of women “passing the pregnancy” (I think she meant "getting rid of the baby") at home. This is another euphemism that neatly dehumanises the foetus - anything to avoid acknowledging the awkward truth and ease the conscience of those carrying out the procedure.

If you check out the Radio New Zealand website, you’ll see the interview is headlined “Better abortion laws”. But better for whom? Certainly not the unborn child.

Friday, July 13, 2018

"I'm all for free speech, but not right now"

The left is performing all sorts of elaborate intellectual contortions to justify the banning of Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux. Simon Wilson, who naturally leans sharply to the left, has made a sincere attempt in the New Zealand Herald today to write a balanced analysis of the issue, and he nearly pulls it off. But his ideological convictions ultimately come through and sadly it becomes just another apologia of the “I’m all for free speech, but …” variety.

He gives himself away early in the piece with his casual use of the loaded term “white supremacists” to describe Southern and Molyneux and by dismissively referring to the Free Speech Coalition as an “outfit”. I note that Simon apparently doesn’t view the NZ Federation of Islam Associations as just an “outfit”, with all that word’s negative connotations.

He drags a few red herrings across the reader’s path: flaming crosses on the lawn, that sort of stuff. There are ample remedies under existing law for people who directly threaten harm or violence, so I’m not sure whether that type of emotive imagery gets us any further. 

There is also scope under the Human Rights Act for prosecution of anyone who is found to have incited hostility or ill-will against people on the ground of colour or race. But there has only ever been one such case in New Zealand and the courts quite rightly set the bar quite high for successful prosecution, recognising that freedom of expression is a fundamental pillar of democracy. I make an attempt to explore these issues in a piece about hate speech that will appear in next week’s Listener.

Simon also implies that the Canadians will “stir up hatred”. But how can he know that? And how much respect does he have for his fellow New Zealanders if he doesn’t believe (just as Goff obviously doesn’t believe) that we are perfectly capable of resisting attempts to “stir up hatred”, if indeed that’s what Southern and Molyneux intend to do?

Simon quite rightly says free speech is not absolute and that the argument is about where to draw the line. Precisely. I sharply disagree with him about where that line should be drawn, and so do many, many New Zealanders: not white supremacist New Zealanders, nor racist New Zealanders, nor Islamophobic New Zealanders, but New Zealanders who worry that free speech is under concerted attack, and who believe they’re mature enough to hear Southern and Molyneux for themselves and make up their own minds about whether they are hateful white supremacists.

What strikes me, reading Simon’s rather confused piece, is that he’s trying desperately hard to convince himself that the right of free speech can justifiably be suspended in this instance. He says repeatedly that free speech is meaningless if it doesn’t encompass the right to express views that some people find offensive, but then seems to argue that it would probably be best if we didn’t hear Southern and Molyneux because they express views that he and others, um, find offensive.

But to give him credit, he gets it right at the end. After wandering all over the shop, he says: “If they [Southern and Molyneux] do come, maybe they present an opportunity: we can whack these horrible people with some free speech of our own.”

Isn’t that pretty much what free-speech advocates have been saying? The contest of ideas is what democracy is built on. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I can do no better than quote Milton yet again: “Let truth and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”  

I tell you, it's a minefield out there

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, July 12.)

We lead sheltered lives out here in the provinces. Until recently, for example, I’d never heard of a terf.

You hadn’t either? Allow me to explain. A terf is a trans-exclusionary radical feminist.We have TVNZ’s excellent Q+A programme to thank for bringing us up to speed with this latest acronym from the culture wars.

Q+A ran a fascinating item two Sundays ago about a trans-gender person from Wellington who identifies as a woman but was denied membership of a women-only gym because the gym insisted on proof  of gender re-assignment surgery.

According to Q+A, gym staff were subsequently abused online and in person, presumably by supporters of the trans-gender cause. I felt sorry for the trans person at the centre of the debate, who clearly didn’t relish being implicated in such unpleasantness.

The bigger picture here is that society is suddenly expected to remould itself to accommodate gender variations that were unheard of a few years ago. In the process, a schism has opened up between trans-gender people and orthodox feminists. This is what happens when society gets fragmented and polarised by identity politics.

We got advance warning of this three years ago when the doughty feminist warrior Germaine Greer caused an uproar by asserting that trans people were only pretend women. Since then, hostilities have escalated.

In Britain, militant trans activists and terfs have angrily confronted each over a proposed law change that would allow people to “self-identify” their gender.

Trans people assert that if you regard yourself as a certain gender, regardless of the bits you were born with, that’s it; end of story. The trans activists don’t even like hearing reference to vaginas, because that excludes “women” who don’t have them.

The terfs, meanwhile, are determined to protect the notion of womanhood because they see it as underpinning all that feminists stand for. They are also a bit iffy, perhaps understandably, about sharing women-only spaces with people who may be biologically male.

It’s a deliciously exquisite socio-cultural-ideological war. If you wanted to be mischievous you could characterise it as a contest over which faction considers itself the more grievously discriminated against. But that would be flippant, and flippancy is not permitted in the gender wars.

National Party leader Simon Bridges learned this to his cost when he allowed himself to be lured into a trap during a chat on Radio Hauraki, which specialises in blokey flippancy,about whether Jacinda Ardern’s baby should be regarded as gender-fluid.

Predictably, Bridges was savaged in social media for playing along with the joke. Humour, traditionally a safety valve for easing social tensions, is suddenly verboten.

Fragile sensibilities are waiting to be bruised everywhere you turn. Just by placing inverted commas around that word “women” earlier in this column, and thereby highlighting the rather ambiguous status of some people who use that term to describe themselves, I risk being branded as transphobic.

You can add this hyperbolic word to the ever-growing list of pejorative terms – homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, racist, misogynistic – that are used to disparage anyone who isn’t nimble-footed enough to keep up with the constantly shifting battle lines in the culture wars.

I tell you, it’s a minefield out there. Decline to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple because same-sex marriage is against your beliefs, as the woman owner of a bakery in Warkworth did recently, and no matter how painfully polite your refusal, you’ll be pilloried on social media.

Let me make a wild guess here and speculate that many of the people who burned with rage over the baker’s refusal of service to the lesbian couple would have deliriously applauded the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia for humiliating Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, by asking her to leave on a recent Friday night.

Am I missing something, or are there two different rules in play here?

Fortunately, out here in the provinces, we’re largely oblivious to the myriad anxieties and resentments that seem to beset politically aware Wellington. Most of the people I meet strike me as being inexplicably content with life in one the world’s most liberal and tolerant democracies. The preoccupation with perceived injustices seems very much an inner-city metropolitan phenomenon.

We can’t help but be aware of them, of course. Day after day, the media bombard us with laments from a plethora of advocacy groups listing the innumerable ways in which society is failing to satisfy the needs of disadvantaged minorities. New categories of human rights pop up overnight like mushrooms.

But the urban social justice crusaders will just have to be patient and give us provincial yokels time. When age-old certainties are being constantly subverted and the ideological ground keeps shifting under us like tectonic plates, it can be hard to keep up.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The grievance that keeps on giving

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and Stuff.co.nz, July 11.)

Israel recently celebrated its 70th birthday – no mean feat when nearly everyone around you wants to wipe you off the map.

From the very start, Israel’s existence has been threatened by the hostile Arab states that surrounded it. But somehow this tiny country, less than half the size of Canterbury, has survived.

Along the way Israel has negotiated peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan – proof that ancient enmities can be overcome where there’s a will. But its relations with other Arab states have, if anything, become more bitter over time.

And it’s no longer just the Arab world that Israel is up against. At the United Nations, Israel is routinely treated as a pariah state. Blatant anti-Semitism is condoned and even encouraged by some Western political leaders.

To our shame, New Zealand has fallen into line with the anti-Israel bloc. Last year, we supported 16 of the 19 UN resolutions that condemned the Jewish state.

This is perplexing, because according to the international Democracy Index compiled by the British magazine The Economist, Israel remains the only democracy in the Middle East.

The same UN is often strangely silent when it comes to atrocities perpetrated by Arabs, but that’s international diplomacy for you. Diplomats, including our own, do whatever political self-interest dictates.

Admittedly, Israel hasn’t always made it easy to be its friend. The provocative habit of building Jewish settlements in occupied territories claimed by Palestinians has been a consistent impediment in efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

And Israel has done some terrible things – probably never more so than when its army turned a blind eye to the Sabra and Shatila massacres carried out by Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies after the Israeli Army invaded southern Lebanon in 1982.

Then there’s Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. He’s not an easy man to like.  Yet Netanyahu, for all his flaws, is arguably a man for his times, because he’s tough and uncompromising. And presumably, Israeli voters have decided that tough and uncompromising are the qualities they need in an unremittingly hostile world. You can see why.

Therein lies the tragedy of Israel and Palestine. Too often, the agenda is dictated by hard-liners. Whenever there’s a glimmer of hope for peace, it seems to be extinguished by the actions of intransigent extremists with no interest in compromise.

Some of these are on the Israeli side. Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish nationalist who opposed the Oslo peace accord that Rabin had signed. The year before, another Jewish extremist massacred 29 Palestinians.

But these were isolated incidents. Any dispassionate assessment of the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations shows that it’s most often the Palestinians who seem determined to sabotage attempts at reconciliation.

Take the most recent flare-up. We’re told it was Arab anger at Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital that triggered Palestinian protests, resulting in the deaths of 60 people.

But just this once, Trump may have got it right. Jerusalem is central to Jewish history and culture. It’s mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible and the Torah, but not once in the Quran.

You can safely assume, then, that much of the Arab outrage over Trump’s action was confected. Any excuse to nurture a fresh grievance and stir up international sympathy.

That’s something the terrorist organisations Hamas and Hezbollah are very good at. There’s always a receptive audience of Western apologists for Arab terrorism, ready to demand punitive action against Israel for having the temerity to defend itself.

Western observers wrung their hands over the recent suffering in Gaza, but it could have been halted in the blink of an eye. All it took was for the Hamas fanatics to stop firing rockets and mortar bombs across the border, or digging tunnels underneath it, with the intention of killing Israeli citizens.

All it took was for Palestinian parents to say no, we will not allow our children to do Hamas’s dirty work by being used as human shields and placing themselves in danger by hurling missiles at Israeli border guards. Simple, really.

But the tragic truth is that it suits the wider Arab world to have Palestinians confined in their wretched Gaza ghetto and locked into their victim mindset. It’s the grievance that keeps on giving. They seem determined to remain prisoners of their history.

Western politicians bang on about the two-state solution, but there can be no such solution as a long as key player like Hamas vows never to recognise Israel.

And all this because a few million people, having survived unimaginable horror in Europe, sought to create a sanctuary in their ancestral desert homeland. For all the Israelis’ faults, I have no trouble deciding whose side I’m on.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The money has been raised and the judicial challenge will proceed

More breaking news from the Free Speech Coalition:

In less than 24 hours, the Free Speech Coalition has reached its $50,000 fundraising goal and will be engaging lawyers to bring judicial proceedings against Auckland Council for its ban on Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux at Council-owned venues.

Chris Trotter, who is supporting the Coalition, says, "Thank you to every New Zealander who has dug deep to support such an important cause."

“We had hoped to raise this money by 5pm Friday. However, within the first day of this campaign we have been completely swamped by people pledging money to the cause – from $5 to $5,000.”

Melissa Derby, another supporter of the Coalition, says, “We look forward to setting a strong legal precedent that shows the use of publicly-owned venue cannot be dictated by the political whims of those in power.”

“For us this is not about helping these particular speakers, but in defending the rights of all New Zealanders to express and hear controversial views.”

All those who believe in free speech owe a debt of gratitude to Jordan Williams and everyone else who worked to get this campaign up and running so quickly - especially Chris Trotter, who courageously went out on a limb and risked a backlash from fellow leftists (some of whom, to their credit, share Chris's principled commitment to freedom of expression).

Incidentally, the coalition is still accepting donations at nz.free.speech.coalition@gmail.com. You can be confident the money will be put to good use.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Free speech coalition to seek judicial review of Goff speaking ban

Breaking news. A crowd-funding campaign has been launched to challenge Auckland mayor Phil Goff’s ban on Canadian "alt-right" commentators Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux. It aims to raise $50,000 toward the cost of an urgent judicial review.

I support this campaign and urge others to do so too. I’m delighted to see that veteran socialist Chris Trotter is on board – one of the few people on the Left who obviously recognises this is an issue that transcends ideological differences and is courageous enough to put his weight behind it. Good on him.

The Free Speech Coalition’s website is here: https://freespeechcoalition.nz/

Southern and Molyneux: my response to Kimbo

I wrote the following in response to comments from Kimbo, but because those comments appeared under different posts I’m consolidating my responses into one and publishing it separately.

Kimbo, to take your points one by one:

You say I’ve avoided your primary point that protecting free speech doesn’t oblige a public official to provide a platform for it. But I tried to answer that by pointing out that Auckland Council initially gave permission for the venue to be used, as you’d expect it to. After all, what reason did the council have for not allowing it? But then Goff interposed himself and effectively over-ruled his officials. At that point, because he reversed a decision already (and I presume lawfully) made, it became an act of political censorship.

But the far bigger point is that I don’t believe the people of Auckland elected Goff so that he could decide what opinions they were allowed to hear, or to protect them from what he suspects might be harmful ideas. That is not, and never was, part of his remit. He has grossly and arrogantly overstepped his authority on the pretext that he doesn’t want Southern and Molyneux “stirring up religious or ethnic tensions”. But New Zealanders have long shown themselves to be admirably resistant to attempts to stir up religious and ethnic tensions. This isn’t the Balkans, for heaven’s sake, or even Northern Ireland. We quite rightly expect people coming here from strife-torn countries to leave their ethnic and religious tensions in the arrivals lounge, and they almost invariably do. Big Brother Goff’s bogus concern for public wellbeing is a smokescreen. Underneath that bland, smiling facade beats the heart of an old-fashioned socialist controller.

Next, you seem to be saying that because people can hear Southern and Molyneux on You Tube, there’s no need for them to come here in person. What an extraordinary argument. Southern and Molyneux can stay safely quarantined in Canada and talk to us from there. Problem solved! This is tantamount to using the digital revolution as justification for limiting freedom of movement as well as the right to speak.

You seem to be suggesting that as long as information is available in one form, it’s okay for people to be denied access to it in others. Has the novel proposition occurred to you that in an open and free society, people should be left to choose for themselves how and where they receive their ideas? That idea might strike you as quaint, but our parliamentarians obviously go along with it. Section 14 of our Bill of Rights Act 1990 says this: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information  and opinions of any kind in any form” (my italics).

Perhaps you should read it sometime. So should Phil Goff. Oh, wait – he was in Parliament when it was passed. Perhaps he’s forgotten.

One other point. In your reply to another commenter, David, you suggest that Goff is acting in the interests of the Auckland Muslim community. But since when did New Zealand grant protection to one religion that it doesn’t confer on others? Christianity has been fair game for mockery and insult in this country for almost as long as I can remember. Christians just hunker down and get on with it.

The freedom to hold religions – all religions – up to critical scrutiny goes with the territory in New Zealand. I would hope that most New Zealand Muslims, having presumably come here because New Zealand’s freedom and tolerance appeals to them, would understand and respect that. By making special exceptions for them, Goff risks creating the very tensions and resentments that he sanctimoniously claims he wants to prevent.

Oh, and by the way, Kimbo (or “Unknown” as the case may be): if I’m going to continue engaging with you on this blog, I think you owe it to me as a courtesy to identify yourself rather than sheltering behind pseudonyms. You know who I am, and I expect you to return the favour.

Where does the Left - and for that matter the National Party - really stand on freedom of speech?

The New Zealand Left has got itself in a terrible moral tangle over the banning of Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux. It has allowed its concern for supposedly oppressed minority groups, such as Muslims and trans-gender people, to blind it to foundational democratic values. It was the Left’s own hero, Noam Chomsky, who said: “If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise you’re not in favour of free speech.”

I wonder, who in the Left will have the guts to stand up and say New Zealanders are entitled to hear Southern and Molyneux? Will anyone? Where are the genuine liberals, if any, in the Labour Party?  The present deafening silence suggests the Left’s embrace of human rights is highly selective. Freedom of speech, after all, is the most basic right of all, after the right to life.

And while we’re on the subject, where the hell is the National Party on this issue? Simon Bridges was asked about it on TVNZ’s Breakfast show this morning but was half-hearted and equivocal in his answer, saying he would have let the Canadians in but understood why Phil Goff banned them from using Auckland Council venues. No surprises there. I wonder if Judith Collins would have been so spineless.  

Saturday, July 7, 2018

A triumph for left-wing bigotry and intolerance

What a dismal, shameful day for New Zealand, for democracy and for freedom of speech.

July 6 was the day when extreme left-wing bigotry and intolerance triumphed over the democratic values this country has previously espoused.

The left professes to champion diversity and inclusion, but it has revealed just how selectively it interprets those words. Tolerance of diversity and inclusion applies only to favoured left-wing causes. Mysteriously, it stops short of tolerating any opinion that challenges left-wing orthodoxy.

Statements purporting to justify the cancellation of the proposed Auckland speaking engagement by the Canadian “alt-right” commentators Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux are breathtaking in their disregard for democratic principles.

I wonder, what did Auckland do to deserve Phil Goff? His creepy predecessor, the adulterous Len Brown, suddenly looks almost likeable by comparison.

Goff, who has passed himself off for years as a genuine liberal, now stands exposed as just another doctrinaire leftist who wants to control the public conversation. His credibility rating has sunk to zero.

His justification for barring Southern and Molyneux from speaking at Auckland Council-owned venues – that he doesn’t want to “stir up religious or ethnic tensions” – is a sanctimonious copout. It’s a capitulation to fringe extremists like Valerie Morse. It sends a signal that all the extreme left has to do in future to deny a platform to people it doesn’t like is to threaten violent disruption.

At times like this we expect our political leaders to stand up for the right to free speech, because it’s a fundamental tenet of liberal democracy. It’s not overstating things to say that Goff has betrayed us all.

As for Morse, I wonder if she suffers from some sort of personality disorder. She certainly seems blind to the contradictions in her own behaviour.

She purports to represent an organisation called Auckland Peace Action, but seven years ago she was identified as one of the Urewera 18 – a pathetic bunch of pretend urban terrorists who allegedly threw Molotov cocktails around and fired semi-automatic weapons at training camps in the bush.

Morse avoided conviction after the Supreme Court ruled that the police had gathered evidence illegally, but according to the evidence she was filmed holding a Molotov cocktail and had a pistol tucked into her trousers. Very peaceable.

More to the point, Morse was arrested for burning a New Zealand flag in a protest gesture at an Anzac Day service in Wellington in 2007. It was an act that outraged many New Zealanders, but her conviction for offensive behaviour was overturned by the Supreme Court.

Much as I despise Morse and her ilk, I believe the Supreme Court got it right. Freedom of expression quite properly allows New Zealanders to engage in acts that other people find deeply objectionable.

The irony is that having benefited from the right to freedom of expression on that occasion, Morse now insists on denying it to others. I don’t think there’s a word in the English language that captures the scale of her hypocrisy.   

Friday, July 6, 2018

Let's hear the Canadians for ourselves and decide then whether it's dangerous

It is often the first instinct of the far left, when confronted with ideas or opinions they don’t approve of, to try to shut them down.

There was a tiny but telling example of this in a letter to the Dominion Post a few days ago from a reader who didn’t like my column outlining the advance of neo-Marxism. He said it was “disappointing” (note the morally superior tone and phony sanctimony) to see such opinions being given oxygen by a “credible New Zealand paper”.

In other words, he didn’t like what I said, so I should have been censored. Well, suck it up, buster. It’s called free speech.

But a far more serious and alarming threat to freedom of expression has emerged today with attempts to bar two so-called “far right” speakers from entering New Zealand next month.

There’s the first problem, right there. Both the New Zealand Herald and Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report used that term “far right” to describe the Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who are planning to follow a tour of Australia with a single engagement in Auckland.

I hadn’t consciously heard of Southern before today and was only vaguely aware of Molyneux, but experience has taught me to be very sceptical when the media refer to anyone as “far right”. It’s a subjective judgment that has no place in a news story, which we rightly expect to be unbiased (in contrast with this blog, which is clearly an expression of opinion).

Decoded, “far right” can mean anyone to the right of the political centre. To be consistent, the Herald should have described the activist Valerie Morse, who wants the Canadians kept out of New Zealand, as “far left”. But of course it didn’t, and thus it gave her an aura of political legitimacy that it denied to the Canadians.

In any case, whether or not Southern and Molyneux are “far right” – however that’s defined – is neither here nor there. We live in a liberal democracy that depends on free speech and the free exchange of ideas and opinions. Let’s hear for ourselves what the Canadians have to say and decide then whether it’s dangerous.

When it comes to free speech, I’m an absolutist. The only exceptions should be blatant incitements to cause harm. The moment we give in to the clamour from left-wing bigots seeking to stifle ideas they disapprove of, or for that matter anyone trying to stifle ideas they disapprove of (although it’s invariably the left that pushes for political censorship and suppression), we’re stuffed. Book-burning won’t be far behind.

It will surprise no one that the push to have Southern and Molyneux barred from New Zealand comes from Auckland Peace Action, whose spokeswoman, the serial protester Morse, claims the Canadians are coming to New Zealand to “empower local racists and to encourage racist violence”.

It’s perhaps more surprising that the New Zealand Federation of Islamic Organisations is backing the call for a ban. This is not what New Zealand Muslims should be doing if they want to persuade us that they reject the totalitarian theology of  many of their co-religionists elsewhere.  

So just what makes the two Canadians so poisonous? According to Radio New Zealand, they have “far-right, alternative” views on feminism, gender, Islam and mass immigration.

As one example of their extreme, “alternative” positions, RNZ cited Southern’s statement that there are “only two genders”. It’s an indication of how totally the so-called progressives  have seized control of the public conversation that Southern could be held up as a pariah for expressing an opinion that’s shared by many New Zealanders – possibly even a majority – and which only a few years ago would have been considered utterly unremarkable.

Judging by an audio clip played by RNZ, Southern has also inflamed leftists and feminists by calling out the exquisite hypocrisy of their position on Islam, a religion they’re so eager to empathise with that they conveniently turn a blind eye to its repression of women.
We're told that Southern was barred from speaking in Britain, as if that’s all the justification the New Zealand government needs to turn her away. In fact she’s only one of several speakers to have been detained or turned back at British airports on the spurious pretext that their presence was “not conducive to the public good” or was “likely to incite tensions”, which really meant that they made the timid authorities feel a bit queasy.
But this shouldn’t be a case of “where Britain goes, we go”, to use Michael Joseph Savage’s famous line. Far from giving New Zealand a lead, all the British bans demonstrate is that the country from which we inherited our democratic traditions has betrayed its honourable record as a defender of free speech. We can’t allow the same thing to happen here.
Back to Val Morse. The Herald quotes her as saying: “They [Southern and Molyneux] come to recruit people to their fascist ideology. It is imperative that this type of racism is given no room to be promoted and encouraged in Aotearoa. If they come here, we will confront them on the streets. If they come, we will blockade entry to their speaking venue.”

Well, there you have it. Even if the government allows the Canadians in – and I’ll be the first to take to the streets if they’re barred – the bigots of the left will do their best to ensure no one can hear them. I ask you: who are the real fascists here?
Shouting people down is something the far left has a lot of practice at. They do it all the time in the US, Britain and even Australia. You can hear it on one of the audio clips played on today’s Morning Report, in which shrieking protesters try to prevent Southern being heard.
In the US, ironically, the Berkeley campus of the University of California, which was the birthplace of the radical student free-speech movement in the 1960s, is now synonymous with the practice of no-platforming – the very antithesis of free speech. Just as ironically, some of the speakers recently turned back at British airports had been engaged to deliver addresses at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, where traditionally all comers have been allowed.
Let’s assume for a moment, as a purely hypothetical exercise, that Morse’s shrill hyperbole is even remotely accurate, and that Southern and Molyneux would come here with the aim of inflaming local racists. I could only say good luck with that, because New Zealand is by world standards a remarkably tolerant and moderate society, and stolidly resistant to inflammation by extremists of any stripe.
Perhaps even more importantly, it’s a robust democracy that is perfectly capable of being exposed to rancid opinions without being swayed. I always come back to that wonderful line from Milton’s Areopagitica: “Let Truth and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
Here, in a way, is the essence of the issue. It all comes down to trust and control. Leftist fanatics like Morse don’t trust people to make their own sensible judgments, so they want to control what we hear and read. If we value free speech and representative democracy, we can't let them.
Footnote: I was saddened to hear Massey University professor Paul Spoonley say on Morning Report that he wasn’t opposed to the Canadians being denied entry. I respect Spoonley and have never doubted him when he described himself as a supporter of free speech. On Morning Report today, however, he added the dreaded “but …”. Spoonley said he didn’t see free speech being advanced by views that he described as “hateful and extreme”.
I have two problems with that. The first is the assumption that the opinions expressed by Southern and Molyneux are hateful and extreme. That depends entirely on the ideological prism you happen to be looking through. But more importantly, I believe that the moment we start putting qualifications around freedom of speech, we’re in trouble. Big time.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The long march of cultural Marxism

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, June 28.)

A significant anniversary passed recently with surprisingly little fanfare.

News stories marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx focused on the fawning tribute paid to him by the Chinese president Xi Jinping.

There was a large dollop of irony here, since the modern Chinese communist party is highly selective in its application of Marxism. It has combined Marxist-style political totalitarianism – brutal suppression of dissent and absolute obeisance to the party – with a largely unfettered capitalist-style economy. 

There are few greater extremes of wealth and poverty than in China, a country that today boasts an estimated 250 billionaires – not exactly what Marx had in mind when he envisaged the glorious working-class revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

As an economic model, Marxism stands totally discredited. The few remaining outposts of communist ideology, such as North Korea and Cuba, are economic basket-cases, as well as notoriously repressive.

And of course Marxism’s record has been irrevocably blighted by two of the most monstrous figures in history, Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao – proud Marxists who carried out mass exterminations without blinking an eye.

In view of all this, it’s grimly ironic that a form of Marxism not only survives, but is rampant across the democratic Western world.

Some call it cultural Marxism, others neo-Marxism. However you choose to label it, it has perversely triumphed where Marx’s economic theories have deservedly been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Neo-Marxism draws partly on Marxist analysis but is equally influenced by a bunch of twisted 20th century French philosophers. It grows out of the assumption that Western civilisation, and all that goes with it, is fundamentally rotten and therefore must be dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up.

In the cockeyed illogic of the neo-Marxists, we should feel guilt and shame at having inherited a civilisation that has lifted untold millions of people out of poverty and introduced them to democratic government.

You can see Marx’s influence in neo-Marxism’s hostility to capitalism, its contempt for supposed bourgeois values – the family, for instance – and its emphasis on class and division.

But neo-Marxism takes classical Marxist analysis a whole lot further, examining every issue through the lenses not only of class but also of race, gender, sexual identity and any other potential point of difference that can be leveraged into a grievance.

It marches arm-in-arm with identity politics, seeing society not as a cohesive whole, sharing common interests and aspirations, but as a seething mass of oppressed minorities struggling for liberation – hence the ever-increasing number of aggrieved groups clamouring for special recognition. The result is polarisation and fragmentation.

Neo-Marxism also sets out to create a sense of continuing economic and social crisis, using this as justification for ever more intrusive state intervention and control. And it seeks to undermine our most basic understanding of human nature and society. How we see and interpret the world is dismissed by neo-Marxists as a social and political construct, a product of our conditioning. 

Nothing is fixed, not even the sex we are born with, and nothing has any objective value. Every belief and every value, no matter how soundly based in human experience and observation, is up for attack.

Paradoxically, while the neo-Marxists assail some belief systems as oppressive – Christianity for example – they make excuses for others, such as Islam, although it’s infinitely more controlling. But don’t go looking for ideological consistency in neo-Marxism; you’d be wasting your time.

It all sounds laughable, but it’s taught in deadly earnest in our universities. Marxism may have been a wretched failure as an economic model, but the German radical Rudi Dutschke realised decades ago that its aims could be pursued by other means.

Inspired by the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, Dutschke came up with the idea of the “long march through the institutions”. Drawing an analogy with the famous march by Mao’s Red Army through China in the 1930s, Dutschke envisaged subverting society by infiltrating the institutions of higher learning. 

He couldn’t have imagined how successful his stratagem would be. It works by targeting the impressionable young, many of whom have a natural idealistic desire to do the right thing, and few of whom have any knowledge of historic crimes against humanity perpetrated in pursuit of a Marxist utopia.

And how do the neo-Marxists respond when anyone resists their nihilistic theories? Typically, opposition is howled down as hate speech or met with sneering and ridicule. There’s no room in the neo-Marxist world for dissent or freedom of expression. 

The tragedy is that neo-Marxism is triumphing because the institutions of liberal, democratic government are too weak, too naïve, too complacent or too uncertain of the worth of their own values to put up a fight.

Neo-Marxism has now extended its influence far beyond universities, reaching deep into government, schools, the media, the arts and even the churches. The result is a society that is losing confidence in itself, which is precisely the neo-Marxists’ aim – because a society that has lost confidence in itself is easier to intimidate and control.