Friday, June 15, 2018

Even Northland didn't want him, but now he's going to be our acting PM

(First published in the Dominion Post and on, June 14.)

So we’re going to have Winston Peters as our acting prime minister for six weeks. Not bad for a politician who was rejected by his own electorate at the last election after failing to complete a single term.

Not bad either for a politician whose party won only 7 per cent of the vote and which, judging by recent polls, would struggle to scrape back into Parliament if an election was held tomorrow. 

This is democracy New Zealand-style, in which the rewards – the baubles of office that Peters once insisted he wasn’t interested in – go not to a politician who commands broad public support, but to a crafty minor player who has learned how to game the system and manipulate the bigger parties.

We should all be ashamed at this travesty. But in the welter of media excitement over Jacinda Ardern’s impending motherhood, we’ve somehow overlooked the embarrassing fact that the most powerful office in the land is being placed in the hands of a politician with no popular mandate.

Perhaps we have short memories, so allow me to help. The Peters party lost three of its seats at the last election, including Peters’ own. Its share of the vote dropped from 8.6 per cent to 7.2 per cent – hardly a resounding endorsement.

We don’t know, and may never know, exactly what happened in the subsequent negotiations to form a coalition government, because the politicians prefer to keep all that stuff secret. Transparency? Pffft.

What we do know is that Peters largely controlled the process because his party’s puny share of the vote gave him the balance of power.

We also know now, although no one knew then, that on the day before the election, Peters had quietly instituted legal action against senior National Party figures over the alleged leaking of details about the overpayment of his national superannuation.

This made it highly improbable, to say the least, that he would agree to a coalition with National. But both major parties continued to negotiate with him in good faith, each believing it was in with an equal chance and each trying to outbid the other for his favour.

With the benefit of hindsight, the negotiations can be seen as a charade with only one likely outcome. Both major parties were played for suckers.

We eventually learned what Peters’ price was. Not only did he emerge as deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister, but four Cabinet seats were allocated to NZ First – twice the number it would have been entitled to if Cabinet appointments were proportionate with the party’s poll result.

Of course all these inconvenient details are swept under the carpet now, because they reflect badly on our flawed electoral system.

Rather than ask awkward questions about the murky circumstances in which the Labour-led coalition was formed, we’re expected to marvel at what a good job Peters is doing as foreign minister.

Well, of course he is. After all, it’s hardly the most taxing gig in the Cabinet. And who wouldn’t relish a job that involves hob-nobbing with world leaders in exotic locales?

It’s perhaps telling that his one serious misstep so far was his misplaced enthusiasm for a trade deal with Russia. I have a sneaking suspicion that Vladimir Putin is the type of leader Peters admires.

We’re also assured that Peters will do a great job as acting prime minister – but again, why wouldn’t he? He’s onto a good thing and he must know it. He probably considers it due reward for a long and tumultuous political career which now, please God, must be nearing its end.

But we should also remember that this is Winston Raymond Peters we’re talking about. And where Peters is involved, the potential for mayhem and debacle is never far away.

We’re encouraged to believe everything is hunky-dory in the coalition and that it will be business as usual – Ardern’s phrase – when Peters steps up. But only this week Peters humiliated Justice Minister Andrew Little by derailing Little’s plan to repeal the Three Strikes law.

He also provocatively re-activated the legal action over the leaking of his superannuation overpayment, in which one of the defendants is his Cabinet colleague David Parker as Attorney-General.

This is classic Peters. The timing could hardly have been accidental. He can’t help himself.

But I’m picking the real test of Peters’ new-found statesmanlike mantle will come when he has to deal with journalists. Almost alone among New Zealand politicians, Peters has never quite accepted that accountability to the public, via the media, goes with the territory.

Will he be able to suppress his natural antagonism toward journalists in his new role? The sheer improbability of it conjures up Dr Johnson's famous image of a dog walking on its hind legs. But it might be fun to watch.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

So it's true then - pop music HAS become boring

(First published in the Nelson Mail, the Manawatu Standard and

I did something last week that I almost never do. I watched an item on Seven Sharp.

This particular item had been previewed during an ad break in the 6 o’clock news and it aroused my interest. It asked the provocative question, has pop music got boring?

So I watched the item, and the answer reporter Tim Wilson gave was: Yes, it has.

Ah, so it’s not just me then.

Here I was wondering whether I was alone in harrumphing over the monotony of 21st century pop.

I had rebuked myself for doing what people have always done when they get to a certain age – namely, shake their heads at the incomprehensible tastes of the young. But here seemed to be at least partial confirmation of my view that pop music has become drearily predictable and insipid.

Wilson interviewed Auckland musician and arranger Godfrey de Grut, who lectures in popular music studies at the University of Auckland. De Grut comes with plenty of music industry cred, having worked with the likes of Che Fu, Brooke Fraser and Boh Runga.

Admittedly de Grut is no teenager, and neither is Wilson. But they’re a lot younger (and cooler) than I am, so I took heart from their assessment that mainstream pop music has become, in de Grut’s words, bland and homogeneous.

De Grut was able to explain in simple terms what it is about these songs that makes them l sound so similar. They use the same song structures and the same sterile technology. Often they’ve been crafted by the same songwriter. To me it all sounds pre-packaged and bloodless – the aural equivalent of junk food.

The Seven Sharp item seemed to confirm the impressions I’d formed on a recent car trip, when I couldn’t find any of the radio stations I usually favour and ended up listening to a pop station.

I started listening because there was nothing else available, but I stayed tuned out of curiosity and fascination at the sheer relentless sameness of the music.

Song after song followed the same pattern: simple, repetitive, almost childlike melodies – they reminded me of nursery rhymes – over an insistent, pulsing electronic beat.

It struck me as being fashionably gender-neutral. The voices were almost asexual, even androgynous, to the extent that it was sometimes hard to tell whether the singer was male or female.

I have no idea who the performers were, but I recognised the songs as being representative of a genre that’s heard everywhere in hotel lobbies, cafes and airport terminals. You can’t escape it, no matter how desperately you might want to.

It’s the same music that I’m forced to listen to when I’m put on hold while waiting to talk to my internet service provider/bank/insurance company/whatever. I assume it’s their way of persuading you to give up and leave them alone.

I even hear it if I wake early and tune into NewstalkZB’s Early Edition to get the first news of the day. For some reason there’s always a pop song playing behind the host when she comes back on air after the 5.30am bulletin.

Listening to this stuff, I find myself wondering whether pop music has exhausted itself and retreated to the same safe space it inhabited before rock and roll.

I’m just old enough to remember the dull, anodyne pop that emanated from radios before Bill Haley and Elvis Presley. It was the era of The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane by the Ames Brothers, Hot Diggity Dog Ziggity by Perry Como and How Much is that Doggie in the Window, by Patti Page. 

Rock and roll arrived in the nick of the time. If it wasn’t for Presley, Haley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, we would have succumbed to the stupefying effects of an obesity-inducing musical diet that consisted wholly of white bread, doughnuts and marshmallow.

With the advent of rock and roll, popular music acquired not only a raw energy but an edgy, almost menacing quality. At the moment I’m reading an excellent book called 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, in which British writer Jon Savage analyses the culture and politics of that year through the prism of pop music.

By that time the epicentre of the pop world had shifted from America to London. It was the golden era of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Kinks – bands that produced their own distinctive sounds and could never have been mistaken for each other, unlike today’s sound-alikes.

Savage’s book is also a reminder that the sullen, pouty, rebellious stance of bands like the Stones and the Who was seen as a potent threat to the conservative establishment.

It occurs to me that no one could take offence at today’s mainstream pop, other than on aesthetic grounds. Perhaps that’s its problem.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Comments update: they're working on it

In my last post I mentioned that I was no longer receiving email notifications of comments submitted to this blog. I thought I had fixed the problem, but no. Even the dozens of comments that I posted three days ago (after finding them languishing in my "awaiting moderation" folder) have disappeared. I now discover that the same problem has been experienced by other bloggers. Google says it's aware of the problem and is working on a fix.  Sigh.

Monday, June 4, 2018

To all those who wondered what happened to their comments, now you know

A friend alerted me yesterday to the fact that a comment she had tried to post on my blog hadn't appeared. How the blog normally works is that when someone submits a comment it comes to me as an email. I can then click "publish" or "delete" (normally the former, as it goes without saying that my blog typically attracts a superior grade of comment) and it duly appears (or disappears, as the case may be). But my friend's alert prompted me to check my blog settings, and in the course of rummaging around in the bowels of I discovered literally dozens of unpublished comments, some of which had been languishing there since early last year. None of them had come to me as emails, so I was unaware of their existence. On the basis of better late than never, and in a desperate attempt to keep faith with my blog readers, they have now belatedly been published. My sincere (and rather embarrassed) apologies to all those commenters who thought I'd snubbed them. I now know not to assume that I'll receive email notification of comments.

This merely goes to confirm my lack of digital savvy. If running a blog could be compared with driving a car, I'd be displaying an L-plate in my rear window.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

If there was a train across the Pacific, I'd take it

(First published in the Nelson Mail and on, May 30.)

God, how I loathe flying. Everything about it irritates me.

This realisation struck me forcefully as I sat in a crowded Sydney Airport waiting for a connecting flight home after a 14-hour trip from Los Angeles.

I like to think of myself as an amiable-enough sort of bloke most of the time, but when I’m travelling I become a cranky misanthrope. Cooped up in oppressively close proximity with my fellow human beings, I develop a strange aversion to them and become sharply aware of their quirks and foibles.

I find myself muttering under my breath at people who take too long at the check-in counter or try to stuff too much into the overhead baggage locker.

I harrumph over gimmicky, infantile in-flight safety videos that go on for far too long – I’m with Bob Jones here – and I bristle at bossy flight attendants, although most try to be personable and helpful.

I resent being bombarded with clutter – blankets, headphones, pillows, plastic cups – that there’s no room for, and I curse the ever-more rigorous airport security screening procedures.

Most of all I seethe when dopey or inconsiderate passengers hold everyone up. At LAX, hundreds of us sat on the tarmac for an hour and a half because someone had checked in their suitcases but failed to take their seat, which meant their bags had to be found and unloaded. 

I regard the modern airport as a vision of hell, the more so when I’m stuck in one for hours because my flight is held up, as it so often is. Delays are endemic in international travel, and airlines are very good at avoiding responsibility for the consequences. Just watch the ground staff magically disappear when there’s a departure lounge full of disgruntled travellers wondering where the hell their plane is.

Other airport irritants include scruffy backpackers – a 21st century global contagion – who spread themselves across several seats or sprawl across the floor, obstructing others. In my curmudgeonly state of mind I imagine many of them are travelling on round-the-world fares paid for by over-indulgent parents.

In Sydney I observed another phenomenon of modern travel: I was surrounded by zombies, all blankly fixated by their “devices” in what appeared to be a case of mass Facebook hypnosis. I’m not just talking about millennials here: “senior” women too were mesmerised by their phones and tablets. Not for the first time, I wondered what could be so riveting as to demand their total attention.

In the toilets, I had to listen to men noisily hoicking. Why do males apparently feel the need to do this when women don’t? And what is it about airport toilets that triggers this nauseating habit – or do these slobs do the same at home?

To get to the departure lounge, I had to pass through duty-free outlets where I was assailed by hucksters – polite, attractive hucksters, but hucksters nonetheless – trying to sell me perfume and liquor that I can buy cheaper elsewhere.

Fliers once had the option of bypassing duty-free. Now they have no choice. It’s a racket, pure and simple, but there was no shortage of buyers. Somehow the idea has been implanted in travellers’ heads that duty-free shopping is always cheaper than elsewhere. This has enabled airport companies and duty-free operators to enter a very lucrative conspiracy aimed at exploiting the gullible.

The flight from LAX to Sydney had been arduous, as long-haul air travel always is for me. Some people happily pass the time watching movies, but something strange happens to my brain when I board an aircraft. Though I rarely sleep, I lose all interest in watching movies or listening to music, and even reading palls after a time.

On this occasion I forced myself to watch a movie and chose to see Dunkirk for the second time – a dumb choice. All movies are greatly diminished on those tiny screens and tinny earphones, but Dunkirk – which depends heavily on its spectacular cinematography and sound effects – more than most.

The rest of the time I did what I invariably end up doing on long-haul flights: I gritted my teeth and imagined that by sheer force of will, I could somehow make the time pass more quickly. In the process I almost lost the will to live.

My wife and I had paid extra for exit-row seats, which at least meant I could stretch out. I don’t think I could have lasted the flight squeezed into a standard seat, which these days seems designed for people with the bodies of teenage Olympic gymnasts.

At least I’m relatively thin. How large people manage is beyond me, to say nothing of the miserable wretches who have to sit beside them. And how the hell do obese passengers get on in the aircraft dunnies, where there’s barely enough room even for people of normal size?

I recently read that airlines earn nearly one-third of their revenue from the 5 percent of passengers who fly business class, which kind of puts everything in perspective. Corporate travellers and the rich must be kept happy – the rest of us not so much.

What it all boils down to is this: airlines have made flying a whole lot cheaper by packing more and more people in, but there’s a trade-off in terms of comfort and enjoyment. Only a mug could believe that flying is still the pleasurable and exotic experience that it once was.

It has become an ordeal, pure and simple. If I could take a train across the Pacific I’d do it, even if the trip took a week.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Male, pale and stale - a despised minority

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, May 31.)

I am writing this column as a member of a despised minority. I will be 68 next birthday. I’m fair of skin and male of sex.

To put it another way, in the language of “progressive” millennials and people who, with no sense of irony, describe themselves as liberals, I’m male, pale and stale. 

There is no more crushing condemnation in the 21st century political lexicon. To be male, pale and stale is to be racist, sexist, bitter and selfish. Don Brash and Sir Bob Jones are prime examples of this wretched form of humanity. I am too, albeit of a lower order of celebrity.

It goes without saying that I can’t help being old. I can no more control the ageing process than I could dance the prima ballerina’s role in Swan Lake. Neither did I have any say over my ethnicity or sex.

Perhaps if I’d been born six decades later I might have been encouraged to decide for myself what gender I wanted to assume and to alter my sexual identity at will, regardless of physiology. But I’ve been a bloke all my life and it’s a bit hard to re-invent myself at this point in my life cycle.

Having said that, I’ve been happy being a male and never felt any desire to have it any other way. Nor have I felt ashamed about it, which is not to say I’m not regularly appalled by the behaviour of some of my fellow blokes.

Moreover, I don’t hate or fear women and have never felt that I was in competition with them, still less perceived them as a threat. So I’m not sure that I deserve the implied accusation that men like me are by definition misogynistic.

The women who have been closest to me throughout my life have been stroppy and strong-willed. If I preferred women to be submissive, I’ve been either desperately unlucky or spectacularly unwise.

But never mind all that. I’m stuck with being a bloke, just as I’m stuck with my skin colour and my inexorably advancing age. Yet I, and others like me, now find ourselves regularly being pilloried for having the temerity to express an opinion about things. It seems we’re expected to shut up.

Let’s unpick that phrase “male, pale and stale”. The first thing you notice is that it explicitly criticises people on the basis of their skin colour.

Ah, but that’s okay, because we’re white. And as I heard a moronic talkback host assert recently, only minority groups – i.e. non-whites – can be subject to racism.

You can forget all that warm, inclusive talk on the Left about celebrating diversity. The embrace of diversity mysteriously stops short of ageing white blokes. We’re the one demographic cohort against whom it’s permissible – in fact fashionable – to display undisguised and often venomous bigotry.

In any other context, attacking people on the basis of their age, sex and skin colour would be labelled a hate crime, but no one should expect the Human Rights Commission to take up our cause.

Being white and male, we are seen as being in a position of power and therefore unscathed by discrimination and immune to insult. And if we are discriminated against, we’re expected to suck it up because … well, because we deserve it.

Ageing white males are considered fair game because we’re seen as having enjoyed privilege for too long. Now the tables have turned and we’re expected to pay the penalty by keeping our supposedly rancid opinions to ourselves. 

This treats freedom of expression as a zero-sum game where one person’s right to speak can only be achieved by silencing someone else. But that’s not how free speech works.

In any case, if white males dominated newspaper opinion columns in past decades, as has been alleged, then any imbalance has been more than redressed. The media today is awash with comment that uncritically embraces the “progressive” agenda (there’s another word that’s used with no sense of irony) and sneers at anyone who stands in its path.

Am I pleading for sympathy here? Not a bit. We curmudgeonly tuataras can look after ourselves. All I’m doing is highlighting the double standards of social justice warriors who shriek with outrage at any perceived slight against a favoured minority group, but pile in for the attack when it’s an old white bloke who’s on the ground getting kicked.

One last thought. Today’s angry social justice warrior has a funny way of turning into tomorrow’s crusty reactionary.

One day the people who rant about ageing white men will themselves become old, and they can’t discount the hideous possibility that they too will morph into conservative dinosaurs, because by then they might have learned a few things about life, politics and the human condition.

Monday, May 28, 2018

To anyone hoping for impartial coverage of the abortion debate, these are not promising signs

This afternoon on National Radio I heard Jesse Mulligan interview a spokeswoman for a group of Irish Wellingtonians who backed the “yes” vote in Ireland’s abortion referendum.

It was a soft interview, as you might expect of a light, chatty afternoon show. The interviewee told how her group gathered at a Wellington bar on Saturday night to watch the referendum result come in.  There were heart-warming scenes of joy and happiness, she said, when the “no” campaigners – the people who opposed liberalisation of Ireland’s strict abortion laws – conceded defeat.

The tone of the conversation was celebratory. A visitor from a distant galaxy would have had no trouble concluding that the right side had won the argument.

(As an aside, I accept that the referendum result was greeted as a triumph for women’s rights. Nonetheless I find it grotesque that people should rejoice at the prospect of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of unborn babies having their lives snuffed out. It strikes me as a triumph of warped ideology over humanity - but that’s just me.)

Mulligan stopped short (just) of congratulating his guest on the outcome, but he did feed her an obliging cue by effectively inviting her to say that New Zealand now lagged behind Ireland in terms of restrictions on abortion – the implication being that we should get our skates on if we want to catch up.

This followed an interview earlier in the day on Morning Report in which Susie Ferguson questioned Abortion Law Reform New Zealand president Terry Bellamak about the implications of the Irish referendum result. That was a soft interview too, although Morning Report professes to be a hard current affairs show.

Like her afternoon colleague, Ferguson fed her guest a sympathetic question (“Is it acceptable that you have to lie to get an abortion?”) which seemed to give a pretty clear idea of her own position on the issue. And like Mulligan’s guest, Bellamak seized on the Irish result as an argument for reform of New Zealand’s own abortion laws. After all, who wants the embarrassment of having the most conservative abortion regime in the English-speaking world? We can expect this to become a recurring theme from pro-abortion activists as pressure mounts for repeal of the abortion provisions in the 40-year-old Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act. It’s a weak argument (after all, the fact that other countries have wide-open abortion laws doesn’t make them right), but that won’t stop them.

Earlier, Ferguson had tried repeatedly to corner National leader Simon Bridges with the same “Why should women have to lie to get an abortion?” question, clearly implying that the law is bad and should be overturned. I wonder, what prospect is there of the abortion debate getting fair and impartial coverage from Radio New Zealand when the presenter of its top-rating current affairs show so plainly displays her personal feelings on the issue?

This is no idle question. Abortion liberalisation is likely to be on the Labour-led government’s legislative agenda next year, and those old enough to remember the turbulent passage of the 1977 legislation will know how bitter and divisive the debate could be. In that case Radio New Zealand will be expected to report the issue fairly and impartially – an expectation made all the weightier because it’s a state-owned broadcaster with a special duty of neutrality. But I wonder what the prospects are of that happening, given what I heard today.

As far as I can tell, Morning Report carried no comment from anti-abortion groups on the Irish result and its implications, if any, for New Zealand. Why go to one side and not the other?

Granted, journalists generally take a “liberal” stance on abortion. That was clear from media coverage of the Irish referendum, which was generally framed as a clash between the “old” Ireland of fossilised reactionaries, still under the baneful influence of the discredited Catholic Church, and a heroic new, younger Ireland determined to cast off a long legacy of oppressive theology. Small wonder that most journalists thought the right side won, and reported it accordingly.

But just as prosperous white middle-class people are instructed to “check their privilege” – meaning we should be aware of our inbuilt class-based assumptions before we judge others – so journalists need to be reminded to check their prejudice.  When they have strongly personal held views on issues, they should be doubly diligent about ensuring the other side have their say too.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The bottom-feeders and mischief-makers who infest the fringes of politics

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, May 17.)

The kerfuffle over rumours about Clarke Gayford, Jacinda Ardern’s partner, came as a double surprise to me.

The first surprise was that the rumours existed. The second, which kind of flows inevitably from the first, was that I hadn’t heard them.

I suppose this is what happens when you’ve been living in Masterton for a few years (well, 15 actually). You get disconnected.

Mind you, I’d suspected for a while that I was no longer “in the loop”. A friend used to email me whenever he heard reference to some dark secret about a public figure or wanted to know the identity of someone important whose name had been suppressed in a court case, assuming that I’d be able to fill him in on all the salacious detail.

The email inquiries stopped coming long ago. My friend obviously deduced, not unreasonably, that I was a fraud – someone who gave the impression of knowing important and sensitive stuff, but in fact had no more inside knowledge than the guy who came to unblock his drains. 

I suppose this is what happens when you no longer work in a newspaper newsroom, which functions as a kind of clearing house for rumour and gossip. Working from home, I can go for days – nay, weeks – without so much as a phone call.

I’m so isolated that I get excited if someone knocks on the door to ask if I’ve seen their missing huntaway. So hearing that Gayford was the subject of malicious scuttlebutt – scuttlebutt apparently so persistent that the police had to issue a statement saying he wasn’t under investigation – merely confirmed for me that I was pathetically out of touch with what was happening out there in the real world.

To this day I have no idea what the Gayford rumours were about, still less where they originated or who was circulating them.

What’s more, I don’t want to know. So I’ve made no effort to find out what lies people were spreading, even though I probably only need to ask the next-door neighbours or the woman behind the counter at the corner dairy. I’m sure they know, because the media kept telling us that the rumours had been so widely circulated that the police felt compelled to act.

I suppose that as someone who has worked for (gulp) 50 years in journalism, a game whose practitioners generally know a lot more than they actually report, I should feel disconcerted by the realisation that I no longer know things that other people don’t. 

But in fact it feels strangely liberating, because perhaps the least appealing aspect of politics is the febrile, overheated atmosphere it generates among camp followers, and the toxic bile spread by angry, bitter bottom-feeders and mischief-makers.

No one should delude themselves that Gayford was targeted simply because he’s the partner of a Labour prime minister. I recall that within days of John Key announcing he was resigning, left-leaning friends were regaling me with juicy versions of the “real” reason for his sudden departure. Malicious gossip is ideologically non-prescriptive in whom it chooses to vilify.

We could learn something from the Baha’i Faith, which strongly disapproves of gossip. “Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner,” wrote Baha’u’llah, the religion’s founder.

He was just rephrasing Christ’s injunction to the mob that was stoning a prostitute: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. But I get the impression that followers of the Baha’i Faith adhere to the rule more conscientiously than most people who call themselves Christians.

David Lange used the famous phrase “demented reef fish” to describe panicky share-market investors, but it can be applied equally to the hangers-on who infest the extreme fringes of politics – on both Right and Left – and who swarm around looking for morsels of malice to feed on.

Social media has given these cowardly malefactors a powerful amplifier for their venom. It has also had the effect of magnifying the binary them-and-us nature of politics, because it’s easier to hate when you’re safe in an ideological echo-chamber surrounded by people who share your rage. It’s also easier to dehumanise your perceived enemy and to construct your own cyber-age version of a witch’s wax effigy to stick pins into.

The effect on the body politic is potentially poisonous, because the time may come when only an exceptionally courageous, foolhardy or egotistical few will risk running for public office knowing there’s a chance that they will be subjected to vicious calumnies and anonymous abuse.

Exile to the Auckland Islands would be an appropriate fate for the perpetrators of this unpleasantness. They might tear each other apart, in which case well and good. But on the other hand they might be forced to co-operate in the interests of survival and thus learn something about their common humanity.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

If we start banning people of bad moral character, where do we stop?

CLARIFICATION: In the column published below, I said that Harvey Weinstein had been found guilty of sexual assault "by non-denial". In fact a spokesperson for Weinstein, quoted in the October 2017 New Yorker article that first revealed the accusations against him, said he "unequivocally denied" allegations of non-consensual sex. However it would be fair to say that subsequent statements on his behalf have been equivocal at best.  

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and, May 16.)

I have never heard the American R&B singer R. Kelly – not consciously, anyway – so it’s unlikely that I’ll lose any sleep over the announcement that the digital music streaming service Spotify has taken his records off its playlist. Nonetheless, I’m intrigued.

Spotify removed Kelly from its playlist as part of a new “Hate Content and Hateful Conduct” policy. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that the implementation of this policy is probably related in some way to the uproar over Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent naming and shaming of countless alleged sexual predators in show business.

The virulent Me Too and Time’s Up movements, which have given a voice to women claiming to have been the victims of celebrity abusers, has achieved such power and momentum that companies in the entertainment business have been forced into damage control mode. There is a hint of panic in the way some of these corporations have hastened to protect their precious brands from stars whose sexual histories have become a liability.

The world has witnessed a veritable parade of the disgraced as previously respected entertainment names have been sacked or blacklisted, often on the basis of unproven allegations. 

Weinstein and Bill Cosby are the highest-profile casualties so far – found guilty by non-denial in Weinstein’s case and by a criminal trial in Cosby’s. But I didn’t realise how many more names had been implicated in this unedifying saga until I conducted a search on Google.

Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Dustin Hoffman, Ben Affleck, Steven Seagal, Garrison Keillor, the writer-director James Toback and the TV host Charlie Rose I knew about. But I was unaware of allegations against others including Richard Dreyfuss, celebrity chef Mario Batali, Larry King, Charlie Sheen, Oliver Stone, John Travolta and Sylvester Stallone, along with many more whose names were unfamiliar to me but are obviously prominent in the entertainment world.

In some of these cases, offending was acknowledged and apologised for; in others it was strenuously denied. Either way, reputations are tarnished, perhaps irreparably. The principle that people are innocent until proven guilty has been trampled underfoot in the media feeding frenzy.

But back to R. Kelly. Even cursory research into his background reveals allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse, some of it too unpleasant to detail here. He has never been convicted of an offence (he was acquitted on child pornography charges over a sex video involving an under-age girl and separately paid $250,000 to settle a claim that he had sex with a 15-year-old), but a social media campaign called #MuteRKelly has had him in its sights for some time.

Spotify insists it doesn’t censor content because of the behaviour of the performer, but its own statements suggest otherwise. Its head of content told Billboard magazine, in tortuous management-speak: “We look at issues around hateful conduct, where you have an artist or another creator who has done something off-platform that is so particularly out of line with our values, egregious, in a way that it becomes something that we don't want to associate ourselves with.”

This is where it gets intriguing, because if R. Kelly has been censored because of bad behaviour, as seems obvious, it could set a fascinating precedent.

Consider this. One of my all-time favourite movies is Chinatown, from 1974. It was directed by Roman Polanski, who fled America in 1977 after being charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. He remains a fugitive from the American courts today, although he lives as a free man in Europe.

Should I refuse to watch Chinatown because of the loathsome Polanski’s behaviour with young Samantha Gailey at Jack Nicholson’s place? There is a moral case for taking that stance, and Spotify’s action in respect of R. Kelly suggests that moral judgments can now be brought to bear in deciding what people should see and hear.

But this is tricky territory, because many of the artists, actors, musicians and writers we admire led less than exemplary lives.

Rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry served a prison term for having sex with a minor. Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin. Hollywood idol Errol Flynn’s reputation was permanently damaged by allegations of sex with under-age girls.

Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones had a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old and Mick Jagger wrote a song about enticing a 15-year-old upstairs. Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Picasso had a penchant for girls young enough to be their granddaughters, and Picasso was sometimes abusive as well.
Woody Allen is seriously creepy, at the very least, and even Charles Dickens abandoned his wife and family for a teenager.

It’s a bit unrealistic to talk about boycotting these men’s artistic creations, no matter how much we might disapprove of their morals or behaviour. So as vile as R. Kelly might be, in the interests of consistency perhaps his work should be left alone too.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Stating the obvious

Quote of the day, from a Hawke's Bay District Health Board paper urging a ban on the sale of liquor at school fundraising events: " ... the promotion of the benefits and consumption [of alcohol] are likely conveying the message to the population of Hawke's Bay that drinking alcohol is a normal and socially accepted activity that has positive and wide-reaching consequences" (the italics are mine).

I couldn't have put it better myself. So what's the problem?

Friday, May 4, 2018

Capitalism cowed: The Craggy Range backdown

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, May 3).

Let me see if I’ve got this straight. The Hawke’s Bay winery Craggy Range spent $300,000 creating a walking track up the eastern side of Te Mata Peak.

It owned the land and did everything by the book, which included securing the necessary consent from the Hastings District Council. The council’s planners waved it through without requiring public notification, as they were entitled to do (although it could be argued they shouldn’t have, given Te Mata Peak’s status).

It was only after the track had been built, zig-zagging up the spectacular limestone escarpment overlooking the Tukituki river valley, that people started objecting.   

A petition was launched. One resident melodramatically declared that Te Mata Peak had been “butchered”. Someone else said it looked as if it had had open-heart surgery.

The man who designed the track insisted that regrowth would soon mask the initial scar, but no one seemed to take much notice. People were too busy being indignant.

Later, the busybodies of the Environmental Defence Society got in on the act with threats of legal action. But the killer blow was landed by the local iwi, Ngati Kahungungu, who were offended because Craggy Range didn’t consult them beforehand.

Why the winery should have gone cap-in-hand to the tribe wasn’t entirely clear, since the land belonged to Craggy Range and legally speaking, it was none of Ngati Kahungungu’s business what the company did with it. But property rights count for little when they conflict with the assumed right of an iwi to have a say over the affairs of others.

According to the tribe, the track disfigured a sacred site which is said to resemble the reclining figure of an ancestral chief. Iwi leader Ngahiwi Tomoana said seeing the track was like a stab in the heart. The tribe demanded that it be removed.

Of course all this happened after the track had been built. It would have been helpful if the whistle had been blown earlier, when work began. I’m told it was initially assumed that it was just a farm track – but even so, wouldn’t that too have been a scar on the sacred slope? Or was it perceived as different because a wealthy wine company was paying for it?

It’s strange too that the eastern flank of Te Mata Peak should be considered sacrosanct when there’s a road up to the peak and multiple walking and cycling tracks on the other side. Perhaps these are considered a lost cause, having been built in the days before Maoridom learned how to exploit Treaty-era politics and Pakeha guilt.

At first the winery mounted a half-hearted resistance against demands that it restore the hillside to its prior state. Then, notwithstanding CEO Michael Wilding having declared himself “thrilled” and “excited” when the project was first announced, Craggy Range suddenly caved in, as companies often do these days when they are panicked by noisy activist campaigns.

The u-turn seemed symbolic of the state of capitalism today – so cowed that it has lost the confidence to stick up for itself, and jumps with fright at the sight of its own shadow.

In hindsight, perhaps Craggy Range made a mistake when it ingratiated itself with Ngati Kahungungu by inviting the iwi to give the winery its blessing when it was opened in 2003.  That gesture apparently entitled Tomoana to say his iwi felt “betrayed” when the track was built without its permission.

“We gave our mana to that place and now it’s shattered,” he said. There may be a lesson there for companies that think they’re doing the right thing by being culturally sensitive and engaging with the mana whenua.

Of course the iwi gave Craggy Range a pat on the head for capitulating. You can afford to be magnanimous when you’ve browbeaten your opponents into submission. But in the meantime, a project lawfully undertaken for the benefit of the community has been derailed.  We have a political climate in which companies can be intimidated into backing down when they have nothing to feel guilty about.

So where are we now? Predictably, people who want the track kept intact have started their own petition, which at last count had 17,500 signatures. And it seems that removing the track would not only cost as much again as building it in the first place, but would itself require a resource consent which is bound to be opposed. That would open a whole new can of worms.

In short, it’s an unholy mess for which the council, the iwi and Craggy Range itself – if for no other reason than its timidity – must all share responsibility.

But perhaps we shouldn’t blame Ngati Kahungungu. They’re simply exploiting the desperate desire of well-meaning Pakeha to avoid being condemned as racist. And the lesson is, it works.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The truth about accents

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, April 18.)

A recent edition of my favourite magazine, Britain’s The Spectator, included a travel article in which the writer had made a brief stopover at Auckland.

She described New Zealand as “utterly draconian” about what people are allowed to bring into the country. “I disembarked to dire warnings of crippling fines for smuggling in food, seeds, plants or pets. It’s a brave traveller who wanders in with a forgotten banana skin in their bag.”

She went on: “To my horror, I was pounced on immediately.  A guard grabbed my handbag, dragging it off my shoulder. ‘D’you hev food of eny kind in your beg?’ she demanded. ‘Boris [her bouncy beagle] thinks you hev’.

“My bag was wrenched from my grasp, emptied out on to a table, and given a thorough snuffle by Boris.”

I suspect a bit of journalistic exaggeration here. Granted, our border protection people sometimes lack a bit of finesse. This is a hazard of their occupation internationally. Customs and immigration people everywhere have a way of making innocent travellers feel guilty, or at the very least under suspicion.

But what particularly struck me was the writer’s mocking of the New Zealand accent.

Before I go any further,  a disclosure. I cringe at the way many of my fellow New Zealanders speak.

The New Zealand accent is changing, and not in a pleasing way. I reckon the time will come when people of my generation will struggle to understand what millennials are saying.

Younger staff in cafes and shops are often incomprehensible. They speak a dialect recogniseable only by their contemporaries.

On a recent Air New Zealand flight I winced at the strangled pronunciation and grotesque, sing-songy vocal cadence of the 30-something woman making the in-flight announcements. Our national airline leaves no stone unturned in its efforts to recruit cabin crew who speak atrociously.

But here’s the thing. As a New Zealander, it’s my right – a right of citizenship, you might say - to comment critically on the way we speak. But when people of other nationalities make disparaging remarks about the New Zealand accent, that’s a different story. I always feel my hackles rise.

Why? Because it’s the sneerer’s way of asserting cultural superiority.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to make fun of the way other nationalities speak, but it reveals more about the mocker than the mocked.

The Brits still carry a lot of imperial baggage, and some can’t help revealing their disdain for cultures that they once governed, and which they still consider a bit primitive – like us, for example.

The United States-based TV host John Oliver is another Pom who enjoys making fun of the New Zealand accent.  The irony that has escaped both Oliver and the Spectator writer is that their own country is home to a wondrous assortment of bizarre regional accents and dialects, some of them almost incomprehensible to outsiders. 

This illustrates two truths about accents. The first is that most human beings can’t help the way they speak, any more than Oliver can help looking and sounding like a dork. Accents are markers of regional origin, social class and education. They are part of a lifelong cultural conditioning that starts at birth and over which most people have little control.

The other truth is that most national and regional accents sound funny to outsiders and are therefore ripe for mockery. This is just as true of a farmhand from the English West Country – or, for that matter, a Welshman or an Old Etonian with marbles in his mouth – as it is of a biosecurity officer at Auckland Airport.

The British are not the only nationality who derive amusement from the way New Zealanders speak. Australians do it too.

A recent example was when the now-disgraced former Australian deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce was revealed as having dual citizenship of Australia and New Zealand. This was the cue for much gleeful satirical comment on Australian TV shows in which Joyce mysteriously acquired what was presumably meant to sound like a New Zealand accent.

Sigh. Australian jokes about the Kiwi accent are as tedious, predictable and infantile as the tired old ones about sheep. But who’s to say that our accent sounds any more ridiculous to an outsider than the Australian one?

Done without malice, mimicry of other accents can be funny. The late Peter Sellers made a career out of imitating Hindus and Frenchmen – something he would never get away with today. But the way the New Zealand accent was described in the Spectator article had nothing to do with humour.  

It was a sneering putdown of a crude colonial – one, moreover, who had the impertinence to subject the English journalist to the inconvenience and humiliation of a bag check.  How dare she!

It’s a sign of insecurity when one nationality tries to build itself up by putting others down. The sooner people realise this, the sooner the disparaging jokes about national accents will dry up.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Trump gives us a new reason to parade anti-Americanism as virtue

(First published in The Dominion Post, April 6.)
This column comes to you from America. Yes, that’s right, the America of Donald Trump.
The current occupant of the Oval Office has given us a whole lot of new reasons to make condescending jokes about America and Americans. But the America of Donald Trump is also the America of Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickinson, Franklin D and Eleanor Roosevelt, John Steinbeck, Benjamin Franklin, Charlie Chaplin, Martin Luther King Jr, Francis Ford Coppola, Cesar Chavez, Ernest Hemingway, Rosa Parks, Bob Dylan, Frank Capra, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Meryl Streep, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ella Fitzgerald, Bruce Springsteen …

I could go on, but you get my drift.
New Zealanders are conflicted about America. It sometimes seems as if the people mentioned above, who are widely admired and even worshipped, come from a different country than the America we sneer at over dinner tables.

But of course they don’t. America comes as a package deal, the good and the bad all bundled up together.
It’s fashionable to regard the US as a country to be avoided. When I told a colleague that my wife and I were going to California for a few weeks, she mentioned that she had once lived in San Francisco for a year and loved it.

She thought Californians were a unique breed of Americans, “in a good way”.
Perhaps I misunderstood her, but she seemed to be saying that Californians were OK but other Americans might not be.

This would not be an uncommon view in New Zealand. Generally, among sophisticated metropolitan types, America is considered, at best, a place to fly over on the way to somewhere more civilised.
Even then, many people try to avoid it. Conventional wisdom has it that LA Airport is the worst airport in the world, although I’ve had far worse experiences in Heathrow and Sydney.

A few American cities are considered hip – San Francisco, for example. Portland, Austin and New York are considered fashionable too. It’s permissible in sophisticated circles to visit these places and say you love them.
Stockton, Amarillo, Duluth or Flint? Not so much. But while it might suit people to divide America into the good bits and the bad, it’s all the same country from sea to shining sea.

Where do we get this aversion to America? I can offer a few suggestions.
The Americans have done some bad things. They treated Native Americans appallingly, dispossessing them of their lands and putting them on reservations where they almost lost the will to live. 

America has propped up corrupt, totalitarian regimes from Asia to Latin America and was despised for what it did in the Vietnam War (although we should remember that it was the American people who eventually demanded US forces withdraw from that conflict).
America is also the home of the Ku Klux Klan – a country where until the 1930s, a black man could be hanged if a white woman didn’t like the way he looked at her.

It has a deeply flawed justice system and a gratuitously harsh and vindictive way of dealing with people accused of crime. Many states still administer capital punishment, often by grotesquely cruel methods, long after the civilised world abandoned it.
In addition to all this, distaste for American ways is almost embedded in our cultural DNA. New Zealanders inherited British reserve and are uncomfortable with America’s fervent, hand-on-heart nationalism. We balk at American exuberance and exhibitionism.

We were grateful to them when they were here during World War II but we also resented them. American soldiers had more money than our boys and wore much smarter uniforms. Our women couldn’t help but be attracted to them, which touched a very vulnerable spot in the national psyche.
But this same America is the source of much of our popular culture. The same people who despise Trump will queue for tickets to a Springsteen concert, use an iPhone, communicate with their friends using Facebook, wear Levi jeans, read the New Yorker, watch the latest Martin Scorsese film and admire the wit of American late-night TV talk shows.

And the Americans I’ve met over the past six weeks, as on past visits, have been unfailingly warm, friendly, open and almost embarrassingly courteous. They strike me as fundamentally decent people who want to do the right thing.
Can you admire America and despise it at the same time? Maybe, at a stretch, but I think we should admit that Trump has given us an excuse to parade a lot of blind anti-American bigotry as if it were some sort of virtue.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

How my heart bleeds for Mark Zuckerberg

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, April 4.)
I note that $80 billion was wiped off the value of Facebook’s shares following a scandal over privacy breaches.
Oh dear, how sad, never mind, as the crusty sergeant-major in It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum used to say in mock pity whenever misfortune befell one of the motley crew of misfits under his command.

I delighted in Facebook’s discomfort, just as I admit having derived some satisfaction from the embarrassment of the British-based charity Oxfam after some of its aid workers were exposed as sexual abusers who took advantage of vulnerable girls and young women in disaster-ravaged countries such as Haiti.
There was a time when I admired Oxfam and happily donated to it. Then it became stridently and piously anti-capitalist - committed to the dismantling of an economic system that, for all its shortcomings, has done more to lift people out of poverty than all the international relief agencies put together.

Schadenfreude - the enjoyment of other people's misfortunes - can be strangely satisfying. I thought there was poetic justice in the spectacle of Oxfam officials squirming over the sexual abuse scandal, and I felt a similar frisson of pleasure when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was forced to undertake a public mea culpa after it was revealed his firm had allowed users’ personal data to be covertly “harvested” for political purposes.
The Facebook controversy resulted in millions of users worldwide de-activating their Facebook accounts or deleting them altogether, which can only be a good thing. Perhaps the social media phenomenon has peaked.

Before I go any further, I should disclose that I’m a former Facebook user myself. I first joined years ago because it was a way of keeping up with news and photographs of my grandchildren, who are spread over three countries.
I soon became disillusioned and bailed out, but I rejoined after a lapse of several years. I guiltily admit that I did so partly for self-serving reasons: I wanted to publicise a book I had written. Whether my being on Facebook sold any books, I can’t say. But I did connect with a lot of people – relatives, old friends and former colleagues, many of whom I had had no contact with for years. And for a while I enjoyed it.

This, of course, is the great lure of Facebook. It acquired its aura of legitimacy by harnessing the power of digital technology to connect people – hence the phrase “social media”. But it could just as accurately be described as anti-social media, because its addictive qualities mean that many users become fixated by digital relationships to the detriment of real-life ones, spending hours every day online at the expense of those closest to them. It offers escapism and distraction on a massive and frightening scale.
This was no accident. Sean Parker, a billionaire early investor in Facebook, told a conference last November that Zuckerberg had knowingly created a monster that was designed to act like a drug delivering a dopamine-type hit.

And of course the commercial genius of the Facebook model, its real raison d’etre, was that it gave advertisers a platform on which to sell people things, while simultaneously harvesting personal details about users that enabled them to be very precisely targeted – not just by people with something to sell but as we now know, by shadowy political operators building personal profiles as a means of targeting votes.
I quit Facebook for the second time last year and won’t be going back. Friends and family members still happily use it, but I developed Facebook fatigue. You could call me a recovering Facebook user.

Although I was a moderate user by comparison with many addicts of my acquaintance, I felt liberated after leaving. As is often the case, distance lends perspective: when you look at Facebook from the outside, its pitfalls can be seen in sharp relief.
Sure, there are good things about it: funny stuff, useful stuff, quirky stuff, and of course lots of charming family photos. But there’s also an awful preponderance of boastful “look at me” posts (guilty, your honour), a lot of tiresome barrow-pushing and a huge amount of material that’s stupefyingly banal.

A crucial element of the Facebook model is that it depends heavily on human vanity and caprice. There is a powerful temptation to blurt out something on Facebook – something you imagine to be clever – and later regret it. Perhaps there should be a mandatory 30-minute time lag in which you can reconsider.
And of course there’s a scarily high price to be paid for all this self-aggrandisement and titillation, because Facebook relies on people being willing to expose the minutiae of their personal lives. That was Zuckerberg's other stroke of genius: Facebook invites users to become accomplices in the relinquishing of their own privacy, and lemming-like, they comply.  

In the end I decided that the rewards from surfing Facebook didn’t justify the time spent. But as I had discovered previously, Facebook doesn’t make it easy to quit. Zuckerberg seems as determined to keep Facebook users captive as Kim Jong Un is to prevent dissidents fleeing North Korea.  That in itself tells you something.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

How Windows almost robbed me of my will to live

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, March 21.)
Readers may be familiar with the expression “to go down a rabbit hole”.
It has its origins in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In the story, Alice follows the White Rabbit down such a hole and finds herself in a topsy-turvy world where nothing makes any sense.

To go down a rabbit hole, then, is to enter a parallel universe that challenges your concept of reality and may even cause you to begin doubting your sanity.
I didn’t fully understand the meaning of the term until I recently disappeared down a rabbit hole myself - several, in fact, in rapid succession.

My rabbit-hole experiences came courtesy of one of the biggest and most powerful companies in the history of capitalism. How Microsoft attained that status, despite reducing users of its Windows operating systems to a state of impotent rage and despair, is one of the profound mysteries of our time.
All I wanted to do was transfer email addresses from my desktop computer at home into the laptop that I was taking overseas. I assumed all it would take was a few key-strokes – perhaps a routine copy-and-paste operation.

Ha! More fool me. Never assume anything with Microsoft, whose operating systems are created by geeks who are clearly incapable of placing themselves in the position of everyday users. I lost several hours of my life, and disappeared down a succession of rabbit holes, trying to accomplish this elementary task.
At one point I searched on Google for a clear, step-by-step guide and let out a little whoop of triumph when I found a site that assured me it was all quite simple and straightforward.

More fool me again. That only led me down another rabbit hole. The explanation was written in techno-speak – in other words, by a geek for fellow geeks – and assumed a level of computer knowledge that was beyond me. Such is invariably the case.
Besides, the computer screen depicted on this purportedly simple guide bore no resemblance to the one on my laptop, although it supposedly related to the same version of the Windows Outlook programme as the one I was running. So I fell at the first hurdle.

In the end I turned for help to two people – one an IT professional – whom I regard as being highly computer-savvy. Both sighed sympathetically and admitted that copying email addresses from one Windows-powered device into another, while theoretically it should be a simple, everyday exercise, was beyond them.
Both went further and confessed that they routinely experienced exactly the same frustration and despair as I did when trying to make sense of Microsoft’s perverse operating system.

It struck me forcibly that if even computer-literate types can be constantly thwarted by Windows, there must be millions of users silently enduring the same helpless fury. And not for the first time I wondered how arguably the least user-friendly product in the history of civilisation could have attained such overwhelming market dominance.
On the face of things, it’s an abject failure of the capitalist model. Where are the hungry competitors that, according to market theory, should be piling in to exploit customer dissatisfaction with Microsoft?

And please don’t mention Apple. I know there are Apple users who are evangelically loyal to the brand, but I’m also aware of many Apple product owners who curse their machines with the same passion as I curse Windows.
In the end I painstakingly typed all my most important email addresses into my laptop, but my problems didn’t end there. I still had to work out how to navigate a Windows Outlook programme on my laptop that, although ostensibly the same version as the one on my computer at home, looks and functions quite differently.

That’s another thing I hate about Windows. On the rare occasions when I’ve got it functioning to my satisfaction, I can count on Microsoft unilaterally changing things so that I waste more precious hours of my life, and disappear down yet more rabbit holes, trying to make it work – and trying to decipher the nonsensical, infantile terminology Windows users are expected to familiarise themselves with.
Such was the case when Windows 10 was installed in my home computer despite my having clearly indicated I didn’t want it. The fait accompli appears to be a crucial part of Microsoft’s business model.

What I require from my computers is simple. I need to create documents, send and receive emails and attachments, conduct online searches, make bookings, do online banking and occasionally buy stuff.  I teach myself how to do what I need to do and most of the time I get by.
But every so often Microsoft throws me a curve ball and after wasting several hours trying to make sense of whatever they’ve inflicted on me, I almost lose the will to live.

In my imagination, there’s a very dark place in Hell for Bill Gates, who started all this, and not even the billions he spends on philanthropy – presumably in atonement for the misery he has inflicted on people like me – will spare him from it.
FOOTNOTE: Predictably, this column triggered a barrage of comments on Stuff from people sneering at my inadequacies and boasting how easy it was to do what I failed to do. I felt strangely uplifted by this, and perversely proud that my failings as a computer user serve as a point of difference from these tedious, subterranean-dwelling tech-heads. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

The wondrous randomness of New Zealand highway signs

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 23.)

I wonder if the people who design highway signs ever put themselves in the position of travellers unfamiliar with New Zealand. Judging by the evidence, I doubt it.

Sometimes the most obvious destinations are omitted from highway signs in favour of places that only a few people are likely to be going to. It all seems weirdly random and illogical.

Travelling north on SH50 through inland Hawke’s Bay, for instance, there are signs pointing to Napier and Taihape. But how many motorists on that road are likely to be going to Taihape?

Bugger all, I’d guess. The lightly travelled road from SH50 to Taihape isn’t even gazetted as a state highway. Motorists on SH50 are far more likely to be ultimately bound for Taupo or Gisborne, but these destinations don’t show up on highway signs until you reach Napier.

By that time I bet a lot of travellers have stopped to check the map just to make sure they’re on the right road. (Yes, I know people have GPS, but who trusts it?)

Equally odd are prominent signs pointing to tiny places like Ongaonga and Tikokino while ignoring major destinations. Most people going to Onga or Tiko, as the locals call them, know where they are and don’t need to be told how to get there.

Some signs lead you on tantalisingly, then mysteriously stop. You’re driving into an unfamiliar city, say, and following the arrows to the city centre, when pfft! Suddenly the arrows aren’t there anymore.  I experienced this recently in Tauranga.

At this point you’re on your own; it’s pure guesswork from here. Perhaps this is the signage guys’ way of amusing themselves.

And don’t get me started on roundabouts. Even on SH1 there are roundabouts where you search in vain for a recognisable place name on the signs as you approach. It’s only when you’re halfway around that you see what you’re looking for, often at knee-height and half-concealed in shrubbery.

Then there are the useless signs that appear only after you’ve exited the roundabout, by which time you’ve committed yourself. Tough luck if the place names aren’t those of the towns you want to go to.

An expat New Zealander on a recent visit back home admitted being bamboozled as he navigated the roundabouts on the SH1 Taupo bypass for the first time.

His main complaint was that the complicated schematics were impossible to decipher in the few seconds available as he approached. More than once he completed a full circuit of the roundabout before figuring out which exit he was supposed to take.

I bet this also happens regularly to people unfamiliar with the SH2 interchanges in the Hutt Valley.

I’ve been tricked myself into taking the wrong exit on the Taupo bypass. Yet driving overseas, I’ve rarely taken a wrong turning. Do our traffic engineers observe the way things are done elsewhere, or are they determined to re-invent the wheel?

My expat informant also noted that when approaching intersections with multiple lanes, there was often no overhead signage to indicate which lane he needed to be in.  The only markings were painted on the road – not very helpful when they were obscured by vehicles in front.

This is a person who drives tens of thousands of kilometres a year on American freeways. If this can happen to an experienced driver who knows New Zealand well, how do strangers fare?

Do staff of the New Zealand Transport Agency, or whatever it’s called this week, ever drive the length of the country with travellers from overseas, or imagine themselves in the position of someone unfamiliar with our geography? 

Somehow I doubt it. Perhaps they should give it a try.

And while I’m on the subject of road signage, how many times do you see temporary speed restrictions in force, ostensibly because of road works, when there’s not only no work being done, but no sign of any having been done in the recent past? Could there be any better way of encouraging people to treat speed signs with contempt? 

Perhaps we should try the American approach.  There, they don’t automatically impose arbitrary speed restrictions when roadworks are underway.

You’re more likely to see a big sign warning that if your car hits a road worker you face a $200,000 fine and/or two years in the slammer. So if no one’s working, you’re free to proceed at a sensible speed.

This puts the onus on drivers to be careful without subjecting them to unnecessary speed limits that encourage disregard for the law. It all seems eminently logical, so don’t expect to see it here.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The snarling and hissing of the illiberal Left

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 9.)
It’s hard to imagine now, but censorship was a cause celebre in the 1960s and 70s.

The banning or restriction of movies, books and even records was never far from the headlines. Post-war liberalism was colliding head-on with traditional morality and the official censors were struggling to draw new boundaries between what was acceptable and what wasn’t.

The film censor featured in the New Zealand media so often in those days that he (it was always a “he”) became virtually a household name. Between 1957 and 1973, cuts were made to 37 per cent of films because of sex, violence or bad language.

Even without the film censor or Indecent Publications Tribunal standing over them, some government agencies took it on themselves to act as moral guardians – including the monopoly New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, which refused to play any record deemed subversive (for example, the pacifist protest song Eve of Destruction) or sexually suggestive (the Rolling Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together).

It was the era of the indomitable Patricia Bartlett, secretary of the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards. The former Catholic nun became the scourge of movie distributors and book publishers, pouncing on smut – a word almost never heard these days – wherever it raised its lubricious head.

Why am I recalling all this? Because in the censorship battles of the 1960s and 70s, it was the liberal Left that led the push for freedom to choose what people could see, read and hear.

Ultimately they won the battle against the moral conservatives. But at some point in the intervening decades, something strange began to happen.

The New Zealand Left executed a gradual 180-degree turn. Now it’s the Left who are the self-appointed censors, mobilising to shut down any ideas and opinions that offend them.

The old term “liberal Left” has become a contradiction, because many of the strident voices on the Left are frighteningly illiberal – not on questions of sexual morality, where anything is now permissible, but on matters of politics, culture and ideology. Their antennae twitch constantly, acutely alert for imagined evidence of racism, misogyny and homophobia.

This is especially true of the social media generation, who block their ears, drum their feet on the floor and hum loudly to block out any idea or opinion that upsets them.

This is a generation of New Zealanders who never experienced a sharp smack when they misbehaved, were driven to school every day by over-indulgent parents and were taught by teachers and university lecturers who lean so far to the left that many need corrective spinal surgery.

The threat to freedom of speech and opinion no longer comes from bossy government agencies (although the Human Rights Commission makes a sterling effort to deter people from saying or thinking anything it disapproves of) but from platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, where digital lynch mobs indulge in snarling, hissing gang-ups against anyone who challenges leftist orthodoxy.

An example was the hysterical outcry against Sir Bob Jones over a column written by him for the National Business Review, in which he suggested that Waitangi Day should be renamed Maori Gratitude Day and marked by Maori doing nice things for Pakeha, such as bringing them breakfast in bed and weeding their gardens.

It was obviously satirical – a classic piece of Jones mischief – but humour is lost on the prigs and bigots of the new Left. Someone launched a petition to have Jones stripped of his knighthood and NBR, to its shame, removed the column from its website, using the weasel-word justification that the column was “inappropriate”.

Public discourse has reached the point where almost any mildly right-of-centre opinion is liable to bring forth frenzied denunciations and calls for the offender to be silenced, fired or boycotted. The silly, melodramatic term “hate speech” has come to mean anything that upsets someone.

New Zealand has so far largely been spared the extremes of intolerance shown on overseas university campuses, where violent protests force the abandonment of lectures by anyone the Left doesn’t like.

Could it happen here? Of course it could. Only last year, University of Auckland students tried to exclude a pro-life group from campus activities, Yet 50 years ago, New Zealand student newspapers were at the cutting edge of demands for free speech.

I wonder what the old-school liberal Left make of all this. It took generations for New Zealand to mature into a tolerant, liberal democracy and now it sometimes looks as if we’ve not only slammed on the brakes, but engaged reverse gear.