Friday, May 18, 2018

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


(First published in The Dominion Post and on stuff.co.nz, 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 stuff.co.nz, 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 Stuff.co.nz, 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.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Playing the blame game over "Polish" death camps


(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, March 7.)
Truth can be elusive. Consider the recent furore over the Polish government’s introduction of a law that, according to some critics, will greatly restrict public discussion of Poland’s involvement in the Holocaust during World War Two.

The new law prohibits mention of “Polish death camps” – on the face of it, an interference in the right of free speech. Yet it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Poland’s lawmakers.

Auschwitz (or Oswiecim, as it’s properly known in Polish) and other notorious extermination camps – Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek – may have been sited on Polish soil, but they were not put there by Poles.

They were built and administered by Nazi Germany, which preferred to conduct its programme of genocide outside its own borders. Perhaps that was the Nazis’ way of pretending their hands were clean.

I have been to Auschwitz, but even standing on the site of the gas chambers, it’s impossible to grasp the enormity of what happened there.

The Germans alone were culpable, but the commonly used phrase “Polish death camps” carried the implication that Poland was somehow responsible for these abominations. And as the generations who remember World War Two gradually die out, there was a risk that people who don’t know any better might be misled into thinking that Poland as a nation was complicit in the Holocaust.

Seen in this context, who could object if the Polish government wanted to prohibit usage of the term? Yet Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu strenuously denounced the law change and even implied that Poland was guilty of Holocaust denial.

Really? Weren’t the Poles entitled to protect their national reputation?

My 95-year-old Polish mother-in-law, who remembers the war only too well, was seriously indignant at Netanyahu’s objections, as I imagine most New Zealand Poles would have been. She interpreted his statements as suggesting that the Poles collectively bore some responsibility for the Nazi death camps, which would have been a grievous slur on Polish honour.

But this is where it gets complicated. Some Israeli critics argue that the Polish law change threatens to stifle debate about Poles who killed Jews during the war.

As is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere between extremes. Polish people were neither fully complicit in the Holocaust, nor wholly innocent.

There were documented cases of Poles, police included, playing an active role. As in some other eastern European countries, a degree of anti-Semitism was rooted in Polish culture.

Against that, as my mother-in-law would point out, there were many well-documented cases of Poles risking their lives to save Jews from the Nazis. The Polish nurse Irena Sendler was credited with smuggling 2500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and thereby saving them from the gas chambers – a feat of extraordinary courage for which she was honoured in 1965 by the state of Israel.

The Polish underground organisation Zegota, of which Sendler was a member, operated secret cells that supplied aid to an estimated 50,000 Polish Jews in hiding.

These examples run counter to the narrative, promoted by some Jewish critics of the recent law change, that portrayed Poland as complicit in the Holocaust.

An article by Alex Ryvchin, director of public affairs at the Australian Council of Australian Jewry, made the scurrilous claim that “Poles were often only too happy to see the demise of their Jewish neighbours”. There you have it – an entire country casually libelled in a few words. 

As a public relations strategy, the tendency of some Jewish activists to stridently allege anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial everywhere they look seems doomed to produce diminishing returns. It has become a kneejerk reaction to allege anti-Semitic motives even where none exist. A possible consequence of this tendency to play the blame game is that people will take the phone off the hook.

Like the Polish politicians who worry that ignorant people might interpret the phrase “Polish death camps” literally, Jewish activists are concerned that generations will grow up knowing nothing of the atrocities committed against Jews during the war.

But in their eagerness to remind us of the terrible things that happened to Jewry, they run the risk that they will be seen as promoting a perception that only Jews are allowed to be seen as victims of Nazism. And in their determination to portray themselves as being at war with an implacably hostile world, they risk alienating people who might otherwise be their friends.

No one can deny that Jews were uniquely targeted for extermination, but others suffered terribly too.

Poles, like Jews, were considered an inferior race by the Nazis. Nearly six million Poles died under German occupation. Many of those who survived, my parents-in-law among them, were forcibly displaced and put to work in slave labour camps.

The truth, as I said at the start of this column, can be elusive. The Polish death camps were Nazi creations – that’s one truth. Some Poles collaborated in the persecution of Jews – that’s another truth. These truths can co-exist without cancelling each other out.

The ultimate, incontrovertible truth is that war is brutally dehumanising; terrible things happen.

The Madonna crossed with Wonder Woman: how the media portray Jacinda Ardern




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

Living in a country as small and intimate as New Zealand can sometimes feel like being wrapped in a cuddly warm blanket. These occasions arise whenever the nation is enveloped in a state of feel-goodism and self-congratulation.

It happened when we won the America’s Cup and it happened when Lorde swept the world pop charts. On such occasions it can seem unpatriotic not to share the general mood of elation.

It happened too when the Labour government took a stand against nuclear weapons in the 1980s and prime minister David Lange faced down American critics in a celebrated Oxford Union debate. Even New Zealanders who were uncomfortable with the government’s stance took pride in Lange’s famous killer line (actually pinched from an Australian cartoon, according to Sir Gerald Hensley) that he could smell the uranium on his opponent’s breath.

At times like this there can be a certain amount of subtle pressure not to deviate from the national script, which demands that all New Zealanders’ hearts should swell with pride.

This phenomenon no doubt affects many countries, but it’s magnified in our case because of our isolation and diminutive size. It’s plucky little New Zealand standing up and demanding to be noticed. Whether the rest of the world pays attention or not seems almost immaterial. We do it mainly for our own sense of well-being.

Not falling into line with the national consensus on such occasions is seen as letting the side down. Nothing must be allowed to dampen the mood.

Right now feels like one of those times. If the media are to be taken as an accurate barometer of the national psyche, the country has been in a state of almost preternatural contentment since last year’s election.

Not only do we have a young, likeable, left-of-centre female prime minister, but she’s going to have a baby while in office. Even hard-nosed and normally sensible Wellington press gallery veterans almost swooned with delirium at the announcement of Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy. What could be more 21st century than giving birth and then going back to work after six weeks, leaving the baby in the care of her partner? 

In the outpouring of gushing media comment, there was much puffing of chests at the idea that New Zealand, the first country to give women the vote, was again showing the world how things could and should be done.
Journalists promptly coined a term for this phenomenon: Jacindamania. They seem to see no irony in the fact that they delight in using the word even when they exhibit symptoms of the affliction themselves.

Some of the most cringe-inducing journalism was prompted by Ardern’s attendance at Waitangi, where her hosts invited her to have the baby’s placenta buried in line with Maori custom. Political reporters cooed their approval.

Much was made too of the fact that she pitched in and helped cooked the steak and sausages on the barbie. This simple but effective PR ploy – the prime minister presenting herself as an ordinary, unpretentious Kiwi, which she genuinely appears to be – was applauded as if it were a latter-day miracle of the loaves and fishes. 

But it’s hardly surprising that journalists are attracted to Ardern. She’s of the same generation as most people working at the front line of the media, and the same sex as a large proportion of them. It’s fair to say that her political views probably mirror those of many, if not most, New Zealand journalists.

Besides, journalism thrives on newness and novelty, and Ardern represents what many journalists see as an exhilarating and overdue generational change in the Beehive.

For nine years we were governed by middle-aged men in suits.  Ardern is still in her 30s. She’s fresh, personable and seems effortlessly in control of things. To use a silly popular expression, what’s not to like?

Her pregnancy is the icing on this cake, although it raises questions that have been delicately sidestepped by the media. What if she experiences complications, or struggles with the combined demands of motherhood and the prime ministership? No one discusses these possibilities because they conflict with the presumption that women can do anything.

Of course the prime minister can’t be blamed if the media portray her as a cross between the Madonna and Wonder Woman. But it may make the eventual reality-check more painful when the long media honeymoon ends, as it eventually must, and the strains of office start to tell on her untested government with its incongruous assortment of political bedfellows.  


My inauspicious introduction to Airbnb


(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, February 21.)

I used Airbnb for the first time during the summer holidays. It wasn’t an experience I’m in any hurry to repeat.

I had booked the house several months in advance. Our son and his family were coming from overseas and we were looking forward to spending some time with them.

The property wasn’t ideal, but accommodation in the area we wanted was already getting tight and I was worried that if we waited for something better to come up, we might miss out altogether.

The house boasted five-star reviews, but no photos of the interior – in hindsight, a warning sign. Instead, the listing emphasised the lovely view (true enough) and the appealing location.

Alarm bells started ringing when the owner told me, after I had booked, that Airbnb had made a mistake with the listing by understating the rental fee.

Call me naive, but I agreed to pay the extra amount she requested. The advertised fee did seem modest compared with other houses we’d seen listed, but it occurred to me that she might have deliberately pitched it low to attract business in the hope she could then talk the renter into paying more.

My suspicions about the owner’s modus operandi were heightened when the time came to pay the extra money and she asked me to transfer the amount to her bank account, rather than pay through the Airbnb site. By doing this, she presumably avoided paying a share of the fee to Airbnb.

She also asked me to label the payment in such a way that it wouldn’t look like income. Why do that unless it was to avoid paying tax?

I should have questioned this dodgy-looking arrangement, but by this time we were in the house and I didn’t want to spoil our holiday, which was brief anyway, by getting into a potentially unpleasant dispute with the owner. In any case, I was philosophical about the sum of money involved. It bought us precious whanau time.

Later, when the owner came up with a far-fetched justification for claiming still more dosh, I politely but firmly declined.

Now, the property. The owner lived there herself and had vacated it for our stay.

We arrived in the early evening – too late to make alternative arrangements when we saw the state the house was in. It was a matter of making the best of a bad job.

The fridge was filthy and half-full of the owner’s own food, much of it looking well past its use-by date. The oven, one element of which had burned out, was in a similarly disgusting state. The first hour of our stay was spent getting the two appliances clean.

The dishwasher, which still had some of the owner’s soiled dishes in it, was even more vile. Its interior was coated with a layer of scum. We bought some dishwasher cleaning fluid the next day and ran a two-hour cleaning cycle.

The cutlery drawer, too, was thick with grime. We removed as much cutlery as we needed, thoroughly cleaned it and kept it separate for the duration of our stay.

There were bins full of rubbish, the bed linen was tired, and when my wife mopped the bathroom floor it turned out to not be the colour we thought it was.

Half the light bulbs in the house didn’t function and the two gas bottles for the barbecue were empty. (After I had confirmed with the owner that there was a barbecue available, my wife asked me whether I’d established that full gas bottles were supplied. “Of course they will be,” said I. “If there’s a barbecue, there’ll be gas bottles.” Ha! More fool me.)

We couldn’t believe anyone could live in such conditions, let alone have the nerve to charge others for the pleasure, but perhaps it just doesn’t occur to some people that their houses are a mess.

I should also mention that there were the owner’s two cats to be fed and a couple of sheep in a neighbouring paddock that needed to be kept supplied with water. We were basically house-sitters, paying to look after the place while the owner enjoyed a holiday. The grandkids did, however, love the sheep – a rare sight where they come from.

The crowning indignity – which now seems almost comical in retrospect – came early one morning when, padding down the darkened hallway in bare feet, I stepped in something slimy and repulsive. Close investigation revealed the disembowelled remains of a small furry animal, obviously brought in by one of the cats, and next to it a pile of cat excrement, which is what I trod in. You've gotta laugh, as they say.

I know from talking to friends who have used Airbnb that our experience was atypical, but I’ll need some persuasion before I risk it again. I pulled no punches in the review I wrote for the Airbnb site and wasn’t surprised to note later that the property was no longer listed.

The remarkable thing is that we managed to have a good time. Some readers will no doubt think we were mugs for putting up with the conditions, but we’re a resilient lot, and our time together was too short to ruin it by being miserable or waging war with the owner.

Oh, and did I mention the cockroaches?


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

I reckon eventually, something will blow

Barry Soper made a surprising statement on Newstalk ZB yesterday. I didn’t take down his exact words, but essentially he said nothing was going to happen in the next three years (he meant politically) except that Jacinda Ardern was going to have a baby.

Perhaps it was intended as a tongue-in-cheek comment on the media’s fascination with the prime ministerial pregnancy. But if not, it was an astonishingly bold pronouncement from someone who has covered politics as long as Soper has, and who must surely know the risks of making predictions.

Just hours later, Bill English announced he was retiring, and immediately the political landscape looked very different. Presto – just like that.

Now Wellington is buzzing with speculation about who will succeed English and what difference it might make. The consensus seems to be that National must look to the 2023 election rather than 2020 to regain power. This is based on the conventional wisdom that National’s fatal strategic mistake in 2017 was that it lacked a strong coalition ally, and that it’s going to take longer than three years for one to emerge.

This is an entirely plausible scenario, but it overlooks one possibility. No one can predict with any certainty that the present Labour-led government will hold together for a full term. Its internal contradictions and tensions are such that it could easily tear itself apart, in which case all bets will be off.

The greatest challenge will be reconciling the strains between New Zealand First and the Greens, who represent polar opposites on the ideological spectrum. There will be ample opportunity for this fault line to rupture, and I think we got a glimpse of one this morning with the announcement that the government might scrap plans to put video cameras on fishing boats to monitor bycatch (albatrosses, seals and so forth) and possible illegal dumping of fish.

This is hardly likely to play well with Labour’s Green allies, whose attitude toward fishing companies was summed up by former Green MP Kevin Hague’s statement that the industry couldn’t be trusted. This puts the National Party – which supports the video cameras proposal – in the unusual position of being able to claim the moral high ground with environmentalists, which won’t go down well with the Greens.

For conspiracy theorists, there’s a delectable note of intrigue here because of Winston Peters’ well-documented association with fishing industry interests. Fishing companies have been generous donors to New Zealand First and Peters was instrumental in the Labour-led government’s decision to kybosh the Kermadec marine sanctuary, which was initially championed by Green MP Gareth Hughes.

That backtrack ruffled Green feathers, and so will the retreat from the video cameras proposal. It will be nigh impossible to allay suspicion that Peters wielded his baneful influence behind the scenes.

There is potential for many more such irritants in the fraught relationship between New Zealand First and the Greens. We’ve seen a few already and the government is only four months old. Green MPs, who are driven by idealism and like to think of themselves as highly principled, will be able to button their lips and play the pragmatic game for only so long. I reckon eventually, something will blow. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Pssst - don't mention asylums

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 9.)

We should always cherish the lone voice – the individual bold enough to go against the flow and to speak out against conventional wisdom when conventional wisdom has got it wrong.

Andy Espersen of Nelson is such a voice. I’ve never met him, but I’ve been reading his letters to the papers for years.

Like most lone voices, Espersen is a single-issue crusader. In his case, the issue is mental health. His consistent and persuasive message is that New Zealand made a grievous mistake when it shut down its mental hospitals three decades ago.

Unlike some lone voices, Espersen is not a crank. He spent 40 years working in mental hospitals as a staff nurse and psychiatric social worker (he’s in his 80s now), so he’s no armchair theorist.

In his most recent letter to this paper, he asked whether the mental health inquiry ordered by the new government would dare question the policy of de-institutionalisation and the airy-fairy concept of community care for the mentally ill.

I suspect he knows the answer to his question. Although prime minister Jacinda Ardern has promised nothing will be off the table in the inquiry, community care is such an ideological sacred cow that no one, other than Espersen, even considers the possibility that the old way might have been better.

My prediction is that activists will do their best to ensure that the inquiry focuses on the supposed “drivers” of mental illness. These will include poverty, racism, colonisation, homelessness and homophobia. In other words, they will want to make it all about victims.

No one will want to talk about the virtues of the old “asylums”, because the word is deeply unfashionable. But they were given that name for a reason. An asylum is a place that provides sanctuary. That’s why we talk about political prisoners seeking asylum and asylum-seekers who have fled from unsafe countries.

An asylum was a place where the mentally ill were guaranteed a warm bed, three meals a day, medical care and company, if they wanted it. There were nurses to ensure they took their medication. It wasn’t an ideal existence, but it was safe and secure.

In the 1980s, however, mental health professionals decided the system was inhumane. Hospitalisation was little better than imprisonment, they argued. The mentally ill were entitled like everyone else to live independently and autonomously.

Wrapped in the warm embrace of that amorphous thing called the community, they would be liberated to fulfil their true potential as human beings.

It didn’t seem to matter if they were incapable of cooking, shopping, managing their finances, holding down a job, washing their clothes or showering. And so they ended up living in squalid flats, boarding houses and caravan parks where there was no one to ensure they took their meds. At best, a nurse or mental health worker might check on them occasionally.

It was an ideologically driven change, but the government bean-counters and deconstructionists liked it because it meant the closure of all those big, expensive old institutions.

Doubtless this bold experiment worked for some people, but its negative consequences can be seen in frequent heart-breaking newspaper reports about acutely ill patients living in the community who have committed murder or suicide. Ironically, the victims of their mad rage are often the people who are closest to them and care most about them – their families.

If you missed the last such newspaper story, don’t worry. They’re like buses – there’ll be another one along soon.

There’s a recurring pattern to the human tragedies described in these accounts. Usually they have stopped taken their medication. They may be abusing illegal drugs or alcohol. Often they are living in chaotic circumstances. None of this would happen if they were in a hospital.

Their families are driven to despair. Pleas for help fall on deaf ears or get swallowed up in a cumbersome and unresponsive bureaucracy.

The system allows district health boards to wash their hands of difficult patients the moment they’re out the door. Too often it’s left to the police to pick up the pieces.

Coroners repeatedly make recommendations about how the system needs to be improved. The authorities solemnly nod in agreement, then ignore them.

The prison system ends up bearing part of the burden too. Espersen estimated last year that there were about 2000 mentally ill prisoners who should be in mental hospitals.

As he said in one letter, "We as a society ought to be ashamed". The mental health inquiry has an opportunity to do something about this - but will it?