Friday, May 31, 2019

Perhaps they should listen rather than sneer

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, May 30.)

During a visit to Wellington earlier this year, John Podesta, a man described as a top American political adviser, gave a series of media interviews.

Among other things, he praised our “superstar” prime minister and said she had given hope to social democrats everywhere.

Jacinda Ardern’s election success in 2017, Podesta said, was a bright spot at a time when populist movements were winning political success around the world – a trend Podesta obviously saw as undesirable.

As a former chief of staff to US President Bill Clinton, adviser to President Barack Obama and chairman of Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful election campaign in 2016, Podesta is an influential player in the US Democratic Party.

He would feel a natural affinity with Ardern, whose soft-Left politics are broadly aligned with those of the US Democrats. 

But while it was Podesta’s glowing remarks about Ardern that captured headlines, his warning about the supposed dangers of populist politics said more about the strange political mood of the times.

He talked about social media whipping the public into a frenzy, and about democratic values being placed at risk by politicians exploiting fear and unrest.

Predictably, he cited Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as examples. He also mentioned the success of anti-immigration parties in Europe – an obvious reference to Italy, Hungary and Poland, where voters have installed Right-leaning governments that resist policies imposed by the EU.

By implication, populism is bad. It is the opposite of the “progressive” politics embraced by Podesta, our Labour-led government and social democratic parties in much of the Western world.

But hang on a minute. If Podesta looked in a dictionary, he would see that a populist is defined as a person “who holds, or is concerned with, the views of ordinary people”.

It follows that there should be nothing shameful about the word populist. It comes from a Latin root word meaning “people”. Perhaps Podesta needs to be reminded about the origin of another important word, one that we got from the ancient Greeks: Democracy. It means “rule by the people”.

The words “populist” and “democracy” are joined at the hip. But “populist” has become a dirty word used by the political elites to discredit any policies they disapprove of.

They try to deride populism by equating it with extreme nationalism. But populism is on the rise for a very obvious reason: throughout the Western world, Left-leaning elites have grown distanced from the views of “ordinary people” whom they dismiss as ignorant and worthless.

Parties that once had a working-class base have been captured by inner-city ideologues and intellectuals. At the same time, we have seen the emergence of a new breed of politician who has known no career outside politics and had no direct exposure to the issues that most concern rank-and-file voters.  

The result has been a profound re-orientation of traditional politics, with blue-collar voters moving to the Right because they perceive social-democratic parties as being elitist and out-of-touch.

As far back as the 1980s, so-called “working-class Tories” supported Margaret Thatcher. The same class of voter had a decisive influence on the outcome of the recent Australian elections.

It was the blue-collar vote that got Trump elected (wealthy people overwhelmingly supported Clinton) and it was mostly working-class, Labour-held British electorates that voted in favour of Brexit. If that wasn’t proof enough, the clincher was last weekend’s EU elections – a triumph for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

Surely the solution to all this is not to sneer but to listen and respond. Yet blue-collar Trump voters, who would once have been natural Democratic Party supporters, were dismissed by Clinton in 2016 as “deplorables” – a remark that encapsulated the elite’s contempt for ordinary people and may have lost her the election.

Okay, so the Left hates Trump. But he won the 2016 election according to the rules, odd though they may seem to us; and until such time as the Democratic Party and the American media come up with proof that Trump rorted his way to victory, they should get used to it.

Brexit, too, was the result of a popular vote by ordinary people who, not unnaturally, wanted to be governed from London rather than by a largely unaccountable bureaucracy elsewhere. But because it ran counter to the Left’s grand project of a united Europe, the political elites insisted the majority of British voters got it wrong and went to great lengths to thwart their will.

The problem, clearly, is that ordinary people are stupid. They can’t be trusted to make the right decisions. They don’t know what’s good for them. They should have taken the advice of their political betters. Perhaps the solution is not to let them vote at all.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Milkshakes and mud: weapons of choice for the militant, inarticulate Left

(First published in Stuff regional papers and on, May 29.)

Who are the real haters? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself as the debate over so-called “hate speech” escalates to almost hysterical levels.

It popped into my head as I watched a TV news report about the British protester who splattered Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage with a banana and salted caramel milkshake.

Milkshakes are the current weapon of choice for angry left-wing activists who are apparently too inarticulate or too consumed with rage to express themselves by legitimate means.

In the case of Farage, he’s seen as fair game because he represents a political position that’s labelled alt-Right, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Attacks on him are therefore seen as acceptable - indeed, even honourable in the eyes of many on the Left.

It makes no difference to these people that Farage’s party has wide popular support, as has just been emphatically demonstrated in the EU elections, or that it was founded for the legitimate purpose of insisting that the British government do what the majority of voters told it do in the 2016 EU referendum. Popular support and democratic legitimacy count for nothing to militant zealots. 

Of course we have our own righteous activists here in New Zealand – people so convinced of the correctness of their cause that they feel entitled to resort to oafish acts of thuggery against anyone who sees things differently.

John Key was monstered by two activists at Waitangi in 2009 – although in fairness, it should be acknowledged that they later had the decency to apologise – and the mild-mannered ACT parliamentary leader John Boscawen was humiliated by having a lamington rubbed into his hair while speaking during a by-election debate later the same year in Auckland.

Several years prior, also at Waitangi, then National Party leader Don Brash had mud hurled in his face. And of course there was the celebrated incident in which a dildo was flung in the face of cabinet minister Steven Joyce in 2016.

More recently, in Australia, a teenager was virtually hailed as a hero for breaking an egg on the head of Senator Fraser Anning. People excused it because Anning is an unusually odious politician, but make no mistake – the attack on him was an attack on the right of politicians in a democracy to take unpopular positions. It therefore became an attack on freedom of expression, which is the cornerstone of liberal democracy.

The purpose of such attacks is to intimidate and humiliate, and by implication to send a signal to others that they risk the same treatment if they dare to express ideas that the Left wishes to suppress.

It is, in other words, a form of bullying, and we should be just as intolerant of it as we are of bullying in school or the workplace.

The striking thing about these acts is that they were perpetrated by people on the Left, which is a reversal of the historical pattern.  We tend to associate political violence with right-wing thugs such as the Nazi Brownshirts, but increasingly it’s the Left that indulges in disruption and displays of intimidation.

Overseas, activists on the Left have developed a sophisticated repertoire of strategies for shutting down opposing opinions. These include threatening violent demonstrations on such a scale that police either can’t guarantee public safety or demand payment of outrageous fees from meeting organisers to cover the costs of maintaining order.

Another effective technique is to blockade events that the protesters object to – a tactic employed at a mining conference in Dunedin this week. It’s a denial of other people’s rights and therefore fundamentally anti-democratic. 

Oddly enough, we never see conservatives trying to prevent others from going about their lawful business. They accept that a liberal democracy accepts differences of opinion. 

To return to my opening question, who are the real haters? Who are the people whose actions and statements reveal them as hard-core bigots, rigidly intolerant of different views?

I was fascinated to learn last week that two years ago, the “comedian” Guy Williams (I put that word in inverted commas because it has become a synonym for tiresome prig) took a photo of Don Brash crossing a street in Ponsonby and posted it on Twitter with a comment indicating a desire to run him over.

Obviously there was no real intent to carry out the threat, and Williams later apologised. But the mere fact that he expressed the thought, even flippantly, is telling.

It becomes even more intriguing when you learn that Williams is the boyfriend of Green MP Golriz Ghahraman, who made a melodramatic pitch for public sympathy last week – supported by Williams – after ACT leader David Seymour upset her by calling her a menace to freedom because of her demands for tougher controls on what New Zealanders are permitted to say.

It’s interesting to speculate on what might have happened if the names were re-arranged here, and it was Seymour who had jokingly threatened to run Ghahraman down on Ponsonby Rd.  I think we can safely say the Left would have been up on its hind legs demanding that he be strung up. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Ghahraman's master-class in media manipulation

It’s safe to assume that lots of politicians are incorrigible attention-seekers – if not at the start of their careers, then certainly once they figure out how the system works and how the oxygen of publicity can be exploited to their advantage.

In this respect, Green MP Golriz Ghahraman is hardly unusual. But what marks her as different is the skill with which she plays the game. Although ostensibly still a political novice, she’s as media-savvy as any veteran.

She has also learned that she can exploit the sympathy of journalists who are drawn to her because she’s young and female (like many press gallery reporters) and also Green and an Iranian asylum-seeker. Looking good on camera helps too, although I shouldn’t mention that because it will be condemned as sexist.

We have seen all these attributes on full display during the past 24 hours with the disclosure that Ghahraman now has a personal security guard because of anonymous online threats against her safety.

Media coverage casts her as a victim of vile white male supremacy, a role she appears almost to relish – and why wouldn’t she, given that it neatly aligns with her portrayal of New Zealand as a country seething with poisonous white nationalism?  

I’m not suggesting the threats against her are not real and alarming, or that Ghahraman has somehow contrived to create the situation for political advantage. But I do suggest that she’s milking her victim status for all it’s worth, and that the media are obligingly dancing to her tune.  

All this might be bearable, at a pinch, but for one thing. Ghahraman laid the blame for the threats against her, subtly but unmistakeably, at the feet of ACT leader David Seymour, who said in a radio interview earlier this week that Ghahraman was “a real menace to freedom in this country”.

Seymour was expressing a legitimate opinion (one that I share) in the context of a debate about freedom of speech, but Ghahraman cleverly twisted his comment to imply that he was somehow inciting violence against her. She sanctimoniously suggested that post-Christchurch, “New Zealand has asked us to be different” – meaning, we can only assume, that people like Seymour should shut up.

Make no mistake, this was a master-class in the dark art of media manipulation. Winston Peters and Shane Jones must have watched with grudging admiration.

Ghahraman even managed to weave the parliamentary bullying report into her comments to reporters, saying attitudes need to change. All this serves her bigger agenda, which is to discourage free and open debate about when legitimate opinion becomes “hate speech”.

Sadly, but predictably, the media appeared to uncritically swallow Ghahraman’s line. She must have been thrilled to see reporters pursuing Seymour down a parliamentary corridor hurling accusatory questions at him.

To his great credit, he stood his ground. Would that other centre-right politicians showed similar spine when the pressure is on.

The bottom line here is that while every civilised person abhors any personal threat against Ghahraman by pathetic cowards hiding in the shadows of cyberspace, there is something deeply distasteful – you could almost say despicable – in her attempts to weaponise that threat politically.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Some more thoughts on the Folau furore

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, May 16.)

Something’s not quite right here. The 21st century buzzwords are diversity and inclusivity, but they seem to be applied very selectively.

It seems we’re in favour of diversity and inclusivity if we’re talking about race, colour, gender and sexual identity, the latter two of which keep spinning off into ever-new permutations. But puzzlingly, we’re only partially tolerant when it comes to religious belief.

We are encouraged to be tolerant toward Islam, especially since the Christchurch massacres, and so we should be. The right to practise one’s religion, at least unless it interferes with the rights of others, is one we should all unquestioningly support.

This applies even when secular society disapproves of some of those religions, or scratches its collective head in bemusement at their practices and beliefs.

But if freedom of religion is one cornerstone of a free society, so is freedom of expression, which includes the right to subject religion, along with every other institution of society, to critical scrutiny and even ridicule.

Virtually all religions – whether we’re talking Catholicism, Mormonism, Judaism, the Destiny Church or the Exclusive Brethren – possess what, to non-believers, are quirks, absurdities, hypocrisies and cruelties that render them ripe for mockery and condemnation.

For decades, comedians and satirists have taken joyous, blasphemous advantage of this freedom. How people laughed, for example, at Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, with its wickedly subversive song Every Sperm is Sacred – a dig at Catholic teaching on birth control.

If it offended devout Catholics – well, tough. Freedom to ridicule is the flipside of freedom to worship.

Mainstream Christianity is still considered fair game by comedians and satirists, and no one bats an eyelid. But somehow, Islam seems to be off-limits. Even a cool, reasoned criticism of Islam is likely to excite accusations of Islamophobia.

The champions of diversity don’t seem to grasp that you can abhor the grotesque atrocities perpetrated by Islamic fanatics while simultaneously defending the right of peaceful, law-abiding Muslims, such as those in Christchurch, to practise their religion.

There’s no contradiction here. It’s only when criticism of religion escalates into incitement to hostility or violence that it becomes unacceptable.

Neither do the defenders of Islam seem to realise that by denouncing all criticism of Islam as Islamophobic, they give the impression of condoning a religion that, in its extreme forms, thinks it’s okay to stone homosexuals, apostates and adulterers to death.

All of which leads us neatly to Israel Folau, who condemned atheists, drunks, homosexuals and fornicators with equal vehemence, but seems to have been pilloried solely for his statement that gays will go to Hell.

The first point to be made about the Folau hysteria is that it was avoidable by the simple expedient of ignoring him. The people who have so energetically helped to spread Folau’s message are those who insist he should have kept his supposedly hateful opinions to himself.

I’ve been searching for the logic there, but so far it eludes me.

Equally perplexing is that while Folau’s detractors would scoff at the very idea that such a place as Hell exists, they apparently took his Instagram post seriously enough to whip themselves into a frenzy of outrage.

They could have smiled indulgently and let Folau’s post go unremarked, but that would have been too hard for the social media trolls who swarm around in cyberspace looking for things to get furious about.  It would also have meant passing up a chance to mount an attack on conservative Christianity, when obviously the opportunity was just too good to ignore.

So much for diversity and inclusivity, then. The attacks on Folau by people who profess to embrace difference are as fine a combination of sanctimony and vindictiveness as you’re ever likely to see. And it goes beyond mere criticism, because the purpose is to punish him.

If we truly believed in diversity and inclusiveness, we would accept Folau as part of humanity’s rich and varied tapestry, even if we don’t agree with him. Media bores like Peter FitzSimons, who has built a career out of being the Wallaby hard man who was really, all along, a sensitive liberal, would have to find something else to moralise about.

We would also acknowledge that Folau wasn’t trying to incite hatred against anyone. He was acting according to his Christian conscience, which calls him to save sinners.What’s more, his views are shared by many Pasifika people, and not long ago would have been considered unremarkable in mainstream society.

They are taken, after all, from the New Testament, which forms the basis for much of Western civilisation's moral and judicial framework. Perhaps that's the real target here, and the Folau furore just an appetiser.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

A journey rich in nostalgia

(First published in Stuff regional papers and on, May 15.) 

One definition of a pilgrimage is “any journey taken for nostalgic or sentimental reasons”. Well, I recently went on just such a pilgrimage.

It took me to the Coromandel. Note that I say “the” Coromandel, so as to distinguish the region from the town of the same name.

My pilgrimage satisfied the dictionary definition, being a journey that was heavily tinged with nostalgia. I was last in the Coromandel about 30 years ago, but my most enduring memories of the place date back to the early 1960s, when my parents got the camping bug.

On our first camping trip in 1960, when I was nine, we explored the East Cape. We set out from our home in Hawke’s Bay in a mini-convoy, Dad with some of the family in our old Austin 16, towing a trailer laden with gear, and the rest of us tagging along in my brother’s 1937 Chev. I was the youngest.

The following summer we were more ambitious, venturing further afield to the Coromandel. In 1962, we took advantage of the new Cook Strait ferry service to head to Nelson and on to Totaranui, in Abel Tasman National Park. We were usually joined on these trips by cousins, uncles and aunties.

But it was the Coromandel Peninsula, with its pristine sandy beaches, bush-covered headlands and mangrove inlets, that became our favourite destination.

My parents generally eschewed established camping grounds, preferring to seek out relatively untouched places, always by the sea. At Whangapoua, on the east coast of the peninsula, we first camped on the Denize family’s farm. In subsequent years we pitched our tent (an old-fashioned square one, the only type you could get then, with no floor and a heavy wooden centre pole) in a sheltered hollow amid kanuka trees at the southern end of Whangapoua Beach.

The beach was a 30-second walk away through the dunes and Whangapoua Harbour, where we fished from the jetty, was reached via a track that led across a headland covered in pohutukawa trees.

Conditions were primitive. We cooked on the fire or on an old camping stove and we hauled water from the creek. Dad dug a long-drop dunny and we hung a safe from a tree to keep the food from getting fly-blown. We relied on the sea to keep us clean and about once a week we would take the tortuous metal road to Coromandel town for supplies.

It was much the same at Ohui, further south. There we camped on land owned by a Maori farming family, the McGregors. Our campsite was under an enormous karaka tree by a ford.

I remember when one wheel of my mother’s tiny Fiat 500 (we had acquired an extra car by then) slipped into a ditch outside the McGregors’ farmhouse. A giant of a man – or so it seemed to me at the time – emerged from the house and without a word, effortlessly lifted the car back onto the track that passed for a road.

My memory of how we spent our time on those holidays is hazy. We swam a lot and we sunbathed. We went fishing and we read. At nights Mum and Dad and any other adults present would play Scrabble by the light of a Coleman lamp.

There was a lot of laughter and a lot of singing, accompanied by a ukulele which was ideal because it didn’t take up much space in the car. Sad Movies was a favourite song one summer, and I remember my mother and her sister Winifred singing a popular song from their youth: I Was Seeing Nellie Home. I can't hear it these days without getting a bit teary.

I don’t recall it ever raining, but I’m sure it did.

It won’t surprise anyone to hear that it’s all very different in 2019. Whangapoua is still a magnificent beach – nothing can change that – but the land was subdivided decades ago. It’s all built up now and there’s a big general store-cum-cafĂ© where you can get things we’d never heard of in the 60s, such as lattĂ© and pains aux raisins.

At Ohui I went looking for our old campsite but couldn’t recognise anything. What was once farmland is now subdivided into lifestyle blocks and covered in mature trees, exotics as well as native. Every narrow metal road ended in a sign that said “Private”. But you can still reach the beach via a public walking track and like Whangapoua, it’s still breathtakingly pretty. The day we were there, someone was having a wedding in the dunes.

Ohui remains relatively unspoiled, but everywhere else we went – Whangapoua, Hahei, Tairua, Kuaotunu, Whitianga, Coromandel town itself – the Auckland Effect was evident in the extraordinary proliferation of opulent homes, most of them vacant for 11 months of the year. It’s a display of affluence to rival the most fashionable parts of California.

Roads that were glorified goat tracks in 1961 – Uncle Bert’s Morris Minor barely got over the hill at Kuaotunu – are now wide and smooth. They have to be, to accommodate all the European tourists in their camper vans.

But it’s still a sublimely beautiful place, and not even the sight of a massive hilltop mansion with its own helipad at Whangapoua can erase memories of a time when things were different.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Seven Sharp and its "Bonjela hell" story

I don’t normally watch Seven Sharp. Somehow I don’t get the feeling I’m likely to miss anything important by not seeing it. But last night, for some reason, I found myself watching its opening item about a baby girl who reportedly almost died from an overdose of Bonjela.

That’s right, Bonjela – that popular gel people use for mouth ulcers and for soothing babies’ gums during teething.

Interviewed by Hilary Barry and Jeremy Wells, the parents cuddled their now-healthy baby as they explained how she was rushed to Starship Hospital after reacting adversely to the product. They said they were within minutes of losing her.

“Bonjela hell,” Wells called it, suggesting a promising future as a tabloid headline writer if he ever tires of television. Barry oozed empathy. “What a terrible ordeal,” she cooed.

The mother explained that they’d given the baby Bonjela and paracetamol because she was experiencing severe teething pain and the Bonjela seemed to soothe her. She said they had been in touch with health professionals who knew what they were doing.

How much Bonjela? “Quite a lot over a few days,” said the mother. “Over a 24-hour period, close to a tube.”

As it happens, we had a near-new tube of Bonjela in our bathroom. We’d used it only last week on our grandson’s gums. I went and got it.

The instructions on the tube say it should be applied no more than once every three hours and no more than six times over a 24-hour period. Then there’s a prominent warning in red letters: “Do not exceed the recommended dose. Excessive or prolonged use can be harmful.”

I would have thought that for a whole tube to be used over 24 hours was clearly far in excess of the recommended dose – in fact grossly excessive.

The instructions also say the gel shouldn’t be given to babies under four months. The baby in question was seven months old, but the warning can be taken as indicating that infants are at particular risk.

So you might think, in the circumstances, that the parents would have exercised a lot more caution. Yet I didn’t get the feeling they blamed themselves for what must have been a very scary experience.

However I’m not writing this to disparage them. You’d hope that they learned a lesson, even if they didn’t seem greatly troubled by self-doubt.

No, what appalled me was the absence of any journalistic rigour or integrity in the way Seven Sharp treated the item.

The hosts could have highlighted the warning on the tube (it was actually shown on screen at one point) and asked the parents whether they had bothered to read it – and if so, why they apparently chose to ignore it.

(At one point Wells even asked the parents: “Do you think Bonjela needs a warning?” FFS, there is a warning – it was right there on the programme, if he bothered to look.) 

They could have questioned the manufacturer of the product as to whether the warning was adequate,  or asked a health professional how the crisis could have been avoided (for example, by taking the novel step of following the instructions). They could have taken the elementary step of trying to find out whether other babies' lives  had been threatened by Bonjela (I think I know what the answer would have been).

But no. Instead, there was Barry simpering over the “adorable” baby (to be fair, she was very cute) and saying this was the sort of accident that happens when tired parents have to get up to distressed children in the middle of the night. I could almost hear thousands of parents chorusing: “No it’s not.” I mean, a whole bloody tube in 24 hours?

There was no balancing information, no expert opinion. Far easier to frame the item as (1) a tug on the heartstrings and (2) a scare story over a product that was portrayed as dangerous and irresponsible when it’s perfectly harmless, not to mention beneficial, when used as recommended - as most people obviously do.

I’ve since learned that Seven Sharp did interview a Ministry of Health doctor the previous week, when the case was first reported, and she was emphatic that Bonjela was safe provided parents followed the directions. But Seven Sharp shouldn’t assume that people would have seen that item, no matter how much they might like to think that New Zealanders religiously tune in to the show every night. It needed to be restated to provide some much-needed balance to last night’s overwrought item.

Whatever this was, it wasn’t journalism. I don’t think I’ll be tuning into Seven Sharp again in a hurry.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

My 10 favourite New Zealand songs, give or take three

Grant Harding wrote an editorial in my excellent local paper, the Wairarapa Times-Age, on Thursday marking the start of New Zealand Music Month. His reminiscences about the songs that had left a lasting impression on him reminded me that in an idle moment long ago, I began compiling a list of my own 10 favourite New Zealand records. I got only as far as seven, but for what it’s worth, here they are:

■ Tears (The Crocodiles)
■ Have You Heard a Man Cry (Corben Simpson)
■ E Ipo (Prince Tui Teka)
■ Outlook For Thursday (DD Smash)
■ Glad I’m Not A Kennedy (Shona Laing)
■ Time Makes A Wine (Ardijah)
■ I Hope I Never (Split Enz)

One of these days I might get around to deciding on the other three.