Thursday, January 28, 2021

Orwell saw this coming

 John Banks can be a hard man to defend, but defend him we must.

The former cabinet minister and mayor of Auckland has been banished in disgrace from radio station Magic Talk, where he was filling in for regular morning talkback host Peter Williams, after suggesting Maori were a Stone Age culture.

According to a report on the leftist news and commentary site The Spinoff, a caller identifying himself as Richard said Maori were genetically predisposed to crime, alcohol and educational under-performance. “Richard” said he was not interested in his children learning about Maoris’ Stone Age culture, to which Banks reportedly responded: “Your children need to get used to their Stone Age culture because if their Stone Age culture doesn’t change, these people will come through your bathroom window.”

The response was drearily predictable. Social media lynch mobs called for Banks’ head. Magic Talk advertisers Vodafone, Kiwibank and Spark virtually fell over each other in their eagerness to display their woke credentials by pulling their ads, while NZ Cricket joined the pile-on by threatening to review Magic Talk’s broadcast rights to Black Caps matches played in New Zealand.

I’m struggling to decide which was more objectionable: Banks’ statement or the nauseatingly sanctimonious platitudes from advertisers parading their commitment to “diversity and inclusion”.

Of course Banks issued the standard obligatory apology, in which he tried to shift responsibility for the furore onto his caller before acknowledging, almost as an afterthought, that he had made some negative generic comments about Maori “that could have been misconstrued as racist”.

None of this would have surprised anyone who has followed Banks’ turbulent career as a politician and radio host. He has a long history of running off at the mouth and making impulsive errors of judgment that he later had cause to regret. He seems unable to help himself. But Magic Talk management must have known this when they offered him the slot. They’re as culpable as he is.

The important question here is this: which poses the greater threat to our liberal, open democracy – Banks’ inflammatory statement, or the rush to shut him down? 

He expressed a provocative opinion that’s possibly shared by some of his listeners. Yanking him off air doesn’t get rid of the opinion. On the contrary, it can only accentuate the perception that freedom of speech is under attack, and intensify the resentment of those who feel excluded from the public conversation.

To put it another way, we have far more to fear from the prigs and bigots trying to silence him than we do from Banks himself. We live in a robust democracy that has demonstrated over many decades that it’s perfectly capable of dealing in a civilised way with contentious opinions. The free exchange of ideas is how democratic societies evolve and advance. What has changed is not the existence of such ideas, but the frightening insistence that they be stifled.  

This is happening with the connivance – indeed, encouragement – of virtue-signalling corporate advertisers, and more alarmingly with the enthusiastic backing of mainstream media outlets that should be manning the barricades in defence of free speech. The promiscuously loose use by reporters of subjective terms such as “racist”, a word for which there is no settled definition, is proof of the media’s abandonment of traditional journalistic principles.

Meanwhile, to their everlasting shame, gutless politicians, intimidated into silence by the venomous rhetoric of neo-Marxist activists, look the other way.

Both the range of subjects New Zealanders feel free to discuss, and the language they may use in discussing them, are being constantly narrowed down. George Orwell saw all this coming, but if he were still alive I don’t imagine he would derive any satisfaction from seeing how right he was.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Wall of Sound, or Wall of Noise?

So Phil Spector has died. I was on holiday on a remote part of the coast with limited internet access at the time, so couldn’t have read the obituaries even if I’d wanted to. But let me guess that they almost unanimously hailed him as a flawed prodigy.

They would also, I imagine, have mentioned the so-called Wall of Sound – the recording technique Spector pioneered, in which masses of musicians were packed into the recording studio to create a dense, multi-layered aural barrage. I mean, why use only one drummer, one guitarist, one bassist and one keyboard player when you could have three or four playing each instrument in unison?

With Spector in the control room, the dial was permanently set at 11. That was supposedly his unique genius, and it led to preposterously hyperbolic comparisons with Wagner.

To be fair, lots of people admired him. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, for one, was in awe of Spector and yearned to emulate his sound, to the point that it became an obsession that almost literally drove Wilson mad. But if you ask me (and admittedly, no one has; the phone has inexplicably been silent), Spector didn’t produce a Wall of Sound so much as a Wall of Noise.

It was surely no coincidence that he was at his creative and commercial peak in the 1960s, an era when the American taste for bigness and excess was also evident in the grotesquely large, ostentatious cars rolling off Detroit assembly lines. Spector’s records were the aural equivalent of a 1960 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, with its enormous bulk, acres of vulgar chrome and tailfins that were both outlandish and utterly pointless.  

It has always puzzled me that Brian Wilson measured himself against Spector and found himself wanting. Musically as well as physically, Wilson was a colossus compared with his pint-sized idol. I remain unconvinced that the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is the perfect album everyone says it was (although it included God Only Knows, one of the most exquisite pop songs ever written); but though Pet Sounds was supposedly influenced by Spector, it had subtlety and nuance in abundance. These are not qualities associated with Spector, any more than they are associated with the Cadillac de Ville (or, for that matter, the Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide, which came from the same era).

And here’s another thing. At the same time as Spector was being lionised for making noisy, overblown, bombastic music in LA, British producers and musical arrangers whom virtually no one has heard of – people such as Johnny Franz and Ivor Raymonde – were creating records which, while just as imposing sonically, also showed finesse, restraint and an appreciation of light and shade. Just listen to any of the big hits by the Walker Brothers or Dusty Springfield –  songs such as Make It Easy On Yourself, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, All I See Is You, I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten – and you might see what I mean. These are big, powerful songs, but they resonate emotionally in a way that Spector’s records never did.

By way of contrast, check out River Deep – Mountain High, by Ike and Tina Turner. Spector regarded this 1966 recording as his magnum opus, the ultimate expression of his talent, but to my ears it’s a frenetic, undisciplined din with little to commend it other than its furious pace, noise and energy. (The original video’s worth watching, mind you.)

Spector was bitterly disappointed when River Deep tanked, peaking at No. 88 on the Billboard chart. Perhaps public taste had moved on by then; the 1966 Cadillac Coupe de Ville was notably more restrained than its predecessors, and all the better for it.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

If it's a hate crime, where does the hate start?

Stuff reports today that someone damaged the Hatupatu rock, beside State Highway 1 near Atiamuri, with a sledgehammer. This could have been simply a mindless act of vandalism (God knows they’re common enough), but predictably, someone has suggested it was a hate crime.

I know the Hatupatu rock; I remember stopping there when our kids were little. They were familiar with the legend of Hatupatu, and how he hid in a cavity in the rock to escape Kurangaituku, the terrifying Bird Woman, because I had read them the story many times.

The hate crime theory has been advanced by South Waikato district councillor Arama Ngapo Lipscombe, who’s quoted as saying: “I am absolutely disgusted that anyone should choose to deface a wahi tapu site. It is a significant site that is part of our local and national history.

“It leads one to think that maybe this is a hate crime. A significant site to Maoridom has been deliberately attacked. There’s no other way to put it.”

Now it strikes me as a bit of leap to assume the vandalism was motivated by hatred, but perhaps we should consider that possibility. If indeed it was a “hate crime”, we need to ask how the putative hatred is being generated, and by whom.

Certainly the politics of race in New Zealand have become steadily more heated and polarising – not just between Pakeha and Maori, but also between the white majority and a few vociferous members (a small minority, as far as we can tell) of some immigrant communities.

Note that I say the politics of race rather than race relations, because relationships between people of different ethnicities in New Zealand – including Maori and Pakeha – remain overwhelmingly respectful and harmonious. But how long this will continue, when ideologically driven agitators are doing their best to create grievance and division, is a moot point.

It needs to be noted that the people dialling up the heat in the race debate are not hateful whites. The inflammatory rhetoric is coming from those who defame New Zealanders daily as racist oppressors and white supremacists.

To call it hate speech may be hyperbolic, but there’s no question which participants in the so-called culture wars are using language likely to incite ill-will and hostility. The danger is that the further this escalates, the greater the likelihood that inarticulate people who resent being harangued by incessant woke propaganda will decide to strike back in the only way they know how – for example, by attacking places and objects precious to Maori.

So while we can’t be sure the vandalism to the Hatupatu Rock was a hate crime, no one can rule out the possibility that it's a primitive backlash. The irony is that by jumping to the conclusion that it was a hate crime without any clear evidence, Arama Ngapo Lipscombe is guilty of cranking up the social tensions that make hate crimes more likely.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

In New Zealand today

My learned and respected former colleague Gordon Campbell (blessings be upon him) writes in his Werewolf blog that “Voters gave Labour a mandate to deliver radical left-wing responses to social needs, and on the environment”. But did they?

I don’t think they did, and I suspect Jacinda Ardern doesn’t either.

Gordon’s unhappy that Labour hasn’t achieved more in the 10 weeks since the election, especially considering that it’s no longer encumbered by a socially conservative coalition partner. “Rather than barrelling along in the fast lane,” he writes, “the government has been driving ultra-carefully down the middle of the road at 40kph, with social needs banking up behind it. In 2021, Labour is really going to have to pick up the pace.”

Two things.  The first is that the 2020 election result shouldn’t be seen as voter endorsement of a radical political agenda. For one thing, New Zealanders are wary of radicalism. For another, the result reflected the unusual circumstances of the time.  The main opposition party was in abject disarray and voters were prepared to reward Ardern (as Gordon himself says) for her astute management of the Covid-19 pandemic. That doesn’t translate into a green light for the transformational change Gordon seems to want.

But more to the point, I’m sure Ardern senses that her stonking election triumph presented Labour with its best chance in a generation – possibly ever – to position itself as the natural party of government. She’s not likely to throw that away just to satisfy Labour’s far left.

Politics, after all, is ultimately about winning and holding onto power. Parties achieve little while languishing in opposition. National has always recognised that, which explains why it governed New Zealand for 47 of the past 70 years. It’s a party of pragmatists and compromisers, for which it has been rewarded by voters suspicious of fire-breathing ideologues. Left-wing zealots in the Labour Party, on the other hand, tend to frighten voters away.

With her pledge to govern for every New Zealander, Ardern signalled on election night that she wants to cement Labour in the political centre and thus pull the rug out from under National. Arguably the last Labour leader capable of doing that was Norman Kirk. I think Gordon may have to resign himself to three years of frustration.

■ Anjum Rahman from the Islamic Women’s Council has described the recent unpleasantness in the Rangiora branch of Farmers as an example of hate crime. I think we should be very wary of such hyperbole.

To recap: Aya Al-Umari was sampling lipstick with her mother and speaking in Arabic when she noticed another shopper, an older white woman, observing them.

The woman said to her husband: “She shouldn’t be doing that”. When Al-Umari challenged her, the woman pretended not to hear and said to her husband, “It’s okay, it won’t be long before they leave our country.”

In the subsequent exchange, which was captured on video, the woman asked Al-Umari whether she was born and bred in New Zealand. Another shopper intervened, telling the woman she should be ashamed of herself (good on her), and a staff member subsequently escorted the female Archie Bunker off the premises.

Bigotry? Yes. Ignorance? For sure. But “hate”? That’s implying a level of malevolence that wasn’t necessarily present. Shooting law-abiding people at prayer is a hate crime; making an idiot of yourself in a department store falls far short of that threshold.

Al-Umari (who has spent most of her life in New Zealand, although that should be irrelevant, and who lost a brother in the mosque massacres) is absolutely right to say that such people need to be challenged. Otherwise, she says, “hate escalates”.

But rhetoric escalates too, and the danger in labelling such incidents as “hate crimes” is that it creates a climate of moral panic and helps prepare the ground for laws that might unreasonably restrict what we can say – which I suspect is Anjum Rahman’s intention.



Tuesday, December 29, 2020

A potent antidote to toxic wokeism

I’ve been enjoying a book that an old friend gave me for Christmas. This Is Us: New Zealanders in Our Own Words was written (or perhaps I should say compiled) by Pete Carter, whom I’d never heard of, and was inspired by the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings.

It might seem downright perverse to say I’m enjoying a book inspired by one of the darkest events in our history, but it isn’t about the shootings. Rather, it was written as a reaction to them. The title is a play on Jacinda Ardern’s famous comment in which she said of the victims, “They are us” – three words that encapsulated the ideal of a culturally diverse and inclusive New Zealand.

Carter took that as a cue to interview 200 New Zealanders about their lives. The resulting book is a resounding affirmation of the values and qualities that make this one of the world’s most tolerant, civilised and liberal (in the classical sense) societies.

This Is Us thus serves as a potent antidote not just to the poisonous ideology that motivated Brenton Tarrant, but also to the shrill, embittered disciples of wokeness – and their many supporters in the media – who condemn New Zealand as hateful, bigoted and oppressive.

Carter’s interview subjects represent a snapshot of contemporary New Zealand. The book touches almost every point on the demographic spectrum: white and coloured, young and old, urban and rural, blue-collar battlers and prosperous blue-bloods, New Zealand-born and recently arrived. There are shearers, schoolkids, checkout operators, butchers, tattooists, ski instructors, solo mums, hairdressers, artists, winemakers, hospitality workers, nurses, cops, road workers, bus drivers, ex-cons and bank managers.

Refreshingly, only two or three of the interview subjects could be described as famous. Most are unknown and all are identified only by their first names. The Usual Suspects - the wearisomely familiar people who normally dominate the public conversation - are conspicuous by their absence, and the book is all the better for it.

The interviews are short, mostly taking up only half a page and each accompanied by a photo of the interviewee. They are engagingly frank and idiosyncratic, touching on everything from jobs and careers to sport, religion, mental health, family history and relationships. All the subjects have interesting stories to tell.

This Is Us is not a whitewash. As Carter notes in his introduction, there is racism in New Zealand (undoubtedly, but it doesn’t define us). Mental illness is a problem, he says, and there are too many have-nots.

But if there’s a unifying theme running through the interviews, it’s one of positivity and optimism. Whether they were born here or arrived as immigrants, the interviewees convey a powerful feeling that New Zealand is a good place to be. I defy anyone to read it and not feel the same.

Perhaps this explains why I’ve seen very little publicity about this book, and no reviews. It’s far too much at odds with the relentlessly negative, self-flagellating message promoted by woke ideologues and pushed daily by their hand-wringing accomplices in the media.  

■ This Is Us: New Zealanders in Our Own Words is published by Exisle Publishing and is widely available for $39.99. I heartily recommend it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Nothing could have been done - so why are we apologising?

Here are some of the things we know about Brenton Tarrant.

He was a loner. He didn’t draw support from a New Zealand cell of right-wing extremists. He was more influenced by Anders Breivik and You Tube.

He came to New Zealand because it was a place where he could fly under the radar. He didn’t move here because he saw New Zealand as having a far-right network that could help him carry out his plan. If anything, probably the reverse was true. As a country with no history of right-wing extremism, New Zealand enabled him to develop his murderous plot without attracting attention.

The only way in which we unwittingly abetted him was through sloppy administration of loose gun laws that asked him (how incredible is this?) to declare that he wouldn’t pose a threat to anyone if he owned a gun, that took his word for it when he wrote “I’m a responsible person” and “I don’t have any enemies”, and that allowed him to name a referee who apparently barely knew him. And the only clues to his aberrant behaviour – significant in hindsight, if not at the time – were gun club sessions where he practised rapid firing and changing of magazines, and the unease felt by his mother after a holiday with him (but which she evidently kept to herself).

Much of this can be gleaned from an excellent summary of the Royal Commission’s report written by Martin Van Beynen – one of the last old-school reporters to have survived at Stuff – and Sam Sherwood.

The key thing to note here is the absence of any evidence that Tarrant was inspired or encouraged by rampant racism or white supremacy in New Zealand. The report says nothing could have been done to prevent the attacks. So why are we going through continuing paroxysms of guilt and remorse? Why are we apologising? Is it to make ourselves feel better about events which couldn’t be foreseen and over which we had virtually no control? Or is it to present ourselves to the world as virtuous and to burnish our prime minister’s global image as a paragon of compassion and champion of inclusiveness?

The March 15 massacres were an awful atrocity – a merciless, cold-blooded attack on people peacefully exercising their right to practise their religion. But we have already shown our remorse. We did that in the days and weeks following the killings. The world knows we mourned the dead and stood in support of the bereaved.

We have nothing to be ashamed of, other than that the police didn’t properly vet Tarrant’s firearms licence application. That’s the only failing that cried out for an apology. It was a crucial point at which his plan could have been derailed. Yet even then, it’s questionable whether more rigorous inquiries would have given any clues to Tarrant’s sociopathic personality. And we should remember, before making the police a scapegoat for everything that went wrong, that two heroic constables risked their lives by pulling the gunman over and halting a rampage that might otherwise have taken more lives.

Was the SIS so pre-occupied with the threat of Islamic terrorism that it didn't consider the possibility of a terrorist act by a Brievik-style white vigilante extremist? Perhaps so. But intelligence agencies act on the basis of evidence, and the evidence of the past 50 years indicates overwhelmingly that we have more to fear from jihadists than from white fanatics. We should not allow that fact to negate the right of law-abiding Muslims to live peacefully among us, but it remains a fact nonetheless.

Anjun Rahman, of the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand, keeps saying that her organisation’s warnings of rampant Islamophobia in New Zealand went unheeded. But verbal abuse hurled at New Zealand Muslims, reprehensible as it is, doesn’t indicate a level of hatred so all-consuming that it could be predicted as leading to the slaughter of 51 innocent people. That’s a very big jump.

And we need to keep repeating the key fact that Tarrant was a stranger among us, acting alone. Regardless of anything that a minority of disaffected Muslim agitators such as Guled Mire might allege, Jacinda Ardern was right when she said this was not us. New Zealand was not responsible for this hideous event, and it’s a calumny against an entire country to imply that it was.

Why, then, do we need to signal our regret all over again by confessing to supposed failings that reflect badly on us as a country?  The obvious explanation is that it provides the government with an opportunity to advance an agenda which it knows the country would otherwise resist.

That brings us to the government’s proposals – conveniently vague at this stage – to crack down on “hate crime” and tighten the laws controlling what people are allowed to say (in public, at least).

Where is the evidence that lax hate speech laws allowed or even encouraged Tarrant to kill? There is none. To my knowledge, no one has presented any evidence to show how tighter controls over New Zealanders’ right to free speech would have prevented the March 15 atrocity. On the contrary, the Royal Commission points to You Tube, which is beyond the reach of New Zealand laws, as the most pernicious influence on the shooter.

Why, then, is the government using the massacres and the commission’s report as justification for the possible criminalisation of “hate speech”, however that might be defined? A case can certainly be made for better police recording of “hate crime”, so that we know exactly what we’re dealing with, and for religion to be added to the existing categories (race, colour, nationality and ethnicity) that are protected from discrimination under the Human Rights Act. It seems extraordinary that it was excluded in the first place.

But beyond that, the most likely explanation for the proposed tightening of laws governing freedom of expression is that it has been on the wish-list of the neo-Marxist left for a long time, and the royal commission’s report provides an excuse – albeit a wholly invalid one – to press ahead. Predictably, left-wing academics are already urging that hate speech laws should extend beyond race and religion to gender and sexual orientation. Expect fat-shaming to be criminalised next.

Where will this lead? An obvious risk is that police will be given the power to determine what people are allowed to say, as in Britain. Those who express ideologically unfashionable views may risk prosecution. That would make us a police state. It would mean the end of New Zealand as a liberal democracy.

So who might we expect to lead the political pushback? Not Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, apparently.  Judith Collins has done little more than express half-hearted misgivings about Labour’s proposals. She leads a demoralised and spineless National Party that has long forgotten what it’s supposed to stand for. This is ACT’s moment – its opportunity to assume the role that National has abandoned.

Footnote: None of the above comments should be construed as criticising the families of massacre victims who have found fault with the Royal Commission’s report. Like the Pike River families, they have been traumatised by an unimaginably tragic event and understandably want someone held accountable.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

The curtain of secrecy around abortion

Ken Orr of Right to Life New Zealand, a tireless campaigner for the unborn, has revealed that as a consequence of the radically liberalised abortion law passed this year, information about abortions that was previously required to be publicly disclosed by the Abortion Supervisory Committee (which no longer exists) will now be withheld. 

The oddly named Abortion Legislation Act includes a provision requiring the Director-General of Health to “collect, collate, analyse and publish” information about abortion services, but it’s so loosely worded and non-specific as to be worthless. And the Notification of Abortion form that abortion providers are required to fill out doesn’t include crucial information about why the abortion has been performed. Presumably this is because no justification is required.

Orr points out that the disbanded ASC produced a 30-page annual report with 11 pages of statistics, but under the new regime the curtailment of life in the womb will conveniently be carried out behind a curtain of secrecy. We won’t know, for example, whether babies have been aborted because they have Down’s Syndrome, or for reasons of sex selection. (The Act states that Parliament opposes abortion for the "sole purpose" of sex selection, presumably because it offends feminists, and requires the D-G to conduct a five-yearly review to establish whether there’s any evidence of it happening. But that’s no guarantee of anything, and crucially there appears to be no public disclosure requirement.)

Neither will we know, apparently, whether abortions have been performed because of rape or incest, since abortionists aren't required to provide that information, or how many abortions are carried out at the point in the baby’s gestation when it’s capable of survival outside the womb. It’s not in the government’s interests for us to be told how many babies have been aborted alive, because even people who think abortion is a matter of a woman’s right to choose are likely to be appalled at the thought of living babies callously being left to die (and with no pain relief, because pro-abortion MPs voted against providing it). But it will happen, and we won’t know about it.

The public will thus be unable to assess the impact and consequences of the Act. The purpose can only be, as Orr says, to avoid public scrutiny and debate. The new law thus raises important issues of transparency and freedom of information. But that’s okay, because we’re told the 2020 Act, in the bloodless language of the lawmakers, is simply about “better aligning the regulation of abortion services with other health services” and presumably of no more consequence than a tooth extraction.