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?


(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.