Friday, June 25, 2010

A small country with a big inferiority complex

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, June 22.)

ONE OF our least attractive national characteristics was on display last week. I refer to our puerile tendency to poke our tongues out and go nyah-nyah at the Australians whenever we're perceived to have bettered them.

Not content simply to relish the All Whites’ lucky 1-1 draw with Slovakia, we had to gloat at the Socceroos’ 4-0 hammering by Germany. But any side can have a bad day, particularly against a side that’s ranked sixth in the world, and it could easily be the All Whites’ turn to stumble next. Schadenfreude – the enjoyment of others’ misfortunes – has a nasty habit of rebounding.

In any case, what was the point of crowing at Australia’s failure? All it did was announce to the world that we’re a small-minded country with a big inferiority complex.

We even failed to see the ironic humour in the Sydney Morning Herald’s headline: Australasia 1, Slovakia 1. Predictably, we rose to the bait and took it as a slight.

Sporting rivalry between New Zealand and Australia has always been intense but it used to be essentially good-natured. I’m not sure that’s true anymore.

A sour, petty tone is creeping into the relationship, though only on our side of the ditch. Surveys show that Australians still regard New Zealand and New Zealanders with more affection than any other country, which is probably more than we deserve. We should hope it stays that way, because we need them more than they need us.

Rivalry when we’re competing against each other is one thing, but in international competitions like the World Cup we can surely afford to be more big-hearted. In fact we should probably celebrate Australian successes as the next best thing to our own.

* * *

ONE OF last year’s more bizarre moments came when Dr Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organisation, announced the start of the swine flu pandemic. She made it sound as if she was opening the Olympic Games or announcing the winner of the best picture award at the Oscars.

“The world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic,” she proudly declared. I waited for her to add “Gentlemen, start your engines” and sound a hooter.

So far this year, concern over swine flu has been noticeably muted. In fact people are now wondering whether last year’s hysteria was a huge over-reaction, largely orchestrated by big drug companies that stood to make billions from the sale of vaccines.

The British Medical Journal has been severely critical of the WHO, accusing it of being less than transparent in taking advice from experts employed by the drug companies.

On Morning Report last week, director of public health Mark Jacobs told Sean Plunket that about 35 people in New Zealand had died of swine flu. And how many could be expected to die in a typical year from normal seasonal influenza? “Probably 200.”

Notwithstanding all the above, I got a flu vaccine this year because my GP recommended it, and he’s a sensible bloke. But the WHO’s credibility has taken a hammering, which is gratifying because this is the same organisation that drives the global phobia over alcohol consumption.

* * *

THIS column recently noted the emergence of a psychological affliction called Acute Sensitivity Disorder, the main symptom of which is readiness to take offence.

The rapid spread of this condition is apparent from the annual report of the Advertising Standards Authority, which contains a list of the most complained-about ads of 2009.

No 1 on the list was a Hell’s Pizza ad which played on a widely reported incident in which a Tongan man barbecued a dog in his back yard. No surprises there, since Hell’s Pizza and its advertising agency go all out to provoke controversy with ads that push the boundaries and were probably thrilled that this one attracted 62 complaints (which were upheld).

But the ad that most interested me was the one that ranked No 2. This was a Stihl chainsaw television ad in which a dying man, with his weeping family clustered around his bed, feebly whispers in his son’s ear: “Look after your mother”.

After the old man draws his last breath and expires, another family member asks the son what his last message was. The son, barely able to conceal his delight, replies: “He said I can have his chainsaw.”

Fifty-two people complained. Some said the ad was in bad taste, lacked sensitivity and was disrespectful of death. Others said it promoted lying for material gain and undermined family values.

Good grief. Whatever happened to our sense of humour? I’m phobic about television advertising, but if there were more ads like this I might stop reaching for the mute button.

To its credit, the Advertising Standards Complaints Board didn’t uphold the complaints. It ruled that the “darkly humorous and satirical presentation of a deathbed wish” saved the ad from crossing the threshold of offensiveness.

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