Thursday, August 30, 2012

Rex Franklin must be thrilled

The Music Mix, on Radio New Zealand National after the 11 o’clock news tonight, features New Zealand duo Delaney Davidson and Marlon Williams. Never heard of them? Neither had I, until a couple of weeks ago. But I saw them at Aratoi in Masterton on Sunday night and they are seriously good. In fact I’d go so far as to say that in 40 years of listening to live music here and overseas, I can remember only a handful of performances that were as satisfying as this one. What’s more, my wife, a far more exacting critic than I, agrees.
How to describe them? This gets harder with every passing year as musical genres mutate and overlap, but the best way I can put it is that their repertoire seamlessly blends classic country with a grittier contemporary style. On Sunday they paid homage to one or two old country standards that have almost been forgotten – notably Cool Water, written in 1936 by Bob Nolan of the Sons of the Pioneers. Some of us are old enough to recall Cool Water being a staple on radio request shows in the 1950s, but I would guess many in the audience at Aratoi were hearing it for the first time.

What impressed me is that while Delaney and Marlon's treatment of songs like Cool Water and the Cox Family’s I Am Weary – Let Me Rest (from the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?) is respectful, they make them entirely their own. Williams’ tenor voice is so thrillingly pure and sweet that it might cause atheists to wonder whether there really is a god. It put me in mind of the angelic-sounding Louvin Brothers, whose ballad Knoxville Girl wound up the set on Sunday night (a shame that a muddy sound system made it hard for many to hear the words – or perhaps not, since the story is pretty gruesome).
Though they don’t normally perform together – Davidson usually tours solo and Williams has his own Christchurch-based group, the wonderfully named Unfaithful Ways –they are a natural fit in a yin-and-yang kind of way. Williams provides the light while Davidson, with his harsher vocal styling and biting guitar, serves as the shade. They even manage to look like an Antipodean reincarnation of something from 1930s Kentucky, having adopted an appearance best described as hillbilly gangster. Davidson wouldn’t look out of place in a Depression-era “Wanted” poster.

Where these extraordinarily talented, original and authentic-sounding country acts spring from is a mystery, especially when you consider that for decades country music in New Zealand subsisted deep underground where no radio programmers go. Perhaps there’s something in the artesian water down Canterbury way, where many of them seem to originate.
Another impressive act new to me was Miss Ebony Lamb from Wellington, who opened for Delaney and Marlon at Aratoi. A singer-songwriter in the Gillian Welch mould, she presented an impressive original set, flawlessly accompanied by Wairarapa guitarist Bob Cooper-Grundy and a female accordionist and fiddler whose name I missed (along with most of the words in Miss Ebony’s songs – that sound system again).

By coincidence, on RNZ in the early hours of last Saturday morning I heard an episode of Chris Bourke’s fascinating and sadly under-promoted series Blue Smoke, based on his book tracing the development of popular music in New Zealand. It happened to include a song by Rex and Noelene Franklin, stalwarts of New Zealand country music in the 1960s and 70s.
Fifty years ago in Central Hawkes Bay, Rex taught my brother Paul and I to play guitar (the first song we learned was May I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight, Mister). Rex has lived through an era when country music seemed in terminal decline. I don’t know where he lives now, but I bet he’s thrilled by its unexpected resurgence.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Minto: one of the few constants in a chaotic universe

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 28.)
YOU CAN’T help but feel sorry for John Minto. His brain must hurt when he wakes up every morning. So many downtrodden people, so many heartless capitalists, so many injustices – which one will he deal with today?

Images of Minto addressing rag-tag gatherings with a megaphone are one of the few constants in a chaotic universe. I began compiling a list of the protests he’s been involved in but it would take up more space than the editor allows me.
Suffice it to say that in recent years it has encompassed the oppression of Palestine, unhealthy school food, pokie machines, racist television presenters, child poverty, wicked Israeli tennis players, income disparity (Minto was a leading light in the Occupy movement), cricket tours, the Waihopai spy base, the Ports of Auckland dispute, elitist private schools, evicted state house tenants, the jailing of Tame Iti, the axing of college night classes, war mongering in Afghanistan and the war criminal Tony Blair.

You have to admire its broad sweep. Minto is a compulsive serial protester who sees injustice everywhere. There aren’t enough hours in the day to expose it all.
As he grows older, he seems to look more intense and haunted. I don’t recall ever seeing him smile. Does he go home at night, put on his slippers and enjoy Coro Street? Does he have a pet cat called Fluffy to which he's devoted? Somehow I doubt it. I suspect he sleeps with a loudhailer under his pillow.

But here’s Minto’s problem: he’s now such a familiar, predictable fixture at demonstrations that it’s hard to take him seriously.
There was a time when people swore when they saw him on the TV news, but now they’re just as likely to laugh. There can be no worse fate for someone with such deeply held convictions, but you sense that Minto is so absorbed righting the multifarious wrongs of the world that he’s incapable of seeing himself as others see him.

There was a special poignancy about his latest demo, in which a motley group threw paint bombs – a spectacularly pointless gesture – at the South African Consulate in Auckland* in protest at the police massacre of black miners.
It was poignant because Minto first came to prominence as a critic of apartheid. Now he’s bitterly condemning the black government that he was once convinced would deliver liberation and equality.

“Economic apartheid has replaced race-based apartheid,” he laments. “So the people of South Africa are no better off.”
He seems oblivious to the irony of this outcome. As the saying goes, you should be careful what you wish for.

* * *

WIKILEAKS founder Julian Assange is a thorough creep – a sleazy megalomaniac with a huge sense of entitlement, as reflected in his expectations of sexual compliance from adoring female followers.
There was a time when many considered Assange a champion of free speech and exposer of dark government secrets: a man of pure principle, untainted by ideology. But with the passage of time, it has become clear that he is on a mammoth ego trip and is highly partisan in his politics.

He’s petulant too, as he demonstrated when he severed his relationship with Britain’s Left-leaning Guardian newspaper because it had the temerity to report the Swedish sexual assault accusations against him.
Now, on top of everything else, Assange stands exposed as a gross hypocrite. By taking refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London and heaping praise on the Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa , he has aligned himself with one of the most oppressive regimes in the Western hemisphere – a government that jails journalists and ranks 127th on the international press freedom index. So much for his commitment to free speech.

What’s more, he has done a deal with a Russian TV propaganda network controlled by Vladimir Putin, whose regime assassinates dissidents.
The only people still standing by Assange are the na├»ve and gullible and those who, like the sanctimonious Australian journalist John Pilger, are blinded by their contempt for the West. The first lot don’t know any better; the second should.  

* * * 

BRITISH American Tobacco is on a hiding to nothing with its expensive ad campaign against plain cigarette packaging.
With the exception of a tiny minority of smokers’ rights advocates, the public’s phone is off the hook on this issue. The tobacco industry is so despised that no amount of whitewashing can make it look good. Academic arguments about protection of intellectual property may stand up in court, but will cut no ice with the public.

Anti-liquor zealots like to equate tobacco with alcohol, which is also in the news this week, but there are crucial differences.
Most drinkers enjoy alcohol in moderation and suffer no adverse consequences.  But there’s no such thing as safe smoking; and unlike alcohol, which has served as a social lubricant since time immemorial, tobacco is unredeemed by any social benefits.

* Both TV networks reported that the paint bombs were thrown at the South African consulate, but a letter writer in today's Dominion Post says the building actually houses the offices of a private law firm that occasionally makes a room available to staff from the South African consulate. If true, that makes the vandalism of the protesters even less excusable.

Never trust a journalist's arithmetic ... or geography ... or grammar

It’s well-known that you should never trust a journalist’s arithmetic. Canny newspaper subeditors, a breed in danger of imminent extinction, know this and always double-check reporters’ figures.
Not so widely realised is that journalists’ command of basic geography is just as suspect. Only recently I read an article in which an experienced journalist referred to the magnificent view of the Tararuas from a house in Havelock North.

This weakness obviously extends to the people who write scripts for TV reality shows such as Coastwatch, which I happened to see last night. In the opening minutes the programme referred to Titahi Bay as being on the Kapiti Coast – which starts at Paekakariki, a good 15 kilometres north – and to a search for a missing crayfish boat at Te Anau, which is 80 kilometres from the sea.
These may be relatively minor errors in the grand scheme of things, but they are telling. Do the makers of these shows give a fig for accuracy? I suspect not.

And don’t get me started on TV journalists’ rudimentary command of basic grammar. My wife, for whom English was a third language, could barely believe her ears when she heard a reporter say on TVNZ’s 6 pm bulletin on Saturday that oil companies had “risen their prices”. God preserve us.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Navigating the language minefield

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 15.)
Language is a social and political minefield, one that’s getting ever harder to navigate.

There was a time when the worst that could happen if you used the wrong word was that you would be exposed as uncultured or uneducated.
In the 1950s, an English linguist came up with the terms “U” (for upper-class) and “non-U” to distinguish between the language favoured by the upper crust and that used by the middle classes. His thesis was that you revealed your social status by the words you used.

Ironically, “U” people often used a more down-to-earth form of speech than their social inferiors, who thought that fancy-sounding words made them sound more refined.  Hence it was “U” to say “false teeth”, “pudding” and “napkin”, whereas non-U people favoured “dentures”, “dessert” and “serviette”, thinking they sounded more classy.
The concept of “U” and “non-U” was unknown to my siblings and me when we were kids but even so, our mother brought us up to prefer certain words over others, even if they were not in line with popular usage.

For example, we were encouraged to say “lavatory” rather than the more common “toilet”. Our house had a sitting room rather than a lounge and we always ate dinner, never “tea”. Mum was anything but a snob, but she was fussy about correct speech, which may explain why some other kids thought my family were up themselves.
Back then, you risked committing a social rather than political faux-pas if you used an infelicitous word of phrase. Things began to change, however, in the 1960s, when language became politically sensitive.

Black Americans had long been known as Negroes, from the Spanish word for black. But at about the time of the civil rights movement, Negro became unacceptable because of its long association with slavery and servitude. (It was also the source word for nigger, a demeaning term used by white-trash racists.)
“Black” became the preferred term, but it too fell out of favour among the politically correct, to be replaced by “African American”. (Ironically, “black” was once considered more offensive than “Negro” or “coloured”, showing that where language is concerned, what goes around comes around.)

With the advent of sexual politics, gender became a touchy language issue too. Feminists ruled that “lady” was belittling and “girl”, when used as a synonym for a grown woman, was quite beyond the pale – although strangely enough, the latter term is still permissible when used by women enjoying a “girls’ night out” or talking about the “girls” in the netball team.
But if the language of race and sex is fraught with difficulty, the language surrounding disability is even more problematical. This was brought home to me recently when the Radio New Zealand programme One in Five examined the issue.

What emerged was that while many people with disabilities have firm opinions on the language used to describe them, their views are not consistent. Neither do they always seem entirely logical.
As with the language of race and sex, the language of disability has become highly politicised. It’s generally accepted that words such as “cripple”, “spastic” and “mongol” are now out of favour. What used to be the Crippled Children Society got around this problem by renaming itself CCS Disability Action.

There may be nothing inherently offensive in these words but they are considered pejorative, so we avoid them. (Interestingly, my Chambers Dictionary describes “cripple” and “mongol” as offensive but not “spastic”, although the latter is more commonly used as a term of derision.)
Slightly more perplexing is the recent taboo on the word “handicapped”.  It is not, as far as I can see, a derogatory or judgmental term. For decades it was part of the name of the organisation that represents people with intellectual disabilities – it’s what the “H” in IHC (intellectually handicapped children) stands for.

My dictionary defines a handicap as a physical or mental disability that results in partial or total disability to perform social, occupational or other normal everyday activities. Alternatively, it’s something that hinders or impedes.
These are factual, neutral statements. To me the word “handicapped” carries no connotations that are not also conveyed by “disabled”. Yet “disabled” is acceptable to most people with disabilities (“impairment” seems okay too), but “handicapped” is not. I have to ask, what’s the difference?

Even “disabled” is too discriminatory for some, although the organisation that speaks assertively for people with disabilities calls itself the Disabled Persons Assembly. Many disabled people also bridle at the use of terms such as “special needs” and “wheelchair-bound”.
Sometimes the objections seem to come down to hair-splitting semantics. One disabled woman interviewed for One in Five admitted that she depended on her wheelchair, yet didn’t like the phrase “wheelchair-bound”. But it’s only a figure of speech – a slightly easier way of saying “wheelchair-dependent”, which in her case was literally true.

Someone else on the programme said we should look at the person first and the impairment after that, a position I can sympathise with. In other words you should say “a person who is blind” rather than “a blind person”; but in practical, everyday terms, it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to observe such fine distinctions.
And just to confuse the issue, it’s apparently okay to talk about “deaf people” because, as someone said on the programme, “they [deaf people] have their own culture”. But how can the non-disabled be expected to understand these finer points of difference?

The radio interviewer wanted to know whether people should refer to “disabled people” or “people with disabilities”, to which the answer was: “The jury is still out on that one”. All which makes it extremely difficult for non-disabled people to know which terms are considered acceptable (or in today's jargon, "safe").
People with disabilities seek respect and are entitled to it. They also want inclusiveness with the wider community and are entitled to that, too, as far as it’s practicable. But by creating uncertainty and trepidation over what language to use when dealing with them, they may be unwittingly erecting a barrier between themselves and the community they wish to interact with.

Listening to One in Five, it seemed to me there’s a real danger that the non-disabled will be deterred from engaging with disabled people for fear of causing offence with an unintentional faux pas. At that point the insistence on “correct” language risks becoming self-defeating. That’s how much of a minefield the language of disability has become.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

First taniwha, now Ruamoko - what next?

Due respect for Maori culture is one thing. Expecting us to swallow primitive superstition is quite another – yet I heard a reporter on Morning Report this morning solemnly relaying a Maori warning that recent volcanic activity on White Island and Mt Tongariro was a sign that Ruamoko, the god of earthquakes and volcanoes, was unhappy about the way the government was proceeding with the partial sale of state assets.
This comes only a couple of weeks after the Maori Council’s lawyer, Felix Geiringer, invoked the Maori belief in taniwha at the Waitangi Tribunal hearing on water rights.

I suppose some people might see it as valid to cite taniwha as symbolic spiritual guardians of the waterways, which is what Geiringer was trying to convey. But then he went further: “People say ‘in this resource is my taniwha, my guardian spirit. He protects me, he protects my water resource. He’s not your taniwha so if you are going to use that resource without my permission, he will do terrible things to you’.”
This invites ridicule. It crosses the line between politically correct genuflection to Maori cultural beliefs – which you could argue, at a stretch, is a legitimate theatrical ploy for a lawyer wanting to wring the most out of an argument before the Waitangi Tribunal – and outright shamanism. I can imagine Geiringer’s late father, a notorious contrarian and iconoclast, snorting with derision.

As if citing taniwha wasn’t bad enough, we’re reduced to an even more abject embrace of stone-age superstition when the state-owned radio network can report, with a straight face, that the Maori god of earthquakes and volcanoes is cutting up rough because he (she?) doesn’t like what the government is doing.
What next? Will we be told that Tangaroa, the sea god, plans to unleash a tsunami that will rise up from Wellington Harbour and destroy the Beehive? Will Radio New Zealand report that John Key is at risk of being hit by a bolt of lightning directed at his head by Tawhirimatea, the weather god? Once we start bowing to atavistic mumbo-jumbo, anything becomes possible.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Wellington's nice, but it's good to point the car back over the Rimmers

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 14.)
TAKING advantage of a friend’s offer of her apartment while she was overseas, my wife and I spent three nights in Wellington last week.

I spent a cumulative 25 years of my life in the capital but when I go there now, having lived in the Wairarapa since 2003, I almost feel like a tourist.
The city is changing, and I don’t just mean the streets and buildings. We wandered along Oriental Parade with our daughter and grandsons on a Sunday afternoon and although it seemed all of Wellington had turned out to enjoy the unseasonably balmy weather, I didn’t see a single familiar face.

That wouldn’t have happened 20, even 10 years ago. Wellington has always felt to me like a big village, but the city’s population is turning over.
At my wife’s suggestion, I took my mountain bike and spent a contented couple of hours re-acquainting myself with the maze of tracks on Mt Victoria. It reminded me what a fantastic asset the city has in the Town Belt.

Years ago I railed against the eco-Nazis who ordered the felling of the mature pines along the spine of Mt Vic above Alexandra Rd; not being native, they had to go. But I’m pleased to report that the natives planted in their place are flourishing and within a few years the worst of the scar should be healed.
The removal of the pines continues. I spent several minutes admiring the coolness and skill of an arborist perched about 15 metres above the ground, his chainsaw suspended from his waist as he supervised the removal of the massive crown of a tree that he had just lopped off.  Working in a tight, confined space, a crane lowered the unwieldy load to the ground as delicately as a nurse might place a newborn baby in the arms of its mother.

We appreciated the benefits of the inner-city lifestyle and the proximity to shops and restaurants. We enjoyed our first-ever meal at the venerable Monsoon Poon – my daughter couldn’t believe we’d never been there before – but were less impressed by another celebrated eatery much favoured by the chattering classes. It was over-rated and over-priced, just as when we last ate there a decade ago. (A friendly waitress though – from Ohio.)
As pleasant as it all was, I was happy, as always, to point the car back over the Rimutaka Hill. There is a steadily growing colony of Wellington refugees in the Wairarapa, of which I’m happy to be one.

* * *

AS ALWAYS, the Olympic Games was a mixture of the uplifting and the irritating.
The buildup was tainted by repugnant bullying on the part of corporate sponsors determined to protect their interests against even the most harmless incursions. Corporate strong-arming, backed by obsequious governments, now seems an inevitable part of all major sporting events. But that unpleasantness was largely forgotten once the Games started.

Our competitors generally distinguished themselves with their grace and dignity, in defeat as well as in victory. We met a charismatic new star in the person of cyclist Simon van Velthooven and were reminded what a gentleman Mark Todd is, although under that laidback exterior he must be ferociously competitive.
Nick Willis and Valerie Adams carried the huge burden of a nation’s hopes, magnified by unrealistic media expectations, and earned our admiration for the way they handled their (and our) disappointment.

Others, including rowers Hamish Bond and Eric Murray, did their best to perpetuate the traditional image of New Zealanders as bashful champions, almost apologetic at having drawn attention to themselves by winning.
No disgrace, then, on the part of the competitors. But the same can’t be said for some of the media coverage, which brought out our least attractive national traits.

New Zealand’s first gold medal was the cue for an avalanche of triumphalism and hyperbole on TVNZ, with laughable references to a “gold rush”. On such occasions the nationalistic chest-thumping of some in the media stands in striking contrast to the modesty of our athletes.
Similarly, the petty (and, as it turned out, premature) gloating over our medal count against that of Australia exposed one of the less desirable traits in the national psyche, laying bare our inferiority complex and touchiness toward our big neighbour.

* * *

THE SO-CALLED war on terror isn’t just being lost in godforsaken Afghanistan. We’ve capitulated closer to home too.
English playwright Richard Bean, interviewed by Kim Hill on Saturday, told how he had been commissioned to write a new version of the classical Greek play Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece withheld sex from their husbands to dissuade them from war.

Bean decided to put an Islamic spin on the drama. In his adaptation, the women of Greece were replaced by the 12 virgins of paradise who reward Islamic martyrs. The theatre company that commissioned his play loved it, but was too terrified of reprisals to stage it.
Mad mullahs 1; freedom of speech 0.

Friday, August 3, 2012

A quiet demographic revolution

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 1.)
Here’s a statistic that might radically change your perception of the country you live in: in the 2006 census, nearly 40 percent of the people living in Auckland were born overseas.
As Massey University sociologist Paul Spoonley pointed out recently on the TV programme Q+A, that makes Auckland one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world.

Spoonley observed that New Zealanders tend to equate large immigrant populations with megacities like London and Los Angeles. Many of us – and I include myself here – still mistakenly regard Australia as a more multicultural society than ours, because for decades it was.
The New Zealand I grew up in was essentially monocultural; in parts of New Zealand, even Maori were virtually invisible. There were Chinese market gardeners and greengrocers, Greek and Yugoslav fish and chip shop owners, Dutch builders (the Dutch being considered by New Zealand governments in the 1950s and 60s as the next best option after the British) and Italian fishing communities, while in urban areas such as Porirua and South Auckland from the 1960s onward there were concentrations of Pacific Islanders, essentially imported to provide a cheap workforce for labour-intensive industries such as car assembly plants. But overall, our immigration policy targeted people of British origin.

Australia pursued a much more adventurous policy, recruiting large numbers of immigrants from southern Europe and the near Middle East. As a result, Australia in the 1960s and 70s was an infinitely more vibrant and cosmopolitan society.
But how things have changed. Population statistics confirm what should be apparent to anyone walking down Auckland’s Queen Street: New Zealand has undergone a quiet revolution. In a remarkably short time, we have been transformed from one of the western world’s most homogeneous societies into one of the most ethnically diverse. Spoonley describes Auckland as one of the world’s major destination cities, comparing it with Toronto and Vancouver.

Not only has immigration increased, but immigrants have become far more visible because many of them are from China, India, Korea and the Philippines.
And although this is most obvious in our biggest city, don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s purely an Auckland thing. Overall, 23 percent of the New Zealand population in 2006 (our most recent census, since the one scheduled for 2010 was cancelled after the Christchurch earthquake) was born overseas.

To someone of my generation, this is a change of staggering proportions.
As revolutions go, it could hardly have been quieter. I don’t recall the government making a dramatic policy announcement to the effect that New Zealand would be opening its doors to the world. There was no great debate, no public meetings. It happened incrementally and largely without fuss.

A few questioning voices were heard. Veteran Auckland journalist Pat Booth wrote a controversial series of articles in 1993 warning of an “Asian invasion” and Winston Peters’ New Zealand First Party tried, without much success, to make political capital out of the inflow of “non-traditional” immigrants in 1996.
More recently another journalist, Deborah Coddington, provoked outrage with a magazine article about Asian crime in New Zealand (which is undeniably an issue, although many of Coddington’s critics would have had us believe otherwise).

By and large, however, New Zealanders have absorbed the newcomers without conflict or tension, confirming our reputation as generally tolerant, easy-going people.
Spoonley thinks we’re now more accepting of immigrants than Australia is, and made the point on Q+A that New Zealand had been spared the type of unpleasantness that Sydney experienced with the Cronulla riots in 2005, when an incident involving macho young Lebanese men triggered an ugly backlash from mobs of Australian-born yobbos. Neither side emerged with any credit.

That confrontation showed how immigration can backfire, particularly when clannish immigrant groups fail to integrate with the host society and even exhibit overt hostility toward it. It was a reminder that immigration has to be managed carefully – a lesson also driven home by the European experience with large-scale Muslim immigration, which has had catastrophic consequences.
But the New Zealand immigration experience, thus far at least, has been painless. Most New Zealanders seem to welcome the colour and diversity provided by immigrant communities.

It’s not just a matter of relishing the choice of Indian, Chinese, Thai or Turkish cuisine where once we were condemned to dine out on steak and eggs or roast meat with three veg, or sushi as opposed to a meat pie. There’s strong evidence that Asian immigration is good for us academically as well; many of the top performers in our schools are the children of migrants.
That could eventually translate into an improved economic performance. And as our population ages (by the mid-2020s, over-65s will outnumber under-15s), we may have reason to be very grateful for the economic contribution made by clever, hard-working Asians.

They’re even making an impact in sport. Just look at the remarkable Lydia Ko, at 15 the top-ranked amateur woman golfer in the world, and Danny Lee, the youngest-ever winner of the US Amateur Championship, and now playing on the PGA Tour.
The European experience tells us that immigration causes problems when large, economically deprived immigrant communities become ghetto-ised and alienated. That risk multiplies when the immigrant community has dogmatic religious views that are at odds with the host society.

But it doesn’t have to happen that way. America, one of the world’s most polyglot societies, has been remarkably successful in absorbing large numbers of immigrants and making them feel they have a common stake in the country’s destiny. Canada seems to be managing too. There’s no reason New Zealand can’t do the same.
If there’s one segment of the New Zealand population for whom immigration presents a special challenge, it’s Maori. A leaked Labour Department report last year revealed that Maori are more likely than any other immigrant group to be against immigration.

Many Maori feel threatened by immigration because they’re concerned that newcomers don’t understand the relationship between Maori and Pakeha, have no affinity with Maori culture and may not feel committed to the Treaty of Waitangi. They’re probably also worried that as immigrant numbers increase, Maori political influence will diminish.
As Spoonley points out, there’s the matter of economic competition too.  “The new immigrants are typically skilled, so are they taking [jobs] from Maori? I think that’s where the concern comes from,” he said on Q+A. To which many New Zealanders might reply that it would be no bad thing if economic competition incentivised more Maori to fulfil their economic potential.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Has the popular obsession with fantasy got out of hand?

(First published in The Dominion Post, July 31.)
WHEN a presumably deranged young man sprayed a crowded cinema with gunfire, killing 12 people and wounding dozens of others, there followed the usual anguished self-examination in the American media.
As when similar terrible events have happened in the past, attention focussed on America’s permissive gun laws. But is there another aspect to this tragedy that was overlooked?

It seemed significant that the shooter, James Holmes, chose to embark on his murderous spree at the premiere of the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. It was reported later that Batman posters and a Batman mask were found in his apartment, suggesting some sort of infantile fixation with the caped crusader. Other reports suggested Holmes identified with Batman’s nemesis, the Joker.
In the circumstances, you have to wonder whether the popular obsession with fantasy has got out of hand.

Why any adult would take a comic-book character like Batman seriously is a mystery. In the 1960s, television quite rightly treated him as a subject of camp satire. Yet film critics solemnly analyse Batman films (and other equally ridiculous “superhero” films such as the Spiderman series) as if they had the weight of works by Shakespeare or Chekhov.

Fans certainly take Batman far too seriously, as was evident from the furious response that was triggered when negative reviews of the new film started appearing online. Movie websites were swamped with messages so toxic and malicious that some sites had to be shut down.
If fans can be so emotionally attached to Batman that they respond to mildly critical reviews with rabid threats and vicious abuse, is it any wonder that Holmes should be so obsessed that he chose the screening of the film to play out his own lethal, overheated fantasy?

It may defy rational understanding, but it can’t be ruled out.
Fantasy movies are now a Hollywood staple. Many are dark and violent and depict a dystopian society.  The same is true of many video games, which are so important to some men that they will pulverise their partners’ crying babies into silence so that they can continue playing uninterrupted.

Obsession with fantasy is the new norm. TV series about vampires rate their socks off. In the top-rating comedy series The Big Bang Theory, the main characters frequent comic-book stores and imagine themselves as characters from Star Trek or Doctor Who. This is presented as endearing rather than absurd.
Comic-Con conventions such as the one recently held in San Diego attract more than 100,000 fans, all of them immersed in fantasy of one sort or another, whether it’s science-fiction, horror or vampirism. They seem locked in a strange, perpetual adolescence.

No doubt for most of the people who attend events like Comic-Con, it’s harmless fun. But we shouldn’t be surprised if occasionally, someone totally loses the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, with tragic consequences.
* * *
SPEAKING of fantasies, director Sir Peter Jackson, director of The Hobbit, recently revealed that the Tolkien estate doesn’t like his movies. I’m not surprised.

I don’t believe Jackson has treated J R R Tolkien’s stories with the respect they deserve. He has taken Tolkien’s profound fables and turned them into noisy, pointless action spectacles.  
Jackson is an immensely talented man but it seems a common characteristic of the films he’s involved in – whether it’s The Adventures of Tintin, The Lord of the Rings or District 9 – that no matter how promisingly they start, they eventually degenerate into ridiculous extravaganzas in which any trace of nuance or subtlety is buried under layers of furious action and special effects.

* * *

ANOTHER Maori Language Week has come and gone, and with it the now-familiar lamentations that te reo is in decline and must be resuscitated. But as someone commented on the Stuff website: “If a language needs rescuing, it’s already too late.”
Maori will survive as a language if there is a compelling economic or cultural reason for it. But if it’s still struggling after 37 years of Maori language weeks, 31 years of kohanga reo and eight years of Maori TV, perhaps it should be taken off life support and left to cope as best it can.

Black American linguist John McWhorter has argued that most languages ultimately outlive their usefulness and cannot be sustained by artificial means.
Perhaps more importantly, McWhorter makes the point that a multiplicity of languages encourages segregation and apartness.  As he says: “The prospect we are taught to dread – that one day all the world’s people will speak one language – is one I would welcome.”

And we should look on the bright side. There may be fewer people able to converse in Maori, but the number of Maori words and phrases in common usage by Pakeha is infinitely greater than it was; and what’s more, many more Pakeha are making an effort to pronounce Maori names correctly.