Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Dunedin: finger-wagging capital of the world

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 27.)
WHAT ON EARTH has happened to Dunedin?
I’ve always thought of it as a city of hard-working, practical, no-nonsense people, reflecting its Scottish Presbyterian heritage.

It was the home of Sir James Fletcher, founder of a construction empire, Henry Ely Shacklock, who made the country’s first electric ranges, and Bendix Hallenstein, whose name lives on in the menswear chain he established.
I wonder what such men would make of Dunedin today. Once a southern bastion of industry and commerce, it’s now chiefly known for the torrent of shrill, moralistic scare-mongering emanating from Otago University.

It seems hardly a week passes without someone from Otago University, or one of its satellites in Christchurch and Wellington, warning us that our drinking and eating habits are leading us to moral and physical ruin.
Granted, one of the functions of health academics is to undertake research and to pass on their findings. But the constant diet (pardon the pun) of doom-laden messages from Otago has all the overtones of a moral crusade.  Dunedin has become the finger-wagging capital of the world.

The Otago researchers’ findings always paint the blackest picture imaginable. And the message is invariably the same: our consumption habits are out of control and the government must act.
Underlying that is another message again: we are all at the mercy of greedy purveyors of booze and high-risk foods whose wickedness must be curbed by advertising bans and punitive taxes.  Hostility to capitalism is never far from the surface.

Doubtless the academic wowsers are buoyed by the success of the campaign against smoking and hope to replicate its success by similarly stigmatising the consumption of alcohol and fast food.
Significantly, Otago University was the source of a recent report that called for smoking to be banned within a ten-metre radius of doors and windows to buildings used by the public.

That’s the thing about zealots and control freaks. They never let up. I shudder at the thought of the joyless, buttoned-down society that would result if we gave way to their demands.
* * *

ON A RELATED note, some academics are reportedly fretting that their role as the “conscience and critics” of society is under threat.
They are alarmed because they perceive that under the Key government, the emphasis in tertiary education is shifting away from the arts – which supposedly stimulate critical thinking – to subjects such as science and engineering, which the academic hand-wringers deem to be far less useful.

The rest of us should lose no sleep over this. The notion that universities function as the conscience and critics of society is self-serving cant.
The phrase once meant something, and still would if all academics genuinely respected intellectual freedom. But the truth is that many university faculties slavishly observe a narrow ideological orthodoxy.

What most academics really mean when they talk about their duty to serve as the conscience and critics of society is their right to promote a left-wing agenda. In their fixed view of the world it’s inconceivable that anyone not on the Left could even possess a conscience.
Conservative thinkers do exist in universities, but they are as rare as rocking horse droppings. The few renegades who defy the approved line tend to keep their heads down because it’s safer that way.

It’s a curious fact that while Marxism in the economic sense is dead and buried, and no one promoting it can expect to be taken seriously, a mutant offshoot called cultural Marxism is alive and well.  
Cultural Marxism seeks to undermine traditional Western values such as individualism, small government, the family and traditional morality.

Its proponents are nowhere more active than in what are grandiosely known as the humanities and social sciences faculties of universities. And it’s a fair bet these are the people most fearful that they might no longer be able to masquerade as the conscience and critics of the rest of us.
* * *
ONE OF THE most depressing news items in 2013 was the announcement that the Monty Python team was to reform. I can see no good coming of this.

Monty Python was a creature of its time, like the Beatles, and no matter how much John Cleese and his comrades might wish to recapture the magic, some things are better left undisturbed.
They are old men now. The mad energy that inspired the Ministry of Silly Walks, the dead parrot sketch and the Argument Clinic has long subsided.

Problem is, their ageing fans don’t want to let go. They are like the tragics who yearn for Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin to reform.
Sadly, the Pythons appear to have succumbed to the conceit that they can do it all again. But the best tribute they can pay themselves is to leave us with memories of their inspired lunacy in its full-blooded prime.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Everyone's a friend of Mandela now

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 18.)
It was hard not to feel a little cynical as the tributes flowed for Nelson Mandela last week.
It seemed we were all friends now with the man once widely denounced in the West as a terrorist (and who, to the embarrassment of the American government, remained on a US terror watch list until 2008).

The world leaders who gathered in Soweto were ostensibly there to pay homage, but being politicians they were also keen to bathe in Mr Mandela’s reflected glory.
Rarely has any international statesman acquired such sainted status. Only the Dalai Lama comes close, but then the Tibetan spiritual leader has the huge advantage of never actually having had to engage in the messy business of governing.

New Zealanders, meanwhile, were almost falling over each other in their eagerness to flaunt their anti-apartheid credentials.
John Key had the good sense to keep his mouth firmly shut on that score. He could hardly do otherwise, having famously said in a televised election debate in 2008 that he couldn’t recall how he felt about the 1981 Springbok tour.

Mr Key aside, reticence was in short supply. If you didn’t have a story to tell about actually meeting Mr Mandela, the next best thing was to recall the heroic role you played in the 1981 anti-tour protests. The moral high ground has rarely been so crowded.
There were times during the past week when it seemed no South African whites were willing to admit ever having been supporters of the racist minority regime than ran the country for nearly 50 years. Even formerly staunch members and supporters of the white government spoke of their fondness for Mandela.

What a pity they didn’t feel so favourably disposed toward him in the 27 years he was banged up on Robben Island.
In New Zealand, it seemed people were equally unprepared to admit they had been pro-tour in 1981. But we know that at least half the population was.

The majority of New Zealanders, although uncomfortable with the idea of apartheid, didn’t feel strongly enough to do much about it. The love of rugby, and the desire to see the All Blacks prevail over their strongest rivals, trumped concerns about morality and justice.
The truth was that New Zealanders identified more closely with South Africans than with any of our other rival rugby nations. New Zealand apologists for South Africa said you had to go there to understand why it was in everyone’s interests for the whites to run the show.

If you hadn’t been there, the argument ran, you had no right to judge. This always seemed a specious argument to me – rather like saying you had to personally experience Nazi Germany to know that Hitler was a monster.
Prime minister Robert Muldoon, a shrewd judge of the national mood, cleverly played on the theme that New Zealand was not going to be pushed around by other countries, many of them corrupt and undemocratic, telling us who we could play sport with.

He deliberately provoked antagonism from black Africa and delighted in baiting Abraham Ordia, admittedly not the most endearing of men, of the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa. African countries – 26 of them, including strong sporting nations such as Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia – retaliated by boycotting the 1976 Montreal Olympics in protest at the All Blacks’ tour of South Africa earlier that year.
Mr Muldoon managed the issue so adroitly that most New Zealanders believed we were in the right. It was us against a bunch of African tyrants and their leftist sympathisers in the West.

The tide eventually ran out for Mr Muldoon in the 1984 general election, when the rebellious baby-boomer generation that had marched against apartheid and the Vietnam War graduated from the streets into politics.
I believe the 1981 protests were as much a defiant reaction against Muldoonist authoritarianism and the stifling conservatism of the time as they were about the injustice of apartheid. But the protesters were on the right side of history, as attested by the paucity of people now willing to admit they were pro-tour.

The principal defenders of the tour, of course, have passed on. Sir Robert Muldoon died in 1992. Ces Blazey, the Rugby Union chairman at the time – a man who commanded respect by his unfailing civility in the face of abuse and provocation – went in 1998. Ron Don, the rugby union firebrand whom the protesters loved to hate, lived till 2011. 
Of those still living who supported the tour, a cynical view is that they have suffered a convenient collective memory lapse. But a more charitable interpretation is that Mr Mandela succeeded in changing their minds.

What no one can take away from him is that he achieved a peaceful and bloodless transition from a brutally oppressive white regime to a democracy – albeit a flawed one – where whites and blacks mostly live in relative harmony.
Many people would not have thought that possible. Things could have gone catastrophically wrong had Mr Mandela not been able, through his charisma and personal example, to restrain the natural desire for retribution.

Unfortunately it seems that’s as far as his achievements went. His successors in office have largely betrayed whatever vision and idealism he may have embodied. South Africa today is governed by a corrupt, incompetent black elite where previously it was ruled by an oppressive but generally efficient white one.
I have a feeling Mr Mandela knew this. Television footage of him in his last months showed a man who looked as if he had lost heart. And who could blame him, when his family was being torn apart in an ugly feud and South African police were shooting down black miners in scenes remarkably reminiscent of the worst days of apartheid?

I cringed at the frequently replayed scene of President Jacob Zuma visiting him – eager, no doubt, to portray himself as the natural inheritor of Mr Mandela’s mantle – and clutching his hand while he (Zuma) played to the cameras.
Mr Mandela was powerless to say or do anything, but his expression suggested he would just as soon have had a cobra dropped in his lap.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Tampering with the democracy that attracted them here

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 13.)
THE LATEST census confirms what was already obvious: New Zealand has quietly undergone a profound demographic revolution. From being one of the world’s most homogeneous societies, it has become one of the most diverse.
One in four New Zealanders was born overseas – an astonishing statistic that makes us one of the world’s most immigrant-friendly societies. Asian ethnic groups have almost doubled in size since 2001.

The change is most dramatic in Auckland, where a 2011 study found that 40 percent of the population was born in another country.
What’s even more remarkable is that, in contrast with Britain and Australia, this has been accomplished without any obvious social or racial tension.

Apart from the pressure on housing prices, New Zealand has painlessly absorbed the new arrivals. Our embrace of ethnic diversity confirms that we are essentially a liberal, tolerant and easy-going society.
Yet that social harmony is potentially under threat – and the great irony is that the threat comes not from conservative New Zealanders, but from people purporting to represent immigrant groups.

On Jim Mora’s Afternoons programme on Radio New Zealand this week, Dr Camille Nakhid, chairwoman of Auckland Council’s ethnic people’s advisory panel (to which Bevan Chuang, erstwhile paramour of mayor Len Brown, was also appointed), talked about the need for ethnic groups to have more say in local government.
No one could object to such groups having an advisory function, but Dr Nakhid, an academic who lectures in something called social sciences (no surprises there), was talking about much more than that.

She believes ethnic representatives should be given a statutory role in decision-making – just like Auckland Council’s non-elected Maori statutory board, whose two members recently exercised a casting vote in favour of a living wage for council employees.
Dr Nakhid talked airily about not compromising democratic principles, but in fact was advocating exactly that. She seemed to draw a self-serving distinction between democratic “principles”, which she believes justify special rights for ethnic groups, and something less important called the democratic “process”.

Apparently the tired old idea of one person having one vote doesn’t quite cut it anymore.
She talked about the need for ethnic minorities to have “separate but equal” representation with Maori in Auckland – in other words, compounding what is already an abuse of democracy. And she didn’t really answer Mora’s question about how ethnic representation could be arranged when Auckland has an estimated 200 ethnic groups. A minor technicality, no doubt.

If Dr Nakhid had deliberately set out to create friction where currently there is none, she couldn’t have found a better way to go about it. Nothing is more likely to arouse resentment of immigrant groups than demands for privileged treatment.
And here’s another thing. We can safely assume one of the reasons so many people immigrate to New Zealand is that it’s an infinitely more democratic society than the ones they left behind. To then call for a change in the way our governance is organised seems downright perverse.

* * *

OUTRAGE is the defining mood of our time. Upset by the way you’ve been treated by a bus driver or an airport security officer? Go to the media and your grievance will be on tonight’s news bulletin and tomorrow’s front page.
Offended by a throwaway line from Bob Dylan in a year-old interview about the way some Croatians behaved in World War Two? If you’re fortunate enough to live in France, you can get the state to prosecute him on your behalf under laws governing “hate speech” – one of the most chilling phrases in the language.

Spotted an opportunity to kneecap a couple of talkback hosts you don’t like? Orchestrate a social media campaign to frighten weak-kneed companies into withdrawing their advertising and intimidate the station into taking the hosts off the air.
Avowed Marxist Giovanni Tiso did just that in his campaign against RadioLive hosts John Tamihere and Willy Jackson, and must have been thrilled at how easily he was able to make capitalism look gutless. Mass bullying has never been easier than in the era of Facebook and Twitter.

* * *

A LATE CONTENDER has come to hand in the quest for the most flatulent public relations statement of the year. It’s always a hotly contested category, but I think we have a clear winner.
Congratulating itself on being named PR Agency of the Year 2013, Professional Public Relations said in a press release: “The award follows a transformational year at PPR. The agency has rolled out an innovative channel agnostic client experience across the company’s seven Australian and New Zealand offices with account teams now providing a mix of owned, earned and bought strategies, services and channels to help brands tell and share their stories.”

You almost have to admire a firm that can display such magnificent contempt for the English language.



Thursday, December 5, 2013

Redoubtable nuns and men who get in the way

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 4.)

When I was a boy growing up in a small Hawke’s Bay town, every household would receive a free weekly guide to the films showing at the local picture theatre.
There was a mini-review of each film and it became a standing joke in our family that they were almost invariably described as “heart-warming”.

As a result, I’ve never been able to use the term “heart-warming” without a slightly derisive sneer. But a couple of days ago I watched a film that really was heart-warming, in the sense that you left the theatre feeling better about life and your fellow human beings than you might have been when you walked in.
Gardening with Soul is a feature-length documentary about Sister Loyola Galvin, who looks after the gardens at the Home of Compassion in the Wellington suburb of Island Bay – surely a challenging environment for even the greenest of fingers, given that the soil is not naturally fertile (Sr Loyola’s garden survives only with copious applications of home-made compost) and the climate often punishing.

Film maker Jess Feast spent a year observing Sister Loyola and clearly formed a close and mutually affectionate bond with her. It’s a simple film, beautifully shot and recorded. Every frame is impeccably composed, yet there’s nothing arty or pretentious about it. Like the character at its centre, it’s a no-nonsense piece of work.
Sister Loyola joined the Catholic order known as the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion in her mid-20s, after the man she expected to marry went away to the Second World War and never came back. It can’t have been an easy decision; her father, a Taranaki farmer to whom she was very devoted, was firmly set against her entering the convent and took years to come around. 

Now 90, Sister Loyola is slowed by age but mentally as sharp as a new pin, with bright, bird-like eyes. She radiates wisdom and practical, common-sense spirituality. Compassion, too, as you might expect, given the name of the order she joined.  She says – and I hope I’m quoting her more or less accurately – that it’s possible to see God in everyone, even the most unlikely people, if you look hard enough. If you could bottle that attitude, you’d call it Essence of Christianity.
She’s also quite frank, and jokes that she’s safely past the age when she risked being fired for speaking out of turn. She doesn’t hesitate to say what she thinks, for example, about the scandal of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

I have encountered nuns like Sr Loyola before. The Catholic Church, which I grew up in, has a tradition of strong – you might even say stroppy – women. There’s no better example than Mother Suzanne Aubert, the doughty Frenchwoman who founded the order to which Sr Loyola belongs.
Arriving in New Zealand in 1860, Aubert decided she hadn’t come halfway around the world to teach French and embroidery to the daughters of wealthy Aucklanders. Instead, she devoted herself to Maori and later to the care of the orphaned, the unwanted, the destitute and the disabled.

In many cases, formidable women such as Aubert had to overcome obstacles placed in their path by the male hierarchy of the Church. You get the feeling that the nuns had a very clear idea of what needed to be done and their male superiors often just got in the way. (For example, nuns working in the backblocks were told they should ride their horses side-saddle, in the interests of decorum – an instruction they sensibly ignored.)
There’s a moment in Gardening with Soul when Sister Loyola, reflecting on the Catholic hierarchy, talks about the nature of power. She doesn’t develop the idea but I wonder whether she was gently suggesting that men, and more specifically the male fondness for power, are problems for the Catholic Church.

If that’s indeed what she was talking about, it’s not just Catholicism that has a problem with authoritarian male hierarchies.
I believe that most organised religion is largely about the exercise of power and control, and these are usually – if not exclusively – male preoccupations.

This is certainly true of faiths that are organised hierarchically, whether it’s Catholicism, Judaism, Islam or Mormonism. In all such religions, power is exercised by men – a striking anachronism in the modern Western world, where women have otherwise rejected the notion of male control.
Only days ago I read that an Israeli woman had been ordered by a religious court to have her son circumcised, against her will, or face fines of nearly $200 a day for every day the procedure was not carried out.

It astonished me to learn that in Israel, which otherwise gives the impression of being a modern, liberal democracy, rabbinical courts have legal jurisdiction on religious issues. It almost goes without saying that the rabbis involved are men, and that their edicts, if translated from religious mumbo-jumbo, would read: “This is the way things must be done because, er, because they’ve always been done this way. And besides, we say so.”
In fact, reading between the lines of the rabbinical court’s ruling, what’s clear is that the rabbis were terrified that if one defiant soul succeeded in breaking ranks, the power they have exercised unchallenged for centuries might begin to crumble.

The article was accompanied by a photo showing a circumcision ceremony taking place in a crowded synagogue. What was noticeable was that virtually all the faces were male. Barely visible, at the very back of the room, were a handful of women straining for a view of the proceedings. No prizes for guessing who calls the shots, then.
In this respect, Judaism has much in common with Islam. The blokes rule there, too, albeit in an even more repressive fashion.

Can Catholicism claim to be any better? Well, yes. Women do have a say in the Church (as they do, no doubt, in the more liberal strands of Judaism), but it’s extremely limited. Even amid the welcome winds of change blowing through the Catholic Church since the election of the new pope, you still get the impression it would be a cold day in Hell before the cardinals and the bishops relinquished their hold on power.
But what a different Church it might be if the male hierarchy were flattened and good, sensible women were allowed to get on with things unimpeded.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Downton Abbey, Wilsons Parking and Te Radar. Talk soon.

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 29.)
More pressing questions for our troubled times:
Should parents who give their kids weird, unpronounceable and unspellable names be charged with child abuse?

Commodore Frank Bainimarama – a Mugabe in the making, right in our own backyard?
We’ve had Dancing with the Stars hysteria, Masterchef hysteria, The Block hysteria and New Zealand’s Got Talent hysteria – what other ordeals has television got up its sleeve?

Shouldn’t political commentators who double as media trainers be required to disclose who they work for?
Has Coro St become the most relentlessly miserable, depressing, downbeat programme on television?

Cliches are an occupational hazard in sports journalism, but is “riding the pine” – meaning sitting on the reserves’ bench – one of the silliest ever?
Has John Key finally woken up to the fact that his smirk is an electoral liability?

How much more prosperous would New Zealand be if all the time wasted on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube was spent working?
Has the blogosphere become a forum in which frustrated Leftists impotently let off steam while the rest of the country calmly gets on with things?

Is Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill capable of reading a mildly critical email from a listener without delivering a dismissive rejoinder?
How many Fulton Hogan trucks does it take to protect a single worker mowing a motorway verge?

Had enough of the haka?
When will someone admit that Downton Abbey is really just a glorious spoof, never meant to be taken seriously?

Is Wilsons Parking the most rapacious company in the land?
Closely followed by Wellington International Airport?

How hard can it be for One News to put captions on screen so that viewers can identify the people talking?
Why have so many mature, educated New Zealand women taken to talking with silly schoolgirl voices?

Who do so many slow drivers speed up when they come to a passing lane?
Man-Booker Prize winners excepted, do the media make too much fuss of New Zealand writers?

Had enough of Air New Zealand’s gimmicky safety videos?
Given that National MP Tau Henare seems to spend much of his time sending inane messages on Twitter (for example, boasting about his prowess in the gym), isn’t it time he considered a change of career?

Te Radar is described as a comedian, but can anyone remember him ever saying anything funny?
Shouldn’t TVNZ’s Q+A require viewers tweeting comments to the programme to identify themselves, just as newspapers insist with letters to the editor?

Given up trying to remember all your computer passwords?
Household disinfectants claim to eliminate 99.9 per cent of germs, but what if it’s the other 0.1 per cent that kills people?

Since virtually all politicians cheerfully ignored the 87 per cent “no” vote in the 2009 smacking referendum, why should Labour and the Greens expect anyone to take notice of the asset sales poll?
Has the phrase “systemic failure” (as in the Labour Department’s blind eye to problems at Pike River) become a routine excuse for not holding anyone responsible when things go tragically wrong?

Has television prime time been pushed back from 7.30 to 9.30 pm, given that almost no programme worth watching starts until then?
Now that they’ve taken a caning over the overcooked Urewera raids and the ludicrous swoop on the Kim Dotcom mansion, will the police ease off on the heavy-handed, American Swat-style tactics?

Puzzled by all the media hype over the recent death of the singer Lou Reed, whose existence barely registered with 99 per cent of the population?
When will advertising agencies admit that a lot of TV commercials are made primarily to impress other advertising agencies?

Given their propensity for committing illegal acts in full view of referees and TV cameras, is it possible that rugby league players have the lowest average IQ of any sport?
Will John Banks finally realise his time is up and bow out of public life with whatever little dignity he still has left?

What peculiar conceit motivates people to post a comment on a blog when there are already hundreds there? Do they seriously think anyone’s going to read it?
When did it become fashionable for men to wear suits two sizes too small?

Given the striking resemblance between them, could US Secretary of State John Kerry be the love child of Herman Munster?
Given up trying to make sense of the self-service checkout at the supermarket?

Irritated by emails signed “Talk soon” from people you’ve never met and are unlikely ever to have any verbal contact with?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Regime change at Radio New Zealand

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 20.)
There’s an “under new management” sign, figuratively speaking, outside Radio New Zealand’s head office in Wellington.
Paul Thompson, former editorial chief of the Fairfax media group, recently took over as RNZ’s chief executive.

Thompson is a stranger to the public broadcasting culture from which RNZ’s bosses have traditionally been recruited. His predecessor, Peter Cavanagh, came from Australia’s state-owned ABC. The incumbent before that, Sharon Crosbie, had been a high-profile RNZ broadcaster, though she had also done time in private radio.
A former editor of the Christchurch Press, Thompson was well-regarded in the newspaper business. I have misgivings about the editorial course Fairfax charted under his leadership, but a former editor whose opinion I respect once described him to me as the most complete journalist, in terms of ability, that she had ever worked with.

As an outsider, he is likely to be regarded with suspicion by some of his new employees. Not only does he come from a print journalism background, but he previously worked in the private sector.
Public broadcasting has its own culture and ethos. Some of the people who work at RNZ consider the private sector to be intrinsically tainted by the profit motive. Many wouldn’t dream of working for a commercial broadcaster, and the appointment of a CEO from outside the public broadcasting culture will have come as something of a shock.

But we can only assume RNZ’s board of governors wanted an infusion of new blood, and I think they’re probably right. (In fact I’ve been wondering recently whether it would be good for the police too, but that’s another story.)
Thompson is accustomed to working in a difficult environment, having spent several years grappling with the crisis in the newspaper industry. He will face different challenges at RNZ, the first of which will be winning the confidence of staff.

I would be very surprised if alarm bells had not rung internally over his arrival. Consider the following.
The board of governors, chaired by former prime ministerial PR man (and Nelson resident) Richard Griffin, has a strong private-sector bias. Griffin was RNZ’s political editor for many years but later worked for Jim Bolger and is seen as close to the National government.

The deputy chair is a former boss of Radio Hauraki, the Auckland rock station that challenged the state monopoly on broadcasting in the 1960s and opened the way for private radio. Another board seat is held by former National cabinet minister Paul East.
National is not favourably disposed to RNZ and has kept its funding capped since 2008. Steven Joyce, one of the most influential figures in Cabinet, made his money in private radio and is not thought to be warmly sympathetic to public broadcasting.

Moreover, RNZ employees could be excused for feeling increasingly isolated, having seen state-owned Television New Zealand stripped of its public service obligations and reduced to a wholly ratings-driven operation. RNZ is the last standard-bearer for commercial-free public broadcasting.
Put all these factors together and you can understand why many in RNZ might be feeling nervous. Yet the time has probably come for a few changes.

They don’t need to be radical. RNZ National claimed to be New Zealand’s highest-rating station last year, with a nationwide audience share of 10 per cent. Morning Report is the country’s highest-rating radio show, with an average audience of 342,000. Obviously it’s doing something right.
In fact I would argue that RNZ does most things pretty well. A stocktake would find much to be positive about, especially considering that its funding has been static for five years.

The government would risk a fierce backlash – and not just from Labour voters – if it tried to hobble the broadcaster, as I suspect some ministers would secretly like to do. Most people I know have their radios permanently tuned to RNZ National.
I would go further and suggest RNZ has never been more important, especially as a source of news and information. At a time when the newspaper industry is in a state of disarray, the state broadcaster has gone some way toward filling the vacuum left by the killing off of the New Zealand Press Association. In doing so it has become the national newspaper we never had.

Still, I get the sense that a degree of institutional inertia has set in. Under Cavanagh’s watch RNZ lost some of its forward momentum. He was known as the invisible man by some RNZ employees and seemed content to take a hands-off approach – hardly adequate at a time of upheaval in the media.
Many of RNZ’s senior managers have been with the organisation a long time. Thompson may encounter resistance to change – but as an outsider, he’s unlikely to be persuaded by the age-old argument that “this is the way we’ve always done things”.

RNZ has come a long way since the stuffy era when its programming department depended heavily on BBC hand-me-downs, the presenters were stiff and formal and the music played was mainly of the bland, light orchestral variety, but some of its programmes have begun to sound a little tired. It could do with some rejuvenation.
Coming from a background in journalism, where editorial balance is a core principle, Thompson might also want to tackle the pronounced left-wing bias that persists in parts of RNZ.

I have no idea what his own political views are, and certainly don’t think he was a political appointment. But he needs to point out firmly to some RNZ employees that the organisation is owned by the taxpayer and has an obligation to be even-handed in its treatment of political issues.
The announcement that Sunday morning host Chris Laidlaw is retiring at the end of this year is a good start, although RNZ insists the decision was entirely Laidlaw’s own.

A less partisan approach by other hosts such as Kim Hill might even soften the government’s antipathy towards the organisation, though that’s not why it needs to be done. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Songs to remember Kennedy by

Here’s an esoteric music trivia question: what do the songs The Sounds of Silence (Simon and Garfunkel), Sunny (Bobby Hebb) and The Warmth of the Sun (the Beach Boys) have in common?
Answer: although none of them refer to it overtly, all three were inspired, at least partly, by the assassination of John F Kennedy, which happened 50 years ago this week.

As it happens, they’re also three great songs. Though it was never a hit (it was the flip side of the rather less impressive Dance, Dance, Dance, which went to No 8 in the US), The Warmth of the Sun is an early example of Brian Wilson’s genius, marking the point at which he raised his sights from songs about hot rods and surfing to more ambitious, melodically complex stuff. Wilson and fellow band member Mike Love began writing the song before learning of Kennedy’s death, but it has a melancholy, elegiac quality that captures the mood of the moment. (Incidentally, that’s not the Beach Boys you hear playing on the record; it’s the fabulous Los Angeles session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, one of whom was Glen Campbell.)
Black singer Bobby Hebb’s Sunny sounds like a love song but was written as a response to two tragedies: Kennedy’s death and the fatal stabbing of Hebb’s brother outside a Nashville nightclub. Paradoxically, it’s an optimistic song that draws hope from the restorative quality of love. Although written in 1963, it didn’t become a hit till nearly three years later. It rose to No 2 in the US and No 16 in New Zealand in mid-1966 and went on to earn enduring popularity as a staple in both easy-listening and soul repertoires. Hebb, who died in 2010, never had another major hit, but it’s worth checking out his follow-up to Sunny, a sublime soul treatment of the much-recorded country song A Satisfied Mind. (I never found out who the bass player was, but he was hot. Sunny and A Satisfied Mind were two of the first pop songs I can recall in which the bass insisted on being heard.)

Like Sunny, The Sounds of Silence took its time becoming a hit. In fact it attracted little attention when Simon and Garfunkel first recorded it as an acoustic folk song for the 1964 album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. It was only after their producer, Tom Wilson, decided to soup the song up with electric guitars, bass and drums – provided by New York session musicians who had just finished working on Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone – that The Sounds of Silence took off. Astonishingly, the overdubbing was done without the knowledge of Paul Simon, who wrote the song. But it did the trick: the new version, released in September 1965, went to No 1 in New Zealand as well as the US, and set S & G on their way.
Anyway, give the songs a whirl. It’s as good a way as any of marking Friday's anniversary.



Saturday, November 16, 2013

Tapping into that small-town connection

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 15.)
I'M NOT ABOUT to take back all the terrible things I’ve said about TVNZ, but credit where credit’s due.
This Town, which TV One has been screening in prime time on Saturday nights for the past few weeks, is a priceless series about ordinary New Zealanders.

Actually, that’s not quite correct. Many of them are extraordinary: eccentric, clever and colourful. But they are ordinary in the sense that they are not big names (with one exception: Lynda Topp of the Topp Twins, but even she was shown in a new light).
You won’t see any of them in the social pages of the Sunday Star-Times. What’s more, there are no attention-seeking presenters hogging the camera. This Town is a celebrity-free zone, and all the better for it. It’s also mercifully free of the irritating production gimmickry that intrudes on so many shows.

If you haven’t seen the programme so far, you’ve missed some great New Zealanders. Most of them have a passion for something (a greatly overused term these days, but applicable in this case), like the Otago family that built its own power station, the man who restored the moribund Wairoa movie theatre and the Kaponga (Taranaki) woman who turned her house into a horse museum.
One appealing aspect of the show is seeing Kiwi blokes – even the hard men who inhabit the Chatham Islands – speaking honestly and unselfconsciously about their lives and what’s important to them.

I especially enjoyed the episode that featured the Patea Maori Club, famous for its 1984 hit Poi E. Drive through Patea these days and it’s easy to get the impression it’s a town that has lost all hope, but not so. Patea still has a beating heart, as the stalwarts of the PMC showed.
Producer Melanie Rakena has done a superb job seeking out engaging characters with interesting stories and allowing them to tell them in their own way. The series takes me back to the days of Gary McCormick’s Heartland, which had a similar knack for unearthing unconventional but likeable people in out of the way places.

Many of us still identify with small-town New Zealand, though the number must be diminishing. For one hour on Saturday night, This Town taps into that emotional connection.
Perhaps the key to its appeal is that makes you feel good about being a New Zealander – which is not something that could be said for programmes like Police Ten 7 (or, come to that, Seven Sharp, which seems based on the assumption that we’re a nation of airheads).

* * *

ON SUNDAY morning I listened to Radio Zealand host Chris Laidlaw talking to Bryan Gould, a retired New Zealand academic who was once a British Labour MP and contender for the leadership of the British Labour Party.
It wasn’t so much an interview as a meeting of minds. Mr Gould was holding forth on his favourite theme, the wickedness of free-market capitalism, and it became clear as the interview progressed that the two former Rhodes Scholars were kindred souls.

By the end, Laidlaw was murmuring in agreement and lamenting that the spirit of egalitarianism on which New Zealand was founded had been “sold down the river”. Hardtalk it wasn’t.
Laidlaw may not regard himself as being on the left, as he told this paper on Wednesday, but regular listeners will have formed their own conclusions about his leanings long ago.

Now it has been announced that he’s leaving the programme at the end of the year. He says it’s because he wants to devote his time to his local government work, but some will wonder whether Radio New Zealand, which has a new chief executive, has decided the Sunday morning programme can no longer ignore the charter requirement that it be editorially balanced.
If so, it’s not before time. Laidlaw is entitled to his political views, but the state broadcaster exists for, and is funded by, all New Zealanders – not just a cosy, left-leaning elite.

* * *

SHARIA LAW proponents advocate cutting off the hands as a penalty for theft, but the idea also has merit as a solution to a persistent problem afflicting television reporters.
One News glamour boys Jack Tame and Matt McLean are among the many young TV journalists who seem incapable of telling a story without making extravagant physical gestures to emphasise their point.

An even worse offender is Breakfast weather presenter Sam Wallace, who waves his arms around as if he were participating in a demented game of charades.
Having observed them closely, I have concluded they suffer from a disorder known as tardive dyskinesia. A common side-effect of anti-psychotic medication, this condition results in repetitive, involuntary body movements and is often seen in psychiatric patients.

Whatever drugs TVNZ is giving them, I suggest the treatment be discontinued immediately.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Miley Cyrus and the Roast Busters

An editorial in the current issue of The Listener says the Roast Busters scandal suggests a need for society to undertake a deep and searching self-appraisal if we’re to understand how we have reached a point where young men take pleasure in the humiliation of vulnerable girls.
There’s ample evidence that this is exactly what is now happening. Not a day passes without the Roast Busters affair being earnestly discussed on talkback radio (which is not, contrary to conventional wisdom, the exclusive domain of the bigoted and ignorant). Several thoughtful and heartfelt newspaper columns have appeared, including three in the Dominion Post by Chris Trotter, Sean Plunket and Jane Bowron*. If there’s a common factor, it’s a sense of shock that we have come to this.

But there have also been kneejerk reactions, the aim of which seems to be to contain the discussion within parameters that certain people are comfortable with. I refer to the orchestrated condemnation of RadioLive hosts Willie Jackson and John Tamihere, who have now been taken off the air for the rest of the year to reflect on their wickedness.
I don’t listen to the Willie and JT Show and suspect I wouldn’t much like it if I did. Mouthy blokes don’t do it for me. Yet I have found myself forced to defend Jackson and Tamihere for asking questions that many people think shouldn’t be asked, even if I think they could have done it rather more sensitively.

Before I go any further, I should make a couple of points as emphatically as I can, since the reaction to my earlier post on this subject suggests some people have trouble getting the message. These are (a) that I detest sexual abuse in any shape or form, and (b) that nothing excuses the behaviour of the contemptible young shits who call themselves the Roast Busters. Everyone got that?
I need to restate this since some of my attackers effectively accuse me of "victim blaming", because I suggested that it’s valid to ask questions about whether the behaviour of the Roast Busters’ victims might have contributed in any way to their abuse.

Here’s my point: it’s simplistic to conclude that this is simply a matter of over-testosteroned young men behaving reprehensibly. Of course that’s the core problem, and nothing excuses or condones their behaviour. But we need to acknowledge that the social context in which this abuse occurred is more complex than that.
For a start, there’s evidence that some of the Roast Busters’ female friends saw nothing wrong in what they did and even admired them for it. That alone suggests society – or perhaps a subset of society – has taken a wrong turning somewhere.

If we step back and try to look at the big picture, it’s almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that a key reason for aberrant behaviour like that of the Roast Busters is that we live in a society that’s drenched with sex. That makes me sound like a 1950s prude, but what the hell.
The sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s may have liberated us, but it has also left us with some perverse outcomes. One is that many girls grow up thinking one of their key functions is to be sexually alluring and available. And the attitude of some of their male peers, as demonstrated by the Roast Busters, is one of entitlement. After all, if there’s all that sex out there (and they know there is, because they see it all the time on music videos, on TV, in the movies and in video games like Grand Theft Auto), why shouldn’t they grab some?

I’m not just talking about pornography being instantly and universally available, though that’s certainly part of the problem. I’m also talking about girls being sexualised from an inexcusably early age and bombarded with sexual imagery and sexually-laden marketing everywhere they look.
I believe children are entitled to enjoy their innocence for as long as they can.  God knows they encounter the real world soon enough. But society and popular culture seems determined to rob them of that innocence long before they have the maturity to deal with the emotional complications that come with sex.

Who’s to blame? Phwoar. Where to start? Perhaps with pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga, whom popular culture holds up as role models for girls. In the MTV Video Awards, seen by millions of sub-teens, Cyrus – a former Disney Channel child star – comes on to Robin Thicke, submissively rubbing her buttocks against his groin and doing that crotch-towelling thing that dancers in seedy strip clubs do; in the video for her song Wrecking Ball, surely one of the most watched songs on YouTube, she strips naked and mock-fellates the head of a sledgehammer. Swallows and Amazons this isn’t. And only this morning I read about the sexually explicit content on Lady Gaga’s latest album, supposedly inspired by her own sex experiences.   
But the blame goes much further than that. How about the Family Planning Association, which for years has been running a determined campaign to promote sexual precocity in kids? (Now that will definitely get me labelled as some sort of Mother Grundy, but it’s true.)

Ultimately, though, responsibility lies with all of us for sitting back passively while our children’s right to the innocent, uncomplicated pleasures of childhood was gradually stripped away.
Now, to get more specific, I’ve been asked to defend myself by explaining how the behaviour of the Roast Busters’ victims could have been a contributory factor in their abuse. (Please note that I didn’t say their behaviour was a contributory factor; merely that it’s legitimate to ask whether it was a contributory factor – a distinction lost on the ideologues who prefer explanations for bad behaviour to be bumper-slogan simple.)

Here are a few of the things I was thinking about. How do 13-year-old girls get into situations where they are at risk of being sexually exploited by older boys? How did they end up at parties where they were plied with alcohol? Did their parents know where they were? Did they care?
Do young girls dress provocatively because they see people like Miley Cyrus wearing only a bra and knickers, or nothing at all, and think that’s the cool thing to do – a sure way to attract male attention? Do they then suddenly find themselves out of their depth and in a situation that they can’t control?

Suggesting these might be factors doesn’t excuse bad behaviour; but it may go some way toward explaining it. And if we’re genuinely interested in understanding how society produces aberrant young males like the Roast Busters, then we shouldn’t exclude anything from the conversation.   
I know the argument goes that women and girls should be entitled to dress however they want without risking harassment or assault, but that strikes me as naively idealistic. I could argue that I should be able to go to bed at night leaving the doors unlocked and the windows open, but I don’t because I know what the consequences could be.

A 77-year-old Papatoetoe woman forgot to lock her door on Sunday and was sexually assaulted by an intruder. Does her forgetfulness justify or excuse the crime against her? Of course not, but it was inarguably a contributory factor. The point is, we have to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.
I have long believed it’s unfair that a woman can’t go into a bar for a drink on her own without risking being hit on, but most women aren’t prepared to take the chance. It’s not right that things should be that way, but it’s the way the world is. And until we change the world – which I believe we’re doing, slowly – then we have to accept that some actions may have unpleasant consequences, so prudent people try to avoid them.

In the case of young teenage girls, those traumatic consequences are almost inevitably unintended, simply because they don’t have the maturity or experience to anticipate or perhaps even understand them. In other words, what happens to them ISN’T THEIR FAULT. (I need to put this in capital letters because some readers of this blog have limited skills of comprehension.) But that shouldn’t stop us stepping back and considering whether sexual abuse might not be quite so one-dimensional as the ideologues – the people who clamour for radio hosts to be taken off air – would like us to believe.
* Sorry, but I couldn't find Jane's column online.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The tyranny of the mob - again

Sigh. Here we go again: the tyranny of the mob. Emboldened by numbers and anonymity, the finger-waggers swarm on to Twitter and Facebook, demanding the heads of RadioLive broadcasters Willie Jackson and John Tamihere for asking supposedly inappropriate questions of the friend of an alleged Roast Busters victim. Moral righteousness is never so easy as when there are thousands of you and opinion is never cheaper than when you can join the shrill chorus of condemnation without having to identify yourself.

We have been here before. We saw it with the furore over the late Paul Holmes' throwaway remark - which I suspect was meant ironically, although that point was lost in the moralistic clamour that ensued - about Kofi Annan being a "cheeky darkie". We saw it again when Alasdair Thompson was hounded from his job because he made a perfectly legitimate remark that was deemed offensive to women.

Once again we see timid corporate advertisers being panicked and bullied into boycotting the programme involved, just as happened to Holmes. And once again we see the contrite hosts making the now-ritual apology - and inevitably, then being condemned because it wasn't considered sincere enough. You can't win.

The initiator of the boycott, reportedly, was left-wing blogger Giovanni Tiso, who is understandably bathing in a self-congratulatory glow. Funny how it's almost invariably the Left that wants to shut down opinions it doesn't like, and even odder that capitalist companies should meekly fall into line.

Before I'm accused of indulging in victim-blaming, which is one of those accusations (like "racist", "sexist" and "beneficiary basher") that activists use to intimidate opponents into silence, I should state that there are few things I detest more than  sexual abuse. I abhor the misogynist culture that exists within parts of New Zealand society and, like most people, I'm aghast at the reported activities of the so-called Roast Busters - and perhaps even more so at the lackadaisical reaction, at least until this week, of the police.

But the outrage over the Roast Busters has triggered a potentially valuable national conversation about how such attitudes could exist in a supposedly enlightened, civilised society, and everything should be on the table. If we genuinely want to understand what's been going on in West Auckland, a few awkward questions need to be asked. One of those questions is whether the behaviour of the victims may have been a contributory factor, consciously or otherwise. Asking that question doesn't excuse the contemptible behaviour of the perpetrators. Neither does it mean blaming the victim.

If we don't ask those uncomfortable questions, an opportunity will have been lost. And the enemies of free speech and open debate will have triumphed again.

Friday, November 8, 2013

More thoughts on Lou Reed

I recently wrote here about the death of Lou Reed – or more precisely, the media reaction to the death of Lou Reed. The response was interesting.
I’ve been writing opinion columns for nearly 45 years, in a variety of publications. It’s fair to say some of those columns pissed a few people off. But I don’t think I’ve ever provoked a more toxic response than I did with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground: an alternative view.

My blog is not something I devote a huge amount of time to, as anyone can see from the frequency of my posts. It’s purely a sideline. On an average day it attracts between 300 and 400 visitors, but occasionally my readership spikes to far higher levels – usually when a much more widely read blog, such as Whale Oil or Kiwiblog, links to something I’ve written. Otherwise this is one of the quieter backwaters of the blogosphere, attracting relatively little comment. When someone dissents, it’s usually in civilised tones.
Not so with the Lou Reed post. It went viral, as they say. For days, my readership went through the roof. Does this give me pleasure? Only in the way, say, that the proprietor of a good restaurant would be thrilled if his premises were suddenly overrun by drooling, incontinent Mongols with eyes in the middle of their foreheads.

The comments posted here were some of the mildest. The really rank, pustulous ones appeared elsewhere, such as on Dominion Post rock critic Simon Sweetman’s Blog on the Tracks – both the Facebook version and the one on the Stuff website. I didn’t bother to read many, still less respond; what’s the point? I just skimmed enough to get the general tone. Here’s one of the more thoughtful ones:
“Oh fer fuckssakes. Du Fresne is such a colossal flaming twatcock. So much so he has ‘Curmudgeon’ on his newspaper byline [actually, no longer true]. He can fuck off.”

Well, that certainly put me in my place. Here’s another:
“Fuck you, your constipated definition of music, and your artsy-fartsy name.”

You get the general drift. Note the way they carefully craft their arguments. Marvel at their command of language and calm, systematic rebuttal of my points. Above all, admire their cool restraint. 
The first of the above was signed by someone calling himself István Ping Clover. Something makes me suspect it’s not his real name. That’s one of the problems with the blogosphere: it provides cover for slime-secreting invertebrates who hide behind supposedly enigmatic pseudonyms.

Anyway, suffice it to say that most of the furious rejoinders to my blog post (and they came from all over the world) confirmed my longstanding belief that there are essentially two types of music fan, and that one type, paradoxically, isn’t very interested in music. Citing Lou Reed’s influence on primitives like the New York Dolls and the Stooges – or the tedious and bombastic U2, for that matter – is never going to convince me of his compelling artistic legacy.
The thing that Reed devotees have in common (and this includes most people who write about rock music) is an admiration, above all, for nihilism and dysfunction. Drug addiction and/or alcoholism, a chaotic private life (which often involves treating people around you like shit), brushes with the law, spells in treatment clinics, failing to show for concerts, lashing out at journalists and showing contempt for fans – these are what establish artistic credibility. A bit of simplistic, sanctimonious political posturing helps too. Who cares if you sing flat and can barely tune a guitar?

Commercial success, almost by definition, nullifies artistic and cultural cred. The self-ordained high priests of rock journalism, the illuminati who dictate what’s uncool and uncool, are contemptuous of popular taste. What would the proles know?
And of course the ultimate seal of authenticity is to burn out spectacularly and die, a la Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin – neither of whom remotely deserved the iconic status they ensured for themselves by the simple expedient of dying pathetically at 27. (I wonder, has rock music ever produced a more comically bad song than Morrison’s The End?)

Having said all that, my original post was not so much an attack on Lou Reed (heck, I can even see why people might like Walk on the Wild Side and Perfect Day) as on the absurd exaggeration of his influence. That Rolling Stone should name The Velvet Underground and Nico the 13th greatest album of all time is simply laughable – but entirely predictable, given that magazine’s fondness for posers. This is the same publication, after all, that declared Dylan’s dreary, plodding, interminable Like a Rolling Stone the greatest song of all time, and ranked John Lennon’s Imagine – a song for hippy thumb-suckers – as No 3.
Incidentally, here’s what Rolling Stone said about the Velvet Underground album: “Much of what we take for granted in rock would not exist without this New York band or its seminal debut: the androgynous sexuality of glitter; punk’s raw noir; the blackened-riff howl of grunge and noise rock; goth’s imperious gloom.”

Hmmm. Not much there about music. If the Velvet Underground can take credit for anything, it’s for being the first rock band to adopt the pretentious habit of wearing dark glasses even at night. As I said in my original blog, everything they did was an artful pose.
But let’s come back to the reaction to my post. What intrigued me most was the sheer intensity of it. People used to kill each other in religious disputes, but we’re no longer a religious society and I wonder whether we’ve had to find other things to form fanatical loyalties to.

As with religion, rock music has its own heresies and schisms. In the 1960s, music fans roughly split into two camps: those who liked the Beatles and those who liked the Stones. In hindsight, it was like Sunni Muslims versus Shi’ites. But the ideological lines have hardened immeasurably, to the point where you take issue with the established consensus at your own risk. The people who attacked me in the blogosphere probably think of themselves as free, anarchic spirits, but in fact they display a strong authoritarian streak and a savage intolerance of dissent. They are the Brown Shirts and Red Guards of our time.
Some of the enforcers of rock orthodoxy resorted to crude caricature. They said I’m old and pathetic; that I’m Catholic (now there’s an odd accusation, as inaccurate as it is bizarre); that I know nothing about music (not quite true); that I haven’t caught up with anything that’s happened since 1965; and the ultimate putdown, that I’m probably a Beatles fan (as it happens, I am).  

Is musical taste ultimately subjective anyway? That’s what one of my nieces suggested in a post that explained my behaviour by saying that I’m a curmudgeon and a reactionary and I like stirring people up, all of which is partly true.
I think she’s correct up to a point, but not entirely. Taste is largely subjective, but not when it comes to judging whether an instrument is out of tune, the drummer can’t keep time and it’s purely a matter of luck whether the singer hits the right note. Using any of these objective yardsticks, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground would probably never have survived past their first audition.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

It's the same language, only different

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 6.)
George Bernard Shaw famously described England and America as two countries divided by a common language. It’s only when you spend time in the United States that you realise how true that is.
It soon becomes apparent that while Americans use the same words as we do, they can mean quite different things.

I have to remind myself of this every time I go there. It’s a bit like having to remember that in America, the driver’s seat is on the left-hand side of the car (my wife always spends the first few days going to the wrong side, out of habit) and to look left, rather than right, when you’re about to cross the street.
New Zealanders are brought up to speak the version of English used by the British. And although that’s gradually changing as we succumb to the increasing American influence on popular culture worldwide, linguistic differences can still create misunderstandings – or at the very least, provoke blank looks.

Take a simple word like “holiday”. We talk about going away for the holidays or enjoying a holiday – meaning a few days or longer – at the beach. But to an American, “holiday” refers to a specific day of celebration such as July 4 or Thanksgiving. What we call a holiday, they call a vacation. When you think about it, it’s a sensible distinction.
Ask an American if you can borrow a torch, and they’ll wonder why on earth you’d want to wrap flammable cloth around a piece of wood and set it alight. To them, a torch is something associated with Ku Klux Klan rallies or the Statue of Liberty. What you want is actually a flashlight.

Cars are a prime source of confusion. Ask for directions to a petrol station and you’ll cause bewilderment. In America, you fill up with gas.
You don’t put things in the boot; you put them in the trunk. And the engine isn’t under the bonnet; it’s under the hood (which is in front of the windshield). 

When I tell American friends that we own a caravan, I have to remember to call it a travel trailer. To them, the word caravan is likely to conjure up romantic images of a camel train wending its way through the desert toward Samarkand.
Our six-month old American granddaughter doesn’t wear nappies; she wears diapers. Her parents keep their clothes in a closet, not a wardrobe, and they get their water from a faucet. And so on.

Of course, none of these differences should be too problematical. But things can get tricky, for those unfamiliar with the vagaries of American English, when you come to order a meal in a restaurant.
Here it pays to understand the nomenclature.  First, don’t request tomato sauce to go with your chips. In America, tomato sauce is what spaghetti and other pasta dishes are served with. We’d call it pasta sauce. (In Mafia movies, there’s always a huge pot of it cooking on the stove.) What you want is ketchup – a word that can be traced back to the Chinese ke-tsiap, which was a spicy condiment made from pickled fish.

Chips, meanwhile, are always referred to in America as fries, or French fries. Order chips and you’ll be given what we call chippies, or what the English call crisps.
And don’t make the mistake of asking for a white coffee, because Americans don’t recognise the term; ask for coffee with milk. (And don’t confuse them by trying to order a flat white or a latte, because most of America hasn’t succumbed to coffee culture as we know it. In a Starbucks café they might know what you’re talking about, but even there you’d be taking a punt.)

Most perplexing of all is the American habit of referring to the main course as the entrée, which can create real confusion for people unfamiliar with American menus.
Americans proceed from appetiser to entrée to dessert. It doesn’t make sense, but there it is; it’s their country, and their right to use whatever terminology they choose.

At worst, these linguistic differences might cause mild embarrassment or temporary puzzlement, on one or both sides. Fortunately, scope for a potentially serious social faux-pas is limited – but it does exist.
An example is the verb to “hook up”, which in New Zealand is usually regarded as meaning to make contact with someone or spend time with them. In America the phrase has an overtly sexual connotation – so an innocent suggestion that you hook up with someone could lead to quite the wrong impression.

Conversely, “fanny” is a word that causes no offence in America. Americans talk about patting someone on the fanny, which would have an altogether different meaning here.
What Americans call the fanny we call the bum, which simply compounds the confusion. In America a bum is a hobo or a no-hoper; the good old Kiwi phrase “a kick in the bum” would make no sense at all.
So Shaw was right. Nominally we speak the same language, but there are enough points of difference to create plenty of scope for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

And that’s without even beginning to consider the additional complications posed by accents, which range from the lazy Southern drawl of Louisiana and Texas to the “Valley Girl” babble that originated in the Los Angeles suburbs but now seems common among young American women everywhere. Factor these into the mix and you have a formula for mutual incomprehension.
At a service station (sorry, gas station) in a small Mississippi Delta town a couple of years ago, I asked for directions to a local point of interest. The woman serving me said she’d never heard of the place, but an elderly black gentleman sitting nearby pricked up his ears. He knew where it was and went to some lengths to explain exactly how I could find my way there.

I was grateful for his help and listened intently, nodding as he carefully gave me the directions. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I didn’t understand a single word.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

When idealism becomes control freakery

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 1.)

THE LEFT never gives up on its crusade to mould the perfect society. Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway’s Bill to lower the legal drink-driving limit is the latest phase in this idealistic mission.

Many on the Left are sincerely motivated by a vision of a world in which everyone is equal, no one experiences pain or disadvantage and everyone is nice to each other.

Of course, all this is highly commendable. The problem is that the Left persists in believing, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that this ideal society can be imposed by statute. The result is control-freak government that inevitably whittles away at individual choice and responsibility.

No one can be sure how many lives will be saved by lowering the blood alcohol limit from 80 to 50 mg. The government says it’s trying to find out – hence its reluctance to legislate.

One estimate by the Ministry of Transport suggests between 15 and 33 deaths a year could be avoided, but it’s just that: an estimate, not backed by hard data.

In any case, if we’re talking about saving lives, why stop there? Even more fatalities could be avoided at a stroke by cutting the speed limit from 100 kmh to 80, or ordering that all cars be fitted with governors to limit their speed. Not even the Left is naïve enough to suggest that.

The point is that most laws are a tradeoff. They involve striking a reasonable balance between personal freedom and the common good.

There comes a point at which laws intrude too far on people’s right to make their own responsible choices. That’s what Mr Lees-Galloway’s bill – currently languishing on the parliamentary order paper – would do.

And just as some people would continue to drive at 160 kmh even if the speed limit were reduced to 80, so the hard-core drinking drivers who cause mayhem on our roads will go on getting intoxicated regardless of what the law says.

That’s another weakness in the Left’s vision of the perfect society: it fails to take into account human cussedness.

How much easier things would be if only people knew what was good for them. But then idealistic politicians would run out of things to do.

* * *

DON’T EXPECT balanced discussion of such issues on Radio New Zealand, despite its charter obligation to present both sides of the story.

Sunday morning host Chris Laidlaw – himself a former Labour MP – recently devoted nearly an hour to Mr Lees-Galloway’s Bill but couldn’t find time, amid all the anti-liquor rhetoric, to squeeze in one person to put the case for the status quo.

Laidlaw’s programme often comes across as the secular equivalent of a Sunday morning sermon from the pulpit. On this occasion it seemed his primary purpose – and that of his guests – was to incite moral panic over New Zealanders’ supposedly booze-sodden “culture”.

In fact it’s a myth. No mention was made of the fact that our per capita alcohol consumption is moderate by international standards. In the most recent World Health Organisation statistics, we’re ranked 51st in the world – well behind Britain (17), Germany (23), Switzerland (33) and Australia (44).

You won’t hear this mentioned by the anti-liquor propagandists, just as they avoid the inconvenient fact that we share the same drink-driving limit as Britain, Canada and the United States. They talk only about the countries that have lowered the limit to 50, thus seeking to create the impression that New Zealand alone is defying logic and common sense.

When I sent Laidlaw an email objecting to his one-sided treatment of the issue, he replied that you can’t please everyone. What a copout – and what a dismissive attitude from someone paid by the taxpayer to present a balanced picture.

* * *

IT WILL BE interesting to see whether the officially approved Maori names for the North and South Islands catch on.

I intend to give them a go. For one thing, Te Ika a Maui (the fish of Maui) and Te Wai Pounamu (the water of greenstone) have a rather more poetic ring than "North" and "South". They also tell a story.

Our colonial forebears could hardly have been less imaginative in the names they bestowed on places. North and South? Northland and Southland? Good grief. What a dull, stolid lot they must have been.

Some people grizzle that the Maori names are too much of a mouthful, but hang on a minute. Te Wai Pounamu consists of five syllables – the same number as California and South Carolina. Americans seem to manage those without too much trouble.

Te Ika a Maui is six syllables, but so what? No one balked at pronouncing Czechoslovakia when it existed as a country, and Papua-New Guinea presents no problems either. I say give them a chance.







Monday, October 28, 2013

Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground: an alternative view

Lou Reed has died, and for the next few days the media will be awash with dribbling, fawning tributes. Most of them will probably be written by people who are tone-deaf.

No band in the history of rock music was more over-rated than the Velvet Underground, the "avant-garde" group Reed formed in New York in the 1960s ("avant-garde" being a term that should come with a flashing red warning light attached). Typical of the tributes we can expect is one I heard on Radio New Zealand this morning, in which it was said that everyone who heard the Velvet Underground was inspired to go out and start their own band. The explanation for that is simple: anyone hearing the Velvet Underground quickly realised you didn't need to be able to sing or play to form a group and be lionised by the left-wing, university-educated cognoscenti (who even then were trying to claim rock music as some sort of socio-political statement).

In that respect Reed's band foreshadowed punk by 10 years. Punk and the Velvets were both essentially anti-music in the sense that they made records for people who didn't like, or at least weren't interested in, music. The difference was that whereas punk at least had a redeeming working-class energy, everything the Velvet Underground did was an artful pose. They were rapidly adopted as the house band of the artsy-fartsy liberal intellectual elite, a status they have never entirely relinquished.

Fans of the Velvet Underground, who mostly exist in universities and the media, have assiduously promoted the myth that they were hugely influential. They were nothing of the sort, other than in the minds of their small coterie of admirers.

They are invariably referred to as a "cult" band, which is a snob code word meaning their appeal was too cerebral for ordinary joes to understand. The fact that the Velvets never cracked the Billboard Top 100 only confirms their credibility in the eyes of their fawning fans, to whom commercial success was the kiss of death and a sure sign of ideological error. But it's probably an accurate measure of the band's real worth.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Millmow catches up with Bill Skelton

Some pretty dire rubbish appears on the sports pages, but I've been enjoying the "Where are they now?" series in the Dominion Post by Jonathan Millmow, in  which he tracks down retired sporting identities - some well-known, some less so (last week's interview was with Wellington club rugby stalwart Morrie Standish). Today's instalment is about the great W D Skelton, laid low 19 years ago by a stroke from which he has never recovered.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Scandal, smear and spin - the new normal

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 23.)
As I write this, a lot of questions remain unanswered about the controversy swirling around Auckland mayor Len Brown.
Why did his former lover, Bevan Chuang, decide to expose him? She says she was pressured into doing so by another man with whom she claimed to have an intimate relationship – Luigi Wewege, who happened to be on the campaign team of Brown’s main rival for the mayoralty, John Palino.

As with so many of the claims made in this tawdry and convoluted affair, that has been denied; but text messages exchanged between Ms Chuang and Mr Wewege (who strikes me as one of those repellant people who hang around the fringes of politics, attracted by the buzz of power) suggested much more than mere friendship.
Was Mr Palino party to the conspiracy? He says he knew nothing – not even that Mr Wewege was in a relationship with Ms Chuang. But regardless of whether Mr Palino was in on it, some of the sleaze has rubbed off on him by association.

Why did right-wing blogger Cameron Slater choose to expose the affair when he did? One theory was that by waiting until after the election, he increased the likelihood that the right-leaning Mr Palino – as the second-highest polling candidate – would assume the mayoralty if Mr Brown (a Labour man) stood down.
But Slater’s explanation is that he couldn’t reveal the affair until he had persuaded Ms Chuang to swear an affidavit and hand over the text messages she had exchanged with Mr Brown. That would give him a strong defence in the event of a defamation action.

To make a complex picture even murkier, Slater’s father John, a former National Party chairman, was head of Mr Palino’s campaign. Conspiracy theorists wasted no time joining the dots and concluding Slater senior was implicated, which he denies (as does his son).
Who sent threatening text messages to Slater, Ms Chuang and Slater’s father? These were sent anonymously before Slater dropped his sleaze bomb. At that point he had merely made a veiled reference in his blog to Mr Brown and “Asian beauties”.

If Slater is to be believed, those text messages were the tipping point. It was then that Ms Chuang decided to hand over the evidence Slater wanted – not the outcome the anonymous texter wanted. Meanwhile, after seeing the reference to Asian beauties, Mr Brown evidently decided the game was up and told his wife about the affair.
Should he have resigned immediately? That’s a hard one to answer. As plenty of people have pointed out, the political ranks might look decidedly thin if everyone who had committed a sexual indiscretion was excluded.

On the other hand, as a Radio New Zealand listener texted to Morning Report, if the people closest to Mr Brown – his wife and family – can’t trust him, why should the people of Auckland? I have friends who voted for him, thinking him a solid family man and churchgoer (an image he promoted at every opportunity), and who now feel betrayed.
One more question: are there any other skeletons in Mr Brown’s closet? After all, philanderers are usually serial offenders. John Campbell put the question to Mr Brown on TV3 but allowed him to get away with what I thought was an equivocal answer.

By the time this column appears, some of the above questions may have been answered. Mr Brown may even have stepped down, though that seems highly unlikely.
He may not be the world’s most charismatic politician, but he’s clearly reluctant to relinquish power, no matter what humiliation comes his way (or the way of his hapless wife and daughters, who are the real victims of this squalid saga).

Like John Banks, who was also in the news last week, Mr Brown gives the impression of having developed a protective carapace – call it ego, ambition, vanity, attachment to power or whatever – that enables him to put his head down and push on when public contempt would have caused other men to throw in the towel.
Now, one last question that may be easier to answer.

Has politics got dirtier? Undoubtedly – and not just in New Zealand. The same is true in Britain, America and Australia.
It’s not only dirtier, but more intense. Scandal, smear and spin are now staples of the political diet.

The explanation for this lies largely in the digital revolution.
As recently as a few years ago, politicians and journalists worked to a daily news cycle that revolved around the evening television news bulletin and the deadlines of the morning and afternoon papers.

It was a pressured environment, but it usually allowed time to pause, take a deep breath and react to political developments in a considered way.
Not now. In the digital era, the news cycle operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The tempo has increased exponentially and a far more aggressive media constantly hounds politicians, hungry for new developments. It seems John Key can’t go anywhere without having microphones thrust at him.

But an even more potent factor is the emergence of new digital media – text messages, blogs, Facebook and Twitter – which provide a virulent forum for rumour, gossip, lies, abuse, propaganda and character assassination. It feeds on itself, each inflammatory item ratcheting up the intensity of the political conversation.  
Anyone can become a player in this new game, and they can do it in the safety of anonymity. In other words, it’s not just the pace of political journalism that has changed, but also the tone. Nothing is off-limits; everyone is fair game.

Bloggers compete for attention, often making outrageous claims that the mainstream media don’t bother to follow up. But the most successful bloggers, such as Slater, break stories that the mainstream press can’t ignore. They have made themselves part of the political landscape.
Slater is well informed and politically astute. Mr Brown is his biggest scalp yet, but he won’t be the last.

Some argue that this new political environment is healthy. It promotes transparency and has opened up the debate to new participants. But we’re deluding ourselves if we think it doesn’t come at a cost, and that cost may be that potential new entrants to politics might look at the sleaze that has enveloped Mr Brown and decide it’s not just worth the anguish and stress.