Friday, June 21, 2013

The ubiquitous idiot Dad - a television stereotype

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 19.)
ANYONE who watches much television is familiar with that stereotypical character, the idiot Dad.
It’s hard to pinpoint his exact origins, but the chief suspect would have to be Archie Bunker from All in the Family.

Think back for a moment. Prior to AITF, television fathers were generally presented sympathetically.
In The Andy Griffith Show, the title character was a caring, eminently sensible widower doing his best to bring up his only son while keeping the peace in small-town Mayberry.

Ditto My Three Sons, in which Fred MacMurray played a wise, kindly father serenely coping with the chaos of raising three teenage boys.
In Gentle Ben, Dad was a wildlife ranger who always seemed in control of things. In The Waltons, John Walton was honest, courageous and hard-working.  In The Brady Bunch, Mike Brady was a respected architect and a man of integrity. In The Beverly Hillbillies, Jed Clampett was loyal and affable. And so on, and so on.

Those popular  series idealised fatherhood and family life, just as they idealised most things about America. Fathers rose to whatever challenge the scriptwriters threw at them and everything was neatly resolved by the closing credits.
Even when the main male character was flawed, as in the case of Darrin in Bewitched or Herman Munster in The Munsters, they were portrayed affectionately. Darrin was anxious and gullible; Herman was a loveable buffoon.

In virtually all the above programmes, the wife and mother – if there was one – was sensible and kind-hearted. A rare exception was I Love Lucy, in which the title character, played by Lucille Ball, was ditzy and accident-prone.
But All in the Family shattered the old template. Archie, the central character, was ignorant, bigoted, abusive and selfish.

The scriptwriters highlighted these unappealing characteristics by playing him off against his wife Edith, who was everything Archie wasn’t: patient, loyal, kind, non-judgmental and wise, in her own way.
Television husbands and fathers would never be quite the same again. Thereafter, the idiot Dad became something of a cliché.

One of the few exceptions was Cliff Huxtable in The Cosby Show, who represented a return to the norm of the 1960s. Huxtable, played by black comedian Bill Cosby, was eccentric but kind, well-respected and a dedicated father. I suspect the producers didn’t dare portray him in an unsympathetic light because to have done so would have been to invite accusations of racism.
The Cosby Show aside, leading male figures in domestic comedies in the post-Archie Bunker era generally seemed to be presented as objects of ridicule.

This was in marked contrast to a slew of programmes, starting with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, featuring leading female characters who were invariably smart, resourceful and courageously making their way in an often unsympathetic world. (Later examples included One Day at a Time and Alice.)
Think about it. How many domestic comedies can you think of in which the central male figure was not vain, stupid, vulgar or hopeless?

Homer Simpson, of course, is the gold standard. Homer is lazy, dishonest, reckless, greedy and self-centred. And what’s particularly interesting about The Simpsons is that the gender stereotyping extends to other members of the Simpson family.
Marge Simpson is patient, kindly, loyal and eager to do the right thing – a little like Edith Bunker, in other words. Her daughter Lisa is the smartest, most clear-eyed character in Springfield. But Bart Simpson is a little horror: rebellious, mischievous and calculating (not for nothing was he given a name that’s an anagram for “brat”).

Let’s look at a few other examples. In Home Improvement, Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor, while harmless enough, was accident-prone and a know-all. His wife Jill, of course, was a voice of reason.
In Everybody Loves Raymond, the family patriarch was crude, stubborn, abusive and downright contrary – in other words, a little like Archie Bunker, even down to his armchair. A redeeming feature is that his manipulative wife wasn’t much more likeable.

In Married … With Children, Al Bundy was a loser and a slob who worked in a down-market shoe store and was perpetually in debt. There was a running gag about him smelling bad and spending a lot of time in the toilet.
A somewhat balancing factor in this show, too, was the fact that his lazy, scornful wife wasn’t much better.

A similarly dysfunctional family featured in Malcolm in the Middle. Again, the husband and father was a no-hoper – inept, cowardly and usually looking for the easy way out. The wife and mother, though crazy like everyone else, was the strong one in the family.
Then there’s Alan Harper in Two and a Half Men: spineless, neurotic and a generally pathetic father to his slob of a son.

Don’t get me wrong. I watched all these shows and enjoyed them, at least until they suffered the inevitable American fate of carrying on long after they had passed their use-by date.
After all, they are comedies that depend on absurdity for their humour. No one expects them to mirror real life.

Yet you can’t help but wonder why, for several decades now, there has been a consistent pattern of fathers and husbands being portrayed as no-hopers while their wives, almost invariably, are generally shown as  noble and virtuous. This is as much a misrepresentation of the real world as those idealistic 1960s shows were.
We probably all know families in which the husband doesn’t pull his weight and it’s left to the wife to ensure that the household functions smoothly. Certainly that’s far more often the case than the reverse.

But I also frequently see conscientious, caring husbands and fathers of the current generation sharing the burdens of parenthood – cooking, doing the washing, carting the kids around – in ways that most men of my age would have considered beneath their dignity. It’s neither accurate nor fair to suggest that the male of the household is a waste of space.
Certainly the British parenting organisation Netmums isn’t happy with the way Dads and husbands are portrayed on television.  In a recent online poll, Netmums found that 90 per cent of parents objected to the “casual contempt” with which fathers are depicted.

It’s not an issue that keeps me awake at night, but I can’t help wondering whether TV producers would get away with portraying wives and mothers so negatively. I suspect not.





Saturday, June 15, 2013

Wellington as it was

(First published in The Dominion Post, June 14.)
ALL THIS discussion in the paper about Wellington’s future is all very well, but at my stage in life it’s much more fun talking about the past.
I got my first job in the reading room of the Evening Post in 1968. My workmates were a glorious collection of oddballs.

I got paid $21 a week – more if I worked the Sports Post shift on Saturday afternoon. I got paid on Thursday and was invariably broke by Monday. The deputy head reader, a man named Vic, was my financial lifeline.
When I got down to my last 25 cents, it was a choice between a packet of Grey’s cigarettes – the only brand available in packs of 10 – or a Cheffy’s pie from the dairy around the corner. I usually chose the fags.

I flatted at the bottom of Devon St, in the Aro Valley. I swear everyone who ever lived in Wellington spent time flatting in Devon St. I had a neighbour with wild red hair whom everyone knew as Jungle Jim, whose flat was visited frequently by the police.

Legend had it that Jungle Jim once broke into a fisheries coolstore, slipped on the icy floor and knocked himself cold. He was found there, nearly dead from exposure, when the staff turned up in the morning.
John Steinbeck would have recognised Wellington in the late 1960s; it was full of such picaresque characters. The underworld gathered at the Forester’s Arms Hotel in Ghuznee St; the publican, an old schoolmate of mine, was once convicted on the rare charge of allowing his premises to be frequented by habitual criminals.

I had my first pub drink in the Royal Oak Hotel’s famous Bistro Bar. I was 17 and my eyes must have stood out on stalks. Upstairs, the Royal Oak was quite posh, but the Bistro Bar was the haunt of prostitutes, transvestites and junkies. Even at midday it was like a scene from a Federico Fellini film.
I met the woman who would become my wife at the Beachcomber coffee lounge in Oriental Bay – virtually the only place in town that routinely stayed open beyond midnight. Mother Grundy licensing laws meant the Beachcomber was officially dry, but everyone took alcohol that they surreptitiously added to their Coke.

Back then the only licensed premises, besides pubs, were a handful of licensed restaurants. I never quite understood the basis on which the authorities awarded liquor licences to such places, but it clearly had nothing to do with the quality of the tucker. Des Britten’s Coachman and Madame Louise’s Le Normandie were notable exceptions.
The advent of the first BYO restaurants in the 1970s – places such as the Van Gogh and Harry Seresin’s Settlement – was the culinary equivalent of the Prague Spring. They were the trailblazers for today’s vibrant hospitality sector. But I admit to a nostalgic soft spot for the old Wellington grill rooms and steak bars, mostly owned by Greeks, of which the illustrious Green Parrot is the sole survivor.

* * *

THE MAYOR then was Sir Frank Kitts. In retrospect, he was the perfect mayor for his time. Wellington may have had its defiant splashes of colour and non-conformist behaviour here and there, but generally speaking it was a grey, buttoned-down city.
The towering Sir Frank was as dull as he was tall. He deduced that the key to popularity was to turn up at everything, which earned him the nickname the tea-party mayor. It seemed to work: he became the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history.

Michael Fowler, who replaced him, was a different proposition altogether – an engaging extrovert who roused Wellington from a long period of civic slumber.
Since then the city has been well served by a succession of energetic mayors, notably Fran Wilde, Mark Blumsky and Kerry Prendergast, but some of the forward momentum seems to have been lost under Celia Wade-Brown.

I think of her as the accidental mayor. I suspect that if those who voted for her – probably with the intention of giving Ms Prendergast a fright – had realised thousands of others were doing the same, they might have put their tick elsewhere.
Would John Morrison be able to arrest the slide? I have no idea.

* * *

THESE DAYS I live in the Wairarapa – Masterton, to be precise – and barely a week passes when I don’t bump into another refugee from Wellington. The place is overrun with them.
There’s more space here, the weather is a lot less challenging and the pace is more relaxed. I bet you didn’t know, for example, that there isn’t a single traffic light in the Wairarapa.

Wellington has changed in all sorts of ways. I can walk the length of the city these days and not see a single familiar face, something that wouldn’t have happened even 10 years ago.
But if you asked people who now live on this side of the Rimutaka Hill about why the Wairarapa is so appealing, I bet most would say that one of the reasons is its proximity to Wellington. It’s hard to shake the place out of your system.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Free speech is fine, just as long as it doesn't upset anyone

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 5.)
What do a world-famous historian, a British author and a New Zealand cartoonist have in common?
On the face of it, not much – except that all three have been embroiled recently in controversies that show how fragile the right of free speech has become in supposedly liberal democracies.

Let’s start with the historian: Niall Ferguson, arguably the most distinguished contemporary British historian, and a man whose face is familiar internationally as a result of several television documentary series based on his books. 
In response to a question at a recent seminar in California, Ferguson referred to the fact that John Maynard Keynes, the British economist whose writing had a huge influence on 20th century governments, was homosexual.

He went further, suggesting that Keynes’ economic philosophy was influenced by the fact that he was childless. According to one reporter’s notes, Ferguson implied this meant that Keynes was indifferent to the long-term effects of economic policies.
The historian’s off-the-cuff comments sparked a storm of indignation. One overwrought commentator, journalist Tom Kostigen, wrote that it took gay-bashing to new heights. “Anyone with a moral conscience should be outraged,” Kostigen spluttered.

What Ferguson said about Keynes wasn’t new. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, in his obituary of Keynes, had made an explicit link between Keynes’ childlessness and his “short-run” philosophy of life. Other scholars have suggested that Keynes’ famously fatalistic remark, “In the long run we are all dead”, was influenced by the fact that he had no offspring to be concerned about.
But it seems we have become a much more touchy society. Certain ideas are no longer allowed to be expressed. The uproar over Ferguson’s remark was such that he felt compelled to apologise and retract.

No doubt he had his reasons for doing so. However it’s hard to escape the impression that more and more often, public figures who have made controversial statements feel forced to back down not because what they said was indefensible, but because their wrathful critics promise to make their life intolerable unless they do.
A man as scholarly and experienced as Ferguson is unlikely to be in the habit of blurting out silly remarks without any forethought. He would have studied Keynes’ life and formed certain conclusions about him. So you have to wonder whether he was intimidated into backing down despite genuinely believing what he had said.

Even if his theory about Keynes is pure speculation and possibly erroneous, so what? People are entitled in a free society to get things wrong.
Academics float theories all the time. Some are wacky and die a natural death, while others extend the boundaries of human understanding. If people were barred from expressing unpopular or unorthodox ideas, conventional wisdom would never be challenged and human thought would be at a standstill.

The worrying thing about the Ferguson controversy is that it adds to a growing body of evidence that certain subjects are off-limits. Ultra-sensitive minority groups – the gay lobby being one – are primed to react explosively to every imagined slight.
Anyone who opposes same-sex marriage risks being labelled a gay-basher, just as people espousing welfare reform are routinely condemned as beneficiary-bashers. If you question the politics of separatism, you’re a racist; if you criticise Israel, you’re an anti-Semite.

These are tactics designed to stifle legitimate debate and intimidate people into silence. Ferguson is simply the latest to learn that in today’s discrimination-obsessed society, you express an opinion at your peril.
Now let’s look at the case of British author David Goodhart, whose recent book The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Postwar Immigration has polarised reviewers.

Goodhart’s book argues that mass immigration is damaging to social democracy, erodes national solidarity and is not in the interests of the source countries, because it deprives them of some of their most dynamic people.
It’s a view that has not gone down well with some on the British left, who consider it an obligation of the prosperous West to throw open its doors to people from less advantaged countries, even when some of those immigrants violently turn against their host society.

The director of Britain’s leading literary festival, the Hay festival, was so affronted by Goodhart’s book that he refused to invite him to appear. Effectively, Goodhart was barred. The director, Peter Florence, arbitrarily pronounced that his book wasn’t very good.
So much for free speech, then. Having hijacked the once honourable word “liberal”, which my Oxford Dictionary variously defines as “directed to general broadening of the mind” and “generous or open-minded”, the so-called liberal left has once again demonstrated that it’s capable of being breathtakingly illiberal.

Mr Florence didn’t want his rigid world view challenged. Neither did he want festival-goers exposed to dangerous alternative opinions. I wonder if it has occurred to him that it’s only a short step from barring authors to burning books, as the Nazis did.
A former Labour cabinet minister, Lord Adonis, was appalled. “How about some free speech at the Hay festival?” he tweeted.

For the third instance of free speech coming under attack, we can look a lot closer to home. Al Nisbet’s two newspaper cartoons on the subject of free school breakfasts brought out the enemies of free speech in droves.
Remarkably, his critics included journalists, which shows how far the rot has set in. When the people who have the most to lose from the suppression of free speech are calling for someone to be silenced, we’re in deep trouble.

For the record, I thought they were crude cartoons; but the issue was not whether they were good cartoons, still less whether they were funny. The issue was whether freedom of speech includes the right to give offence, and it has long been recognised in liberal democracies that it does, and must. Even conservative judges have repeatedly upheld that principle.
There is an insidious double standard at play here, and it was typified by the stance of the activist John Minto, who complained about the cartoon to the Human Rights Commission.

Mr Minto’s own views upset and offend a lot of New Zealanders, but to my knowledge no one argues that he should be punished or silenced. Yet he seeks to deny others the right that he enjoys himself – and I suspect that he’s incapable of seeing the contradiction.





Monday, June 3, 2013

Who's Norman trying to kid?

Russel Norman’s speech to the annual conference of the Greens, in which he compared John Key with Robert Muldoon, rated a 10 for desperation and a zero for credibility.
I’m no cheerleader for Key, but even to mention him in the same breath as Muldoon is laughable.

Norman arrived in New Zealand from Australia in 1997, and on the basis of his speech I would guess that’s about as far back as his knowledge of our political history extends.
None of the prime ministers we’ve had since Muldoon could be compared with him, for which we should be grateful. He was a vindictive bully who cleverly exploited the politics of fear and division, and never more so than during the 1981 Springbok tour.

In fact I would suggest that in terms of personality, Key is the least like Muldoon. Anyone old enough to remember the political unpleasantness of the late 1970s and early 80s – which probably excludes a lot of Green voters – would have reacted with astonishment to Norman’s bizarre attempt to compare the two men.
Muldoon's default facial expression was a snarl. Key's is a grin (or if you want to be harsh, a smirk).
Arguably, the politician who most closely resembles Muldoon, and who served his apprenticeship under him, is Winston Peters. Like Muldoon, Peters has a penchant for demagoguery. But even the New Zealand First leader falls far short of Muldoon’s menacing intolerance of dissent, though it might have been a different story had he ever won power.

There are only two possible explanations for Norman’s attack on Key. The first is that, as postulated above, he knows nothing about our modern political history (not that that stops him from promoting himself as a credible alternative leader). The second, which is even more worrying, is that he knows the comparison between Key and Muldoon is absurd but ran with it anyway. Perhaps he senses the Greens’ momentum is slipping and is prepared to resort to extreme measures to get some traction.
Whichever way you look at it, the speech will have done nothing to enhance his credibility, other than in the eyes of the terminally gullible idealists who make up the Greens’ core constituency.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Charter schools: a good idea, badly handled

(First published in The Dominion Post, May 31.)
BY THE TIME you read this, Parliament may have passed the legislation introducing charter schools.
It’s a worthwhile experiment that almost didn’t deserve to succeed. Like the poorly executed state asset privatisation policy, the charter schools proposal aroused avoidable suspicion and antagonism by the clumsy way it was handled.

Charter schools went unmentioned in the 2011 election campaign. The proposal emerged into the light only later, as part of ACT’s coalition agreement with National. Yet we can assume there were discussions between the two parties long before that.
If a policy is worth adopting, its backers should have the confidence to toss it into the public arena and be prepared to explain and defend it. Instead, opponents were able to portray the charter schools idea as having been introduced by stealth, as if it were something to be ashamed of – which it wasn’t.

The impression that it wasn’t quite kosher was reinforced by the peculiar decision to place charter schools outside the Official Information Act. Again, this enabled the usual array of interest groups bent on protecting the status quo in education to howl that the government had something to hide.
And it didn’t help that the politician nominally behind charter schools, associate education minister John Banks, is arguably the most discredited man in Parliament. The more he was kept out of public view the better.

It fell to former ACT president Catherine Isaac, chairwoman of the partnership schools working group, to go to bat for the proposal, which she did coolly and professionally. But she often seemed to be battling alone against a phalanx of well-organised (and largely taxpayer-funded) opponents.
It became almost a textbook example of how to allow the other side to dictate the running. But if the worth of the charter schools proposal can be measured by the sheer fury of the opposition, as I believe it can, then we’re on to a good thing. And if we’re not, monitoring will soon expose any shortcomings.

After all, it’s not as if the entire primary school sector is being handed holus-bolus to a dodgy Las Vegas-based corporation run by men who drive around in stretch limos with tinted windows, even if some of the wilder statements made by charter schools opponents gave that impression.
* * *

PART OF ME sometimes wishes that the Chinese security men who roughed up Greens co-leader Russel Norman outside Parliament a couple of years ago would come back and do the job properly.
There’s something deeply irritating about the way Dr Norman pops up like a hyperactive jack in the box night after night on the television news. He looks so pleased with himself – as well he might, since he’s in the safe position of never having to do anything other than criticise.

He reached a 10 on the irritation scale last week when he crowed that small retail investors – the so-called “mums and dads” – had ended up with a relatively small proportion of shares in Mighty River Power.
The implication was that partial privatisation was all a con, designed to enrich already wealthy institutions and big investors. What Dr Norman failed to mention was that mums and dads had almost certainly been frightened off by fears that the newly announced Labour-Greens electricity policy would render their investment worthless. In other words, what Dr Norman criticised as a political trick by the government was in fact the entirely predictable consequence of his own cynical machinations.

Perversely, the Labour-Greens policy ensured that the big sharemarket players ended up with a disproportionately large slice of the partially privatised company – hardly something for the Left to be proud of.
While I don’t relish the thought of the Greens finding themselves in government, there would be some consolation in the prospect of Dr Norman having his own feet held to the fire for a change.

In the meantime he should realise the public doesn’t have an infinite appetite for tiresome carping. It might be in his interests to dial it back a bit.
* * *

THERE IS a connection, though it may not be obvious, between free breakfasts in schools and police pursuits of rogue drivers.
When police become reluctant to pursue law-breaking drivers for fear of causing a fatal crash, more people are encouraged to try it on. 

In the same way, when parents realise it doesn’t matter if they don’t provide breakfast for their children because the school will, more will decide it’s okay to send the kids off each morning with an empty stomach.
Just as police often get the blame when a fleeing driver wraps his car around a tree, so it will become the government’s fault that children are hungry, even though their parents may have the resources to feed them. Both involve a transfer of moral responsibility.

Child poverty is an appalling thing, but you have to wonder where all this might lead. Once people are relieved of personal responsibility for their actions (or failure to act, as in the case of negligent parents), almost anything becomes possible.