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.