Friday, December 18, 2015

The challenge of keeping up with new categories of victim

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 16.)
An Auckland signage company recently erected a Christmas billboard that appeared to mock sex-change celebrity Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner. 
Predictably, an outcry followed on social media. The billboard was denounced as “transphobic”. Some of the signage company’s own clients objected, presumably for fear of being condemned as guilty by association (an understandable concern, given social media’s propensity for lynch-mob vindictiveness).

The signage company duly took the billboard down, apologising for its “bad judgment”. A donation of $1000 to a support group for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth accompanied the mea culpa.
This is an increasingly familiar and predictable pattern.  A company with a reputation for pushing the boundaries draws attention to itself with a provocative promotion.  When Twitter and Facebook subsequently erupt in protest, as they seem programmed to do, a backdown and apology usually follow. We’re assured no offence was intended.

But by then the purpose of the promotion has been served: the company has attracted the attention it sought. Its name now registers with people who hadn’t previously heard of it (such as me, in this instance).
Even if the company takes down its billboard (or cancels its ad campaign, or whatever), that in itself is likely to generate more media coverage. Mission accomplished.

Everyone’s a winner. The company gets a higher public profile (for which $1000 might seem a very modest price) and the objectors enjoy the moral satisfaction of having chalked up another victory against bigotry and oppression.
It’s like a ritual dance in which the steps are choreographed well in advance and executed with practised precision.

As you might deduce, I’m sceptical about companies that come up with edgy promotional ideas and then, when the complaints start pouring in, sound surprised and even hurt, insisting that their intentions were innocent. 
Because I’m sceptical, I’m not going to gratify this particular company by identifying it, or by repeating what the billboard said. (I will, however, say that I find it hard to believe the company didn’t know it was risking a backlash.)

But the fact that some companies court controversy with provocative advertisements is only one of two interesting things going on here.
The other is that an ever-increasing proportion of the population identifies itself as an oppressed minority and seems to go through life looking for reasons to feel offended, as the reaction to the billboard demonstrated.

It’s getting to the point where I’m starting to wonder whether the real victims of oppression are the diminishing majority who no longer know what they can say without fear of upsetting someone and being stigmatised as Nazis and bigots.
What makes it harder for this bewildered majority is that the rules keep changing and new categories of victim seem to be created every week.

Language becomes a minefield too – a means of imposing ideological correctness. You use the wrong term at your peril.
While some of us are still familiarising ourselves with the initials LGTB, further permutations keeping popping up, such as LGTBQ (for queer) and LGBTI (for intersex). It’s as if a race is on to define ever more rarefied categories of gender identity.

It seems kids are being dragged into this too. Among those offended by the Caitlyn Jenner billboard was a woman who identified herself in the media as the parent of a nine-year-old transgender boy. She was reported as demanding a face-to-face apology from the signage company – not to her, but to her child.
This is grandstanding, pure and simple. But worse than that, it’s imposing adult concerns (or perhaps neuroses is a better word) on kids whose greatest need is probably to be allowed just to be children. God knows, their lives will get complicated enough as they get older.

I feel sorry for the boy in question, who was identifiable because his mother was named in the media. He’s been dragged into a public debate that he probably doesn’t understand and may have had no desire to be part of.
Let’s accept that there may be genuine cases of transgender children, but I doubt that they’re helped by parents politicising their condition and using it as leverage in a public controversy. But this is what it’s come to.

Defining yourself as a victim has become the thing to do. And as more groups assert their victim status, the mainstream majority finds its rights under increasing attack.
Public policy makers and private corporations have become noticeably twitchy about upsetting vocal minorities. Their response is to whittle away at freedom of speech.

There was a striking example of this in Britain recently when Digital Cinema Media, which handles advertisements for several cinema chains, banned a Church of England advertisement showing people (including the Archbishop of Canterbury) reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The company was worried that the ad, which was to be shown in the week before Christmas, would cause offence to non-Christians.
We haven’t yet encountered such dangerous extremes of timidity in New Zealand, but it’s bound to come.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Mother Grundy authorities won't rest until we're frightened to drink anything at all

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 11.)
I wonder if this will be the summer when I get pinged for exceeding the drink-drive limit.
It’s bound to happen sometime. Like most New Zealanders I enjoy a drink, and we’re coming into the season of Christmas parties, barbecues and leisurely outdoor lunches.

Trouble is, the tougher drink-drive laws introduced last year make it far more difficult than before to judge whether you’re over the limit.
The old limit – 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood – allowed you to enjoy a social occasion without constantly fretting that you might fail a breath test.

This didn’t mean you felt free to get plastered. The central nervous system would start sending warning signals well before you reached the point at which it became unsafe to drive. Responsible drivers – which means most of us – knew when to stop.
The difference now is that you can be as sober as a Mormon bishop and still be over the legal limit.

This is clear from the latest Transport Agency TV advertisement in which a woman, thinking she’s doing the right thing, takes the wheel after a party rather than let her husband drive home.  
She appears unaffected by alcohol. She’s not giggly and her speech isn’t slurred. But a breath test at a police checkpoint says she’s intoxicated.

As her young son watches from the back seat (oh, the shame of it) she’s escorted to a booze bus and processed. The family gets a taxi home because she’s too mortified to phone her parents, even though they live nearby.
The message is that even responsible, law-abiding people risk social disgrace and humiliation by unwittingly exceeding the 50mg limit.

And make no mistake: disgrace and humiliation are crucial to the ad’s impact. Its tone is as primly moralistic as any sermon from a pulpit.
But the scenario is realistic. I know people who found themselves in exactly the same predicament as the woman in the ad after the new law came into effect a year ago.

Immediately the law changed kicked in, police launched a blitz that netted people who had probably never been a danger on the road in their lives. For some it was a traumatic experience, and one that changed their view of the police.
The other unmistakeable, if unstated, message conveyed by the TV ad is that the only way to ensure you don’t fall foul of the law is to avoid alcohol altogether. This is consistent with the alco-phobia promoted over the past decade by police, academics and health authorities.

Yet alcohol has been a central part of our culture for centuries. It’s how we celebrate, how we socialise, how we relax and how we reward ourselves after a hard day or a stressful year.
And here’s another thing. The law change was sold to us on the basis that it would reduce road deaths. Yet the road toll for the Christmas-New Year period immediately after the new limit came into force was more than double that of the previous year.

And that’s how it has continued. When I checked two days ago, the toll so far this year was 293 compared with 271 a year ago.
This presents a slight credibility problem for all those who supported the lower limit on the basis that it would result in safer roads.

Wellington alcohol counsellor Roger Brooking admitted in a recent interview with Tim Fookes on NewstalkZB that the biggest impact of the law change appeared to have been on responsible drivers, who were now being even more careful about their alcohol intake. Serious binge drinkers, on the other hand, appear to be still offending at the same rate.
In other words, the law makers missed their target – just as they so often do (think Sue Bradford's anti-smacking law), and just as critics predicted they would.

This hasn’t stopped the police from continuing to enforce the law with moralistic zeal. Over the summer period, every driver they pull over, for whatever reason and at whatever time of day or night, is likely to be breath tested.
This is oppressive. It will turn more people against the police.

Now ask yourself: Would the woman in the TV commercial have risked an accident had she not been stopped? There’s nothing in the ad to indicate her driving is hazardous or irresponsible, and I suspect that’s true of many drivers who have been fined as a result of the law change.
But this doesn’t matter to the finger-wagging, Mother Grundy authorities, who won’t rest until ordinary New Zealanders are so cowed that they become frightened to drink anything at all.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

In the end, ranking the flag options was easy

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 2.)
I hesitated for a couple of days before casting my vote in the flag referendum last week. I thought it might be too difficult.
I can be a shocking ditherer. Just deciding what to have for breakfast can leave me paralysed with indecision. But as it turned out, when the flag choices were starkly set out in front of me, I made up my mind almost instantly.

I had the advantage of having seen all five flags flying alongside one another only days before. They were flapping in a stiff north-westerly, which is how flags are most often seen in our wind-buffeted country. But I also saw how they looked during lulls in the gale, so was able to assess their merits both under stress and in repose.
I opted for the Kyle Lockwood design featuring the silver fern and the Southern Cross, but with red in the top-left quadrant rather than the black of the other Lockwood design included in the five alternatives.

Is it wise to reveal how I voted? Probably not, given the vehemence of the flag debate. I should probably brace myself for hate mail and death threats.
The intensity of people’s feelings about the referendum has been a surprise. All sorts of strange emotions have been uncorked.

A debate about the flag is all very well, but this one has become overheated to the point of inciting paranoia. On a talkback radio station last week, I heard a caller say he had phoned the Electoral Commission because he was worried that if he placed the figure 1 in the square underneath his favoured design, someone might turn it into a four.
Another caller was convinced that the ballot paper had been designed so as to subtly encourage voters to support John Key’s personal favourite, which was the first option on the left.

It’s almost comically ironic that the country is tearing itself apart over what’s supposed to be a symbol of unity. But since I’ve declared my first preference, I might as well go further and list the order in which I ranked the designs.
My No 2 choice was the black and white silver fern and No 3 was the second Lockwood design. I ranked the koru fourth and the so-called red peak last. If there was a way of showing that I felt the red peak should have been an extremely distant last, I would have so indicated.

Explaining why I voted the way I did is difficult because these things are subjective, but I found the two Lockwood designs aesthetically pleasing and unmistakeably emblematic of New Zealand, which is surely what a flag is supposed to be. This is not to say there may not be better alternatives.
The monochromatic fern I quite liked because it’s simple, clean and emphatic. The koru design, too, is graphically strong and would be instantly recognisable wherever it was flown.

People have attacked some of these designs as resembling corporate logos, but I have yet to see anyone explain what mysterious quality distinguishes a flag from a logo. Neither can I see how the red peak magically avoids the disparaging logo comparison.
A flag, it seems to me, is simply a national logo as opposed to a corporate one. Its essential qualities, surely, are that it should be instantly recognisable and should engender feelings of identification, empathy and pride.

The Lockwood design strikes me as being capable of doing all these things, although it may take time (as it did for Canadians to embrace the maple leaf).
On the other hand, the red peak design fails from every standpoint. But the very fact that it was included in the referendum, at the last minute and largely as a result of a noisy social media campaign, says a lot about how the flag debate has been derailed.

The proposal for a new flag is widely regarded as John Key’s vanity project. It therefore was seen by his opponents as a means of damaging him politically.
Key may poll highly but he’s nonetheless a polarising figure. People who dislike him, and there are plenty of them, have used the flag debate as an opportunity to get at him.

You’d have to say they largely succeeded. The late inclusion of the red peak design was seen as a defeat for Key because he’s known to favour a flag featuring the silver fern.
In other words the issue has been politicised in a way that might not have happened had the change of flag been promoted by someone less polarising.

If the binding referendum in March results in a decisive rejection of the new flag, as seems likely, it could be as much a vote against Key as a statement of support for the present ensign. We won’t know, because the waters have become too muddied.
An opportunity for an emphatic new statement of nationhood may have been lost because the issue has become so politicised.  But at least no one will be able to say it hasn’t been thoroughly debated.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A few thoughts about America

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 27.)
My wife and I just returned from a month in the United States.  These are some of my observations:
■ New York has a reputation as a pushy, every-man-for-himself sort of place. In fact it’s anything but. We lost count of the number of New Yorkers – young and old, male and female, black and white – who noticed us peering at maps and offered assistance. If anything distinguishes Americans from New Zealanders, it’s their readiness to engage with strangers. New Zealanders might have the same impulse to help, but our British reserve holds us back.

■ There can be few more magnificent sights than the Manhattan skyline, viewed from Brooklyn Heights on a still, clear autumn evening. But Brooklyn “Heights”? Come on. It’s just high enough to see over the East River, no more.
■ I can understand, at a stretch, why American switches are upside-down. The rationale is that it’s harder to turn things on by accident. But can there be any plausible explanation as to why American plumbing is so primitive and downright contrary?

■ Americans have an extraordinary tolerance of noise. They talk loudly, they shout a lot (in a friendly way) and they have an ongoing love affair with noisy V8s and those potato-potato-potato Harley-Davidsons. In the Californian town where our son lives, each new day is announced by a symphony of rumbling V8s as people head to work. Manhattan must be one of the noisiest places on earth; those sirens you hear constantly in TV drama series are not some scriptwriter’s invention – they really are part of the city’s soundtrack.
■ You can tell which part of the US you’re in by the vehicles on the roads. In the south and west, the pickup truck is ubiquitous; the Ford F150 has been the best-selling vehicle in the US for 32 years. But you’d be hard-pressed to see any F150s in the cities of northeast, where bikes are more popular these days than Detroit iron.

■ In Washington we stayed in the charming, historic neighbourhood of Georgetown. Henry Kissinger lives here, as did Jackie Kennedy after she was widowed. It’s said that Kissinger once went out to buy some household items and couldn’t find his way home again. When a cop asked him how he could not know where he lived, Kissinger explained that normally his driver took him home. Even if not true, it’s a nice story.
■ Walking through the grounds of Harvard University, I heard a man mention the word “quantum” in conversation as he passed. That’s one stereotype obligingly confirmed.

■ Sometimes the serendipitous discoveries are the most enjoyable. So it was with New York’s Old Town Bar, which we stumbled on in East 18th Street. It gives the impression of being little changed since it opened in 1892, and I wondered whether some of our fellow drinkers were original fixtures too.
■ American food is a problem. It’s not that it’s uniformly awful – far from it. There’s just far too much of it. We all hear about American obesity, but considering the size of the meals served, the marvel is that they’re not even fatter. The other issue is variety, or lack of it. Americans seem to exist on a diet of burgers, chicken, pizza and fries. Oh, and copious quantities of cheese with everything. We have a far wider choice of cuisine here.

■ Best meal? No contest. At Mario Batali’s Eataly in New York (think Petone’s La Bella Italia, then multiply by10) I had a simple lunch of ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta and served with a lemon sauce and pistachios. Superb, and not expensive.
■ On the other hand, you can fall in love with the idea of something and find the reality doesn’t quite match. That was the case with the famous Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station, through whose closed doors we had gazed longingly on a previous visit to New York. Our long-anticipated lunch there was just so-so.

■ Tipping can be a tricky issue when you’re not accustomed to it. Do you tip regardless of how good the service is? If so, how much? I generally tipped about 15 per cent, but I noticed that not all Americans automatically tip, and I was reassured to hear a Boston radio host complaining that he was never entirely sure whether to tip either.
■ Viewed from a passing train, some of the once-great cities of the northeast – Philadelphia, Baltimore, Wilmington – look wretched and moribund. Only the gleaming high-rises of the CBDs give any hint of prosperity. Elsewhere, though, America gives the impression of being one giant construction site. And you can’t repress that natural American optimism, even where buildings are boarded up. It seems to be in their DNA.


Sunday, November 29, 2015

Steve Braunias and the Auckland media priesthood

Back in the early 1980s, I was invited to run a feature-writing course for journalism students at what was then Wellington Polytechnic (now part of Massey University). The three full-time tutors didn’t think they had the requisite experience to teach this form of journalism, and in hindsight I’m not sure I did either. But for six weeks or so, one afternoon a week, I would trudge up to the Polytech and try to pass on to the students what little I had learned about writing feature-length stories.
At the end of the course, the tutors were keen to know which students I thought stood out as potential feature writers. I named two. One, if I recall correctly, was the daughter of the poet Lauris Edmond; the other was Steve Braunias. At the mention of the latter name, the tutors almost literally recoiled in astonishment. They’d written Braunias off as hopeless. In fact he was a classic square peg in a round hole – stubbornly resistant to all attempts to make him write in the formulaic manner required for news stories, but clever and funny when he was freed from stylistic constraints.

Braunias of course went on to become a high-profile writer and satirist and is now feted in literary and media circles. I’m not aware of anyone else on that feature-writing course who has made an impact in journalism. So while I take no credit for Braunias turning out the way he did (if my tutoring had been inspirational, others on the course would presumably have shone too), at least my judgment was vindicated.
I mention this episode because Braunias himself recalled it in a recent interview with an admiring Duncan Greive on the online news and commentary site The Spinoff.  But it’s what Braunias went on to say that interested me. Here’s the relevant passage, from the section of the interview in which Braunias talked about that journalism course:

“I couldn’t tell a news story. I had no nose in news. I didn’t have the hunger for it, or the gall. I just didn’t have what it takes whatsoever. I was just kind of a dimwit.
“The feature writing course, that was appealing and I kind of got saved there in a way. I got first place in the feature writing thing, and it was marked by a guy from the Listener magazine, Karl du Fresne. He became a bit of a shocking, right wing, redneck, reactionary goose. It was a bit of a shame that my saviour was writing opinions so inimical to me, and so awful to read.”

Braunias seems a bit conflicted here. He calls me his saviour, but in the same breath denounces me because of my supposedly loony right-wing views. The way he tells it, I was sagacious enough to recognise his talent, but then something mysterious happened that apparently fried my brain and turned me into a drooling right-wing imbecile. A goose, to be precise. Pardon me, but how does that work?
Let me attempt an explanation. In the circles Braunias moves in, namely the Auckland media priesthood, the only legitimate journalism is that which conforms to a left-wing template. Deviation is heresy and must be countered with scorn and ridicule.

The rationale is that if someone is right wing, it can only be because they’re stupid or nasty or both. (The term redneck, which Braunias used to describe me, unmistakeably implies rank ignorance as well as conservatism.) This is the smug, Pharisaical way in which members of the Auckland media elite dismiss any opinions that don’t concur with their own.  
Braunias is not the only offender and certainly not the worst. Others include Russell Brown – Auckland’s leading prig – and former Listener editor Finlay Macdonald.

My blog in September on the death of Graham Brazier, from Hello Sailor, triggered a frenzy among the left-wing Auckland twitterati, Brown and Macdonald joining the pack with gusto.
I committed the sin of questioning the media’s deification of Brazier and suggested Hello Sailor weren’t the band they were cracked up to be. To the Auckland media elite, this was heresy on a grand scale. But rather than address any of my arguments, they ran the line that I must be thick as well as reactionary. (They were conspicuously silent, surprisingly, on Brazier’s record as an abuser of his female partners, although I’ve no doubt that they all see themselves as staunchly pro-women.)

“Christ he’s an idiot,” tweeted Brown, referring to me. Elsewhere, on his Hard News site, he called me an ass. This is apparently the only way Brown can explain the fact that someone else sees things differently from him.
“Careful, we mustn’t speak ill of the brain dead,” tweeted Macdonald. Giovanni Tiso and Philip Matthews weighed in with similarly puerile jibes, yapping like toy poodles. Braunias chimed in too. All the usual suspects, in other words.

In another Twitter feed, Macdonald called me an asshole. This guy’s the New Zealand head of a major publishing company, for heaven’s sake, and here he was indulging in the digital equivalent of poking his tongue out and making faces, like the leader of a school playground gang.
These people fondly think of themselves as liberals, but in truth they’re anything but. Quite the reverse: they’re bigots whose carefully constructed liberal façade conceals an angry, sneering intolerance of any opinions that conflict with their own. I think they're gutless, too. They share their views with people they know will agree with them, because there’s safety in numbers. They hunt in a pack and compete to come up with the cleverest putdown of anyone they don't like.

And here’s another thing. If the explanation for my deviant, redneck opinions is that I’m too stupid to know any better, should they be mocking me? Wouldn’t it be more consistent with their sanctimonious pseudo-liberalism if they took pity on me? Shouldn’t they, as caring people, be wrapping me in a warm embrace of inclusiveness?

On second thoughts, scratch that. The thought is too frightening to contemplate.


Saturday, November 21, 2015

A cowboy entertains in the Wairarapa

I first came across the name John Egenes in 2013, when I reviewed New Zealand country singer-songwriter Donna Deans’ superb album Tyre Tracks and Broken Hearts. While it was indubitably Deans’ album, Egenes’ fingerprints were all over it too. He not only produced it but wrote one of the songs, played several backing instruments (acoustic guitar, pedal steel guitar, dobro and mandolin) and sang harmony vocals. It turned out that Egenes, who hails from Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a former session musician who now works as a lecturer in contemporary music at the University of Otago.
And there’s a lot more to him than that. Performing last night at the Wairarapa home of Simon Burt and Pip Steele, Egenes revealed a genuine cowboy pedigree. In a former life he worked as a horse trainer and, as a young man, rode a quarter-horse coast-to-coast from California to Virginia. He attends cowboy gatherings in places like Montana (we’re talking real cowboys here, not the kind who are all hat and no horse), has friends on the rodeo circuit and recites cowboy poems. He’s also well-connected in country music circles, casually dropping illustrious names such as Townes van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker. Oh, and he’s a skilled leather worker who makes saddles and carved the beautiful leather cover wrapped around one of the two acoustic guitars he played at last night’s house concert.

Egenes (it’s a Norwegian name, pronounced, as closely as I can approximate it, as eggerness) mostly sings his own songs, accompanying himself with a deft, fluid guitar style that melds traditional Merle Travis-style country picking with a Delta-ish bluesy vibe. They’re charming, laconic, often whimsical songs – many of them ostensibly about cowboys and horses, but with a bit of philosophical depth and sometimes a satirical bite as well. He covers other people’s songs too. His set last night included a laid-back, almost Calypso-ish reworking of the rock and roll standard Sea Cruise – Frankie Ford would hardly have recognised it – and a mellow rendering of the lovely Prairie Lullaby, a song originally popularised in 1932 by Jimmie Rodgers. And while Egenes left his mandolin and pedal steel guitar in Dunedin, he demonstrated the breadth of his skills by playing banjo on several songs; not in a flashy way but in the plain, affecting style that might once have been heard on warm evenings on an Arkansas cotton-picker’s front porch.
This was the last of this year’s series of house concerts hosted by Simon and Pip. They’ve now been going for five years (I wrote about the first one here) and have established a loyal following. Simon has a knack for finding little-known acts worthy of wider exposure, and Egenes (who has recorded several CDs) is no exception.

Friday, November 20, 2015

We don't know how lucky we are

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 18.)
I spent much of the weekend mowing lawns and raking up leaves and other garden debris that had accumulated while my wife and I were on holiday in the United States. The only thing disturbing the peace – that is, once I’d turned the mower off – was the barking of a neighbour’s dog.
Meanwhile, a world away, the residents of Paris were locked indoors, reluctant to venture outside for fear of another terrorist attack. There could hardly have been a more striking reminder of how blessed we are, living in this remote and serene corner of the globe.

We can only hope that people who migrate to New Zealand value and respect the fact that ours is a liberal, humane, inclusive and relatively safe society, and that they commit themselves to helping keep it that way. After all, it’s presumably a key reason why they come here.
Not that we can afford to be smug. We are part of a connected, global society and it’s impossible not to share the anguish and anxiety that the people of France are going through right now. Neither can we disconnect ourselves from international efforts to confront and conquer the menace that is Islamist terrorism.

The Islamic State is a uniquely challenging adversary, especially given that its followers appear to have no fear of death – in fact, embrace the prospect of martyrdom. But the fight against them is our fight too.
The Islamist assault on liberal democratic values – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, women’s equality, the rights of minorities generally – is a threat to us all. We can’t pretend it’s not our concern simply because it hasn’t (yet) directly affected us.

Recent events have sharpened my awareness of other things besides our comfortable isolation in the southwest Pacific. Four weeks in the US reminded me once again how insignificant we are in world affairs.
I heard New Zealand mentioned once in the news media. That was when I was listening to National Public Radio late at night and heard a BBC news bulletin that referred briefly to the pending Rugby World Cup final between the All Blacks and Australia.

Small reminders of home intruded on us in unexpected, random ways. In Boston’s North Side, my wife spied a delivery man wheeling a trolley laden with Yealands Estate wine from Marlborough.
In the same city, I heard Weather With You by Crowded House being played as the background to a radio weather forecast. And twice in public places we heard Lorde’s hit song Royals – once in a Subway outlet in the small town of Tejon, in California’s Central Valley, and again in the same state when we were eating halibut and chips on the deck of a seaside café at Morro Bay (a charming spot, by the way).

People have asked me whether the RWC got any coverage in the US media. Fat chance. Rugby may be the fastest-growing sport in America (albeit off a very low base), but the media were interested only in American football, basketball and baseball.
Even universal sports such as golf and tennis rated barely a mention amid the swathes of coverage devoted to domestic sport, including college (i.e. university) football, which has a huge following. In most of the bars we drank in, massive TV screens were permanently tuned to sports channels showing the three popular codes.

(I love American bars all the same. I like the way people sit at the bar and strike up conversations with their neighbours. And American beer is superb. Thanks to the craft beer revolution, the days when the only options were ghastly mass-produced beers such as Miller and Budweiser – the beers they serve in Hell – are now but a grim memory.)
Americans are equally parochial when it comes to general news. Only the most sensational international events, such as the explosion that brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, elbowed their way into news bulletins. Mostly it was wall-to-wall coverage of the race for the presidency, with endless commentary and analysis of the main contenders.

I was reminded of a comment I heard years ago from a New Zealand educationist who had lived for several years in the US. Many Americans had no interest in the outside world, he said, because America was their world. 
This view is supported by passport statistics. As recently as 1989, only 3 per cent of Americans held passports, although the number has increased greatly over the past 20 years (it’s now closer to 40 per cent, compared to roughly 75 per cent for New Zealanders).

New Zealanders are certainly far more aware than Americans of the outside world. We have to be, because we’re at its mercy in a way bigger, more powerful countries are not.
Our isolation makes us compulsive travellers, hungry for experience of other places. Yet our concerns are often just as parochial as those of the Americans.

After four weeks away, my wife and I returned to a country that was still agonising over the same issue that dominated political debate when we left: the incarceration of people who are technically New Zealand citizens (although they regard themselves as Australians, in many cases having been brought up there) in what Peter Dunne rightly labelled concentration camps.
Australia’s treatment of New Zealand detainees is a disgrace, to be sure, and provides further proof that the supposed Anzac bond is a fallacy. It also demonstrates that by comparison with ours, Australia's penal and judicial processes are harsh and vindictive. They learned well from their former colonial masters.

But to put things in perspective, on a scale of one to 10 Australia's treatment of detainees is a two, or at most a three, compared with what the French were subjected to last weekend.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Questions that demand answers

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 13.)
Urgent questions for our times – the latest in an occasional series:
■ So why do bureaucrats and academics now begin every statement with the word “so”?

■ Four and a half million New Zealanders, four and a half million opinions on the flag?
■ Is it true Wellingtonians are prone to panic attacks if there are no cafes within sight?

■ Why do highly paid government department CEOs (Ray Smith of Corrections, for instance) refuse to be interviewed on current affairs programmes? Shouldn’t it be written into their job description?
■ How hard would it be to pass a law requiring soft drink manufacturers to place a simple symbol on cans and bottles showing how many teaspoonfuls of sugar they contain?

■ Police keep urging us to “drive to the conditions”. So where are they?
■ According to the “One News Now” promotional campaign, we need our news instantaneously. But which is more important – immediacy, or accuracy and depth?

■ Why are there so few women surgeons?
■ Could the answer to the previous question have anything to do with the attitudes of some male surgeons?

Go Set a Watchman – a contender for the 10 worst book titles of all time?
■ Why do smoke alarm batteries wait until the early hours of the morning before announcing that they’re running low?

■ Had enough of the haka?
■ Remember the days when it was touch and go whether your car (usually British) would start in the morning?

■ Are “devices” taking over your life?
■ Why do sports reporters refer to someone winning a “famous” victory only moments after it happened? Doesn’t it take time for something to become famous?

■ Fed up with pointless stickers plastered on every piece of fruit you buy?
■ Why are there so few women chess players?

■ Time to ease off on that hackneyed phrase “the perfect storm”?
■ State houses haven’t changed. The weather hasn’t changed. So how is it that people who live in state houses are suddenly getting sick, supposedly because of mould?

■ Saint Dave Dobbyn?
■ Shouldn’t someone point out to Winston Peters that addressing opponents in parliament as “Sunshine” – presumably channelling Jack Regan of The Sweeney – is just a bit 1970s?

■ Given up trying to keep pace with technology?
■ Solid Energy goes belly-up, at enormous cost in money and lost jobs, and the men who presided over its collapse walk away unscathed – something wrong here?

■ Why are there so few women orchestra conductors?
■ When did photographs become “images”?

■ Big men endlessly lumbering back and forth from one end of a court to another – is there any sport less interesting than basketball?
■ Are there any sociologists who aren’t Marxist?

■ Isn’t it time we dispensed with the tired (and just plain wrong) cliche that it’s every New Zealand boy’s dream to become an All Black?
■ Why do radio and TV interviewers insist on straight “yes” or “no” answers when there may be none?

■ When did we start calling lessons “learnings”?
■ Do people with British accents not see the irony in phoning talkback shows to complain about the number of immigrants?

■ Saint Don McGlashan?
■ Graham Capill, Brian Tamaki, Colin Craig – is there some immutable law that says leaders of socially conservative political parties and pressure groups have to be a bit creepy?

■ That term "social media" – shouldn’t it really be anti-social media?
■ What did New Zealand do to deserve Phil Rudd?

■ When did we start being bored “of” things, rather than with them?
■ Do we make far too much fuss of our poets? I mean, how many people actually read them?

■ Where is this place called New Zelland that John Key keeps talking about?
■ Why do so many left-wing crusaders – Jane Kelsey, John Minto, Professor Doug Sellman – have a desperate, haunted look? Is it because they carry the terrible burden of having to save the world from itself?

■ Is Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy a bit thick, or is that just the impression he gives?
■ Saint Nigel Latta?

■ What does it mean, exactly, when newsreaders say a journalist is “across” the story?
■ In American movies about men suffering a mid-life crisis, why does the main character always drive a Volvo?

■ Why does ACT MP David Seymour keep wearing his little brother’s suits?
■ How do you feel about being described not as a reader, viewer or listener, but as a “consumer of content”?

■ Exactly when did we start pronouncing route to rhyme with out?
■ Would you want Julian Assange as a house guest?

■ Whittaker’s Chocolate has nearly half a million Facebook followers. Why?

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The enigma that is American politics

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 4.)
As you read this, I’m in the United States. It’s a country I’ve visited several times, but it remains an enigma to me.
The people I meet here are friendly, courteous and helpful. I see no trace of the crazy America that we read about in the headlines: the mass shootings, the religious fundamentalism, the overheated patriotism, the rabid political views, the nasty outbursts of apparently racist police violence. I find it hard to reconcile these with the Americans I encounter.

It’s a country of extremes, which is probably inevitable given its turbulent history, diverse populace and tradition of rambunctious individualism. But in between those extremes, there’s a vast mass of ordinary people just trying to get on with their lives – people whose values are not so different from our own.
There’s another striking aspect of the American enigma that’s very much on display right now: its politicians.

This is a dynamic country full of clever, energetic, creative people. Even people who profess to despise America devour its culture.
We read American books, listen to American music, watch American films and television, wear American-inspired clothes, are kept alive by American drugs and rely on American technology. There’s hardly a place on earth that isn’t influenced in some way by America.

So, given the incredibly rich human resources with which it’s blessed, how is it that we see such a dispiriting line-up of candidates for the presidency?
Surely in a nation of 320 million people – the country that accomplished the most audacious feat in history by putting man on the moon – it must be possible to find more inspiring candidates than those whom American voters are currently considering for elevation to the most powerful political office on earth?

The highest-profile Republican contender is a braying braggart with a frighteningly simplistic, one-dimensional world view. If we thought George W Bush was a monstrous practical joke, a President Donald Trump would be an even more tragic mistake.
His pitch for the support of American voters seems to depend on two things. One is his sneering criticism of the other Republican contenders; the other is his reputation as a man untouched by political correctness. In the absence of any coherent policy or vision, these are not convincing credentials for the White House.

What of the leading Democratic contender, then?
Hillary Clinton is the polar opposite of Trump, and not just in ideological terms. While he plays up his status as a maverick, untainted by connections with the Washington establishment, Clinton is the consummate political insider.

She’s capable, intelligent and a seasoned schmoozer. She has a track record as Secretary of State and happens to be one half of the world’s most famous power couple.
Her performance in TV debates, and under the blow torch during a gruelling 11-hour congressional hearing into American deaths in a terrorist attack for which her Republican rivals held her responsible (rather unreasonably, it seems to me), has been polished and assured. She gives the impression she would make a tougher and more decisive president than Barack Obama.

But she has a few skeletons rattling around in her closet and opinion polls suggest many Americans don’t trust her. Besides, the Clintons, like the Bushes, have had their time in the White House. 
Trump and Clinton aside, there’s a supporting cast of lesser presidential hopefuls, consisting of the usual ragtag collection of egotists, misfits, no-hopers and fumblers – proof that ambition and overweening self-confidence can take you a long way in American politics even when there’s a gaping ability deficit.

American TV satirists are never short of material, least of all at election time. Some contenders for the White House seem unprepared for questions on even the most basic policy issues.
You could call this the Sarah Palin Effect. The Republican nominee for vice-president in the 2008 election had never travelled outside America until 2007 and, when questioned, couldn’t name a single newspaper or magazine that she regularly read. This presumably inspired her fellow Americans with the realisation that anyone could run for high office.

It wasn’t always like this. American politics once resounded with soaring, visionary rhetoric.
Consider the speeches of John F Kennedy, bits of which are still routinely quoted more than 50 years after he died. Kennedy may have been a shameless libertine – a man whose alley-cat personal morality was sharply at odds with his virtuous public image – but he knew how to inspire his fellow Americans with words that created a sense of hope and opportunity.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, arguably the greatest US president of the 20th century, had a similar gift. His “fireside chats”, broadcast over the radio, reached into millions of homes and helped carry America through the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Like Kennedy, Roosevelt never talked down to his audience. He spoke eloquently, even loftily, confident that his audience would get his message – and they did.

Somewhere along the line, America has mislaid this element of its political culture. I was reminded of this watching a recent documentary film called The Best of Enemies, which recalled a famous series of cerebral 1968 television debates between the American intellectuals Gore Vidal, on the left, and William F Buckley Jr on the right.
Both the protagonists struck me as thoroughly obnoxious, but the debates, broadcast to coincide with the Democratic and Republican national conventions, fizzed and sparked with vicious but sophisticated humour.

Broadcast in prime time on the ABC network during the presidential primaries, the debates were a surprise ratings hit. It would never happen today – a risk-averse media would dismiss the concept as too highbrow. And even more sadly, the same is true in New Zealand.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Following in the footsteps of Walsh, Skinner and Knox

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 30.)

By now Richard Wagstaff should be settling into his new job as president of the Council of Trade Unions.

He’ll be very conscious of the legacy he’s inherited. His predecessors include Fintan Patrick Walsh, Sir Tom Skinner, Jim Knox and Ken Douglas.

Walsh was the closest New Zealand has come to an American-style labour boss, feared and hated in equal measure.

Skinner was a moderate and a shrewd pragmatist, regarded with suspicion by some of his union brethren for doing deals with National cabinet ministers late at night over a bottle of Scotch.

Knox was a gruff but likeable old-style blue-collar battler, a veteran of the 1951 waterfront confrontation who took over what was then the Federation of Labour at a turbulent time when the ground was rapidly shifting under his feet – sometimes too rapidly for him to keep up.

Douglas, who remains active in public life as a Porirua city councillor, was an avowed Marxist who had the misfortune to preside over a movement that was fracturing under the strain of change, and who was accused – unfairly, I believe – of selling out in his efforts to hold things together.

Each was a household name in his day, and a power in the land. Wagstaff is neither, and has little chance of becoming one unless things change radically.

He takes over the leadership of a union movement greatly weakened by economic upheaval and labour law reform, but in many ways also greatly improved.

In the days of compulsory union membership, which ended under Jim Bolger’s National government in 1991, New Zealand was one of the most highly unionised economies in the world.

But while the law guaranteed massive membership, it meant that unions were under no pressure to prove their worth. The result was a plethora of small, weak unions with lazy officials who collected members’ fees but didn’t do much else.

Paradoxical though it may seem, compulsory unionism wasn’t viewed favourably by hard-core, militant unions such as the seamen’s, freezing workers’ and watersiders’ unions. They saw the movement as being weakened by all those thousands of shop and office workers with no commitment to working-class solidarity and no interest in fighting the class war.

It’s a very different picture now. Unions represent only about 17 per cent of the labour force, but give the impression of being far more responsive to their members’ needs. They have to be, or they won’t survive.

The odd little craft unions that once occupied every dusty nook and cranny of the Wellington Trades Hall vanished long ago as industries were restructured – or in some cases wiped out – and unions merged.

Simultaneously, union power has shifted from traditional blue-collar industries to the white-collar sector. Deregulation, economic reform and technological upheaval have destroyed the power bases of once-formidable unions in industries such as freezing works and car assembly plants.

These days it’s public sector unions such as the teachers’ and nurses’ organisations, mostly dominated by women, that have the big numbers. It’s enough to make grizzled old wharfies and boilermakers weep.

One thing hasn’t changed, though, and that’s the need for well-organised, effective unions. If anything, they have become more important since the reforms of the 90s tilted the industrial balance of power back in favour of employers.

Workers can’t rely on the state to protect their interests. That was demonstrated at Pike River and in the forestry industry, where the CTU successfully prosecuted employers over workplace deaths after Workplace New Zealand declined to take action. Taking bad employers to court isn’t high on the government’s priority list. 

Zero-hours contracts are another example of vulnerable workers needing someone to stand up for them.

The big problem for the unions is that people have long memories. Many of us vividly remember the 1970s and early 80s, when the economy was constantly sabotaged by bloody-minded industrial disruption.
That ensured there was precious little public sympathy for the unions when National stripped them of their power.

But back to Wagstaff. He seems personable, approachable and articulate, like his immediate predecessors Helen Kelly and Ross Wilson.

That’s a good start. The union leaders of earlier generations were often furtive and hostile toward the media, whom they regarded as the tools of the ruling class.

It’s different now. Public relations is an essential part of the tool kit of the modern trade unionist as the movement struggles to win back public respect.

It’s a work in progress, as they say.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Surprising as it may seem, I don't approve of Hager's rights being violated either

I’ve been out of the country for the past three weeks so have only just learned, via political scientist Bryce Edwards’ online political roundup, of the furore surrounding Westpac’s release to the police, without a court order, of private information relating to Nicky Hager.

Edwards details the angry reaction, from both left and right, to the bank’s compliance with the police request, which was reported by the New Zealand Herald.

From what I’ve read, that outrage is entirely justified. The episode confirms that Hager has been justified in sounding the alarm about surveillance and invasion of privacy. We are altogether too apathetic in assuming that agencies such as the police and the GCSB - not to mention corporates such as Westpac - will protect our rights and interests as citizens.

But having trawled through media comment on the issue, Edwards goes on to make a peculiar statement. He seems to suggest that because I wrote a column back in July arguing that Hager is not a journalist in the commonly understood definition of the word, I might not share the media concern about the apparent overriding of his right to privacy by the police and Westpac.

Not so. It’s one thing to dispute Hager’s claim to be a journalist; quite another to approve of the police delving into his private affairs without first having to satisfy a court that it’s justified.  In fact I see no connection. Objecting to the way Hager's rights have been violated has nothing to do with whether he’s a journalist. The police action, and Westpac’s apparent complicity, would be just as obnoxious if he were a gravedigger or hairdresser.

As Edwards acknowledges, I said in my July column that Hager does some important work. I wrote that he could teach journalists a few things about uncovering information that powerful people would prefer to keep hidden. I also said his books made an important contribution to informed debate on issues such as state surveillance and honesty in government.

I stand by all that. My concerns about Hager are essentially twofold: first, that he uses the label “journalist”, with all its connotations of even-handedness and impartiality, to disguise his true purpose, which is that of an ideological crusader; and second, that the publication of his Dirty Politics book was carefully timed to coincide with a general election, in the clear hope that it would cause maximum political damage. But neither of those concerns could be construed as endorsement of any disregard for his rights or violation of his privacy.

I do, however, share Cameron Slater’s view that the reaction to the latest disclosures exposes a gaping double standard. Where was the media outrage when Slater’s email account was hacked?

There’s a difference, of course, in that this time it’s an agency of the state that’s digging into someone’s personal affairs. That’s infinitely more alarming than the actions of a rogue private hacker. But Slater is right to point out that the hacker, Rawshark, largely escaped media condemnation - as did Hager, who used the information Rawshark obtained.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The dubbed laughter says it all

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 21.)

I found myself watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory the other night. It was the first time I’d seen it in years.

I enjoyed this show when it was fresh, innovative and smart. It was a clever but gentle spoof of nerd culture (or should that be geek culture? I’ve never been entirely sure of the difference).

The characters were appealingly quirky, the personal dynamics between them were rich with comedic possibilities and the dialogue was rapier-sharp.

But that was seven or eight years ago. Now the show is tired and predictable, and the dubbed laughter seems to have to grown steadily louder and more intrusive as if to compensate for the laboured script and lack of humour.

Wikipedia says The Big Bang Theory is filmed in front of a live audience, but I don’t believe it. The laugh track not only sounds dubbed, but crudely dubbed at that.

The four central characters were once believable as academically brilliant but socially dysfunctional bachelors with neurotic family backgrounds. Now they’re in their 40s and it stretches credulity that Leonard and Sheldon are still flatting together and obsessing over childish science-fiction and fantasy movies and TV programmes.

I watched for only 10 minutes or so, which was long enough to confirm that The Big Bang Theory in 2015 is running on empty.

This is an all-too familiar trajectory with American TV comedies. They start out witty and exhilarating and deservedly attract a big audience. But the viewers don’t seem to notice when the show ceases to be witty and exhilarating, so the host network keeps it going – and going, and going. Eventually it becomes a sad parody of itself.

This doesn’t always happen, mind you. The Simpsons, which made its debut in 1989, has lasted better than most and still displays occasional traces of the wickedly subversive humour that made it such a ground-breaker. It has become the longest-running prime-time show in American television history.

But we’ve seen the pattern with other programmes. M*A*S*H, Happy Days and Cheers all kept wheezing on long after their glory years were behind them.

You learn to recognise the warning signs when a show starts to lose momentum. Big-name guest stars begin turning up. There are flashbacks to previous episodes and excursions out of the studio to exotic locations for visual interest – anything to keep the viewers interested once the scriptwriters start running out of ideas.  

In the recent Big Bang Theory episode that I watched, the four characters were on a road trip to Mexico. Par for the course.

I also note from Wikipedia that the frequency of cameo appearances by guest stars, from physicist Stephen Hawking to astronaut Buzz Aldrin, seems to have increased as the show has aged. Even The Simpsons has frequently resorted to celebrity guests.

Another warning sign is that shows eventually lose their sharp edge and lapse into sentimental schlock. This was tragically true of M*A*S*H, which in its heyday broke barriers with its mordant satirical dialogue.

In the case of Happy Days, the desperate quest for novel story lines led to the coining of a phrase – “jumping the shark” – that captures the moment when a programme loses whatever credibility it might still have enjoyed.    

It happened in the premiere of the show’s fifth series, in which the character Fonzie jumped over a shark on water skis. Significantly, that episode contained another telltale sign of a programme in decline: the characters were on a trip to Los Angeles, far from the usual setting of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

To be fair, Happy Days continued for another six seasons. But “jumping the shark” entered the language as a metaphor for any gimmick that stretches credibility to breaking point.

The Americans could learn something from the British here: quit while you’re ahead. Or to use another old showbiz cliché, keep ’em wanting more.

Fawlty Towers, a series so popular that snatches of dialogue (“Don’t mention the war”) have entered popular usage, ran for only 12 episodes – just two series of six programmes.

The scriptwriters, John Cleese and his then wife (and co-star) Connie Booth, resisted pressure to extend the show to a third series. They realised there was a point at which the idea would wear thin.

As a result, viewers never got a chance to grow tired of the programme. Quite the opposite: people are still enjoying it 40 years later.

The producers of The Office followed the example of Fawlty Towers by making only two six-episode series. Both shows now enjoy a status similar to that of a rare vintage wine.

What’s mystifying is why people keep watching American shows long after they have lost their spark.

I can only speculate that there’s a segment of the population that’s comfortable with whatever’s familiar and predictable, and that can’t be bothered making the effort to get their heads around something new and challenging. They’re probably the same people who enjoy eating at McDonald’s because they always know exactly what they’re going to be served.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A light-bulb moment in Arkaroola

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 16.)

Years ago, I watched a rugby league test on TV in a remote tourist spot in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia.
The match was between the Kiwis and the Wallabies and I suspect I was the only New Zealander among the 20 or so people in the TV lounge.
When the Kiwis scored, I couldn’t help letting out a triumphant whoop. It was probably not a smart thing to do.
Feeling a roomful of eyes boring into me, I explained, almost apologetically, that there was an enemy in their midst. Whereupon a fat, red-faced Aussie male in a rugby league shirt snarled: “You Kiwis are like bloody poofters. There’s always one of you in the room.”
It was said without a trace of humour. I was so taken aback that I couldn’t think of a suitable riposte, although a few occurred to me later. (Isn’t that always the way?)
That he felt no constraint about using a term such as “bloody poofters”, thereby confirming himself as a social Neanderthal, was telling in itself. An uncouth Aussie is infinitely more uncouth than the most uncouth New Zealander. It’s possibly the only sphere in which they consistently out-perform us. 
Long before that night, I had realised that Australians and New Zealanders were fundamentally different in their culture and outlook. Working in Melbourne in the early 1970s I often wondered, when I drank with my workmates in the pub, whether we even spoke the same language. 
My colleagues were friendly enough – the women a lot more so than the men – but there was always a sense of distance between us. I was left in no doubt that I was an outsider.
I got better on better with the Poms in the Melbourne Herald newsroom, probably because they were outsiders too. What’s more, they seemed more civilised.
But that night in the Arkaroola Resort and Wilderness Sanctuary (a beautiful place, by the way) was what you might call a light-bulb moment. It was only then that it dawned on me that a lot of Australians actually don’t like us.
This isn’t true of all Australians, of course. Many regard us with genuine affection.
But if you examine the history of the relationship between the two countries, you can’t help but be extremely sceptical about the mythology that surrounds it.
The attitude of most Australian politicians toward New Zealand isn’t far removed from that of the slob in the TV lounge. They tolerate us as long as they have to, and they make friendly noises when it suits them. They’re always ready to invoke the sentimental Anzac bond.
But if New Zealand gets in their way, they don’t hesitate to squash us. At best, they’re indifferent to us; at worst, they treat us with contempt.
This has been demonstrated once again by the controversy over New Zealanders awaiting deportation in Australian detention centres. Our mates in Canberra couldn’t have sent a clearer signal about the value they place on the trans-Tasman relationship.
Predictably, there was the usual nauseating Australian hypocrisy. Interviewed on Morning Report, a Queensland senator who championed the hard line on deportation said: “We love our cousins across the ditch, but …”
With Australia, there’s always a big “but”.  
We shouldn’t be surprised, because we’ve seen this time and time again. Remember Laurie Brereton, the minister in Paul Keating’s government who unilaterally cancelled an aviation agreement with New Zealand and imperiously advised his counterpart in Wellington by fax? Par for the course.
More recently, John Howard gave Helen Clark what one political reporter called the Mafia option – in other words, made her an offer she couldn’t refuse – when the Australians changed the rules relating to New Zealanders living there.  
Clark is no pushover, but her negotiating strength was zero. Howard knew that and took full advantage of it, as is the Australian way. They’re the biggest boys in the playground and they know it.
Don’t expect anything to change because of new Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s professed admiration for John Key. The Key government’s meekly submissive posture on the deportation issue has signalled to Canberra that it will be business as usual.
One thing has changed, however, and quite strikingly. The angry public and media reaction to the detention camp outrage suggests New Zealanders have belatedly woken up to the fact that for decades, Australia has been playing us for suckers.
This message may not yet have got through to our politicians, who continue to defer to the bullies in Canberra out of sheer habit. But it will

Friday, October 9, 2015

The strangely liberating experience of receiving money you haven't earned

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 7.)
I recently passed a personal milestone. I became a superannuitant.
This entitles me to a Super Gold card and all the public transport perks that go with it.

A friend of mine, obviously with far too much time on his hands, worked out that I could travel from my home in the Wairarapa to Waiheke Island for $49.
This would involve catching an off-peak train to Wellington, getting on a bus to Wellington Airport – all for nothing – then catching a cheap Jetstar flight to Auckland.

From Auckland Airport I could catch a bus free of charge to the downtown terminal, from where it would be a short walk to catch a ferry – again, at no cost – to Waiheke. The only cost to me would be the $49 Jetstar ticket.
All very interesting (and thank you Winston Peters), but what my friend failed to explain is why I should want to go to Waiheke in the first place.

I’ve been there and while it’s very pretty, I got the distinct impression that the principal objective of Waiheke islanders is to relieve mainlanders of as much of their money as possible in the shortest time available, and often without so much as a smile. (Old Chinese proverb:  If you find it difficult to smile, do not open a shop.) 
Putting all that aside, turning 65 does seem a life-changing event. A sum of money mysteriously turns up in my bank account every fortnight without my having done anything to earn it.

This a novel and strangely liberating experience. It means that for the first time in my life, if I were prepared to live frugally, I could possibly get by without working.
I don't intend to dwell here on the affordability issue, but my view, for what it’s worth, has long been that the age of entitlement for national super should be progressively raised, given that people are living and working longer. Of course I would say that, having reached 65 myself.

I certainly intend to go on working while I can. But I also think there’s merit in the idea that people whose bodies are worn out after a lifetime of hard physical work should be allowed to retire earlier than 65 in return for a lower super payment.

As to whether superannuation should be means-tested, as it is in Australia, I’m not so sure.
The problem with that idea is that it penalises people who have made provision for their retirement by saving. This usually means denying themselves things they might otherwise have enjoyed.

Conversely, means testing could have the perverse effect of incentivising people not to save or acquire assets, knowing that the state will look after them. So, on balance: no, it would send the wrong signals. Slackers could be rewarded and the diligent penalised. What sort of message is that?
But never mind the big policy questions. Having reached 65 myself, I face a far more immediate personal dilemma – one that confronts almost every person of my age.
Do we carefully try to conserve whatever we’ve managed to save, keeping a tight rein on spending in the knowledge that we might need it to supplement national superannuation well into the future, or do we make the best of whatever time we’ve got?

Put more bluntly, should we scrimp or live it up?
The complicating factor is that none of us know how much time we have left. Over the past few years I have seen too many friends and relations – people of roughly my own age – get sick and die.

Only recently a friend and former colleague went into hospital for what should have been routine surgery. Unforeseen complications developed, as a result of which she died weeks later.
She and her recently retired husband were still active and looking toward to a full and rewarding life together. Almost overnight, everything changed.

Such stories are all too common. Inevitably, they encourage a fatalistic belief that we should live for today because we don’t know how many tomorrows we’ve got.
Certainly, friends of mine who have survived life-threatening illnesses are in no doubt that we should make the most of life while we can.

It doesn’t help when we read “expert” assessments of how much we need to live comfortably in retirement. The sums I often see quoted are wildly unrealistic for most people. They can be hardly be blamed if they give a helpless shrug and ask themselves why they should bother even trying. 
At the other end of the scale I see anxious letters to financial advice columns from people who have accumulated very substantial savings and are plainly terrified that they might end their lives in penury.

This tends to confirm my long-held view that the more money you’ve got, the more you’re likely to fret that it isn’t enough.
Fortunately we’re not presented with a stark choice between living a monastic existence of self-denial or going on a mad spending spree for fear that we might fall under a bus tomorrow. As with so many things in life, it’s a matter of balance and moderation.

There’s a sensible middle course and that’s the one I intend to take, if I’m allowed to by whatever mysterious forces control my life. It may mean forgoing a visit to Waiheke Island, but I can live with that.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

At least he's consistently barmy

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 2.)
Jeremy Corbyn, the recently elected leader of the British Labour Party, has been described as a throwback to 1970s-style socialism. He even looks like one, his face being adorned with what one commentator described as a 1960s political beard.  
You could describe him as the accidental leader. When his name was put forward, few people took his bid seriously.

His 32 years in Parliament were distinguished only by his record of voting against his own party whenever it deviated from cloth-cap leftist orthodoxy.
But the trade unions got behind him, party activists signed up tens of thousands of new members – mostly young, earnest and radical – and before you could hum the first bar of The Red Flag, Corbyn was the new leader.

I blame Tony Blair. Corbyn’s prospects must have been enormously enhanced the moment Blair warned the party against electing him.
The former Labour prime minister is widely despised, and deservedly so – not just for getting involved in the Iraq war on spurious grounds, but for his fondness for hobnobbing with people like the odious Silvio Berlusconi and his shameless money-grubbing since leaving Downing Street.

The term Blairite, which once stood for a “third way” between the extremes of doctrinaire socialism and ruthless capitalism, is now toxic – so much so that Blair’s disapproval of Corbyn must have virtually ensured his success.
The new leader certainly didn’t win the contest on the basis of his charisma. He’s a dreary grey Marxist. Even Labour insiders say his election has set the party back years.

For all that, I can understand why Labour members decided to give Corbyn a go. He stands for something.
His ideas might be barmy, but they seem sincerely held. What’s more, he appears to have been consistently barmy for more than three decades. As far as we can tell, he hasn’t wavered from his principles.

In other words, he personifies the politics of conviction – a rare phenomenon in an era when politics is largely driven by focus groups, PR spin, the news cycle and opinion polls.
Unfortunately for Corbyn, this otherwise admirable quality is likely to be useless as a vote-winner.

Conviction politics tends to be a dead-end street. Just look at the Green Party, apparently doomed forever to languish on the political fringes (although commentators have recently detected a diluting of its ideological purity), or Act at the other end of the political spectrum – a party grimly hanging on thanks to a dodgy electoral accommodation with National.
Look too at the hapless Tony Abbott, a conviction politician but a disastrously inept one.

Successful politicians are those who take a pragmatic centre line, such as John Key.
We don’t have a clue what Key’s values are. He’s never really told us.

Does he have a non-negotiable bottom line on anything? I couldn’t say. Does he have any fire in his belly? Not that we’ve seen.
Norman Kirk had fire in his belly. So did David Lange and even Robert Muldoon, although in Muldoon’s case the flames were often dark and malevolent.

But not Key. He represents a breed of bland centrist politicians who tack in whichever direction is expedient.
On some crucial issues – gay marriage, parental smacking – he jettisoned traditional values that a centre-right party such as National might have been expected to uphold. But he got away with it, and he’s won three elections in a row.

His admirer Malcolm Turnbull, the new Australian prime minister, seems cast in a similar mould, as does Britain’s bloodless David Cameron.
Barack Obama’s idealistic supporters in 2008 thought he was a conviction politician, but in office he has disappointed them. That’s politics for you.

What’s interesting now is that the main threat to Hillary Clinton’s bid to win the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency, which until recently was thought a sure thing, seems to be coming from a little-known Vermont senator named Bernie Sanders.
Clinton is a conviction politician only in the sense that she’s convinced of her entitlement to office. Sanders, on the other hand, is a genuine conviction politician and that rarest of creatures, an American socialist.

Both Sanders and Corbyn have gained traction partly because of a growing public distaste for entrenched political elites (which has given Donald Trump momentum too), but also because of a growing perception – and not just on the left – that capitalism has been hijacked by the greedy ultra-rich.
They won’t win, of course. But at least they remind us of what politics used to be about.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Gary McCormick on Hello Sailor

After the Dominion Post and Christchurch Press published my column on Graham Brazier and Hello Sailor, broadcaster Gary McCormick contacted me. Gary knew the guys from Hello Sailor well and wanted to explain the band’s appeal. He submitted a letter to both papers but neither published it, so I’m happy to post it here.
Karl du Fresne, in his column about the amount of media attention given to the funeral of Hello Sailor’s Graham Brazier and prior to that, of Dave McArtney two years ago, raises some very good questions.
Why the media attention for the deaths of members of a rock band which Dave McArtney himself said failed at the critical moments?

They did not have the success that Dragon had in Australia and their trip to the US was a disaster. So why the outpouring of grief at both funerals at St Mathew’s Church and the substantial media interest?
Karl refers to the drug use which was big among New Zealand musicians at the time and asked, “What’s admirable about alcohol or drug addiction that wrecks people’s lives?”

Good question.
Hello Sailor’ s Gutter Black, written by Dave McArtney, was an anthem of defiance which struck a pose against the background of the rigid, conformist  New Zealand of the Muldoon years.

Blue Lady and I’m a Texan reinforced an exhilarating sense (to the rest of us living in small town New Zealand) that here was a band ….  that didn’t care ! From their boots to their loud Pacifica shirts, they were the spirit of summer.  They represented danger, Ponsonby-by-Night (at a time when any young person who had the opportunity would have lived there) and they were loved by women in the best rock band tradition.
Dragon and a few other bands had the same mana, but Hello Sailor seemed to be around more often and were more accessible to party-goers from Whangarei to Invercargill.

So, to answer Karl du Fresne’s question: Hello Sailor had the songs for Kiwi rockers that beautifully represented a time and a spirit . They personified and wrote about a  Ponsonby, Gisborne,  New Plymouth, Timaru and Invercargill  Kiwi-style “Summer of Love”!
The second reason for the public outpouring of grief was the individuals – Graham and Dave themselves.  Both flawed, Karl noted, as are we all.

Graham had the serious flaws – all born out of anxiety. Impossibly good-looking and in the early days, afraid to sing at all. He had an enormous talent as a songwriter – Billy Bold and Blue Lady – and a huge stage presence, but was riddled by doubt.
For someone of his vulnerability and personality type, drugs were the obvious solution (read Amy Winehouse.)

Graham’s excesses (and there were some spectacular public ones) were a part of the battle with himself. His friends completely understood that and helped time after time to clear up the collateral damage.
He had a lot of friends because if you had one relaxed funny conversation with Graham, the memory of it stays with you for a lifetime. He was a lovely, troubled guy.

Dave McArtney was Graham’s twin, in my opinion. He loved Graham and backed him. They were like two soldiers on patrol. It was a brand of loyalty and understanding that the All Blacks can only dream about!
Thus the media coverage of both “rock funerals” was not out of order. Paul Simon wrote a song in which he says “every generation throws a hero up the rock charts.”

Dave and Graham were ours.