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.