Friday, December 30, 2016

One of those years when the world changed

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, Dec 28.)

There have been a few momentous years in my lifetime. I don’t mean for me personally, although obviously there have been those too.

I’m referring to years when you got a sense that history had suddenly lurched in a different direction; that a new era was starting which would be significantly different from the previous one.

There was 1968. What a turbulent year that was.

America seemed a dangerously unstable place where anything could happen. All the post-war confidence of the Eisenhower and Kennedy presidencies seemed to have evaporated.

There were the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy. It was also the year when public discontent over the Vietnam War (dubbed the living room war because it was played out nightly on the television news) seemed to crystallise. Military setbacks – the Tet Offensive and the siege of Khe Sanh – were a profound shock to a country that was accustomed to winning.

In Chicago, the protest movement flexed its muscles at the infamous Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. To TV viewers watching the vicious police response, it must have seemed the American Dream was disintegrating before their eyes.

But the unrest wasn’t confined to America. Capitalism and authority was under attack throughout the Western world.

In France, student and trade union street protests brought the country to the brink of revolution. Neo-Marxist protest leaders – Daniel Cohn-Bendit (aka Danny the Red) in France and Rudi Dutschke in Germany – became household names worldwide.

The European unrest of 1968 gave birth to urban terrorist groups such as Germany’s Red Army Faction and Italy’s Red Brigades. America’s Symbionese Liberation Army – famous for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patti Hearst – would later emerge from that same ferment of protest and disorder.

The world had to come to grips with the new phenomenon of urban terrorism, fomented by alienated middle-class misfits striking out with extraordinary ferocity against the capitalist society that had nurtured them.

It was profoundly destabilising and continued to unsettle the world throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. In fact you could argue that it was instrumental in shaping the terrorism-attuned world we live in now.

Fast-forward now to 1989, an epochal year in a very different way. That was the year the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet empire began to unravel.

At the time – in fact even now – it scarcely seemed credible that the Soviet Union, which since World War Two had competed with the US for global domination, should collapse with barely a whimper, along with its repressive satellite states. But when challenged by people power, the Soviet bloc, economically exhausted after decades of trying to out-muscle its ideological enemy, had no fight left.

The American political scientist and economist Francis Fukuyama famously wrote that the defeat of Soviet communism represented “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution”. In future, he theorised, capitalism and liberal democracy would prevail unchallenged.

Already that bold prophecy seems to have been, er, a bit premature. America, so ideologically triumphant in 1989, is now weakened by self-doubt. The ascendant power is China – a capitalist country all right, but hardly a liberal democracy.

Russia, meanwhile, is again a force to be reckoned with – just not a communist one. Nonetheless, 1989 was unquestionably a watershed year.

So we come to 2016, and I’m wondering whether it too will turn out to be a year that changed the course of history.

In a June referendum, 52 per cent of Britons voted in favour of leaving the European Union. This was a stunning rejection of a long-established political consensus. Few people saw it coming.

Voting took place against a backdrop of unprecedented immigration levels as Europe absorbed millions of displaced people fleeing insecurity and instability in the Middle East and Africa.

Many commentators simplistically interpreted the referendum result as a racist backlash against immigration and free passage across borders, but the overriding factor was that British people had grown increasingly resentful of control by a remote and unaccountable elite in Brussels. They wanted their country back.

But Brexit was merely the appetiser before an even more cataclysmic political event: the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

This was such a momentous setback for the liberal agenda that the full consequences will take time to absorb. Some of those consequences will almost certainly be ugly, but many people will welcome what they regard as a long-overdue rebalancing in Western politics and culture.

The liberal Left, which has effectively controlled the political agenda in the West for decades, even when nominally conservative parties (such as National here, the Liberals in Australia and the Conservatives in Britain) were in power, is suddenly on the back foot. Political correctness is in retreat.

Some on the Left are hurt and demoralised. Others are buzzing like angry wasps. But they’d better get used to it. The balance of power in world politics has shifted profoundly and the dominant narrative has changed. We’re finishing 2016 a radically different world than when we started. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A good report spoiled

I wonder how much credibility can be attached to the 2016 News Media Ownership Report published by the Auckland University of Technology’s Centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy (JMAD). It contains a lot of useful information and generally gives the impression of being fair and non-partisan – that is, until you get to the section on blogs. Here it states:

“Some of the most well-known blogs in New Zealand include Martyn Bradbury’s The Daily Blog, Russell Brown’s Hard News, David Farrar’s Kiwiblog, The Standard and The Dim-Post. In 2016,, which is a community of New Zealand blogs including Brown’s Hard News, won the Canon Media best blog award. Other nominees for the award were Rosabel Tan’s The Pantograph Punch (culture and arts) and Lizzie Marvelly’s Villainesse which is aimed at young women.”

That’s it. Notice anything missing? Like, for example, Whale Oil?

Last time I checked, Cameron Slater’s right-wing blog was the most widely read in New Zealand. It's certainly the best-known, especially since Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics. But it seems the report’s author, Merja Myllylahti, was worried she might be contaminated by even mentioning it. 

To recycle an old metaphor, writing about New Zealand blogs without mentioning Slater is like driving up the Desert Road and pretending not to see Mt Ruapehu. It’s a shame that an otherwise worthwhile resource should be so ideologically compromised – but it’s consistent with JMAD’s (and AUT’s) pervasive left-wing world view.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

All this cultural appropriation must stop

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 23.)

A couple of weeks ago, I took part in a flagrant act of cultural appropriation. So did several thousand other people.

We watched a Christmas parade. Santa Claus was in it, complete with mock reindeer.
Most of the floats were decorated with Christmas symbols: fake snow, tinsel, stuff like that. A brass band played traditional English carols. 

How did we get away with it? It could only be because the simple provincial folk in the town where I live are ignorant of, or wilfully indifferent to, sensitivities surrounding cultural ownership.

Santa Claus is a figure derived from northern European folklore. What right do we in the remote Southwest Pacific have to place him at the centre of our Christmas celebrations?

Sleighs? Ditto. Christmas trees and holly too.

These are the cultural property of people from distant lands. Those ridiculous fake antlers that shop assistants are made to wear – did we spare a thought for the people of Lapland, for whom reindeer are a taonga? No, we didn’t.

And carols! How dare we sing about Good King Wenceslas or the Holly and the Ivy? What inflated sense of entitlement makes us think we can endlessly plagiarise Silent Night (Austrian) or O Holy Night (French)?

I shamefully admit that I experienced no pangs of conscience as I watched Masterton’s Christmas Parade. Neither, it seemed, did those around me. What a bunch of Philistines.

It was only a couple of days later, listening to an item on Morning Report, that I was forced to confront my cultural arrogance.

It seems someone with an  exquisitely honed sense of appropriateness took offence at the inclusion, in Christchurch’s Christmas Parade, of a float with a Native North American theme. According to Morning Report, the woman complainant thought it was culturally insensitive.

The parade organiser seemed puzzled but unrepentant. She said the float, or similar ones, had featured in the parade for 20 years without a complaint. No disrespect was meant to native Americans. Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?

She added that more than 100,000 people watched the parade and only one objected. Pffft! That just proves they’re all Philistines down Christchurch way too.

That Morning Report item was a wake-up moment for me. I suddenly realised how shamelessly we exploit other cultures.

Big business tries to get away with it all the time. Only three months ago the Disney organisation, stricken by a concerted attack on social media, withdrew a range of merchandise intended to promote its animated film Moana.

The movie, one of whose central characters is the Polynesian demi-god Maui, has been praised for celebrating Polynesian feats of navigation. The producers say they went to great lengths to ensure Pasifika people were happy with the film.

Again I say, pffft! Not far enough, obviously. People objected to the sale of kids’ costumes that reproduced Maui’s tattoos. “Cultural appropriation at its most offensive worst,” said one tweet.

A chastened Disney organisation quickly capitulated. Quite right, too.

But we mustn’t stop there. Cultural appropriation must be vigorously rooted out in all its forms.

All those New Zealand reggae bands, for a start. There’s cultural appropriation right there, big time. Maori object when the haka or the tiki is ripped off, but doesn’t the same principle apply when Maori bands appropriate the music of Jamaica?

And on that subject, who ever said it was culturally acceptable for white musicians to play the blues? Innumerable middle-class Brits (stand up, Eric Clapton) have grown filthy rich ripping off black men’s music. Jazz? The same.

Basketball singlets and baseball caps? Get 'em off. American.

St Patrick’s Day, which New Zealanders use as an excuse to get drunk and pretend to be Irish, is a cultural outrage. Guy Fawkes? English. Halloween? Celtic. They should be abandoned, all of them.

In fact Christmas itself, unless you’re a genuine Christian celebrating Christ’s birth, is a gigantic act of cultural, or at least religious, appropriation.

To those who feebly point out that virtually everything we do – the books we read, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the songs we sing, the language we use – is borrowed from somewhere else, I say: no excuse! It’s all cultural theft and it’s got to stop. The Christchurch complainant has bravely shown us the way forward.

I just hope she’s not planning to serve turkey on Christmas Day. As a North American bird, the turkey has no place on New Zealand dining tables.

Neither should she open a bottle of New Zealand bubbly, an idea stolen from the French. After all, if we’re going to avoid cultural appropriation, we must be consistent.  

Friday, December 23, 2016

A night of inspired weirdness at Ahiaruhe

Sometimes the most rewarding concerts are ones where you go along not quite knowing what to expect. I remember a fabulous night at the Wellington Bluegrass Society’s unprepossessing Petone venue back in the early 90s when we were entertained by a slick Seattle-based, female-dominated alt-country outfit called Ranch Romance. I hadn’t heard of them before and I haven’t heard of them since, but what a performance.

It happened again with Lil’ Band of Gold, a bunch of mellow New Orleans music veterans who played the San Francisco Bath House several years ago. And possibly the greatest concert I ever had the good fortune to attend: Brian Wilson and a cast of thousands (or so it seemed) performing Smile in Wellington. I fretted beforehand that Wilson – my musical hero since 1964, but notoriously erratic – would let me down. I needn’t have worried. When I came out of the theatre I thought seriously about booking a flight to Christchurch to hear it all again the next night.

Conversely, the shows you attend with high expectations sometimes turn out to be a disappointment. Example: Steely Dan at Church Road a few years ago. Nothing will change my view that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are two of the cleverest musicians of the rock era, but live in concert? It was just like hearing their records, but with actual people on stage (and Walter Becker saying “fuck” a lot, which became tedious). Even more of a letdown was Emmylou Harris, who so lacked any stage presence when I saw her in Wellington that the audience hardly noticed when she came on. Mind you, she’s still up there in the galaxy of great country singers.

But I digress. At the latest house concert hosted by Simon Burt and Pip Steel at their rural Wairarapa home last night, the entertainment was provided by the Bend. Never heard of them? Neither had I. But you might recognise some of the individual names. Fane Flaws (guitar), Peter Dasent (keyboards) and Tony Backhouse (bass) have a remarkable collective pedigree that stretches back to Blerta, Spats and the Crocodiles. They’ve been playing together off and on for nearly four decades. On this occasion they were joined by a young (well, younger) drummer named Andrew Gladstone.

Why “the Bend”? Well for a start, it’s an ironic play on the name of a slightly more famous outfit from Canada. The Bend do irony very well. But as Flaws explained, the name was also inspired by a young lady who sidled up to Dasent years ago after a performance somewhere down south and inquired, in classically pinched, nasal Kiwi vowels, “Aren’t you with the bend?”.   

This little anecdote set the tone for a wonderfully entertaining night that was rich in sly, subversive humour but impossible to categorise musically. Think Talking Heads mashed up with Lou Reed and Frank Zappa (or so I was assured by someone more familiar with Zappa than I am) and an occasional hint of the Beatles, and you’re somewhere in the ballpark. At least that was my take on the Bend’s songs, but I admit to not being familiar with the musical territory these guys range over.

The first half of the night was – well, not exactly conventional (the Bend don’t do conventional), but at least there was something recognisable in the repertoire. It was energetic, raw, punkish (but always disciplined) rock and roll. After the interval, however, they spiralled into a different realm altogether – slightly deranged, with elements of cabaret (think 1930s Berlin, but with Fender guitars and a type of humour that you wouldn't encounter anywhere but New Zealand) and a madcap quality that had me thinking Spike Jones.

But here’s the thing: it was astonishingly inventive and (like Spike Jones) musically literate. Dasent (who played on the recent Last Waltz 40th Anniversary Tour, in which New Zealand performers paid tribute to the Band) looks too much like a librarian or mathematician to be in a rock band, but he’s a musician of enormous virtuosity. He’s quietly witty, too, subtly sneaking snatches from the theme tunes for Dr Finlay’s Casebook and The Avengers into a song about watching TV. (At least I think that’s what it was about.)

Backhouse, besides being an impeccably fluent bass player, has one of New Zealand rock music’s most distinctive voices. It has an almost operatic quality. And then there’s the charismatic Flaws, the band’s front man, who played and sang with manic energy. In fact you had to admire the whole band’s energy levels, considering this was their ninth gig in 10 days.

Behind it all, Gladstone, whom I’d guess is a generation behind the rest of the band, fitted seamlessly into all the inspired weirdness – a tragedy in one so young.

A terrific night all round, and a hard act for Simon and Pip to follow.

Friday, December 16, 2016

John Key: the whatever man

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 14.)

I’m forced to admit that I don’t understand my fellow New Zealanders.

John Key was possibly our most popular prime minister in living memory, but even after his eight years in office I struggle to understand his appeal.

People call him charismatic. I must grudgingly accept that he is, although to me he's more enigmatic.

I used to think that a charismatic person was someone whose personality created a force field around them. David Lange in his glory days had that sort of charisma. So did Norman Kirk. Robert Muldoon, too, though in his case the force field was often malevolent.

Key’s appeal, on the other hand, seems to derive from his sheer ordinariness.  He comes across as bland, unexciting, even gauche.

He mangles the English language and has no oratorical skills. But if you accept that charisma means the ability to inspire followers with devotion and enthusiasm, which is the Oxford Dictionary’s definition, then Key certainly has it.

So what, if anything, can we conclude from this apparently unremarkable man’s remarkable popularity?

Perhaps we just have to accept that we’re rather dull people. We don’t like our politicians too mercurial. We prefer them to be one of us.

Perhaps, too, we like a politician who’s happy to make a fool of himself. Key’s participation in juvenile publicity stunts made me cringe, but many New Zealanders seemed to find it endearing. 

Maybe we like him for the same reason we like grey cars. New Zealand is the only country I know where grey is the most popular car colour. Even New Zealanders who buy fabulously expensive cars – Bentleys, Porsches and the like – opt for grey. We’re a grey country.

But of course Key’s façade of ordinariness is misleading, because it’s only what you see that’s ordinary. He rose to the global pinnacle of currency trading, a notoriously unforgiving business where only the sharpest and coolest operators survive, and when his interest shifted to politics he appear to conquer that effortlessly too.

The scholarly Don Brash, whom he deposed as National leader, never stood a chance. Think of the grinning gunfighter (played by Jack Palance) against the hapless sodbuster in the classic Western Shane.

In one sense, Key is similar to Richie McCaw. Like Key, McCaw doesn’t seem over-endowed with personal magnetism. He seemed awkward, unpolished and inarticulate in the public eye, but he was a national hero nonetheless.

We judged McCaw by his results. And to be fair, Key’s performance too, judged on its economic results, was pretty good, even if Bill English was the man doing the hard graft behind the scenes while Key did the smiling and waving.

Not only did New Zealand come through the Global Financial Crisis relatively painlessly, but we performed exceptionally well in world tables measuring prosperity, human rights, health, education and social wellbeing – even the environment. Under Key, New Zealanders felt good about themselves.

Yet you can see why Brash gives him only five out of 10 for his performance. Key balked at the type of radical economic change that Brash thinks we need.  

In that respect too Key was in tune with the national psyche. One of the most perceptive of the post-mortems on his premiership came from the Right-leaning Manawatu Standard columnist Liam Hehir, who wrote that in a doggedly centrist country like ours, Key was about as good a prime minister as any conservative could reasonably hope for.

He may have disappointed conservative ideologues, but as Hehir wrote: “It’s not for politicians to try to sell policies for which there is no demand.” Our political history is strewn with the corpses of radical parties whose policies were rejected as too extreme.

Readers may deduce from the tone of this column that I was not an admirer of John Key as prime minister. I like politicians who stand for something, even if I don’t agree with them, and I never got the sense that Key stood for anything in particular.

At the end of his eight years in office I still couldn’t tell what his innermost values or ideals were, or even whether he had any. The most you could say was that he wanted New Zealand to succeed economically and to be respected – or at least noticed – on the world stage.

I got the sense that he would do whatever was expedient to achieve this. In fact I came to think of him as the “whatever” man, in the sense that he would generally do whatever was politically convenient. Often this meant taking the path of least resistance.

In this regard he was the consummate National Party politician. It has always been a party of pragmatists rather than one driven by ideology.

Now he’s handed the baton to another pragmatist, albeit one who gives the impression of having core conservative values. We don’t know what sort of prime minister English will be, but at least we can expect him to display a bit more gravitas than his predecessor. For that reason alone, I admit I’m relieved that Key is gone. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The road toll statistics they tried to bury

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 9.)

I checked the latest road toll statistics a few days ago. Interesting.

For the year from January 1, road deaths were up from 291 last year to 300. For the 12 months to Tuesday, they were up from 315 to 328.

For driver fatalities, the figures were up from 138 to 151 (for the calendar year to date) and from 146 to 170 (over 12 months)

These are not big increases, but they appear to be more than mere statistical blips.

Even more interesting are some of the figures from a Ministry of Transport booklet called Alcohol and Drugs 2016.

Most of the tables in the booklet pull together figures covering the years 2013-2015 without breaking them down year by year. They reveal that alcohol and/or drugs contributed to 12 per cent of fatal smashes.

This might come as a surprise. Given the official obsession with alcohol as a risk factor (all those checkpoints, all those TV ads, all those earnest lectures from senior police officers every holiday period), I imagine most people would have thought the ratio of deaths attributable to booze must be much higher.

But what especially interested me was whether road deaths involving alcohol had decreased since the legal blood-alcohol limit was lowered on December 1 2014.

This is information of some importance, since the objective of the law change was to reduce the road toll. But you have to turn to page 8 before you find any figures relating to the year after the new limits kicked in.

These reveal that the number of alcohol-affected drivers involved in fatal crashes actually increased from 70 to 90 in the 12 months after the new law came into effect.

This was not what we were led to expect. It is the opposite of what the new limit was intended to achieve, which was to deter people who had been drinking from getting behind the wheel.

Opponents of the law change argued that it would punish safe, law-abiding motorists while hard-core drink-drivers would continue to flout the law with impunity. That appears to be precisely what has happened.

Drink-drive fatalities last year were the highest since 2010. In the 20-24 age group, the number of alcohol-affected male drivers involved in fatal crashes increased from 12 to 22 – that’s nearly double. For men overall, the number was up from 56 to 82.

If the numbers had gone the other way, I’m sure the ministry would have been shouting from the rooftops. As it is, it’s hard to escape the impression the figures were buried. 

We shouldn’t be in the least bit surprised that the law change hasn’t delivered the promised improvement. Control-freak policy-makers and poll-driven politicians refuse to accept that human behaviour can’t conveniently be changed by legislative decree.

That’s also apparent from the anti-smacking law (on average, one child continues to be killed by domestic violence every five weeks while responsible parents risk prosecution for disciplining out-of-control kids with a harmless slap) and from laughably ineffective dog-control rules, which have entered a whole new realm of fantasy with the expectation that owners of dangerous dogs will obtain special high-risk dog owner licences, submit their dogs to good citizenship tests, have their properties inspected and demonstrate they understand their legal obligations.

Yeah, right. Can’t you just see gang members meekly queuing at council offices to fill in the forms and register their blood-flecked pitbulls for obedience training?

Now here’s the key point. Any benefits arising from lower blood-alcohol limits – and so far there don’t seem to be any – should be weighed against the social downsides. As we brace for the annual bout of Christmas finger-wagging, we should ask whether New Zealanders’ enjoyment of life has been unnecessarily diminished just to satisfy the bureaucratic urge to regulate and control.

There’s an economic cost too. Country pubs - the heart of some rural communities - are going out of business and wineries can expect fewer summer visitors because people fret that a harmless tasting will push them over the limit.

Any supposed benefit must also be weighed against the undoubted change in the public attitude toward the police, who are increasingly resented as bullies and harassers - unwilling or unable to attend burglaries, but never short of the numbers to run alcohol checkpoints at all hours of the day, or to hamper law-abiding bar owners in their attempts to run a business, or to make the staging of public events such as wine festivals so onerous that some participating companies decide that it's just not worth the effort any more.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Just shut up and sing, for God's sake

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, November 30.)

Back in the 1990s I attended a rock concert on the Wellington waterfront. The headline act was Carlos Santana, who had burst onto the scene in 1970 with a string of hits that included Evil Ways, Black Magic Woman and Oyo Como Va.

Those records still sound good today. Santana fused Latin and African rhythms with West Coast acid rock, a heady mix that made his early album Abraxas a best-seller. He was a guitar god too, producing arresting solos in a tone that was uniquely his.

Alas, Santana turned out to be a one-trick pony. His Wellington concert revealed a limited repertoire that ran the full gamut from A to B, to borrow a line from Dorothy Parker. The support act, George Thorogood and the Destroyers – exponents of honest, straight-ahead, no-nonsense boogie – were much more entertaining.

I could, at a stretch, have excused Santana for being predictable, but what was unforgiveable about that night’s performance was the frequent verbal interludes in which he insisted on sharing his philosophy, for want of a better word, with his audience. His droning, meandering homilies were even more monotonous than the music.

Santana gave the impression of suffering from some sort of Dalai Lama complex. Perhaps he thought we’d all paid good money to hear his half-baked, New Age theories on how to expand our cosmic consciousness.

Well I hadn’t, and I bet most of the other people there hadn’t either. But being polite New Zealanders, we suffered in silence.

Not for the first time, I wondered about the peculiar conceit that makes rock musicians – and some actors too – imagine that we look to them for inspiration on matters of politics, religion and philosophy.

They are probably encouraged in this delusion by adoring music critics who read profound meaning and insight into even the most banal song lyrics. Bob Dylan, who almost single-handedly intellectualised rock music, has a lot to answer for – although to give him his due, to my knowledge Dylan has generally avoided the trap of delivering sermons to his fans. On the one occasion that I saw him in concert he barely spoke at all.

Some other rock stars, regrettably, seem convinced that the world is vitally interested in their views on political issues; that we lack the gumption to think for ourselves and must wait for their guidance. Step right up, Bono – a man whose name has become synonymous with pompous sanctimony.

John Lennon was another who made the mistake of thinking that being a pop star conferred some sort of moral authority on him. Lennon became a bore from the moment he began using his music to deliver lectures about peace and love.

What made it worse was the sheer hypocrisy. Like many of his ilk, Lennon found it easier to sing about love – as in his puerile hit Imagine – than to demonstrate it in his personal life.

In her 2005 book John, Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, portrayed the former Beatle as cruel and indifferent to her and their son Julian.   She recalled Julian saying: “Dad’s always telling people to love each other, but how come he doesn’t love me?”

The truth, of course, is that most rock and pop musicians are not moral exemplars. Neither do they have any more political or spiritual insight than you or I. But their celebrity status deludes them – and many of their gullible, star-struck fans – into thinking they’re oracles. The media are complicit in this, reporting celebrities’ political views as if they carry special weight.

Politicians have become adept at turning this to their advantage. Just look at the way Hillary Clinton co-opted Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce, Madonna and others in her unsuccessful bid for the White House.

These stars exploit their appeal as singers and musicians in an attempt to exercise influence in a totally unrelated field. This is a misuse of their power, and I lose respect both for the stars and the politicians who indulge in it.

The absurdity becomes evident when you imagine the roles being reversed. Would Springsteen invite Clinton to sing with him? I doubt it. To put it another way, Springsteen has about as much credibility as a political commentator as Clinton would have as a vocalist.

We sometimes see the same thing happening here, albeit on a much more modest scale. The actor Sam Neill and the musicians Don McGlashan and Chris Knox have all thrown their weight behind the Labour Party in past election campaigns.

Usually it’s the left of the political spectrum that benefits (if that’s the right word) from such celebrity endorsements, but there are exceptions. The psychologically unstable rapper Kanye West recently announced during a concert that he would have voted for Donald Trump in the presidential election, had he bothered to vote at all.

For this he was booed, as he deserved to be – not because he supported Trump, but because he assumed his fans were interested in his politics.

In hindsight, we should have booed the tedious Carlos Santana too.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Trumpophobes in the media need to get over it

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 25).

It’s now more than two weeks since Donald Trump became US President-elect, and I’m wondering when the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth (to use a biblical metaphor) is going to stop.

Many commentators in the media, both here and in the US, just don’t seem to get it.

Yes, Trump is a thoroughly unappealing man, but the political narrative was rewritten on November 8. There was a sudden change of scriptwriter. The world has moved on and whether we like it or not, we’d better get used to it.

Unfortunately the US media seem determined to compound the mistake they made during the election campaign, when they were so blinded by their virtuous metropolitan liberalism that they failed to see what was going on around them.

Now, rather than admitting they gravely misread the public mood, they’re further undermining their credibility by attacking American voters for supporting the wrong candidate.

You’d think, when traditional media are struggling for survival in the face of disruptive digital technology, that they would do everything in their power to make themselves more relevant to the lives of ordinary people. Instead they seem intent on accentuating the perception that they are remote and disconnected.

Earlier this week I read a report in the Washington Post – one of the most brazenly biased of the major American papers – that purported to be an account of Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s attendance at the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, where he was pompously lectured from the stage at the end of the show.

The Post’s story was heavily coloured by the reporter’s own opinions and freighted with questionable assumptions. It opened with the sentence: “Mike Pence was elected vice-president by a coalition of mostly white voters nostalgic for what they thought of as the good old days in America and galvanised by promises to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.”

There you have it, right there – the same elitist disdain that was evident in Hillary Clinton’s ill-advised dismissal of Trump supporters as “deplorables”.

Well, even deplorables have a vote, as Clinton discovered. Trump, whatever his shortcomings, pitched his rhetoric directly at the large number of American voters who felt forgotten by the political establishment.

There seems little doubt that these voters felt as poorly served by the news media as they were by mainstream politicians. Trump capitalised on that too.

But rather than step back and critically assess their own performance, the US media elite insist it was the electorate that got it wrong.

There’s a fierce antagonism toward “uneducated” voters who apparently don’t know what’s good for them. This was also evident in the recent rant by the British celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins, who suggested that Britain and America are now uninhabitable following the Brexit vote and the presidential election, and that New Zealand suddenly looks a highly desirable bolthole.

Dawkins explicitly attacked “anti-intellectual” voters. He was just one step away from arguing that plebs shouldn’t be allowed to vote at all.

The irony is that Dawkins and his ilk smugly think of themselves as liberal. In fact their bitterness at the outcome of the election reveals them as deeply intolerant of dissenting opinions – the antithesis of liberalism.

Even now, the US media seem to have learned nothing from the election result. The playwright Arthur Miller’s famous observation that a good newspaper was a nation talking to itself no longer seems to apply. Like the politicians, American journalists have become remote from the people they purportedly serve.

The Washington Post article went on to say that Pence’s attendance at Hamilton – written by a Puerto Rican and starring a multiracial cast – brought him face-to-face with a symbol of “the new America”. It might have been truer to say that like it or not, right now Pence himself is a symbol of the new America, if only the myopic reporter could see it.

Admittedly, the world was dazed by the speed with which the political ground shifted under everyone’s feet with Trump’s election. If political events were measured on the Richter scale, it would have been at least an 8.

But Trumpophobes need to get over it. They need to move beyond anger and denial to acceptance.
A week after Trump’s election, I read a hand-wringing lament by a left-wing New Zealand commentator. What struck me was how pointless and irrelevant it suddenly seemed.

The world had moved on and left the writer stranded on an island of her own outrage. She was shouting "Help!", but the passing ship had already vanished over the horizon.

Friday, November 18, 2016

New Zealand: a bolthole for disillusioned liberals?

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, November 16.)

I see Richard Dawkins, celebrated scientist, atheist and author of The God Delusion, is talking up New Zealand as a possible bolthole for disillusioned liberal refugees from the northern hemisphere.

Dawkins thinks our little country suddenly looks very attractive following Britain’s exit from the European Union and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election.

He suggests New Zealand should seize the opportunity to lure great scientific and artistic minds from America and Britain – “talented, creative people desperate to escape the redneck bigotry of their home countries”.

I’m not entirely sure we should be flattered by Dawkins’ attention. He’s the personification of what is pretentiously termed a “public intellectual” – a towering figure to whom we lesser beings are supposed to look for enlightenment and moral guidance.

But I note that his intellect doesn’t stop him from resorting to simplistic, undergraduate name-calling. What he calls “redneck bigotry”, others would call democracy: ordinary people exercising their right to choose who will govern them.

Most of us accept the outcome of democratic votes even if we don’t always like it. But when voters make choices that people like Dawkins don’t approve of, their arrogance and intolerance is exposed for all to see.

He’s angry that “anti-intellectual voters” should have been allowed to wreak “catastrophe” in the world’s two largest English-speaking democracies. The unmistakeable sub-text here is that in the ideal political system, voting rights would be restricted to the right-thinking intellectual elite. People like Dawkins, in other words.

But never mind – he finds hope of redemption in our remote corner of the Pacific.

Dawkins regards New Zealand as a “deeply civilised” country that cares about the future of the planet, and suggests we should promote ourselves as the Athens of the modern world. Cue visions of a glorious, golden new realm where Trump would become just a nightmarish memory.

We’re on other people’s radar screens too. US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg told the New York Times in July that she couldn’t contemplate America under a President Trump, adding with a rueful smile: “Now it’s time for us to move to New Zealand”.

The actor Billy Crystal is another who visualises New Zealand as a potential sanctuary. Asked for his reaction to Trump’s success on the campaign trail back in April, Crystal said he might consider buying a “nice little ranch” here.  

Of course they would be welcome, but it all suggests a rather idealised vision of New Zealand – one far removed from the reality of a country blighted by some of the same social and economic ills, albeit on a lesser scale, that afflict America and Britain. 

Still, the attention of such luminaries reminds us that we inhabit a very desirable little haven, safely distanced from the world’s pressure points and weeping sores.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Dawkins’ glowing assessment of New Zealand is that it conflicts sharply with the image we have of ourselves.

Day after day the media bombard us with gloomy reminders of all the things we imagine are wrong in God’s Own Country. The picture is of a nation permanently mired in crisis.

There’s a housing crisis and an inequality crisis. The health sector is struggling to cope, our rivers are shamefully polluted and our major cities need huge infrastructural investment.

Our prisons are bulging and we’re not doing anything meaningful to arrest climate change. Our native birds are in danger of extinction. The Maori language is dying and there’s a booze outlet on every corner. Children are going to school hungry and there’s an epidemic of morbid obesity.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Listen to Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report any day and you’re likely to hear a litany of grievances from agenda-pushers and interest groups clamouring for government action (which invariably means money) to ease their grievances.

If you’re easily taken in by alarmist propaganda (and many Morning Report listeners are, judging by the anxious emails they send in to the programme), you could easily get the impression that New Zealand is a country perpetually teetering on the brink of collapse.

It’s both ironic and amusing that it should take an anti-establishment figure like Dawkins, who's generally regarded as a hero of the Left because of his fierce denunciation of religion, to put things in perspective by reminding us how blessed we seem in the eyes of others. 

His sunny assessment is sharply at odds with that of the glass-half-empty New Zealand Left, but it lines up with other views. Only two weeks ago New Zealand topped the Legatum Institute’s worldwide prosperity index, which takes into account not only economic factors but also education, health, personal freedom and the environment. 

We scored especially highly for the strength of our society - a rating that could only have been enhanced by the way communities reacted to this week's earthquakes. 

Sure, there’s always a plethora of things we could be doing a lot better. But we have one of the world’s most stable democracies and we enjoy freedoms and a standard of living that much of the world’s population can only dream of.

We are a civilised, liberal and tolerant society. Dawkins got that bit right – although, speaking personally, I’m not sure our tolerance should extend to pompous, condescending intellectuals who don’t bother to conceal their disdain for people who disagree with them.  

Sunday, November 13, 2016

It's their country

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 11.)

Well, at least Hillary Clinton didn’t get elected. You have to take whatever positives you can get out of the US election result.

Many of Clinton’s supporters seemed to think she deserved to win the contest just because it would make her the first woman president. Sorry, but that’s hardly justification for putting her in the White House.

There will be other female candidates, ideally with fewer skeletons in their closets.

Having said that, I probably would have held my nose and voted for Clinton if I were an American citizen, simply because she seemed marginally the less ghastly of the two options.

But now we’re stuck with President Trump, and the most we can hope for is that somehow, the American polity will find a way of turning him into someone worthy of the most powerful office in the world.

It will be a challenge, but don’t rule it out.

America’s weirdness and excess tend to dominate our perceptions of the country, but we should have faith in the basic decency of its people. As Winston Churchill said, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else”.

I also believe that Americans are fundamentally resilient and optimistic. That’s one of the keys to their economic success.

My wife and I travelled widely in the US during and after the global financial crisis, which knocked the stuffing out of the US economy, and saw no sign that Americans were paralysed or demoralised. They just got on with things.

Similarly, although many Americans might be temporarily stunned by Trump’s election, they will get back on their feet and carry on. That’s what they do.

And who knows? Maybe Trump will undergo a transformation once the mantle of the presidency settles on his shoulders.

The immense responsibility that goes with the office, the weight of history behind it and the great legacy of presidents such as Abe Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, may prevail over his vulgar, hucksterish impulses.

People are capable of rising to the occasion, after all. It’s the reverse of the Peter Principle, which states that people rise to their level of incompetence.

Already, a more moderate, conciliatory Trump has emerged. He felt magnanimous enough in victory to speak kindly of Clinton, although one suspects it would have been a very different story had he lost.

President Obama, similarly, changed gear overnight from attack dog to statesman, extending an olive branch to Trump and offering to do whatever he could to ensure a seamless handover of power.

Perhaps both men understood that the presidency, and the need to maintain stability for the benefit of their fellow Americans, was bigger than either of them.

Perhaps too, as has been suggested, Trump deliberately presented himself as an unreconstructed bogan on the campaign trail just to exploit voter resentment against the political elites, and that he always meant to tone things down if he won. We shall see.

In the meantime, we’re left to scratch our heads over the perversity of the American political system.
This manifested itself in two ways. The first mystery is how a country as enormously rich in human capital could throw up (double meaning intended) two such deeply flawed candidates.

The US is due for a serious national conversation on the shortcomings of the selection process. Some suggest that the reason good people don’t put themselves forward is that the price they would have to pay – the relentless media scrutiny, the character assassination, the viciousness of social media – is just too high.

While they’re about it, perhaps the Americans should also be asking hard questions about the increasing isolation of the professional political class from ordinary working stiffs, just as people are doing in other countries.

The second issue is that the candidate who wins the most votes – in this case, Clinton – can still finish second.

No electoral system delivers results that perfectly mirror the popular vote, but America’s electoral colleges produce more distorted outcomes than most.

Trump got fewer votes than Clinton, yet won 279 of the crucial electoral college seats to her 228. You can imagine the fury of the Trumpeteers if it were the other way around.

One final thought. It seems that virtually every New Zealander has a firm opinion on American politics.  I include myself.

As I wrote in my recent book A Road Tour of American Song Titles, it’s remarkable that so many non-Americans know what’s best for America. But ultimately it’s their country, and their right to conduct their affairs in their own way.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The rise and rise of control-freak government

(This is a slightly extended version of a column first published in The Dominion Post, October 28.)

The ancient Greeks left us several words describing various forms of government: democracy, autocracy and oligarchy, to give just three examples.

But there was one omission, probably because it describes a type of administration that the Greeks never envisaged. For want of a better term, I’ll call it control-freak government.

This is a form of government in which policy-makers, politicians and bureaucrats constantly devise new ways of controlling our behaviour on the pretext that they have to protect us from our own foolishness. Perhaps we could call it a bullyocracy.

Control-freak government is based on the supposition that we’re all basically incapable of making our own responsible decisions. We need paternalistic minders and a suffocating regulatory regime to stop us from getting into trouble.

This busybody culture pervades our lives slowly and insidiously, eventually reaching the point where we become so accustomed to it that we assume it’s the natural order of things and accept restrictions on what we can do without a murmur of complaint.

In the meantime it restricts individual autonomy, erodes personal responsibility and piles needless extra costs on society.

One tiny example: Small-scale cheesemaker Biddy Fraser-Davies recently protested that at least half the $40,000 annual income from her four jersey cows gets swallowed up by government fees.

Fraser-Davies, who farms near Eketahuna, has been hounded for years by food safety officers from the Ministry for Primary Industries. This, incidentally, is the same government department that turns a blind eye to the large-scale, illegal dumping of fish.

Elderly women (Fraser-Davies is 74) are clearly a much more tempting target than big, hairy fishing companies . She says she was recently billed $10,000 for testing 10 of her cheeses and calculates the cost comes to $240 per kilo.

On radio recently, she recalled that after she featured on Country Calendar in 2009, the Food Safety Authority pounced within minutes because it had no record of her having filed a risk management plan. I suppose we should be impressed by the authority’s 24/7 vigilance (it was a Saturday night, after all), but this suggests an almost obsessive level of control-freakery. 

To my knowledge no one ever fell sick or died from eating Fraser-Davies’ cheeses, unless she’s buried the bodies somewhere on her farm.  Perhaps the MPI should send some men to start digging the place up.

To her credit, she refuses to be cowed by the public-sector commissars. This sets her apart from most timid New Zealand business owners, who keep their heads down and meekly comply. Presumably, getting offside with the enforcers is more trouble than it’s worth. 

The MPI justifies its cheese-testing regime because there’s a theoretical risk of harmful pathogens. Eliminating risk can be used to justify all manner of bureaucratic meddling. It’s all part of the grand mission to create a perfect world where Nanny State keeps us all safe.

A priceless example was the edict that went out years ago forbidding brass bands from playing on the backs of trucks. I must have missed the news reports about hapless tuba players toppling from truck decks and being crushed under the wheels while playing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen in Christmas parades.

Perhaps I also missed hearing the anguished cries of builders and roofers plummeting from house rooftops. There must have been an epidemic of such deaths to justify the requirement that safety scaffolding now be erected around the roofs of houses under construction.

I'm told even chimney sweepers are now saying they can’t work without protective scaffolding, which can bump up the cost of the job from $200 to $1000.

It goes without saying there’s an element of risk in many undertakings. The crucial consideration should surely be whether the action taken to minimise risk is proportionate – or, to put it another way, whether the cost of trying to eliminate risk far outweighs any possible benefit.

Compulsory scaffolding around rooftops may have averted a few broken limbs, but at what cost to house owners and home buyers?

The police, too, have been captured by a control-freak mentality. Just look at their heavy-handed enforcement of liquor controls.

Wellington Police have an “alcohol harm reduction officer” (how Big Brother is that?) who gives the impression of being on a moral crusade. And while police numbers are stretched and burglars are able to strike with apparent impunity, there always seem to be enough officers to operate drink-drive checkpoints in the hope of nabbing some harmless mug who’s unwittingly had one glass of sauvignon blanc too many.

It’s another case of low-hanging fruit. Burglars are hard to catch; women on the way home from bowls, not so much.

Speaking of which, I wrote a column in this space roughly a year ago criticising the lower drink-drive limits introduced in 2014, which I predicted would catch out responsible, otherwise law-abiding people while hard-core recidivist drunk drivers would continue to behave as they always had.

I also said I would quite likely get pinged myself, since the new limits had made it much harder to judge when you were at risk of breaking the law.

My column attracted a pompous response from an overpaid poo-bah in the New Zealand Transport Agency. He wrote that there was no such thing as safe drink-driving, thus confirming what I’d suspected: that the objective of the law change was to deter us from drinking altogether.

But here’s the thing: road deaths have increased since drink-drive limits were lowered, from 293 in 2014 to 319 in 2015 and 263 so far this year compared with 253 at this time last year.

It’s a crude measure, admittedly, but it reminds us of what the economist Milton Friedman said about the folly of judging things by their intentions rather than their results.

Of course a few more country pubs have gone out of business in the meantime, because the people who previously socialised in them are terrified of having one too many and getting caught.

But why should the city-dwelling bureaucrats worry?  They never drank in them anyway. And if they go one over the limit at a fashionable Thorndon café, they can just call a cab. Theirs is a different world from the one inhabited by the people whose lives they seek to control.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Ross Bremner and the great mental health experiment

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, October 19).

The American economist Milton Friedman once said it was a great mistake to judge things by their intentions rather than their results. I was reminded of that quote when I read about the tragic series of murders perpetrated by the Waikato man Ross Bremner.

Bremner, you may recall, stabbed his mother to death and left his father critically wounded. He then drove to a remote settlement on Kawhia Harbour where he killed a harmless and helpless elderly couple, apparently at random, before taking his own life.

Obviously, Bremner was very seriously disturbed. He had been treated for schizophrenia at Waikato Hospital. His mother had called mental health services for help only two weeks before she died at his hands.

People who knew Bremner, including a neighbour who had worked in mental health, were worried about what he might do.

Presumably a coroner will investigate the circumstances of the four deaths.  If there was a failure of the system, as seems pretty clear, the people responsible must be held accountable.

In the meantime, we are entitled to ask some questions, such as: why was a man as disturbed as Bremner not in care, for his own wellbeing as well as the safety of others?

That brings me back to Friedman’s quote.  Until the 1980s, mentally ill people in New Zealand were mostly looked after in hospitals. Older readers will remember the names of these institutions: Tokanui, Sunnyside, Lake Alice, Porirua and Kingseat, to name a few.

They tended to be drab, depressing places where patients were managed rather than treated. I know this because my brother-in-law, who was schizophrenic, spent years in Porirua. I also once had an opportunity to observe things from the inside when mental health nurses went on strike and I responded to a call for volunteers to help.

It was an imperfect system, but patients had a roof over their heads, three meals a day and a warm bed to sleep in. They had companionship and nurses to ensure they took their medication. Their families didn’t have to fret constantly about whether they were okay.

Perhaps just as important, the mentally ill were sheltered from the stressful world outside the gates. The word asylum, after all, means a place of shelter and protection.

The nurses and orderlies seemed dedicated and caring and did the best they could in less than ideal circumstances. They were certainly not the stereotype sadists personified by the vindictive Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

But those hospitals no longer exist. Well-meaning reformers decided they were inhumane. Mentally ill people deserved to live independent lives in the community.

This suited the government bean-counters, because it relieved the state of the cost of maintaining all those big institutions with their expansive grounds and endless maintenance demands.

Closing them down and flogging them off also fitted the ideology of the time, which favoured cutting back the state sector. “Community care” was a convenient excuse to spend less on mental health – a perfect confluence of touchy-feely idealism and hard-headed fiscal management.

The transition happened with indecent haste and there were a lot of casualties. As in so many things, we lurched abruptly from one extreme to another. And we still haven’t got it right, as the recent events in the Waikato show.

The reforms worked for some patients, but many ended up living in squalid flats and boarding houses where they were left to fend for themselves. The least fortunate ended up on the streets.

In theory, someone was still supposed to make sure that those living on their own looked after themselves and took their medication. In practice, it doesn’t seem to have worked like that.

Bureaucrats and politicians love to waffle about providing “wrap-around support” for vulnerable people but it’s more preached than practised. Under the mantra of “community care”, the state was able to wash its hands of day-to-day responsibility for the mentally ill while maintaining the pretence that they were living more rewarding, fulfilling lives. 

I know that when my brother-in-law was living independently, he was essentially left to himself. When there was a problem, it was almost impossible to find anyone in “the system” who would take responsibility or even provide information to the family.

Mental health care became highly politicised. The Privacy Act was used not only to keep patients’ families in the dark, but as a shield to prevent scrutiny of the sector and to disguise its failings. 

I remember being angrily heckled by mental health professionals at a conference where I spoke as a journalist about the importance of transparency in the sector. At the time there had been several violent deaths caused by rigid adherence to privacy codes that prevented people from being told about potentially dangerous patients living in the community.

As recent events have reminded us, not all the casualties of the reforms were patients. They included ageing parents who felt forced to provide a home for unstable and often unmanageable adult children. It seems Ross Bremner’s hapless parents fell into this category.

What a dismal way to spend the last years of your life, desperately trying to care for unpredictable and potentially dangerous offspring and unable to get professional help when it was most needed.

Community care remains a good idea in principle. But if judged on its results rather than its intent, it has been, at best, a costly experiment in human terms. The people who died at Ross Bremner’s hands are the latest evidence of that. 

Is Lowell Goddard a victim of post-colonial prejudice?

I wouldn't profess to have a clue what the truth is behind the controversy over Dame Lowell Goddard in Britain, but one thing I do know is that the English don't like having to defer to colonials. In their eyes this is a reversal of the natural order of things.

Rupert Murdoch discovered this when he bought The Times. The English media never forgave the Aussie upstart for taking over one of their most illustrious institutions. Never mind that Murdoch outwitted the unions that had been rorting Fleet Street proprietors for decades, and by doing so, dragged the British newspaper industry into the 20th century.

On another level, you can see this English resentment of colonial success reflected in the way choleric British rugby hacks like Stephen Jones rage over the fact that we routinely humiliate them at the sport they invented. (He was at it again only this week.) 

The English still carry a lot of nationalistic baggage dating from their glory days as a great imperial power, and I can't help wondering whether Goddard is, at least to some extent, a victim of the Poms' unwillingness to accept a New Zealander sitting in judgement on them. 

The snide Times headline 'Disaster from Down Under' was telling. The sub-text was that no good was ever likely to come from hiring someone from a godforsaken colonial outpost to sit in judgment on her cultural superiors. Goddard may have been on a hiding to nothing from the outset.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

If anything, New Zealand Rugby should hail Aaron Smith as a role model

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 14.)

The tut-tutters who clucked their tongues over All Black Aaron Smith’s tryst in an airport toilet must have been startled by the number of voices raised in his defence.

The Mother Grundys were almost outgunned by Smith’s defenders, who recognised that this affair was different in vital respects from other recent furores involving delinquent rugby players.

Public outrage should be reserved for incidents that justify it, such as the vicious assaults perpetrated by the rising rugby star Losi Filipo.

Smith’s airport encounter involved no violence or coercion. As far as we know, the woman was a willing partner.

The incident also differed crucially from the Waikato Chiefs’ end-of-season revelry involving a stripper. Although the stripper appears to have been a consenting party, at least initially, she was a lone woman surrounded by men – big, intimidating men. It was hardly what you would call a level playing field.

So: Smith’s liaison involved no nastiness. And it was one-on-one – a case of two adults indulging in consensual behaviour behind a closed door. A victimless crime, in other words.

There was no public display and the only people entitled to feel offended were the disabled people queuing to use the dunny – except there weren’t any.

What made it unusual was the unconventional venue and the fact that one of the participants was an All Black wearing his touring uniform. This latter aspect might have made it an issue for New Zealand Rugby, but I fail to see how it was the business of anyone else, other than Smith’s unfortunate partner.

If anyone’s behaviour was questionable it was the tell-tale sneaks who, for goodness knows what reason, decided to dob Smith in.

That triggered what has now become a wearisomely familiar ritual in which New Zealand Rugby hit the apology button. Cue “role model” blah blah …. “made a bad decision” blah blah … “let himself down” blah blah.

Give us a break. Is there anyone apart from NZR and its risk-averse spin doctors who take these grovel-fests seriously?

Badly behaved sportsmen are an issue, certainly. The irony is that despite the hullabaloo over his supposed indiscretion, people like Smith are not the problem. He engaged with a female partner on equal terms. For that, you could almost call him a role model.

The Chiefs are another story entirely. There is something deeply disturbing about the dynamics of a group of men panting over a stripper.

I admit I don’t understand the weird pack mentality that makes men want to gang together to see a women get her clothes off. Are they so uncertain of their ability to deal with the opposite sex that the only way they can handle it is in a large group?

That’s how it looks. There’s a group male dynamic which, in its most benign form, manifests itself in Masonic lodges, where blokes band together for … what, exactly? I have no idea, but I suppose it’s harmless enough.

At the uglier end of the spectrum, you get stag parties like the Chiefs’ Mad Monday end-of-season pissup, where drunk males behave like dogs around a bitch on heat.

Take it a step further again, and you get pack rape. It’s all on the same spectrum.

Unattractive as it is, this group dynamic seems to be embedded in New Zealand male sporting culture. In the 2014 documentary The Ground We Won, the Reporoa rugby team celebrated their end of season by hiring a stripper, just like the Chiefs. It was not an unedifying spectacle.

Things are probably even worse across the Tasman, where rugby league players are regularly carpeted by the NRL’s integrity unit (rugby league and integrity - was there ever a more delicious oxymoron?) for gross behaviour at bucks’ nights, the Australian term for stag parties.

When I lived in Australia I was struck by the fact that many of my male workmates’ closest, most intimate relationships were with their male mates. Women were for breeding, cooking and looking after the kids. The less they intruded on the lives of their men, the better. Mercifully, the cult of mateship isn't nearly so marked over here.

And don’t get me started on the baboon Donald Trump. Here’s a man who appears to get a thrill from grabbing women’s private parts, which is something 12-year-old boys do in swimming pools. Most grow out of it, but Trump obviously never did.

There’s something seriously twisted about a man who appears to get pleasure from inflicting discomfort and humiliation on women. But then I suppose you could say much the same about one who enjoys pulling waitresses’ ponytails.