Friday, July 29, 2016

When supposed liberals turn out to be anything but

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, July 27.)

It’s been an extraordinarily turbulent few weeks in international politics.

Two patterns have emerged. The first, which has been much commented on, is that alienated voters are rebelling against the political elites which, for the past couple of decades, have been calling the shots.

People are looking for something new from politicians. For want of a better word, they seem to be looking for some type of authenticity – a sense that politicians actually stand for something, even if it’s not very well articulated.

In the US, this is obvious from the extraordinary groundswell of support for Donald Trump. Trump’s campaign has been based on simplistic slogans rather than clearly defined policies, but they strike a chord with American voters who feel they have been neglected for too long.

Over on the left we saw a similar phenomenon in the unexpected surge of support for the Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders.

In ordinary circumstances the tag “socialist” is the kiss of death to any American politician, but these are not ordinary times. The socialist Sanders was able to mobilise enough of a following to give his rival Hillary Clinton a hell of a fright on her way to the Democratic nomination.

In Britain, the political establishment got a bloodied nose when voters decided, by a margin of 52 to 48, that they wanted out of the European Union. This was another triumph for the “outsiders” in the form of the United Kingdom Independence Party, or Ukip.

Ukip capitalised on a mounting feeling, outside the prosperous bubble that is London, that Britons wanted to regain control of their own country.

Brexiteers were characterised by their opponents as racists who were concerned only about immigration, but there was much more to it than that. The Britons who voted to leave the EU resented being governed from Europe by bureaucrats over whom they had no control.    

The EU originated as an idealistic plan to avoid the risk of another European war, but it has grown to the point where it’s hopelessly out of touch with the people whose interests it supposedly represents. It’s also seen as undermining the autonomy of member countries and restricting their ability to act in their own best interests. 

Speaking of Britain, Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party is further evidence of disenchantment with the political status quo. Corbyn’s a cloth-cap leftie who is not liked by his own MPs, but has the backing of the party grassroots.

He may be unelectable, but people know what he stands for. That counts for something.

Closer to home, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull – a bland, middle-of-the-road pragmatist in the same mould as John Key and David Cameron – called an election in the expectation that he would be returned with a thumping majority and be rid of obstructive individuals who had been making life difficult for him in the Senate.

As it turned out, his coalition government barely squeaked back into power after a cliff-hanger election which saw the opposition Labor Party restored as a political force.

What’s more, Turnbull will have even more contrary mavericks to contend with in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

Turnbull ousted his predecessor Tony Abbott in an opportunist coup (many called it treacherous) last year, but ran a lacklustre campaign and must now be casting anxious glances over his shoulder.

Many commentators have been saying that for all Abbott’s failings, the former PM would have run a far more stirring campaign – one that would have connected with voters in the conservative heartland.

Abbott, like Sanders, Corbyn and Ukip’s Nigel Farage, is a conviction politician rather than one guided by focus groups and highly paid professional strategists. Trump has convinced Americans he’s a conviction politician too, though it’s hard to say.

Another is Pauline Hanson, one of the mavericks elected to the Australian Senate. Hanson is a conservative Queensland politician whose career has been built on her outsider status.

That brings us to the second pattern to emerge from the recent upheavals. It seems that in the eyes of some people, democracy is fine only as long as it delivers the results they want.

Both the EU referendum result and Hanson’s election in Australia triggered ugly, hysterical backlashes, mostly from people who probably think of themselves as liberal.

In Britain, four million bad losers signed a petition demanding that the referendum be held again. This is like the All Blacks losing a test match 48-52 and demanding a replay.

In New Zealand, a loudmouth radio host wrote a newspaper column arguing that people over 65 shouldn’t be entitled to vote (this, because older Brits voted to leave the EU while younger people, many of whom were too lazy to vote, wanted to stay in).

Similarly, the vicious media attacks on Hanson suggest the liberal elites would prefer it if the people who support politicians like Hanson were disenfranchised, presumably because they’re too thick and too redneck to be allowed anywhere near a polling both.

But Hanson’s supporters are as entitled as anyone to vote for whoever they think will best represent them. It’s called democracy.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Is the latest Jagger child a vanity baby?

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, July 22.)

Mick Jagger is becoming a father again, and the first question has to be: Why?

He’ll be 73 when the baby is born. By the time the child gets to the age when he or she might appreciate having an active Dad around, Jagger’s likely to be getting pretty decrepit. He almost certainly won’t have the energy that a child demands and deserves.

If it’s a boy, Jagger will be pushing 80 about the time his son will start wanting to kick a football around or go for bike rides. If it’s a girl, Dad may be too old and infirm to take her to her first school disco (assuming, that is, that she would risk the embarrassment of being seen with a geriatric father).

He’s unlikely to be much help when the poor little rich kid enters the turbulent teenage years. And as a British female academic wrote this week about her own experience of having children with a much older man, there are other risks – such as the ageing father having little patience with a demanding, noisy kid, and of tension over generational differences in attitudes toward child-rearing.

So whose purpose is served by this late-life fatherhood? Not the child’s, I fear.

I’ve heard it said that Jagger’s wife, American ballerina Melanie Hamrick, shouldn’t be denied a child just because she happens to be 43 years younger than her husband.

Perhaps that’s a valid argument. Yet I can’t help wondering whether for Jagger, this will be a vanity baby – a child conceived so that he can enhance his reputation for virility and perpetuate his image as a rocker who defies old age.

He may be afflicted with the same peculiar form of male vanity that led Hugh Hefner, at 82, to marry a woman 60 years his junior. According to one report, Hefner is past the point where he can perform sexually, but appearances must be maintained.

Jagger is a complex personality who inspires mixed emotions among those who know him, but one constant seems to be that Mick comes first.

I recently heard Kim Hill interview American journalist Rich Cohen, who has written what sounds like an interesting and insightful book about the Rolling Stones called The Sun and the Moon and the Rolling Stones.

Cohen said he liked and admired Jagger, but his comments reinforced the impression that the pouting rock god is ruthlessly ambitious and single-minded.

Jagger and his bandmate Keith Richards elbowed the original Stone, guitarist Brian Jones, out of the way when he was seen as an impediment to the band’s success – although to be fair, Jones had become increasingly difficult as he lost control of the group.

Jagger didn’t even attend his old friend’s funeral, claiming contractual commitments forced him to fly to Australia to play Ned Kelly in a woefully misconceived film. But his behaviour was consistent with the Mick-first rule.

Cohen noted that Jagger and Richards were equally hard-nosed in the way they treated their loyal keyboard player Ian Stewart, “the forgotten Rolling Stone”.

They allowed him to be sacked because he didn’t fit the band’s image – and although Stewart continued to play on Stones records, including some of their biggest hits, he was never acknowledged as a member.

With Jagger as CEO of the multi-million dollar business that was the Rolling Stones Incorporated, business trumped loyalty.  

Then there was his 60s girlfriend Marianne Faithfull. In her autobiography she wrote that Jagger didn’t want her acting career to distract people from him. There it is again: Mick first.

The other interesting thing about Jagger is that his entire public life has been a pose. In fact you could say he’s perpetrated the most audacious fraud in the history of pop music.

A white boy from a comfortable middle-class home in the outer suburbs of London, he’s spent his adult life singing in the accent of a black man from the mean streets of America’s urban ghettos.

He’s Dartford, not Detroit. His music career has been one long act of mimicry. But the fans are happy to go along with the illusion.

And here’s another thing. For more than 50 years, the Stones have successfully passed themselves off as working-class rebels and heroes of the 1960s counter-culture when in fact they’re hard-core capitalists, as committed to making money as any multinational corporation.

The cynic in me says good luck to them. But I can’t help feeling sorry for the baby who will be born to a man old enough to be her great-grandfather. Kids deserve better. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

My brush with the music publishing industry

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, July 13.)

It would probably come as a surprise to most people to discover that the song Happy Birthday was not, until recently, public property – not in the United States, at least.

As well as being reputedly the most recognised song in the English language, Happy Birthday is claimed to be one of the most profitable songs ever written, with estimated earnings of $US50 million. Not bad for a simple tune whose composers appear to have made no money from it.

According to Wikipedia, the tune was composed by American sisters Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893, but they never claimed copyright. The Happy Birthday lyrics first appeared in print in 1912 and copyright was eventually registered in 1935 by someone unconnected with the Hill sisters.

Since then the music publishing firm that owns the rights – initially an outfit called the Summy Company, but since 1988 Warner/Chappell Music – has clipped the ticket every time Happy Birthday was performed in public.

Not a bad little earner, by any measurement. The music publishers just sat back and watched the money come in.

The only effort expended would have been in enforcing their rights. You can bet they would have come down heavily on anyone who dared perform Happy Birthday in public without coughing up. Music publishers have a justified reputation for defending their interests ferociously.

But I’m pleased to report this racket has finally been brought to a halt. The makers of a TV documentary about the song sued Warner/Chappell for falsely claiming copyright and won the case.  

I felt a slight tingle of pleasure when I read about the resolution of the Happy Birthday dispute, because I recently had my own little brush with the music publishing industry.

My book A Road Tour of American Song Titles: From Mendocino to Memphis is being launched this week. In it, I visit 24 American towns and cities that are named in the titles of hit songs (By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Is This the Way to Amarillo, Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa – you get the drift).

I write about the towns and about the songs they inspired – who wrote them, who sang them, how well they did in the charts, that sort of thing.

It was always my intention to quote some of the song lyrics. Ha! More fool me. I didn’t allow for the hard-nosed nature of the music copyright business and I certainly didn’t allow for the fees demanded by music publishers.

The companies I dealt with were courteous and obliging, but it soon became clear that I was navigating a minefield.

In some cases, ownership of the songs was disputed and I was warned I would risk dire consequences by quoting as much as a line of the lyrics. In other instances, ownership was shared between multiple companies claiming varying percentages of any royalties, and the process of obtaining permission seemed hellishly complicated.

Even where ownership of songs was straightforward and permission from the publishers would have been forthcoming, their exorbitant royalty demands ruled out quoting any of the lyrics. This applied even if I wanted to quote only a few words.

And the more books I sold, the more money I would have to pay. The music publishers would probably have made more from the book than I would.

Yes, I could have risked quoting the lyrics anyway, but song publishers have a history of mercilessly pursuing transgressors.  

The irony is that anyone can go online and find the lyrics of these songs within seconds without paying a cent. But the moment you put them in a book you become an identifiable target. If you haven’t paid up, the publishers are likely to come after you.

That my book is a celebration of the songs, and might even revive interest in some that were in danger of being forgotten (like Saginaw, Michigan), didn’t seem to count in my favour. It’s all about the “ka-ching!” of the cash register.

In the end I agreed to pay for the right to quote one line from one song – a Creedence Clearwater Revival song about the city of Lodi, California. The chapter about Lodi hinged on that one line and would have made no sense without it.

For the rest, I suggested to my readers that they look the lyrics up online. In any case, many of the songs will be familiar to most pop fans of a certain age.  

Even with Lodi, there was more to it than simply paying up. The music publishers insisted on vetting the relevant pages of my manuscript and demanded three free copies of the book which I imagine will never be opened, still less read.

The whole experience left me with a sour taste. It doesn't seem right that wonderful, timeless songs should end up in the hands of grasping corporates that contribute nothing to the creative process and measure the worth of everything in terms of the dollars generated. But there it is.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The new mantra: if it's technologically possible, it must be done

(First published in The Dominion Post, July 8.)

It’s true then. The world really has gone barking mad.

A recent Washington Post article, republished in the Dominion Post, described the writer's habit of watching films and television shows in fast-forward.

“This has become increasingly easy to do with computers and the time savings are enormous,” Jeff Gao wrote. “Four episodes of a show can fit into an hour.”

He did this, he explained, to make his life more efficient.

At first I thought it must be a spoof – a clever satire on the craze for new ways to “consume” online content.  But reading on, I realised Gao was serious.

He hailed the idea of playing videos at twice the intended speed as an example of “technology-changing story telling”.

Here the obsession with doing whatever’s technologically feasible parts company with reason. People like Gao appear to be afflicted by a strange new personality disorder for which psychiatrists have yet to coin a name.

Watching a good film or TV programme in fast-forward would be like eating your favourite food via a stomach tube that bypasses the taste buds. To put it another way, what’s the bloody point?

But Gao is just one small pointer to where the digital revolution seems to be leading us.

I see the future every week in this paper’s technology page, and I don’t mind admitting it scares the hell out of me. The pace of change is increasing at an exponential rate and no one knows where it will end.

The future of civilisation appears to be in the hands of an industry that’s obsessed with innovation and technological advance for its own sake.

Its mantra seems to be that if something is technologically possible, then it must be done. The men leading us into this brave new world (they’re almost always men) don’t appear to waste too much time thinking about the human consequences of what they do and the type of society that might be created as a result.

Technology writers continue to promote the fallacy that it’s all about making our lives easier. This collides head-on with the day-to-day reality experienced by many technology users who tear their hair out navigating unfriendly websites, familiarising themselves with ever-changing nomenclature, keeping track of a steadily expanding number of passwords (always longer and more complex than the last ones, to protect themselves from the opportunist criminals who infest the online world) and fuming helplessly over “upgrades” that they didn’t ask for and don’t want.

One of the least surprising news items of the year so far was a recent “state of the nation” survey by the Roy Morgan research company which found that 67 per cent of New Zealanders feel so overwhelmed by technology that they complain there are not enough hours in the day.

The solution’s simple, you might think. All they need do is cut back the amount of time they waste on Facebook and Twitter or watching videos on You Tube (I plead guilty to that last one).

But this works only up to a point, because even for those who scorn Facebook and Twitter, there’s no escaping the demands of the digital revolution. There’s no opt-out clause.

For all those people who thrive on newness and innovation, and who love nothing more than fiddling with a new device to find out what it can do, there are others for whom the pressure to constantly adapt to new ways of doing things becomes oppressive.

Trouble is, they’re given little choice. The world is so driven by technology that we’re all expected to fall into line.

Increasingly, people who are not computer-savvy are shut out of access to vital services, including those provided by the government. A computer-shy friend recently received a letter from the Inland Revenue Department querying her tax code and advising her to check on the department’s website – a suggestion that was about as realistic as asking her to recite the Koran from memory in the original Arabic.

The so-called digital divide, which was once merely disadvantageous to non-computer users, now threatens to marginalise and isolate them completely. This is the new reality.

Arguably the most powerful people in today’s world are those who control the giant technology companies. They have more impact on our daily lives than any politician, but unlike politicians they are not accountable to us.

We don’t get to vote for them and have no control over them. We just have to hope like hell that their vision of the future doesn’t turn out to be a dystopian nightmare. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Minto had me fooled

I’ve tended in the past to take a charitable view of John Minto. The worst thing I could find to say about him was that his devotion to left-wing causes was so wide-reaching and so passionate that he had become an almost comical fixture – a caricature – in the political landscape.

In a Dominion Post column in 2012, I wrote that I almost felt sorry for him. “His brain must hurt when he wakes up every morning. So many downtrodden people, so many heartless capitalists, so many injustices – which one will he deal with today?” I described him as a compulsive serial protester and said that images of him addressing rag-tag gatherings with a megaphone were one of the few constants in a chaotic universe.

Beneath this mockery I felt a degree of respect for him. There was no doubting the sincerity of his convictions, or his commitment. Besides, a democratic, pluralist society needs to make room for people of every political shade. There might even have been times when I felt Minto had a valid point to make, even if he did himself no favours by coming across as intense and uncompromisingly dogmatic.

Now I realise I’ve been wrong all this time. What caused me to reassess Minto was a column he wrote for the far-left Daily Blog last week on the result of the Brexit referendum.

It reveals him as an unreconstructed Marxist, which is hardly surprising. He uses the tired, anachronistic rhetoric of class warfare – language that I thought had died with the passing of the People’s Voice.  But more tellingly, it’s the language of malice and hate.

According to Minto, the rich have used neo-liberal economic policies to wage a “relentless war” on the working class. This is a grotesque distortion of economic reforms that have lifted more people out of poverty than at any previous time in human history. I’ve known a few proponents of neo-liberalism over the years and while some of their ideas turned out to be flawed, I can’t think of any who were intent on waging war on the working class.

More often their motivation was precisely the reverse. But Minto thinks the interests of the “working class” (however that’s defined these days) would be better served by … what, exactly? The defining characteristic of Marxist governments everywhere has been brutal repression and hardship, usually accompanied by the creation of a wealthy, personality-cult style of totalitarian leadership that mercilessly crushes dissent.  

Minto goes on to say that the British Conservative and Labour Parties have been complicit in the rogering (my word) of the working-class. That’s hardly a new proposition, but again it’s his language that’s telling. He says the political establishment has been used as a front for the “filthy scheming” of the rich.

This is language calculated to incite hatred. It characterises all “rich” people (however that's defined these days) as rapacious and imputes vile motives to people who in all likelihood never set out to harm or exploit anyone.

It gives us a telling glimpse of the bitterness and malice that lurks beneath Minto’s public image as a compassionate, benign crusader for the downtrodden. He apparently sees no irony in condemning people for whipping up fear and hatred against immigrants while himself indulging in rhetoric that demonises anyone whose world view doesn’t correspond with his own.

He goes on to talk about the “greed and corruption at the heart of capitalism”. Well, no one ever said capitalism’s perfect, but even a casual glance at the countries that lead the world for both prosperity and respect for human rights shows that they are all capitalist economies. Perhaps Minto prefers the Venezuelan model – the latest showcase for the command-style economy that he apparently endorses.

In writing this, I’m indulging in a bit of self-reproach. All these years, I’ve given Minto the benefit of the doubt. Now I realise he’s just as twisted, angry and bigoted as every other sad, thwarted revolutionary.  

Friday, July 1, 2016

Rogue cops negate the good work of their colleagues

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 29.)

How the police trapped the loathsome double murderer Kamal Reddy was brilliant – an example of patient, persistent and determined police work.

Reddy is the Auckland man who cold-bloodedly killed his girlfriend, Pakeeza Yusuf, because she didn’t want him in her life anymore. Then he used a pillow to smother her three-year-old daughter, Jojo, so she wouldn’t talk.

That was in 2006. Reddy buried his two victims under a bridge on Auckland’s North Shore. It wasn’t until seven years later that their disappearance was reported and a missing persons investigation launched.

Reddy was an obvious suspect but would probably have got clean away had the police not sprung an elaborate trap.

It started with a female undercover officer introducing herself to Reddy as a market surveyor and getting him to complete a questionnaire. That progressed to the female cop asking him to fix a car, then to value a vehicle that was purportedly being used as security against a loan.

The next step involved Reddy being introduced to a male undercover officer posing as a gang member, who asked him to do occasional jobs for cash.

From there the unsuspecting killer was gradually drawn into a web. It was so well plotted and so gradual that it would have seemed an entirely natural process.

Bit by bit, his involvement in the supposed gang was stepped up. He became involved in faked crimes.

He was given trial gang membership, then taken to the Bay of Plenty to sell pseudoephedrine. Later he helped destroy evidence handed to the gang by a supposedly crooked police officer in a set-up sexual assault case.

All this careful grooming culminated in Reddy eventually confessing to one of his gang associates that he had committed the two murders.

It must have been a “Gotcha!” moment for the cops. Hollywood scriptwriters could hardly have crafted a more dramatic script.

Reddy has now been jailed for life with a non-parole period of 21 years – a sentence richly deserved for a singularly callous crime.

Justice has been done. It would have been intolerable if Reddy, having not only killed Pakeeza and Jojo but subjected them to the appalling indignity of burying them in a place where they would lie undiscovered for seven years, with nothing to indicate they had ever even existed, had got away with it.

The circumstances were such that any misgivings about police using entrapment techniques were rightly swept aside. If ever there was a case of the end justifying the means, this was it.

It was good public relations for the police, coming at a time when they needed it. The case of Teina Pora, wrongly imprisoned for 20 years for raping and killing Susan Burdet, is a serious blot on their reputation (and also, it must be said, on the reputation of the judicial system which twice found Pora guilty).

The two cases serve as a reminder that the police are an imperfect human institution, capable of bad acts as well as good. 

The conviction of Reddy can stand alongside other examples of outstanding New Zealand police work, one of which must be the capture of the French government terrorists who blew up the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. That remains a textbook example of smart police work.

Against that, there is a disconcerting record of police behaving badly or failing to properly discharge their obligation to uphold the rule of law.

A shocking example of the former emerged only two days after Reddy was sentenced, when the Independent Police Conduct Authority was sharply critical of an Upper Hutt police sergeant and a police dog handler who arrested the wrong man.

Without pausing to verify the identity of the man – who was 24 years older than the suspect the police were looking for and looked nothing like him – the police officers dragged him out of his house, handcuffed him and forced him to the ground. In the process, he was bitten by a police dog.

When his wife protested, one cop yelled at her and called her a “f***** bitch”. All this was witnessed by the man’s four-year-old granddaughter and by neighbours. Ironically, the man was a former police dog handler himself.

On the face of it, this was a case of two arrogant, out-of-control cops pumped up on testosterone and blatantly abusing their power.

The wrongly arrested man called the two officers incompetent and a disgrace to the uniform. No reasonable person could disagree. In fact most people reading the IPCA report would conclude these men were not fit to be police officers.

A police spokesperson told The Dominion Post that “internal employment action” was taken against the miscreant cops but wouldn’t disclose what form that action took.

Does this encourage confidence in the police? Not at all.

The good PR done for the police by the conviction of Reddy would have largely been negated by the actions of these two incompetent bullies. For that reason alone they deserved to be assigned to the lost property office for the rest of their careers.