Friday, September 23, 2016

Being sincerely motivated doesn't make it right

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

The International Film Festival has done the rounds of the provinces for another year. Normally I would seize the chance to binge on movies of the type that don’t usually make it to the town where I live, but this year I managed to see only one: a New Zealand documentary called The 5th Eye.

You’ll be familiar with the subject matter. The three central characters sabotaged a satellite dish at the Waihopai electronic spy facility in 2008.

They were a distinctly unworldly trio, driven by their fervent commitment to a Catholic peace movement called Swords into Ploughshares.  

The Waihopai Three were convinced that innocent people were dying – in Iraq, especially – as a result of Waihopai’s inclusion in an international network of Western spy bases operating under an alliance known as Five Eyes.  

The saboteurs used this as justification for slashing an inflatable plastic dome with a sickle. According to the government, the repair bill came to $1.2 million

Using the Waihopai saboteurs as its anchor point, The 5th Eye built an elaborate case implicating New Zealand in a sinister international conspiracy to spy on people and to use the information obtained to kill and wage unjust war – all in the political and economic interests of America.

It’s a skilfully crafted propaganda film that owes a lot to the techniques of the left-wing American documentary maker Michael Moore.  

I suspect I was a minority of one in the audience. While most of the people around me obviously saw the Waihopai Three as heroes, I regarded the men as zealots, so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that they considered themselves above the law.

But here’s an admission: I came away with a more charitable view of the saboteurs.  I had always accepted that they were sincerely motivated. What I wasn’t prepared for was that they were such a likeable bunch of bumblers. There was something almost endearing in the amateurish way they went about their act of vandalism.

I’ve no doubt that their religious motivation, their implacable belief that they were doing God’s work and their disarming candour helped persuade a jury to acquit them of burglary and wilful damage charges.

At the time, the verdict made no sense. The satellite dish had been vandalised and they admitted they were responsible. How could they possibly get off? They admitted they expected to go to jail. Around the court it became known as the “No-hopai” case.

But the dynamics of the court room can produce strange outcomes. The quiet conviction of the men’s testimony and the passionate advocacy of their defence counsel resulted in the jury accepting the novel argument that because the men believed the satellite dish was the cause of human suffering, their action was lawful.

As far as I know, they have never paid any penalty for what Helen Clark, who was prime minister at the time, accurately described as an act of criminal vandalism.

Where The 5th Eye succeeds as a piece of propaganda is that having captured the audience’s sympathy for these religiously motivated men, it uses that sympathy to provide a platform for a parade of familiar left-wing activists – Nicky Hager, Murray Horton, John Minto, Laila Harre, Keith Locke, Jane Kelsey, even Julian Assange – whose objectives are strictly ideological and political rather than spiritual.

I got the unsettling feeling that the three protagonists had been exploited in the pursuit of a more secular agenda – anti-West, anti-capitalism – than the one they perhaps had in mind.

I also noted that while The 5th Eye played heavily on claims that the Five Eyes alliance kills innocent people, it was silent on the flip side of that argument – namely, that electronic surveillance is a means of thwarting terrorist acts. These kill innocent people too.

Am I saying we should trust the government and its intelligence agencies always to act in our best interests on matters of security and surveillance? Not at all. Their record is decidedly dodgy, as the documentary makes clear – but I’m suspicious of the motives of their left-wing critics too.

In any case, for me the film ultimately fails on a very basic premise. Being sincerely motivated doesn’t entitle people to take the law into their own hands.

Let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that people who feel strongly about abortion (as many do) used that belief as justification to burn down an abortion clinic. The left – the same people who have anointed the Waihopai saboteurs as heroes – would be incandescent with rage. But what’s the difference?

That remains the problem with the Waihopai Three. For all their apparent humility, there remains an underlying conceit that their beliefs, presumably being sanctioned by God (at least in their minds) entitle them to do whatever they think is right.

But civil society can function only if people respect democratic institutions and the rule of law. If they don’t like the status quo, there’s a way to change things: via the ballot box. 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Men behaving badly

(First published in the Dominion Post, September 16.)

I’ve never cared much for David Cunliffe, but I felt some sympathy for him back in 2014 when, as Labour Party leader, he made his apology for being a man.

Cunliffe copped a lot of stick for that. According to some commentators, the howls of condemnation were a factor in Labour’s decision to dump him as leader.

But really, what was so wrong about what he said? Cunliffe was talking about sexual abuse and family violence, which he correctly described as being overwhelmingly perpetrated by men. He talked about the “deep-seated sexism” still prevalent in New Zealand.

Okay, he may have been trying to ingratiate himself with the feminist lobby. But if he was saying that he sometimes felt ashamed when he saw how other men behaved … well, I do, too.

Example one: Bill Cosby. He could have occupied a place of honour in American entertainment history as the first black male to play a leading role in a prime-time TV series (I Spy). Instead he will be remembered for accusations that he was a serial sexual assaulter of attractive young women.

The evidence against Cosby is compelling. He thought those women were fair game and relied on his star appeal to draw them into his web.

Example two: Roger Ailes.  Ailes, the former boss of Fox News, is a fat old man. It’s hard to imagine any woman finding him sexually attractive. But he’s a powerful fat old man, and he used his power to try to get women into bed with him.

Ailes pressed news anchor Gretchen Carlson to have sex with him and when she refused, he sabotaged her career. He called her a man-hater who needed to learn how to “get on with the boys”.  But the former Miss America bit back and Ailes ended up being fired by Fox News, which paid Carlson $US20 million (a preposterous sum, but that’s America for you) in compensation.

Example three: The Chiefs. The Hamilton-based Super Rugby team would surely recognise the phrase “getting on with the boys”. Being one of the boys is a familiar phenomenon in male sport. It’s an excuse for never having to grow up and for boorish behaviour under the guise of a primitive ritual known as male bonding.

The Chiefs were being boys when they had their “Mad Monday” at Okoroire Springs Hotel and invited a stripper whom they allegedly pawed and sexually propositioned.

You probably thought, as I did, that rugby players acting like dogs on heat were something from the 1970s. Apparently not.

Mind you, Scarlette the stripper isn’t blameless. In fact she’s part of the problem. By buying into that leering, blokey male culture, she encourages men to regard women as playthings for their pleasure. 

You have to wonder where the past few decades have gone. Feminism was supposed to make men aware of women’s right to be treated with respect, but somewhere along the line things went badly askew.

Which brings me to example four: The infamous Roast Busters. Bad behaviour by older men might be explained as the result of lingering attitudes from an era when people knew no better, but here were male teenagers from middle-class Auckland suburbs playing out the same ugly old pattern.

Oh, I almost forgot Colin Craig. If evidence in recent defamation proceedings is to be believed, even gawky, supposedly pious family men can’t help pressing their attentions on women when the adrenalin of politics gives them delusions of sexual irresistibility.

The sense of male sexual entitlement is endemic. Many of us know of women who have been raped and remained silent. They may not have been bashed into submission, but they were raped nonetheless.

In a newspaper column earlier this year, the singer Lizzie Marvelly graphically described the sexual harassment she had endured from men in the music business. She said it was like a cancer in the industry.

I admit I don’t understand this. What possible pleasure can a man get from having sex with a woman who makes it plain she doesn’t want it and isn’t enjoying it?

If sex is supposed to be about the mutual giving of pleasure between consenting partners, then sex as a result of coercion isn’t sex at all. The feminists are right on this point: it’s really about men enjoying power over women.

So yes, when I read about sexual predators, I’m ashamed too. I may not be responsible for what these men did, but that doesn’t stop me feeling tarnished by association.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The futile quest to identify pop music's greatest year

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, September 7.)

There seems to be some sort of contest underway to determine the most significant year in the history of pop music. Over the past year or so, several music writers have submitted their nominations.

For Andrew Grant Jackson, it was 1965. The American writer’s book 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music fastens onto the Beatles’ album Rubber Soul, the Rolling Stones’ hit (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and the Dylan album Highway 61 Revisited, on which His Royal Bobness, realising that pop stars had much more fun than earnest folkies, re-invented himself.  

British writer Jon Savage opts for the year that followed. In 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, he examines the significance of the milestone Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds, the emergence of New York proto-punk band the Velvet Underground and the powerful influence of drugs, notably LSD, on pop music.

Now we jump to 1971. Another British writer, David Hepworth, suggests this was the year when the pop music era ended and the rock era began, although the distinction is entirely artificial.


In Never a Dull Moment: 1971 The Year that Rock Exploded (note the nod to Savage’s title) Hepworth bases his case, less than persuasively, on a series of unconnected developments: Don McLean’s American Pie, David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Rod Stewart’s Maggie May and Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Good luck finding any commonality in that lot.


Now someone named James Woodall has got in on the act. In the British magazine The Spectator, Woodall makes a case for 1976, pronouncing that it “left a more multifarious pop and rock legacy than any year I can think of”.


Again, his reasoning his less than convincing. Certainly, 1976 was the year of the Sex Pistols, when the primitive thrashings of punk challenged the increasingly bombastic excesses of mainstream rock, but that’s about it.


Other than that, Woodall can justify his choice only on the basis that several singers – Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Dylan and Bowie – produced records in 1976 that became his personal favourites. That doesn't make it a watershed year for anyone other than him. 


What emerges from all this is that it’s possible to choose almost any year since the start of the rock and roll era (however that’s defined – I’ll come back to that later) and argue, on the basis of a few cherry-picked examples, that it was some sort of milestone.


In any case, I read somewhere recently – I think it may have been in Flying Nun Records founder Roger Shepherd’s entertaining book In Love with These Times – that everyone is convinced the music of their own youth is the greatest of all time, and I think that’s probably true.


The teenage years tend to be the time when music leaves its deepest imprint because emotions are intense at that stage of our lives and we’re at our most impressionable.


As it happens, I too would mount a vigorous case for 1965 or 1966 (my own teenage years) as the greatest years in pop music, although probably not for the same reasons as Jackson and Savage. It was a time when pop music was not only reaching new heights of sophistication, but branching off into multiple new directions. 

But even I can't be emphatic. Which was the greater Beatles album: Rubber Soul or Revolver, which came out the following year? My answer tends to depend on whichever one I'm listening to at the time. And anyway, what about Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was issued in 1967 and arguably represents the apotheosis of pop creativity? 

The truth is, no one can say with pontifical certainty that there was a single greatest year. 

I suspect an element of commercial opportunism behind the current spate of pop histories. Particularly among affluent baby boomers, there’s a hunger for nostalgia about pop culture and a desire to revisit their glory years.


It’s also apparent that there’s some convenient historical reinvention going on. Music writers are very good at retrospectively reading profound significance into historical events and making them fit whatever cultural narrative happens to be fashionable.


The emergence of the Velvet Underground, for instance, is reverentially treated as a development of almost biblical significance, although it went virtually unnoticed at the time other than by the arty New York elite. Even now the band remains essentially a cultish fascination, worshipped for reasons that have little to do with music.


Besides, all these books bypass what were arguably the most significant years of all: the years when rock and roll came into being. That’s probably because the precise origins of the genre are hard to pinpoint.


Conventional wisdom has it that it all began in 1955 with Rock Around the Clock, by Bill Haley and his Comets, but this is where it gets complicated.


Haley wasn’t really a true rock and roller; his background was in country music. His band was originally known as Bill Haley and the Saddlemen. 

Contrary to popular belief, Shake, Rattle and Roll (1954) was Haley's first rock and roll hit. Rock Around the Clock was first recorded in the same year and went to No 1 only after it featured on the soundtrack of the 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle

Was it genuine rock and roll? Most musicologists accept that it was, but to my ears Haley’s hits owed more to the black jazz genre known as jump blues.


I would argue that it wasn’t until Elvis Presley stormed the charts in 1956 with Heartbreak Hotel that what we now recognise unmistakeably as rock and roll penetrated the commercial mainstream. But even then, Tutti Frutti by the wild black rocker Little Richard beat Presley to the punch by several months.


In any case, rock and roll wasn’t new. Black audiences had been listening to similar music for years. All Presley did was make it palatable to white ears.


For the true source of rock and roll, you have to go back at least as far as 1951 – to Rocket 88, by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (who were, in reality, Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm) – and even further. As I wrote in my recent book A Road Tour of American Song Titles, I defy anyone to listen to the young Fats Domino singing The Fat Man in 1949 and tell me it’s not rock and roll.


But no one, to my knowledge, has written a book devoted to 1951, and still less 1949, as the defining year of rock and roll. Could it be that we’re still perpetuating the cultural conceit that it was a white invention? 

Monday, September 5, 2016

The angels who looked after my brother

(First published in The Dominion Post, September 2.)

The world recently watched as exceptional people did extraordinary things at the Rio Olympics, but over the past weeks I’ve been reminded that exceptional people do extraordinary things every day right here in our own backyard.

My much-loved brother Justin died last week from cancer. He died as he would have wanted – at home on the Kapiti Coast, surrounded by people he loved.

This wouldn’t have been possible without the dedicated efforts of nurses from the Mary Potter Hospice and the community health service.

Twice every day in the last weeks of Justin’s life, these angels – there’s no other word for them – called at the house to ensure everything possible was done to make him comfortable.

They worked quietly and efficiently, all the while talking to Justin, even after he had lapsed into a coma. There was no trace of that slightly patronising tone nurses are sometimes criticised for adopting toward their patients. They addressed him as they might an old friend, always using his name.

It was inspirational to observe the gentle and loving way the nurses treated him, as I’m sure they do all the people they care for.

Most of us would regard looking after the dying as emotionally challenging work. It’s not a vocation to which all nurses would be suited. But it must have its own rewards, just as some admirable people get satisfaction from caring for the severely disabled and the mentally ill. We are collectively in the debt of these largely unsung heroes and heroines.

Certainly, having Justin at home made all the difference to the family, because it meant he was never alone.

We made sure there was no sepulchral silence in the house. That wouldn’t have been right, because he was a man who loved talk and laughter and was comforted by the sound of it.

To have had Justin end his life in the sterile atmosphere of a hospital, surrounded by beeping monitors, would have been unthinkable.  He had seen enough of hospitals over the previous few months. After his last stay, all he wanted was to go home.

Not so long ago, none of this would have been possible. I recall, about 35 years ago, interviewing a British doctor who came to New Zealand as an evangelist for the hospice movement.

He was like a visitor from another planet. The Mary Potter Hospice, named after a visionary Catholic nun, was then just getting started and the idea of specialist palliative care for the dying was still quite novel. I wonder how many people’s deaths have been made immeasurably easier since then, both physically and emotionally, by hospice care.

And it’s not just professional caregivers who make this possible. Only a few weeks ago another family member, on my wife’s side, died in the Mary Potter Hospice in Newtown.

On our visits we saw how heavily the hospice depends on volunteers. It was hard to distinguish these unpaid helpers from the professionals, since they exhibited the same level of devotion and commitment.

More than once, I watched as volunteers displayed endless patience with a confused and agitated elderly male patient – exceptional people doing extraordinary things, although that’s probably not how they see themselves.  

On a completely different level, on the day after my brother’s funeral this week my wife and I saw evidence of “ordinary” people – in this case, teachers – also making a difference.

Our grandson starts at Newlands Intermediate School next year and because his mother had a conflicting commitment, we took him to an orientation morning at the school.

Everything about it was a revelation. There was a contagious buzz about the school: a sense that the kids were there not because they had to be, but because they wanted to be.

Toby, the boy who showed us around, was articulate, confident and knowledgeable, but even more striking was his obvious pride in the school and his pleasure in being able to show it to others. 
As we wandered around, I felt privileged to be observing the New Zealand of the future in the making.

It will be a very different country from the one I grew up in. For a start, a very high proportion of the pupils are not of Anglo-Saxon origin. But there was an unmistakeable sense of inclusiveness. These were kids who were clearly very comfortable in each other’s company, despite widely varying cultural backgrounds.

Such things don’t happen by accident. The buzz must originate from the principal and teachers, who have created an educational environment where kids seem to feel happy, confident and eager to learn.

I came away with a feeling of optimism and a fresh appreciation of good things happening largely unnoticed right under our noses.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Bradford's memory lapse

Sue Bradford was on Radio NZ's Morning Report today lamenting the fact that New Zealand had no left-wing think tanks. Has she forgotten the universities?