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.