Monday, March 26, 2018

The wondrous randomness of New Zealand highway signs

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

I wonder if the people who design highway signs ever put themselves in the position of travellers unfamiliar with New Zealand. Judging by the evidence, I doubt it.

Sometimes the most obvious destinations are omitted from highway signs in favour of places that only a few people are likely to be going to. It all seems weirdly random and illogical.

Travelling north on SH50 through inland Hawke’s Bay, for instance, there are signs pointing to Napier and Taihape. But how many motorists on that road are likely to be going to Taihape?

Bugger all, I’d guess. The lightly travelled road from SH50 to Taihape isn’t even gazetted as a state highway. Motorists on SH50 are far more likely to be ultimately bound for Taupo or Gisborne, but these destinations don’t show up on highway signs until you reach Napier.

By that time I bet a lot of travellers have stopped to check the map just to make sure they’re on the right road. (Yes, I know people have GPS, but who trusts it?)

Equally odd are prominent signs pointing to tiny places like Ongaonga and Tikokino while ignoring major destinations. Most people going to Onga or Tiko, as the locals call them, know where they are and don’t need to be told how to get there.

Some signs lead you on tantalisingly, then mysteriously stop. You’re driving into an unfamiliar city, say, and following the arrows to the city centre, when pfft! Suddenly the arrows aren’t there anymore.  I experienced this recently in Tauranga.

At this point you’re on your own; it’s pure guesswork from here. Perhaps this is the signage guys’ way of amusing themselves.

And don’t get me started on roundabouts. Even on SH1 there are roundabouts where you search in vain for a recognisable place name on the signs as you approach. It’s only when you’re halfway around that you see what you’re looking for, often at knee-height and half-concealed in shrubbery.

Then there are the useless signs that appear only after you’ve exited the roundabout, by which time you’ve committed yourself. Tough luck if the place names aren’t those of the towns you want to go to.

An expat New Zealander on a recent visit back home admitted being bamboozled as he navigated the roundabouts on the SH1 Taupo bypass for the first time.

His main complaint was that the complicated schematics were impossible to decipher in the few seconds available as he approached. More than once he completed a full circuit of the roundabout before figuring out which exit he was supposed to take.

I bet this also happens regularly to people unfamiliar with the SH2 interchanges in the Hutt Valley.

I’ve been tricked myself into taking the wrong exit on the Taupo bypass. Yet driving overseas, I’ve rarely taken a wrong turning. Do our traffic engineers observe the way things are done elsewhere, or are they determined to re-invent the wheel?

My expat informant also noted that when approaching intersections with multiple lanes, there was often no overhead signage to indicate which lane he needed to be in.  The only markings were painted on the road – not very helpful when they were obscured by vehicles in front.

This is a person who drives tens of thousands of kilometres a year on American freeways. If this can happen to an experienced driver who knows New Zealand well, how do strangers fare?

Do staff of the New Zealand Transport Agency, or whatever it’s called this week, ever drive the length of the country with travellers from overseas, or imagine themselves in the position of someone unfamiliar with our geography? 

Somehow I doubt it. Perhaps they should give it a try.

And while I’m on the subject of road signage, how many times do you see temporary speed restrictions in force, ostensibly because of road works, when there’s not only no work being done, but no sign of any having been done in the recent past? Could there be any better way of encouraging people to treat speed signs with contempt? 

Perhaps we should try the American approach.  There, they don’t automatically impose arbitrary speed restrictions when roadworks are underway.

You’re more likely to see a big sign warning that if your car hits a road worker you face a $200,000 fine and/or two years in the slammer. So if no one’s working, you’re free to proceed at a sensible speed.

This puts the onus on drivers to be careful without subjecting them to unnecessary speed limits that encourage disregard for the law. It all seems eminently logical, so don’t expect to see it here.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The snarling and hissing of the illiberal Left

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 9.)
It’s hard to imagine now, but censorship was a cause celebre in the 1960s and 70s.

The banning or restriction of movies, books and even records was never far from the headlines. Post-war liberalism was colliding head-on with traditional morality and the official censors were struggling to draw new boundaries between what was acceptable and what wasn’t.

The film censor featured in the New Zealand media so often in those days that he (it was always a “he”) became virtually a household name. Between 1957 and 1973, cuts were made to 37 per cent of films because of sex, violence or bad language.

Even without the film censor or Indecent Publications Tribunal standing over them, some government agencies took it on themselves to act as moral guardians – including the monopoly New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, which refused to play any record deemed subversive (for example, the pacifist protest song Eve of Destruction) or sexually suggestive (the Rolling Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together).

It was the era of the indomitable Patricia Bartlett, secretary of the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards. The former Catholic nun became the scourge of movie distributors and book publishers, pouncing on smut – a word almost never heard these days – wherever it raised its lubricious head.

Why am I recalling all this? Because in the censorship battles of the 1960s and 70s, it was the liberal Left that led the push for freedom to choose what people could see, read and hear.

Ultimately they won the battle against the moral conservatives. But at some point in the intervening decades, something strange began to happen.

The New Zealand Left executed a gradual 180-degree turn. Now it’s the Left who are the self-appointed censors, mobilising to shut down any ideas and opinions that offend them.

The old term “liberal Left” has become a contradiction, because many of the strident voices on the Left are frighteningly illiberal – not on questions of sexual morality, where anything is now permissible, but on matters of politics, culture and ideology. Their antennae twitch constantly, acutely alert for imagined evidence of racism, misogyny and homophobia.

This is especially true of the social media generation, who block their ears, drum their feet on the floor and hum loudly to block out any idea or opinion that upsets them.

This is a generation of New Zealanders who never experienced a sharp smack when they misbehaved, were driven to school every day by over-indulgent parents and were taught by teachers and university lecturers who lean so far to the left that many need corrective spinal surgery.

The threat to freedom of speech and opinion no longer comes from bossy government agencies (although the Human Rights Commission makes a sterling effort to deter people from saying or thinking anything it disapproves of) but from platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, where digital lynch mobs indulge in snarling, hissing gang-ups against anyone who challenges leftist orthodoxy.

An example was the hysterical outcry against Sir Bob Jones over a column written by him for the National Business Review, in which he suggested that Waitangi Day should be renamed Maori Gratitude Day and marked by Maori doing nice things for Pakeha, such as bringing them breakfast in bed and weeding their gardens.

It was obviously satirical – a classic piece of Jones mischief – but humour is lost on the prigs and bigots of the new Left. Someone launched a petition to have Jones stripped of his knighthood and NBR, to its shame, removed the column from its website, using the weasel-word justification that the column was “inappropriate”.

Public discourse has reached the point where almost any mildly right-of-centre opinion is liable to bring forth frenzied denunciations and calls for the offender to be silenced, fired or boycotted. The silly, melodramatic term “hate speech” has come to mean anything that upsets someone.

New Zealand has so far largely been spared the extremes of intolerance shown on overseas university campuses, where violent protests force the abandonment of lectures by anyone the Left doesn’t like.

Could it happen here? Of course it could. Only last year, University of Auckland students tried to exclude a pro-life group from campus activities, Yet 50 years ago, New Zealand student newspapers were at the cutting edge of demands for free speech.

I wonder what the old-school liberal Left make of all this. It took generations for New Zealand to mature into a tolerant, liberal democracy and now it sometimes looks as if we’ve not only slammed on the brakes, but engaged reverse gear.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Playing the blame game over "Polish" death camps

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, March 7.)
Truth can be elusive. Consider the recent furore over the Polish government’s introduction of a law that, according to some critics, will greatly restrict public discussion of Poland’s involvement in the Holocaust during World War Two.

The new law prohibits mention of “Polish death camps” – on the face of it, an interference in the right of free speech. Yet it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Poland’s lawmakers.

Auschwitz (or Oswiecim, as it’s properly known in Polish) and other notorious extermination camps – Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek – may have been sited on Polish soil, but they were not put there by Poles.

They were built and administered by Nazi Germany, which preferred to conduct its programme of genocide outside its own borders. Perhaps that was the Nazis’ way of pretending their hands were clean.

I have been to Auschwitz, but even standing on the site of the gas chambers, it’s impossible to grasp the enormity of what happened there.

The Germans alone were culpable, but the commonly used phrase “Polish death camps” carried the implication that Poland was somehow responsible for these abominations. And as the generations who remember World War Two gradually die out, there was a risk that people who don’t know any better might be misled into thinking that Poland as a nation was complicit in the Holocaust.

Seen in this context, who could object if the Polish government wanted to prohibit usage of the term? Yet Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu strenuously denounced the law change and even implied that Poland was guilty of Holocaust denial.

Really? Weren’t the Poles entitled to protect their national reputation?

My 95-year-old Polish mother-in-law, who remembers the war only too well, was seriously indignant at Netanyahu’s objections, as I imagine most New Zealand Poles would have been. She interpreted his statements as suggesting that the Poles collectively bore some responsibility for the Nazi death camps, which would have been a grievous slur on Polish honour.

But this is where it gets complicated. Some Israeli critics argue that the Polish law change threatens to stifle debate about Poles who killed Jews during the war.

As is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere between extremes. Polish people were neither fully complicit in the Holocaust, nor wholly innocent.

There were documented cases of Poles, police included, playing an active role. As in some other eastern European countries, a degree of anti-Semitism was rooted in Polish culture.

Against that, as my mother-in-law would point out, there were many well-documented cases of Poles risking their lives to save Jews from the Nazis. The Polish nurse Irena Sendler was credited with smuggling 2500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and thereby saving them from the gas chambers – a feat of extraordinary courage for which she was honoured in 1965 by the state of Israel.

The Polish underground organisation Zegota, of which Sendler was a member, operated secret cells that supplied aid to an estimated 50,000 Polish Jews in hiding.

These examples run counter to the narrative, promoted by some Jewish critics of the recent law change, that portrayed Poland as complicit in the Holocaust.

An article by Alex Ryvchin, director of public affairs at the Australian Council of Australian Jewry, made the scurrilous claim that “Poles were often only too happy to see the demise of their Jewish neighbours”. There you have it – an entire country casually libelled in a few words. 

As a public relations strategy, the tendency of some Jewish activists to stridently allege anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial everywhere they look seems doomed to produce diminishing returns. It has become a kneejerk reaction to allege anti-Semitic motives even where none exist. A possible consequence of this tendency to play the blame game is that people will take the phone off the hook.

Like the Polish politicians who worry that ignorant people might interpret the phrase “Polish death camps” literally, Jewish activists are concerned that generations will grow up knowing nothing of the atrocities committed against Jews during the war.

But in their eagerness to remind us of the terrible things that happened to Jewry, they run the risk that they will be seen as promoting a perception that only Jews are allowed to be seen as victims of Nazism. And in their determination to portray themselves as being at war with an implacably hostile world, they risk alienating people who might otherwise be their friends.

No one can deny that Jews were uniquely targeted for extermination, but others suffered terribly too.

Poles, like Jews, were considered an inferior race by the Nazis. Nearly six million Poles died under German occupation. Many of those who survived, my parents-in-law among them, were forcibly displaced and put to work in slave labour camps.

The truth, as I said at the start of this column, can be elusive. The Polish death camps were Nazi creations – that’s one truth. Some Poles collaborated in the persecution of Jews – that’s another truth. These truths can co-exist without cancelling each other out.

The ultimate, incontrovertible truth is that war is brutally dehumanising; terrible things happen.

The Madonna crossed with Wonder Woman: how the media portray Jacinda Ardern

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

Living in a country as small and intimate as New Zealand can sometimes feel like being wrapped in a cuddly warm blanket. These occasions arise whenever the nation is enveloped in a state of feel-goodism and self-congratulation.

It happened when we won the America’s Cup and it happened when Lorde swept the world pop charts. On such occasions it can seem unpatriotic not to share the general mood of elation.

It happened too when the Labour government took a stand against nuclear weapons in the 1980s and prime minister David Lange faced down American critics in a celebrated Oxford Union debate. Even New Zealanders who were uncomfortable with the government’s stance took pride in Lange’s famous killer line (actually pinched from an Australian cartoon, according to Sir Gerald Hensley) that he could smell the uranium on his opponent’s breath.

At times like this there can be a certain amount of subtle pressure not to deviate from the national script, which demands that all New Zealanders’ hearts should swell with pride.

This phenomenon no doubt affects many countries, but it’s magnified in our case because of our isolation and diminutive size. It’s plucky little New Zealand standing up and demanding to be noticed. Whether the rest of the world pays attention or not seems almost immaterial. We do it mainly for our own sense of well-being.

Not falling into line with the national consensus on such occasions is seen as letting the side down. Nothing must be allowed to dampen the mood.

Right now feels like one of those times. If the media are to be taken as an accurate barometer of the national psyche, the country has been in a state of almost preternatural contentment since last year’s election.

Not only do we have a young, likeable, left-of-centre female prime minister, but she’s going to have a baby while in office. Even hard-nosed and normally sensible Wellington press gallery veterans almost swooned with delirium at the announcement of Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy. What could be more 21st century than giving birth and then going back to work after six weeks, leaving the baby in the care of her partner? 

In the outpouring of gushing media comment, there was much puffing of chests at the idea that New Zealand, the first country to give women the vote, was again showing the world how things could and should be done.
Journalists promptly coined a term for this phenomenon: Jacindamania. They seem to see no irony in the fact that they delight in using the word even when they exhibit symptoms of the affliction themselves.

Some of the most cringe-inducing journalism was prompted by Ardern’s attendance at Waitangi, where her hosts invited her to have the baby’s placenta buried in line with Maori custom. Political reporters cooed their approval.

Much was made too of the fact that she pitched in and helped cooked the steak and sausages on the barbie. This simple but effective PR ploy – the prime minister presenting herself as an ordinary, unpretentious Kiwi, which she genuinely appears to be – was applauded as if it were a latter-day miracle of the loaves and fishes. 

But it’s hardly surprising that journalists are attracted to Ardern. She’s of the same generation as most people working at the front line of the media, and the same sex as a large proportion of them. It’s fair to say that her political views probably mirror those of many, if not most, New Zealand journalists.

Besides, journalism thrives on newness and novelty, and Ardern represents what many journalists see as an exhilarating and overdue generational change in the Beehive.

For nine years we were governed by middle-aged men in suits.  Ardern is still in her 30s. She’s fresh, personable and seems effortlessly in control of things. To use a silly popular expression, what’s not to like?

Her pregnancy is the icing on this cake, although it raises questions that have been delicately sidestepped by the media. What if she experiences complications, or struggles with the combined demands of motherhood and the prime ministership? No one discusses these possibilities because they conflict with the presumption that women can do anything.

Of course the prime minister can’t be blamed if the media portray her as a cross between the Madonna and Wonder Woman. But it may make the eventual reality-check more painful when the long media honeymoon ends, as it eventually must, and the strains of office start to tell on her untested government with its incongruous assortment of political bedfellows.  

My inauspicious introduction to Airbnb

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

I used Airbnb for the first time during the summer holidays. It wasn’t an experience I’m in any hurry to repeat.

I had booked the house several months in advance. Our son and his family were coming from overseas and we were looking forward to spending some time with them.

The property wasn’t ideal, but accommodation in the area we wanted was already getting tight and I was worried that if we waited for something better to come up, we might miss out altogether.

The house boasted five-star reviews, but no photos of the interior – in hindsight, a warning sign. Instead, the listing emphasised the lovely view (true enough) and the appealing location.

Alarm bells started ringing when the owner told me, after I had booked, that Airbnb had made a mistake with the listing by understating the rental fee.

Call me naive, but I agreed to pay the extra amount she requested. The advertised fee did seem modest compared with other houses we’d seen listed, but it occurred to me that she might have deliberately pitched it low to attract business in the hope she could then talk the renter into paying more.

My suspicions about the owner’s modus operandi were heightened when the time came to pay the extra money and she asked me to transfer the amount to her bank account, rather than pay through the Airbnb site. By doing this, she presumably avoided paying a share of the fee to Airbnb.

She also asked me to label the payment in such a way that it wouldn’t look like income. Why do that unless it was to avoid paying tax?

I should have questioned this dodgy-looking arrangement, but by this time we were in the house and I didn’t want to spoil our holiday, which was brief anyway, by getting into a potentially unpleasant dispute with the owner. In any case, I was philosophical about the sum of money involved. It bought us precious whanau time.

Later, when the owner came up with a far-fetched justification for claiming still more dosh, I politely but firmly declined.

Now, the property. The owner lived there herself and had vacated it for our stay.

We arrived in the early evening – too late to make alternative arrangements when we saw the state the house was in. It was a matter of making the best of a bad job.

The fridge was filthy and half-full of the owner’s own food, much of it looking well past its use-by date. The oven, one element of which had burned out, was in a similarly disgusting state. The first hour of our stay was spent getting the two appliances clean.

The dishwasher, which still had some of the owner’s soiled dishes in it, was even more vile. Its interior was coated with a layer of scum. We bought some dishwasher cleaning fluid the next day and ran a two-hour cleaning cycle.

The cutlery drawer, too, was thick with grime. We removed as much cutlery as we needed, thoroughly cleaned it and kept it separate for the duration of our stay.

There were bins full of rubbish, the bed linen was tired, and when my wife mopped the bathroom floor it turned out to not be the colour we thought it was.

Half the light bulbs in the house didn’t function and the two gas bottles for the barbecue were empty. (After I had confirmed with the owner that there was a barbecue available, my wife asked me whether I’d established that full gas bottles were supplied. “Of course they will be,” said I. “If there’s a barbecue, there’ll be gas bottles.” Ha! More fool me.)

We couldn’t believe anyone could live in such conditions, let alone have the nerve to charge others for the pleasure, but perhaps it just doesn’t occur to some people that their houses are a mess.

I should also mention that there were the owner’s two cats to be fed and a couple of sheep in a neighbouring paddock that needed to be kept supplied with water. We were basically house-sitters, paying to look after the place while the owner enjoyed a holiday. The grandkids did, however, love the sheep – a rare sight where they come from.

The crowning indignity – which now seems almost comical in retrospect – came early one morning when, padding down the darkened hallway in bare feet, I stepped in something slimy and repulsive. Close investigation revealed the disembowelled remains of a small furry animal, obviously brought in by one of the cats, and next to it a pile of cat excrement, which is what I trod in. You've gotta laugh, as they say.

I know from talking to friends who have used Airbnb that our experience was atypical, but I’ll need some persuasion before I risk it again. I pulled no punches in the review I wrote for the Airbnb site and wasn’t surprised to note later that the property was no longer listed.

The remarkable thing is that we managed to have a good time. Some readers will no doubt think we were mugs for putting up with the conditions, but we’re a resilient lot, and our time together was too short to ruin it by being miserable or waging war with the owner.

Oh, and did I mention the cockroaches?