Friday, October 19, 2018

Brexit exposes the imperious mindset of Fortress Europe

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, October 18.)

Let’s start with a brief history lesson.

What is now the European Union originated in 1957 as the European Economic Community. It had just six members: France, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy.

It began as a customs union and common market, the aim being to promote free trade and economic co-operation. Neutralising the historic enmity between France and Germany was a crucial objective.

The EEC’s founders, eager to avoid a repetition of the horrors of World War Two, theorised that countries that were inter-dependent in terms of trade were less likely to start shooting at each other. And so it turned out.

But the ultimate goal always involved more than trade. From the start, the concept of supranationalism – the creation of a multinational political union with broad powers delegated to it by member states – was central to the EU’s evolution.

Accordingly, the EEC morphed into the European Union in 1993, reflecting the reality that its interests were now political rather than simply economic. That was followed in 2002 by the introduction of a common currency, the euro.

Along the way, membership expanded far beyond those original six countries. The EU now consists of 28 member states (soon to reduce to 27 with Britain's exit) with a far more diverse mix of ethnicities and cultures than was originally envisaged.

And as the EU has expanded, so tensions have emerged – perhaps inevitably, given that many of its member states have little in common, culturally and historically.

The first fault lines were exposed during the global financial crisis, which highlighted disparities between the rich industrial countries of Northern Europe and less resilient member states such as Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Resentment of their subservience to dominant economies such as Germany was a key factor in the emergence of populist nationalist parties in Greece and Italy.

Since then, strains within the EU have been greatly magnified by conflicting attitudes toward the massive tide of refugees and asylum-seekers flooding into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa.

Liberal, affluent Europe, led by a Germany that is still anxious to atone for Nazism, considers it has a humanitarian obligation to provide for the newcomers. But dissenting EU countries such as Hungary and Poland insist on the sovereign right to decide who should cross their borders.

As a result of these tensions, nationalism is again on the rise in Europe. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s understandable. When push comes to shove, these dissenting countries resent being subjected to rules imposed from outside.

All this suggests that the old-fashioned nation-state, forged by its own common history, culture, language and sense of identity, is not easily erased. This is not what the visionaries who founded the EU were hoping for, but it’s hardly the first time grand, idealistic projects have had unintended outcomes.

And then, of course, there’s the British experience, which tells us a lot about the true nature of the EU and the imperious mindset of the Grand Viziers who control it.

The British people voted by a margin of 52 to 48 to leave the EU. Concern about uncontrolled immigration was one factor, but there was also understandable resentment at being subjected to an ever-increasing set of arcane rules and regulations imposed by a remote bureaucracy that was seen as un-representative and unaccountable.

Ah, but the men who run the EU don’t like having their power challenged. They have gone to great lengths to frustrate British attempts to negotiate a fair and honourable exit. It’s obvious that they mean to make an example of Britain by punishing the country for its impertinence.

Their behaviour toward the British prime minister, the beleaguered Theresa May, has been bullying and vindictive. The fact that May personally favoured staying in the EU hasn’t saved her from the taunts of arrogant Eurocrats such as Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, who humiliate her at every opportunity – even to the point of putting mocking pictures on Instagram.

The message to other EU member countries is that they can expect similar treatment should they dare consider leaving. But the more striking message these men send to the watching world is that the protection of Fortress Europe takes priority over the democratic right of the British people to decide their own future.  

That surely tells you something about the monster the EU has become, and how its ideals have been corrupted. As the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt wryly observed recently: “The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving.”

You have to wonder how many countries would have joined the EU had they realised what it would turn into – a surreal Hotel California where you could check out any time you like but never leave.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Male power and control - the factor common to virtually all organised religions

(First published in Stuff regional papers and on, October 17.)

Power and control. In the final analysis, that’s what most organised religion comes down to.

To those three words you can add two more: power and control by men. This is the defining characteristic of virtually all hierarchical religions. 

It's strikingly at odds with a society in which women have rightly demanded, and often obtained, equality in other spheres. But it has ever been thus. You don’t need a PhD in religious studies to understand that organised religion depends heavily on the ability of a small, male elite – a priesthood, in other words – to exercise control over its followers.

I have been more than usually aware of this in recent weeks, partly because of a couple of challenging films.

In the 2017 drama Disobedience, two women from an Orthodox Jewish community in London risk ostracism by rekindling an illicit relationship. It’s a film whose claustrophobic settings powerfully convey the stifling atmosphere of an insular society in which the rules are dictated by men for the benefit of men.

Even more unsettling, because it’s factual, is the Netflix documentary One of Us, which follows three people who face isolation and harassment after leaving an oppressive Hasidic Jewish community in New York.

By coincidence, I recently interviewed a man named Imtiaz Shams, co-founder of Faith to Faithless, a British-based organisation that supports people trying to break free from repressive religions.

Shams himself was raised as a Muslim, but Faith to Faithless welcomes defectors from all faiths. In Britain, former Jehovah’s Witnesses and Orthodox Jews as well as ex-Muslims have turned to it for help.

Many keep their apostasy secret out of fear, because “coming out” as non-believers often has serious consequences, not the least of which is estrangement from their families. The male leaders of these religions understand only too well the power of family ties, and how they can be exploited to deter prospective dissenters.

In One of Us, a Jewish mother is tormented by the prospect of being cut off from her children because she has exercised her right to leave the faith. In New Zealand, the Exclusive Brethren sect and the Gloriavale religious community follow a similar practice of shunning anyone who leaves.

This is a particularly cruel and effective tool of control. When someone has been immersed since birth in a tightly knit community that deliberately isolates itself from wider society, it takes an act of massive courage – or desperation – to walk away and start afresh in an unfamiliar and intimidating world.

Shams described this experience as like entering a black void. Islam so totally defined his existence that it took him a long time to realise he could leave. And when he finally quit, he thought he must have been first person ever to do it.

Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, the conservative strands of Islam and nominally Christian sects such as Gloriavale and the Exclusive Brethren all operate at the extreme end of the religious control spectrum.

The men who run these religions – and they are always men – impose their will by prescribing elaborate and often arcane rules that govern the way their followers must live their daily lives: the clothes they wear, who they should marry, the way they style their hair, the food they eat (right down to the ingredients and how it’s prepared) and, in the case of sects like Gloriavale, the names they go by.

There is little rationale for these oppressive rules other than that they provide a means of control and domination.

At the other end of the spectrum there are religions which seem to avoid male-dominated hierarchical structures and allow a reasonable amount of room for followers to act according to their conscience. The Baha’i Faith strikes me as one example; Quakers another.

In between these extremes there are Churches that we generally think of as liberal, such as the Church of England. But even here, there has been a marked reluctance by men to relinquish power. In British Anglicanism, the male establishment fought a determined rearguard action against the ordination of women.

Yet the Bible indicates that Jesus Christ respected and valued women. Would he have approved of religions in which women were expected to be subordinate to self-important men with a fondness for dressing in peculiar costumes? I don’t believe so.

As for Catholicism, you can only sigh. On the rare occasions when determined women such as New Zealand’s own Suzanne Aubert have achieved positions of influence in the Catholic Church, it has often been in the face of resistance and disapproval from the male hierarchy.

For now at least, men remain firmly in control of Catholicism. But they have made such a grotesque and scandalous mess of things that you have to wonder how long it will be before the long-suffering Catholic laity, male and female, demand that the whole rotten structure be torn down and rebuilt.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

When top-down solutions go bottom-up

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, October 4.)

It’s sad to see Chris Laidlaw’s career come to this.

A photo in The Dominion Post last week said it all. It was taken at a parliamentary select committee hearing where regional council representatives were called on to explain the multiple failings of the new Wellington bus system.

In Kevin Stent’s photo, Laidlaw, who as council chairman has had to soak up much of the abuse, looks brooding and resentful. His expression says he doesn’t need any more of this.

He might well be thinking, “I had a glittering career. Is this how it ends?”

He could be forgiven for harbouring bleak thoughts. Laidlaw has had a storied life: outstanding All Black halfback (he was rated one of the game’s greatest passers of the ball), courageous author (his book Mud in Your Eye led to him being ostracised by many in the rugby establishment), Rhodes Scholar, diplomat (he played a significant role behind the scenes in persuading South Africa to renounce apartheid), race relations conciliator, Labour MP (let’s not mention the taxi chits), broadcaster (he was Radio New Zealand’s Sunday-morning host for 13 years), and of course, regional councillor.

He’s one of several former Labour and Green MPs – another is his sister-in-law, Sue Kedgley – who have found a home in local government. 

I was tempted to insert the word “cosy” before “home” in that sentence because local government provides a normally comfortable late-life career. The pay’s not bad and regional councillors are mostly spared the close and fiercely critical scrutiny that city and district councils are subjected to.

All of which must have made the past couple of months particularly trying for Laidlaw. In my few encounters with him I’ve always found him personable, but I don’t think he’s a man to whom humility and contrition would come easily.

The bus furore was probably not what he was expecting, still less hoping for, when he became GWRC chairman. It’s not hard to detect a slightly petulant tone in his statements and a reluctance to acknowledge that the council cocked up spectacularly.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that Laidlaw is one of that school of social-democrat politicians who politically came of age in the idealistic 1960s and doggedly cling to a misplaced faith in central planning.

This is a model of government that imposes top-down solutions in the belief that bureaucrats and policy-makers know better than the punters who actually use the systems they devise.

Trouble is, the bureaucrats and theorists are often isolated in their own bubbles, unburdened by experience of how the real world works and what ordinary people want. We’re seeing this played out in Auckland too, where planners have created their own grotesque public transport fiasco.

I wonder if that’s the bigger issue here. As local government bureaucracies grow bigger and more centralised, there’s an increasing risk that they will get things wrong.

On paper, it often makes sense to have over-arching administrative structures rather than bitsy local councils all doing their own thing and protecting their own patches.

But the bigger a council gets, the more distant it become from the people it’s supposedly accountable to, as the Auckland experience shows. It tends to take on a life of its own. That’s why I’m still not convinced that a single council should replace the three existing ones in the Wairarapa, where I live.

The kindest thing that can be said for central planners and their political masters is that they usually start with the best of motives. But good intentions too easily morph into control-freak government by People Who Know Best.

The crux of the problem is that they expect the world to conform to their theoretical models rather than vice-versa. And when it all turns to custard they disappear down a rabbit-hole of butt-covering reviews and inquiries rather than simply admitting they cocked up and starting again from scratch.

I saw a classic man from Central Planning on TV3’s The Project last week. He was a transport planner – possibly the worst type – and he had the slightly crazed eyes of a true believer.

He was trying to convince a sceptical panel that Auckland needs a 30 kmh speed limit. Why? Because he thinks people should walk or cycle rather than drive cars, and if it takes a 30 kmh speed limit to force them out of their vehicles – well, so be it.

In other words, he was talking about compulsion by stealth. Never mind what people want.

Translate that attitude to Wellington and it becomes clear that if the bus system is a disaster, it's probably because the users don't know what's good for them. Clearly they must try harder to make it work.

Cultural stereotyping: a licence to sneer

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and on October 3.)

A fellow columnist – one whose work I usually enjoy – recently wrote: “Americans are not like us. They don’t get irony, for one thing.”

Whoa, I thought – let’s hold it right there. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard it said that Americans don’t understand irony, I could have retired by now.

The statement is usually made in relation to humour. Somehow, it has become accepted wisdom that American humour is irony-free whereas English humour is rich with it.

But hang on. Think of a comedy series such as M*A*S*H, which ran for 11 seasons and became one of the highest-rating TV shows in history.

M*A*S*H was drenched in irony. Hawkeye Pierce probably delivered more ironic lines than any other character in television history.

That’s not surprising, given that the series was created by Larry Gelbart. Gelbart was Jewish. Jewish humour oozes irony; that’s its signature. And Jewish writers and performers are the beating heart of American humour – think Mel Brooks, Roseanne Barr, Lenny Bruce, Judd Apatow, Jerry Seinfeld, Bette Midler, Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, George Burns and Joan Rivers, to mention a few.

Seinfeld (nine seasons) and The Simpsons (29 seasons)? All about irony. Most of the talent behind both shows was Jewish.

Join the dots. Jewish humour depends heavily on irony and much American humour is Jewish. Ergo, the argument that Americans don’t “get” irony just doesn’t wash. 

But it persists because it plays to a sense of cultural superiority. Americans are supposedly loud, brash, boorish and unsubtle.

Donald Trump fits this stereotype perfectly. One of the tragedies of his presidency is that he reinforces the prejudices of people who think all Americans are stupid. These prigs look at Trump and say: “See – there’s a typical American for you.”

It’s a theme that fuels countless dinner-party conversations in New Zealand. “Look at what Trump’s done now,” someone will say. “Oh God, those ghastly Yanks.” And off they go, sniggering at what a godforsaken country America is and pausing only for gulps of Central Otago pinot noir.

In my experience, such people usually have minimal experience, if any at all, of America. It’s a country they fly over to get to supposedly more sophisticated places like Britain, France and Italy – although sharing horror stories about the supposed ordeal of a stopover in LA is always good parlour-game material too.

The reason they don’t want to spend time in the United States – unless it’s in New York or San Francisco or a tiny handful of other American cities that the cultural priesthood deems cool – is that they have convinced themselves America has no redeeming virtues.

Anyway, why spoil their fun? As long as they remain ignorant of America, they give themselves licence to go on sniggering at Americans and congratulating themselves on their infinitely greater sophistication.

Another manifestation of anti-American priggishness, besides the “Americans don’t get irony” myth, is the prejudice often shown toward country music – again, usually by people who condemn it from a standpoint of ignorance.

Because some country music is crass (which can’t be denied), they dismiss it all as tawdry and mawkishly sentimental. Essentially it’s the same mistake made by people who assume Trump is representative of all Americans.

Where does this sense of cultural superiority come from? I suspect it’s basically a British thing.

The Brits never entirely forgave the Americans for breaking away and going it alone. But they console themselves that while America might now be infinitely wealthier and more powerful, the Mother Country is distinguished by its rich history, the refinement of its educated classes, its monarchy, its glorious imperial past and its … well, its sheer Britishness.

New Zealand, having drawn most of its cultural inspiration from Britain, seems to have inherited that sense of inherent British supremacy. You might say it’s in our genes.

I’m not blind to American failings. I cringe at American excess and brashness and I’m repelled by the religious and political extremes of American society.

But while these traits confront us daily in the media, they don’t represent the totality of American society. Spend time in the United States and you quickly realise that most Americans are not brash, loud, ignorant or extreme.

Try listening to America’s National Public Radio. NPR leans to the left politically, as public broadcasters invariably do, but it’s the flip side to the America of Donald Trump: rational, civilised, low-key, informed and articulate.

And I shouldn’t have to point out that America is the source of much of the popular culture and technology that New Zealanders enjoy: the music we listen to, the films and TV we watch, the clothing we wear, the books we read and the digital devices we depend on.

So let’s ease off on the conceited and hypocritical anti-Americanism that flourishes in some New Zealand circles. And while we’re about it, let’s bury the myth that Americans don’t “get” irony.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

An enemy of free speech and a dissembler too

(This article by me was published in The Spectator Australia on September 29.)

It’s taken a while, but the speech wars have reached New Zealand – and an Australian is in the thick of the strife. Problem is, she’s on the wrong side.

Jan Thomas, the vice-chancellor of Massey University, recently banned Don Brash, a former leader of the centre-right National party, from speaking at a campus event organised by a student politics society. It was the first occurrence at a New Zealand university of the ugly phenomenon known as no-platforming. Now Thomas, who came to New Zealand from the University of Southern Queensland, has been exposed not just as an enemy of free speech, but as a dissembler who was less than honest about her motives.

Brash had been invited to speak, along with other former politicians, about his time in politics. It promised to be an innocuous, low-key event. But incongruously, the gentlemanly septuagenarian is the man the New Zealand left most loves to hate. This can be traced back to the day in 2004 when, as leader of the Opposition, he delivered a speech to the Orewa Rotary Club in which he warned of a drift toward racial separatism and attacked the notion of special treatment for the Maori population.

Brash’s advocacy of “one rule for all” resonated with many New Zealanders. Subsequent polls showed a huge surge in support for National. In the 2005 election, the party came close to defeating Helen Clark’s Labour government – an extraordinary turnaround after National’s worst-ever defeat only three years earlier. But the “infamous” Orewa speech (to use the loaded adjective routinely applied to it by the left-leaning media) made Brash a marked man, and worse was to come when he formed a lobby group with the aim of ending race-based privilege. The establishment of Hobson’s Pledge (the group took its name from colonial administrator William Hobson’s declaration at the signing of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi that “now we are all one people”) made Brash the most vilified man in New Zealand.

Fast forward now to 2018 and Jan Thomas. A professor of veterinary science, Thomas was appointed vice-chancellor (in other words, CEO) of Massey in January 2017. But although a newcomer to New Zealand, she was quick to assess the political landscape and fall into line with the left-wing monoculture that permeates New Zealand universities.

The justification given for Thomas’s decision to ban Brash was that his appearance might trigger a violent protest, thereby putting students and staff at risk. That provoked an uproar, since the supposed threat turned out to come from a lone disaffected student who objected to what he called (quite erroneously) Brash’s “separatist and supremacist rhetoric”, and who later said he never intended to do more than wave a sign.

Thomas’s attempt to characterise the mild-mannered Brash as a dangerous demagogue provoked a fierce backlash, and not just from his supporters. Some of the most stinging condemnation of Thomas came from old-school leftists whose belief in Brash’s right to speak and be heard outweighed their visceral distaste for his neo-liberal leanings.

But if Thomas’s edict caused severe reputational harm to Massey, a second-string university based in the provincial city of Palmerston North, it was nothing compared with the damage when the real reason for the ban emerged.

Emails obtained under the Official Information Act showed that long before the supposed security threat arose, Thomas was inquiring about possible “mechanisms” for dealing with Brash in other words, excuses to ban him and telling her staff she didn’t want a “Te Tiriti-led university” to be seen as endorsing “racist behaviours”. She persisted even after a subordinate pointed out that the university was likely to be attacked for stifling free speech.

Readers should note Thomas’s impeccable command of politically correct New Zealand terminology. “Te Tiriti” is the Maori term for the Treaty of Waitangi, under which Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty to Britain and in turn were given the rights of British subjects.

The treaty is a short and spare document, but decades of judicial activism and ideologically driven re-interpretation have stretched and twisted its meaning to the point where its supposed “principles”, although never legally defined, intrude into areas of New Zealand life that the treaty signatories could never have envisaged – including, apparently, the vetoing of politically unfashionable speakers by university administrators.  

In another email, Thomas opined that Brash was “very racist” regarding the six designated Maori seats in Parliament, which he has rightly described as an anachronism under a proportional voting system that resulted in 29 MPs of Maori descent being elected in the most recent election. Thomas characterised Brash’s  views as “close to hate speech”, but there is no “hate speech” in New Zealand law – and even if there was, it’s hard to imagine the New Zealand courts, which are very cautious about curbing freedom of expression, being persuaded that Brash was out to harm anyone. By any criteria other than those applied by the neo-Marxist left and the media commentariat, his opinions on race politics are broadly in line with those of middle New Zealand.

At the time of writing, Thomas had gone to ground and left her PR staff to clean up the mess, but she was under huge pressure. Two censure motions will be tabled at the next meeting of the university’s academic board, National party leader Simon Bridges called on Thomas to resign, labelling her as dishonest, and the leader of the Massey students’ association, a Maori, said students had no confidence in her. Brash himself said, with typical restraint, that Thomas’s position was “almost untenable”.

If there’s a heartening aspect of the furore, it’s that condemnation of Thomas came from nearly all sides. As with the controversy over the recent visit to New Zealand by Canadian "alt-right" speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, the Massey veto on Brash galvanised a free-speech movement that was broader-based than anyone expected. Meanwhile Thomas, by presuming to decide what views New Zealanders should be allowed to hear, has succeeded in making herself the least popular Australian on this side of the Ditch since Greg Chappell ordered his brother to bowl underarm in 1981.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Good news: they're printing the local paper locally again

When we’re bombarded almost weekly with depressing news about the slow death of the media, and especially the print media, it’s a tonic  to report a positive development.

My local paper, the Wairarapa Times-Age, announced this week that it’s now being printed locally again instead of at Hastings, nearly three hours’ drive away.

The Times-Age has done a deal with Webstar, a big Masterton printer that was once part of the old Government Print.  It’s the first time in nearly 15 years that the paper has been printed in the region it serves.

It’s good news for a number of reasons. It generates more work for a big local employer and it should mean the paper will be able to bring forward its editorial deadlines, thus enabling it to cover later-breaking stories (although I haven’t been able to confirm this).

I imagine it saves money, too. Trucking papers 210 km every morning can’t be cheap.

But most of all, it’s a vote of confidence in the paper’s future. It continues a turnaround that began in 2016 when the Times-Age reverted to local ownership after 12 years as part of the old APN (New Zealand Herald) stable.

The Times-Age was a distant outpost of the APN empire and its future didn’t look promising under owners who were misguidedly ploughing all their resources into online content and running down their print products.

The decommissioning of the Times-Age presses was a particularly black day. Printing was originally moved to APN’s Whanganui site and later to Hastings in a cost-cutting exercise that was duplicated at many other regional papers as the two big corporate media groups, Fairfax (now Stuff) and APN (now NZME), pursued each other down a blind alley.

Centralising printing operations in distant cities saved money, but reduced papers’ ability to serve their local readers and inevitably accelerated the decline of the provincial press. I wrote at the time that shutting down presses sent a damaging message to readers and advertisers. After all, if the owners didn’t have enough belief in a paper to keep printing it locally, why should readers and the firms that supported it commercially?

I also wrote that if any papers could survive in the new media environment, it would be those that specialised in local news. Not only is local news important to people because it directly affects them in their daily lives, but it’s also the segment of the market that has been least disrupted by the internet. If you want local news, you must get it from a local provider; you can’t read Masterton news in the online editions of the New York Times or the Guardian, or even on the Radio New Zealand website.

It doesn’t surprise me, then, that the Times-Age appears to be thriving under the ownership of Wairarapa-born Andrew Denholm, formerly the paper’s general manager, who took a punt on it two years ago. Denholm had more confidence in the paper than his bosses and could obviously see potential for growth where they couldn’t.

As with most papers, circulation is in decline, but not to the same extent as provincials owned by the two major media groups. The latest Times-Age circulation figure of 5185 is down 4.2% on the previous year, but the bleeding is far less ominous than at titles such as the Southland Times (down 12.8%) and the Timaru Herald (12.3%).

But circulation figures are only one indicator of a paper’s health. As a subscriber, I can report that the Times-Age is a lively, smart, busy and relevant paper with an energetic editor and an excellent team of reporters who give the impression of enjoying their work. It’s a paper that connects with its readers and appears well supported by local advertisers.

And it does what’s most important in a local paper – namely, reflect the character and the concerns of the region it serves. If you want to know what's going on in the Wairarapa, you can't do without it.

As corporate-owned regional papers grow ever more bland and generic, with increased emphasis on shared content and less on local news, the Times-Age stands out as truly local – a distinction that can only be enhanced by being printed locally.