Friday, November 29, 2019

We need to talk about Islam

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, November 28.)

New Zealand is overdue for a grown-up conversation about Islam.

It’s a conversation that has been made necessary because as a nation we’re conflicted, to use a popular term, about the religion founded by Mohammad. But the conversation needs to get beyond simplistic, kneejerk allegations of Islamophobia, and it needs to unpick some contradictions and inconsistences in how we view Muslims.

First, some background. There have been Muslims in New Zealand since the late 19th century. Most of those early arrivals came from South Asia (mainly India) and appear to have lived quietly without attracting public attention.

There was a surge in Muslim immigration during the 1970s and 80s, especially following the nationalist Fiji coup of 1987, which made life very uncomfortable for Fiji Indians of the Muslim faith. Political instability also resulted in the arrival of Muslim immigrants from Somalia and the Middle East.

All of this happened without controversy.  So what changed?

With the rise of Al Qaeda and the terrorist attacks on New York in 2001, a militant form of Islam emerged which was seen as an existential threat to the West. Anxiety about Islamist extremism has since been ratcheted up by repeated terrorist massacres – many of them perpetrated by radicalised Muslim immigrants striking at the countries that took them in – and by appalling atrocities perpetrated by Islamic State and Afghanistan’s Taliban.

Islam, and Muslim immigration, thus became a highly political issue.

All this coincided with substantially increased Muslim immigration to New Zealand. At the time of the 2001 census, 23,631 New Zealand residents identified as Muslim. By last year, the number had jumped to 61,455.

Muslims still make up only 1.34 per cent of the population, half the number of New Zealand Hindus, but they are highly visible and some are politically active – more so since the Christchurch mosque massacres of March 15.

As the spontaneous public reaction showed, New Zealanders were shocked and appalled by that incident and deplored the perpetrator.

The killer did not represent New Zealanders, most of whom feel nothing but goodwill toward Muslims who come here with the aim of living peaceably and contributing to their community.
That goodwill is plainly reciprocated by the many Muslim New Zealanders who, since March 15, have publicly expressed their appreciation of this country and their feeling of being welcome and accepted here.

But here’s where things get tricky. The events of March 15 have been seized by some people, not all of them Muslim, as an opportunity to promote the idea that Muslims are the victims of hatred and discrimination.

This notion is used in turn to politicise the Islamic faith and lobby for treatment not extended to other religions – for instance, seeking women-only days at public swimming pools so that men can’t see women’s bodies, or the provision of prayer rooms in public spaces.

No reasonable person would challenge Muslims’ right to follow their religion without harassment, but nothing is more likely to provoke resistance than the perception that a religious denomination is being singled out for privileged treatment. New Zealand is a secular society and no exceptions should be made.

We must also reserve the right to criticise those aspects of Islam that sit awkwardly with secular liberalism, just as we’re free to mock Christian beliefs. This is not incompatible with respect for the right of Muslims to follow their faith.

Post-March 15, however, there was an outpouring of misconceived liberal guilt that manifested itself in bizarre ways, such as the furore over the name of the Crusaders rugby team. This fuss conveniently overlooked that Muslims were invaders too, with a long history of bloody conquest that reached far into Europe on one side and India on the other.

Arguably the biggest challenge posed by Islam, though, is to the political Left, which must somehow reconcile its embrace of Islam with its promotion of rights for women and gays. Good luck with that, as they say, because the two are inherently incompatible.

What complicates the issue is that Islam is a broad church, ranging from tolerance and acceptance of difference at one end of the spectrum – i.e. the version of Islam that should be welcomed here – to unspeakable violence and repression at the other.

Why the Left champions Islam is no mystery. It’s because the Islamic world is seen as standing in opposition to the capitalist West, so must be supported.

But by railing against so-called Islamophobia without qualification, the Left lays itself open to the accusation that it turns a blind eye to the repression of women and the stoning of homosexuals. It's an exquisite ideological tangle, and the world waits with interest for the Left to declare exactly where it stands.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

My vision of Wellington in 2030

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, November 14.)

I keep having nightmarish visions of Wellington in 2030.

In my nightmare, Civic Square has been cordoned off for more than a decade and is covered with gorse and thistles. At night it’s taken over by homeless people who gather there to smoke P – which prime minister Shane Jones has promised to legalise as a condition of his coalition deal with the Greens – and to dance naked around bonfires in scenes vaguely reminiscent of Mad Max.

The ghostly buildings around the square remain empty. Reports on various restoration options fill a rusty shipping container on the weed-infested site where the five-star Amora Hotel used to be.

The once-celebrated Ferns orb sculpture that hung over the square, having been taken down in 2015, re-installed in 2018 and then removed again, has been broken up for scrap after engineers couldn’t agree on whether the cables holding it were safe. Bits of it were recently dredged out of the lagoon near the Star Boating Club. 

The City to Sea bridge, long closed because of structural defects, collapsed onto Jervois Quay years ago. Efforts to clear the wreckage were halted because of health and safety concerns.

The central library is located in a tattered marquee on Newtown Park. How long it will stay there is uncertain, since the park is the subject of a Treaty claim which has itself been before the courts for several years because of a dispute between rival claimants. The library’s collections are housed in a disused shirt factory in Levin.

In Johnsonville, residents are still waiting for work to start on the redevelopment of the local shopping mall, first proposed 23 years ago. In the meantime, the vacant site is occupied by a Mr Whippy van, a pop-up 24-hour discount liquor outlet and a bouncy castle that can't be used most of the time because of the howling wind.

In my dream there has been some progress. Tracks for a light rail line from the station to the airport made it as far as Taranaki St before being stopped short by appeals lodged by feuding groups of public transport obsessives. The project is now at a standstill.

The Greater Wellington Regional Council is no more – ousted by a citizens’ action front which stormed the GWRC offices after the council CEO, a former Swansea parking meter warden who got the job with a falsified CV that no one thought to check, was paid a half-million-dollar performance bonus even though the buses still weren’t running on time.

Work has yet to commence on the second Mt Victoria tunnel. Officials are still working on a business case, now in its 73rd iteration, while the government and city council argue over how it’s going to be paid for.

At Shelly Bay, several buildings have collapsed from rot while mediators continue to seek a compromise between developer Ian Cassels – now living in a retirement village – and Sir Peter Jackson, who is working on his seventh Hobbit movie. In the meantime a tent city, erected by protesters inspired by Ihumatao (which recently celebrated its 11th anniversary), occupies the site.

All over town, high-rise apartments have been abandoned by owners who could no longer afford the insurance premiums. They have been taken over by squatters.

In my nightmare, the vice-chancellor of Victoria University has finally got the change of name he wanted. It's now Te Wananga o Te Whanganui-a-Tara, colloquially known as Twot.

The university has taken over most of the buildings on The Terrace that it didn’t already own. These have been converted into halls of residence, but only overseas students can afford the fees. 

The Supreme Court now sits in a converted motel in Tawa, its showpiece building in Lambton Quay having been flattened because of weather tightness issues and replaced by a Wilsons parking building.

The former St Gerard’s monastery is gone from its commanding position above Oriental Bay – demolished because the owners couldn’t afford the one-in-2500-year earthquake standard that bureaucrats demanded. The site is now occupied by a Ryman rest home.

Down at the port, cruise ships stopped coming long ago because Extinction Rebellion activists harassed any passengers trying to disembark. The entire waterfront is now occupied by logs from the Wairarapa, where forestry has displaced all but one sheep and beef farm – kept functioning as an historical curiosity – in order to meet New Zealand’s carbon credit commitments.

But there’s a note of nostalgia in my nightmare, too. On warm summer evenings, old-timers gather in Pigeon Park to reminisce about a fabled time when mayors named Wilde, Blumsky and Prendergast made exciting things happen and Wellington was celebrated as the world’s coolest little capital.

I should add that in my dream, the city's mayoralty remained unresolved after the disputed election result of 2019. I was relieved to wake up one morning recently to the news that this part of my vision, at least, hadn't played out in reality. As for the rest, I'm not so sure.

When quardle oodle ardle wardle dardle becomes a declaration of hostile intent

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and other Stuff regional papers, November 13.)

Okay, I admit it. I’m a coward.

As a recreational cyclist, I’m privileged to live in a region blessed with glorious rural landscapes, wide-open skies and quiet, smooth roads.

On fine days, these roads beckon seductively, and never more so than in spring.  They sing a siren song as irresistible as that of the Lorelei who lured boatmen to their doom on the Rhine.

There’s just one problem. Magpies.

Magpies will ignore you for nine months of the year, then launch frenzied attacks during the other three, when they’re nesting.

They don't seem to have noticed that human beings are not in the habit of climbing trees to steal their young. This is especially true when the human beings are wearing lycra shorts and bike shoes, which are not conducive to tree-climbing.

Be that as it may, during the nesting season, every human is perceived as a threat. And for some reason, magpies seem to reserve their fiercest aggression for people on bikes.

Before going any further I should declare that I generally like magpies. They’re handsome, smart, fearless and extremely agile on the wing. 

I love their song too, which Denis Glover, in his classic poem The Magpies, famously translated as “quardle oodle ardle wardle dardle”.

Staying at our son’s house in the bushy outer suburbs of Canberra years ago, I was entranced by the sound of magpies calling softly – the term is carolling – in the middle of the night. It was magical.

But in spring, magpies torment me. They are the Stukas of the bird world. Quardle oodle ardle wardle dardle becomes a declaration of hostile intent. 

When I moved to the Wairarapa more than 15 years ago, I found a perfect cycling route that wound through the valleys and hills north of Masterton.

The farmland was pretty, there was a nice mix of hills and flats, and virtually no traffic. Cycling nirvana.

During the many years I had lived in Wellington, I had experienced only a few magpie attacks while riding, and they seemed half-hearted. It was as if the magpies felt obliged for the sake of appearances to go through the motions of dive-bombing cyclists, but their hearts weren’t really in it.

But in the Wairarapa, it was a very different story. Crazed magpies swooped on me every few hundred metres. Some struck my head; others simply harassed me, often attacking repeatedly even when I must have been well out of their territory.  

I tried different routes, with much the same result. On one long hill, I found it easier to get off the bike and walk rather than duck the constant attacks. At least when you’re on foot you can turn and face them.

Talking to other cyclists, I learned that some of these birds were legendary. One guy I know had a chunk taken out of his helmet by a notorious bird.  Another acquaintance was out riding with his son when a magpie landed on his back and started pecking at his neck.

Shouting and waving your arms does no good whatsoever. On the contrary, it seems only to rark them up.

Reasoning with them is just as futile. I’ve tried to explain that I don’t want to eat their babies. They don’t listen.

Various deterrents have been tried in Australia, where magpie attacks are a serious problem. In one experiment on a suburban street patrolled by a particularly vicious bird, helmets with eyes painted on the back (magpies always attack from behind) and spikes protruding from the top were found to be totally ineffective. Attaching a flag to the bike didn’t work either.

Bizarrely, the only cyclist who wasn’t attacked wore no head protection at all, which suggests magpies have a jaundiced view of helmets. But I’m not prepared to take the risk of proving you’re safer without one.

The long and short of all this is that I’ve almost abandoned cycling on the road during the nesting months. Call me gutless, call me a wimp, but I find magpie attacks distracting and unnerving. They take the pleasure out of cycling.

I tell myself that the helmet protects my head, so what’s the worst that can happen in an attack? And the answer comes back: I could take my eyes off the road and ride under the wheels of an oncoming truck, which would be no fun for the truck driver and probably even less for me.

Fortunately I have a mountain bike, and there’s a network of magpie-free off-road tracks in the area where I live. So I ride my MTB and wait for the danger to pass.

I’m happy to report that I recently cycled along a stretch of road where I’ve been swooped on in the past, and I was left alone. So we’ve reached that time of year when the magpies’ protective hormones are subsiding and it’s safe to ride past their nesting sites without bracing for an attack.

Quardle oodle ardle wardle dardle is no longer an announcement of imminent hostilities, and all’s right with the world.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Second thoughts on peak lunacy

There have been a couple of occasions recently when I speculated that we had reached peak lunacy in the so-called culture wars. It turns out I was woefully wrong and pathetically over-optimistic.

New heights of madness are scaled almost weekly, the latest being the Advertising Standards Authority’s ruling that a Streets advertising sign proclaiming that “ice cream makes you happy” should be removed because “the implicit claim that there is a link between ice cream and happiness could potentially undermine the health and wellbeing of consumers”.

Good grief. It’s bad enough that some wretched soul felt motivated to complain that the ad promoted “an unhealthy relationship with food”, but infinitely more depressing that the ASA agreed. And to think I was feeling sympathetic for the advertising watchdog because it had recently been under attack from Andrew “Sour Grapes” Little after it turned down his complaint against a newspaper ad placed by National MP Nick Smith relating to Pike River (which itself qualifies for inclusion on the peak lunacy index, but that’s another story).

Unilever Australasia, which owns the Streets brand, has announced it will appeal. That’s good, but it’s tragic that we must now rely on a multinational corporate to defend free speech in advertising.

As for me, I’m forced to recalibrate my peak lunacy barometer. There’s clearly some way to go before the craziness starts to subside.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Try reading my column again, this time with both eyes

If I’ve learned one thing in 50 years of being a columnist, it’s that no matter how carefully you try to express yourself, people will take whatever meaning they choose from what you write. They will often filter out, or simply not see, anything that doesn’t align with their own preconceptions.

In today’s Dominion Post, for example, there’s a letter in which Geoffrey Horne of Wellington takes me to task over my column about the film ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ (see blog, Friday November 1).

Horne cites the reported offer of a $9 million rugby league contract to Sonny Bill Williams, along with former Air New Zealand chief Chris Luxon’s multi-million bonus, as proof of the film’s message about the excesses of capitalism. He then challenges me to deny that income gaps have expanded dramatically in the past few decades.

But if he reads my column again, and more carefully this time, he will see that far from denying the emergence of a super-wealthy elite and the disparity between rich and poor, I explicitly acknowledge these trends and identify them as being at the core of the film’s message. They give it a deceptive patina of credibility.

At several points in my column I acknowledge that capitalism is imperfect, that unrestrained greed is bad and that capitalism needs to be regulated. Horne appears not to have noted any of this. In fact he challenges me to deny exactly what I conceded.

What I don’t accept is that capitalism’s failings justify the film’s essential premise, which is that the system is irredeemably rotten through and through. Horne doesn’t address this, preferring to attack a straw man of his own creation.

I assume this is the same Geoffrey Horne who was (perhaps still is) an eminent surgeon. I can only conclude that he takes more care reading patients’ notes than he does reading my column.

Friday, November 1, 2019

A masterpiece of the propagandist's art

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, October 31.)

The New Zealand-made documentary Capital in the 21st Century is a mightily impressive piece of film making.

Inspired by the best-selling 2014 book of the same name by the left-wing French economist Thomas Piketty, it’s taut, fast-moving and masterfully edited. The pace never lets up.

Auckland-based director Justin Pemberton, who previously made films on Richie McCaw (Chasing Great) and New Zealand’s triumphs at the 1960 Rome Olympics (The Golden Hour), makes inventive use of graphics, montages, music and clips from movies – The Grapes of Wrath, Les Miserables – to keep the viewer engaged.

Originally screened as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival and now on commercial release, Capital in the 21st Century has received admiring reviews. Some critics say it translated Piketty’s 700-page book, which by many accounts was hard going, into something easily digestible and entertaining.

The film uses every trick in the documentary-maker’s book to dramatise its message, which is that contemporary capitalism is overwhelmingly rigged in favour of the ultra-rich and basically rotten to the core.

Viewers receptive to that message, which I suspect includes most of the people who paid to see the film, will have come away more convinced than ever that capitalism is wicked and should be dismantled.

As I say, an impressive piece of film-making – in fact a masterpiece of the propagandist’s art.

The basics of effective propaganda film-making are no mystery. They consist of being highly selective about the information presented, which means carefully excluding anything that doesn’t conform with the desired message, and then delivering it in the manner most likely to manipulate the viewer’s emotions.

The American film maker Michael Moore, famous for the documentaries Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, is a master of these techniques. But with this film, Moore’s status as king of cinematic agitprop and darling of the film festival set must be seriously challenged.

As with all the best propaganda movies, there is a grain of truth in Pemberton’s film. It focuses relentlessly on the excesses of global corporate capitalism, the emergence of a super-wealthy elite and the disparities between rich and poor. It conveys this message via a succession of eloquent talking heads and damning images, many of them chosen for maximum emotional impact rather than veracity or strict relevance to the script.

Even a defender of capitalism can nod in agreement with some of the points made. Unrestrained greed is no easier to justify in the 21st century than it was in the 19th.

But what Capital in the 21st Century lacks is any notion of balance, because propaganda films, by definition, aren’t remotely interested in balance. The moment the existence of an alternative, competing narrative is acknowledged, a propaganda movie’s premise is weakened. Propaganda is never about presenting two sides of a story.

It’s no surprise, then, that the film doesn’t mention inconvenient facts such as World Bank figures that show 1.1 billion fewer people are living in extreme poverty than in 1990. Most of the people who have been lifted out of poverty in that time live in the same capitalist economies that Capital in the 21st Century damns as concentrating massive wealth in the hands of a tiny elite.

Neither does the film mention that life expectancy is steadily improving around the world, because this doesn’t gel with its resolutely pessimistic portrayal of how humanity is faring under capitalism.

It shouldn’t have been too hard to find a talking head willing to point out that ordinary people generally do well in market economies where the excesses of capitalism are moderated by liberal democratic government, as in New Zealand. Capitalism and democracy are the magic combination.

Such countries consistently lead global rankings not only for prosperity but for longevity, freedom and respect for human rights, which is why they are a beacon to people desperate to escape corrupt and oppressive states in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.  

Hardly anyone, other than the fictional Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, argues that unbridled capitalism is the pinnacle of human civilisation. It’s a matter of getting the balance right, as many countries do.

But Capital in the 21st Century isn’t interested in such nuances. It conveys the impression that capitalism is incapable of being anything other than exploitative and unfair.

And here’s the interesting thing. Apart from a general pitch in favour of a tax crackdown on the super-rich, the film doesn’t put forward any other economic model as an alternative to capitalism.

At the end, I was left wondering what system the film maker would prefer us to adopt. It can't be socialism, because that's been a wretched failure wherever it's been tried. But the film doesn't say, and I think that's either a copout or dishonest.

It's surely not that hard to get basic facts right

You’d think that by now, the story of the Polish refugee children who were welcomed to New Zealand in 1944 would be well known. Alas, it seems not.

To recap, the 732 refugees were exiled with their parents to Siberian labour camps after the Soviet Union invaded their country in 1939, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin having done a secret deal with Adolf Hitler to divide Poland between them.

When Hitler turned on the Soviets in 1941, the Polish exiles became a problem for Stalin, Nazi Germany having then become the common enemy, and were allowed to leave. By that time many of the children’s parents had died from cold, disease and starvation.

Along with many thousands of others, the Pahiatua children, as they came to be known, were left to find their way through Central Asia to Persia (now Iran) and thence to freedom in the West. 

Accompanied by a small number of adult survivors, they eventually came to New Zealand at the invitation of prime minister Peter Fraser – our first official refugee intake. Most remained here after the war and many went on to successful careers.

It’s a remarkable story and it’s back in the news because this weekend marks the 75th anniversary of their arrival. A celebratory reunion is being held in Pahiatua. But reporters keep getting things wrong.

A story about the reunion on Stuff, having first misleadingly referred to Pahiatua as “a tiny Tararua town” (it has a population of about 2500), went on to say that the refugees had “fled Nazi-occupied Poland”.

Two mistakes, right there. They didn’t flee: they were forced from their homes at gunpoint and loaded onto railway wagons by Soviet soldiers. And the part of Poland they were exiled from wasn’t occupied by the Germans, at least not then. It was only after Hitler declared war on his erstwhile communist ally that Germany took control of the eastern part of Poland previously occupied by the Red Army.

Admittedly the wartime history of Poland is complicated, but these are facts that are easily checked.

An even more bizarre error occurred on today’s edition of Morning Report when a Radio NZ journalist, interviewing two of the surviving Poles, said one had lost most of her family in Serbian labour camps.

Serbian? Good grief.

Footnote: An article I wrote for The Listener on the occasion of the last Pahiatua refugee reunion can be seen here: