Monday, January 27, 2020

The absolutism of climate-change ideologues

Letter-writers attacking me in The Dominion Post over the past few days have obligingly confirmed everything I’ve been saying about the climate-change zealots’ aggressive intolerance of dissent.

I said in my Dom Post column last Thursday (reproduced on this blog) that the ideology surrounding climate change was capable of being every bit as dogmatic and authoritarian as religious indoctrination, and my critics have done me the great favour of proving me right.

Two correspondents rebuked the paper for giving me space to criticise the recently announced propaganda package under which primary and intermediate school pupils will be subjected to a highly politicised and scientifically contestable syllabus covering climate change.

In the eyes of these dogmatists, the issue is settled and no dissent should be permitted. Their stance neatly demonstrates my point that climate change dissent is the new heresy.

Note that I say dissent, not denial. My column said nothing about whether climate change was real. In fact I’ve been careful to avoid denying it’s happening. But that didn’t stop my critics from charging me with being a denialist – a modern synonym for an enemy of the people, to use a phrase once popular with totalitarian regimes. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the click of Madame Defarge’s knitting needles and the rolling wheels of the tumbrels.   

It surely says something that a single, isolated newspaper column should arouse such an angry reaction, given that we're relentlessly bombarded almost daily with  stories and opinion pieces that overwhelmingly reinforce climate-change orthodoxy. The message is clear: any heterodox voice that challenges or even questions the presumed consensus around climate change is subversive and must be deterred. 

One letter-writer accused me of implying that the climate change programme is compulsory (actually I didn’t, but I confidently predict that many teachers, convinced they’re doing the right thing, will fervently embrace it) and went on to smear me by associating me with “the fossil fuel industry, National and other climate [sic] deniers”. In this person’s rigid, narrow and simplistic world view, there could be no other explanation for my stance than that I have secret allegiances and an ulterior motive. I can’t decide whether she was wilfully dishonest or just thick.

Another correspondent resorted to puerile, schoolyard-level abuse, calling me a dinosaur. That this bigot identified himself with the honorific “Dr” lends weight to the belief that whatever the requirements may be for the attainment of a doctorate, they don't include intellectual maturity or an open mind.

I should exempt from these critical comments a letter in today’s paper by former Labour MP Bill Sutton, who heartily disagreed with my column but avoided insult or misrepresentation. I should also acknowledge a letter from Graham Dick of Masterton (whom I don’t know, despite living in the same town), who correctly observed that what I wrote couldn’t be construed as meaning I was a denier; merely that I objected to the way climate change was being introduced to the school curriculum. Dick characterised the reaction to my column as hysterical and warned against “climate zealot theorists” infiltrating the education system. Amen to that.

Just for the record, I have an open mind on climate change. I remain open to persuasion that it’s happening, and that it’s at least partly man-made. I can even sign up happily to some of the changes we’re being urged to make in the way we live, because they make sense to me regardless of whether we’re hurtling toward a global catastrophe. But I refuse to ignore the large body of evidence that contradicts the doom-mongers (for example, on rising sea levels), I refuse to ignore demonstrably dodgy pseudo-science, and I refuse to ignore the ideological agenda driving climate-change activists who have seized global warming as an opportunity to overturn the existing economic order.

If that makes me a sceptic, fine. Scepticism used to be regarded as indispensable in journalism and it’s an honourable attribute in science too, because the advance of science depends on scientists questioning existing theories. But as the letters attacking me in the Dom Post make clear, climate change is an absolutist ideology that demands 100 per cent buy-in. No deviation will be tolerated.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The education system's latest ideological project: the grooming of Greta Thunberg clones

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, January 23.)

There was a striking synchronicity in the timing of two of the New Year’s first political pronouncements.

On January 13, Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced that parents would in future be required to give written consent for their children to attend religious instruction classes.

This effectively signalled the end of religious teaching in state schools, since parents are far less likely to opt in than to opt out, as they are permitted to do now. RI classes will likely wither on the vine through lack of interest, which is Hipkins’ avowed intention.

The public response was so muted as to be unnoticeable. This may have been because most of the population was still on holiday and focused on other things – a factor the minister very likely took into account in the timing of his announcement.

But the public’s apparent indifference may also be explained by the fact that New Zealand is now an essentially secular society that quite reasonably sees no place in the education system for religious instruction. Only a small minority will lament its abandonment as a lapse into paganism.

But nature abhors a vacuum, and the government had a quasi-religious substitute locked, loaded and ready to fill the gap. January 13 was also the date on which the far more significant news broke that climate change is to become part of the school syllabus for Years 7-10 pupils, which means those aged between 11 and 14.

This was no sudden political impulse. The climate change curriculum (you can read it online) emerged fully formed, with the Greens’ fingerprints all over it. It was trialled at Christchurch’s South New Brighton School – an ideal test bed, since the school’s pupils have been primed with fears that their neighbourhood is at risk from rising sea levels.

Join the dots. Out goes religious instruction and in comes its secular substitute in the form of politically charged dogma surrounding climate change. The two announcements neatly complemented each other, serving as a kind of metaphor for wider political and social changes driven by the “progressive” Left.

And make no mistake: While purporting to be based on solid science, the climate change curriculum is heavily freighted with ideology and represents a world view that’s capable of being every bit as dogmatic and authoritarian as religious indoctrination.

It is quite explicit about its goal, which is to groom a generation of climate change activists. Apparently drawing inspiration from Greta Thunberg, the teaching resource is threaded with statements such as: “Climate change poses a severe threat to children’s most basic rights”.

It’s a piece of work the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels would have been proud to call his own – one that targets malleable young minds in much the same way as the Hitler Youth did in the 1930s.

Guilt is an unstated sub-text throughout. The message is that earth has been put at risk through greed and complacency and we must act fast before the process becomes irreversible. Parents and grandparents can expect to be held to account for allowing this to happen.

In effect, schoolkids will be captive zealots in training. Indoctrination isn’t too strong a word for this, and it raises questions about the morality of using the public education system to impose adult anxieties and political convictions on the young. 

Again, the public response to the announcement was low-key, but that may change when children start coming home from school and badgering their parents to stop using the car and cut back on meat and dairy products, as the curriculum urges them to do; or when they start exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression, which the teaching resource acknowledges are possible consequences of heightened climate-change awareness.

Indeed, the curriculum seems almost to relish the prospect of impressionable pupils panicking over the prospect of an overheated, perhaps uninhabitable, world. The teaching resource is tinged with New Age gibberish about the need for children to explore their feelings – anger, frustration, sadness, fear – relating to climate change. Teachers in turn will be encouraged to listen, empathise and “reinforce the key message”. If that’s not indoctrination, I don’t know what is.

Valid scientific scepticism is caricatured as Donald Trump-style craziness. Nowhere in the teaching resource is there any acknowledgement that many of the statements it makes are scientifically contestable.

But this is where we have ended up. If climate change alarmism is the new religion, then scepticism – or denialism, to use the more damning term favoured by climate-change activists – is the new heresy.

There’s a disturbing whiff of totalitarianism in the way this secular religion permits no dissent. If you believe that it’s dangerous in a democracy to allow one view to hold complete and unchallenged sway, denialism starts to look like an honourable stance, purely on principle.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Christianity may be in decline, but its influence is all around us

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, Stuff regional papers and, January 22.)

On a trip to Europe last year, my wife and I visited lots of churches – not to worship in them, but to absorb their history and marvel at their grandeur.

In Hamburg, I rode an elevator – a relatively recent addition – that rises through the skeletal remains of St Nicholas’ Church, once reputedly the tallest building in the world. Most of the church remains in ruins after being pulverised by air raids in World War Two, but the spire was spared because it served as a useful navigation aid for Allied bomber pilots.

In the 17th century Church of Our Saviour in Copenhagen, I climbed a famous external staircase that winds around the towering spire, eventually tapering to the point where there’s barely enough room to turn around.

In Warsaw, we lingered in the foyer of St Hyacinth’s Church, beneath which 500 Polish civilians – the victims of German bombing raids – remain entombed.

We were not alone in these churches, or in the many others we wandered into. Streams of tourists flowed in and out, testifying to the fact that these magnificent buildings now function principally as tourist attractions. Their doorways are prime spots for beggars, who presumably hope visitors will be infused with the spirit of Christian charity.

We saw very few people praying. There was one notable exception in Frankfurt, where we wandered into a big Catholic church in the heart of the city on a Sunday morning to find it packed with worshippers who spilled out into the foyer.

Camera-toting visitors kept drifting in, clearly not expecting to find a genuine working church, and were taken aback to be confronted by a man holding up a sign written in several languages and asking for silence.

It came as no surprise when we realised the mass was being said in Polish for members of Frankfurt’s expatriate Polish community. Catholicism is central to the Polish sense of identity and is likely to survive wherever there are Poles, long after the lights have gone out in Catholic churches elsewhere.

In the Danish town of Fredericia we visited a far less grand church, but one that was significant to me. The French Reformed Church in Fredericia was built in the early 18th century by the local community of Huguenots – Protestant refugees who had fled persecution in Catholic France and been granted sanctuary by the Danish king. They included my own forebears.

We were unable to see inside the church but wandered around outside, admiring its austere but elegant lines. In the impeccably groomed churchyard, we found headstones bearing my own surname and those of families to whom I’m related.

You can’t visit such places without being forcefully struck by the central importance of the Christian faith in the lives of our ancestors. Not only did it impel them to build magnificent churches that command our admiration centuries later, but it inspired great music and works of art that are appreciated as much today by atheists as by believers. 

It also resulted in wars, massacres and atrocities carried out in the name of God, some of which my ancestors experienced personally. Nonetheless, Christianity was a crucial building block – some would say the crucial building block – of Western civilisation.

Today, of course, it’s in rapid retreat across much of the developed world. In the 2018 census, 48 per cent of New Zealanders professed no religious belief – up from 42 percent in 2013 and 29 per cent in 2001. In many churches, the congregations consist mostly of grey heads.

It’s a similar picture in Britain, where Christian belief has halved in the past 35 years and only one in three people now identify with the faith that profoundly shaped their history. Britons of all religious faiths are now outnumbered by non-believers.

These figures suggest that Western democracies have entered a post-religious phase, but some scholars argue that people are simply pursuing alternative forms of spirituality. The English Christian theologian Peter Jones thinks we are seeing the rise of a new form of paganism that conveniently fudges the distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong.

The paradox is that while an increasing number of people reject the idea of the Christian God in favour of a range of secular belief systems (including, bizarrely, a resurgence of thoroughly discredited Marxism), Christian values still underpin Western concepts of justice, freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It’s no coincidence that the world’s freest, fairest and most prosperous countries all have Christian roots.

Granted, Christian teaching has been twisted and corrupted for reasons that have little to do with God and a lot to do with human vanity, greed and the desire to exercise power and control. But although no longer a Christian myself, I don’t think we should discount the possibility that our God-fearing forebears recognised transcendental truths that we, the best-educated generations in human history, are too myopic or conceited to see.

Friday, January 10, 2020

The year of vicious left-wing puritanism

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, January 9).

The news story that kind of summed up 2019 for me, in a dismal way, was one that appeared in the week before Christmas.

A woman named Maya Forstater lost her job at a British think tank called the Centre for Global Development for tweeting that there were only two biological sexes. She questioned government plans to let people decide their own gender and expressed the belief that “trans” women could not truly describe themselves as women.

Forstater appealed against her sacking but lost her case, an activist judge describing her remarks as “offensive and exclusionary”. Where freedom of expression fitted in, if it was considered at all, wasn't clear.

At this point you could be excused for wondering whether the entire Western world has been seized by a collective madness. A woman lost her job, and brought the full weight of the judicial system down on her head, for expressing a view that until relatively recently wouldn’t have caused so much as a raised eyebrow, and which the overwhelming majority of ordinary people – that is to say, those who haven’t been infected by the virulent contagion of transgenderism – very likely still share.

Note that Forstater didn’t set out to incite hatred of trans-gender people or suggest they be persecuted. She simply asserted the right to express her view that “trans” women were not real women. 

Notwithstanding the florid rhetoric of the judge, no one was damaged by this opinion. Of course it outraged transgender activists, whose offence-detection meters are permanently set on 11, but that doesn’t equate to harm.

Nonetheless, the message from the employment tribunal to anyone rash enough to consider challenging the shibboleths of identity politics couldn’t have been clearer.

But it got crazier still. Enter J K Rowling, the author, who expressed support for Forstater on Twitter. At this point the Twitterati decided Rowling was a far juicier target than Forstater and turned on her like a swarm of angry wasps.

She was attacked as trans-phobic – 2019’s most tiresome buzzword – and condemned as a terf, or trans-exclusionary radical feminist. The author’s leftist credentials (Rowling campaigned against Brexit and once donated 1 million pounds to the British Labour Party) were no protection.

The Forstater-Rowling story encapsulated two of last year’s dominant themes: the neo-Marxist Left’s intolerance of dissent and the crucial role of the ironically misnamed “social” media in howling down anyone who dares to question approved ideology.

It also highlighted the sheer aggressiveness of minority-group activists in attacking anyone who challenges them. The standard tactic is to demand that the dissenter be sacked, regardless of whether their personal views have any bearing on their ability to do their job.

If the offender happens to be a broadcaster, celebrity or even sporting hero (as in the case of Israel Folau), this is invariably accompanied by a strident campaign for a boycott of their employer and/or sponsors. The aim is to intimidate people into silence, and the tragedy is that it often succeeds.

It’s hard to recall a time when politics were more polarised, overheated and intolerant of ideological difference. The latter is ironic, given the woke Left’s supposed embrace of diversity.

That was another feature of 2019: the emergence of that word “woke”, which supposedly denotes support for oppressed minorities, but which rapidly became synonymous with a vicious new form of puritanism.

Last year saw the finger-wagging prigs in full, sanctimonious flight. It was a year in which vindictive mobs constantly patrolled the digital public square, Twitter fingers poised to denounce anyone foolish enough to question received wisdom on a range of hot-button issues that included race, gender identity, Islamophobia, gay rights, climate change – in which anyone who expressed even mild scepticism was vilified as a denialist – and the angry new kid on the ideological block, veganism.

Yet for all this, 2019 was also strangely reassuring. Because when it really mattered, the barrage of noise and confected rage from the woke Left counted for nothing.

In Australia, left-leaning media pundits were confounded by the election of Scott Morrison’s right-of-centre government. In Britain, Boris Johnson’s Tories stormed to a resounding victory marked by the mass defection of pro-Brexit blue-collar voters from the Labour Party.

In the United States, the Democratic Party appears to have become collectively unhinged in its obsessive pursuit of Donald Trump, aided and abetted by news media that at times seemed almost hysterical. The result is that we go into an American election year with the unpleasant prospect that Trump will be returned to the White House.

In all three countries, the left-leaning commentariat which dominates the public conversation has shown itself to be hopelessly out of step with the ordinary people who decide elections. Have they learned nothing?  

Thursday, January 9, 2020

On changes in the way we speak

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, other Stuff regional papers and, January 8.

If I can make one utterly confident prediction about 2020, it’s that the language we speak will continue to change – both the words we use, and the way we pronounce them.

It’s a cliché to say that language is a dynamic thing, constantly re-inventing itself. But the pace of change is ramping up, and the strange thing is that it’s often impossible to tell what’s driving it.

The year just passed was notable for the supplanting of the letter T by D in spoken English, so that we got authoridy in place of authority, credibilidy instead of credibility, securidy for security, and so on.

In this instance, it’s possible to pinpoint the source: namely the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. What’s astonishing is the speed with which other people in public life – broadcasters, bureaucrats, academics and fellow politicians – have emulated her.

Many people possibly don’t even realise they’re doing it. Immediately before sitting down to write this column, I heard a radio presenter refer to a hitherto unknown music streaming platform named Spodify. Meanwhile, the TV channel previously known as TV3 has been promoting its news bulletins with the slogan “Because it Madders” (a silly, hollow slogan that could only have been created by an ad agency, but that's another story)..

The T as D trend has spread faster than a midsummer scrub fire. It’s a testament to Ardern’s status as a “key influencer”, to use a ghastly neologism.

Other changes in the pronunciation of New Zealand English are less easy to trace back to their source. Where, for example, did broadcasters – mostly younger ones – acquire the habit of stressing the first syllables in words where traditionally the emphasis has been placed on the second? Obvious examples are fatality, flotilla and prolonged, which are now routinely pronounced as FAYtality, FLOWtilla and PROlonged.

Other lamentable changes in pronunciation have been with us for some time. Health has become “howth”, help has become “howp” and well has become “wow”, as in “are you wow?”. Pronouncing the letter L apparently requires too much effort.

L has also done a disappearing act from vulnerable, so that it has become vunnerable, and has mysteriously dropped off the end of wool. And in another Mystery of the Vanishing Consonant, the letter G is now routinely dropped from recognise.

Some words have magically acquired an extra syllable, so that we get “knowen” and “showen” for known and shown. Before has become “befor-wah” and hour is commonly pronounced as “owah”. I even heard a Radio New Zealand reporter recently say “everythink”. Needless to say, the pronunciation of her sign-off in te reo Maori was flawless.

Some shifts in pronunciation can be attributed to ignorance, others to sheer laziness, such as “munce” for months and “picksher” for picture.

As with Ardern and her hardened Ts, politicians often set a bad example. John Key had few peers when it came to mangling the English language. Infrastruckshuh was a regular Key atrocity, as was Niew Zillund.

Current National Party leader "Soymun" Bridges gets a lot of stick, too, for taking the Kiwi accent to places it has never been before, but seems reluctant to modify his speech and may have decided to turn it to his advantage as a point of difference.

Then there are the changes in language usage, as opposed to pronunciation. Many journalists seem not to grasp the distinctions between “since” and “after”, “less” and “fewer” and “lay” and “lie”.

A more recent shift is the tendency for the word “majority” – which strictly applies only to numbers, as in “a majority of voters” – to be used as an all-purpose synonym for “most”, as in “the majority of the rain fell in July”.

Some words that served perfectly well for generations have been mysteriously dropped and replaced by others (for example, “surgeries” for operations). No harm is done, but we are left with the question: why?

Meanwhile we hear nouns becoming verbs (we recently had bushfires impacting on cricket tests) and verbs morphing into nouns (the big reveal). Tautologies, where a superfluous word is added to one whose meaning is already clear (as in “added bonus” and “revert back”), are commonplace.

And all the while, American English continues its insidious advance. Tracks are now “trails”, reporters “reach out” to politicians for comment, and I even heard a journalist using the folksy Americanism “oftentimes” (what’s wrong with “often”, for heaven’s sake?).

It’s got to the point where you brace yourself for new solecisms. I recently read about a sportswoman who had never “stepped foot” outside New Zealand – a corruption of the old-fashioned “set foot”. And how often do you read of someone “watching on” when something happens, that second word being utterly superfluous?

Some of these changes are the result of an English curriculum that no longer places emphasis on strict rules, opting instead for an approach that places more weight on whether the meaning is, like, y’know, more or less clear. The problem is accentuated by dictionaries that no longer prescribe correct word definitions, but rather accept whatever usage is popular.

Does it matter? Well, yes. Proper usage of English promotes precision, accuracy and clarity. Of all people, this should matter most to those in the business of communication.