Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Harawira's opportunistic try-on in the Far North

Let’s see if I’ve got this straight. Hone Harawira and his mates are manning checkpoints on main highways in the Far North to intercept tourists and turn them back, ostensibly to protect their people from Covid-19. He describes it as a border-closing exercise. And the police, whose statutory duty is to maintain law and order, appear to have meekly gone along with this brazen usurpation of their authority by a failed MP (he was tossed out by his own Maori voters in 2014) with no legal mandate whatsoever. So too, we are told, has the local mayor, former National MP John Carter.

While the eyes of the country and the media have been on supermarket queues, toilet paper shortages and prime ministerial press conferences, Harawira appears to be using the health crisis as a smokescreen for an opportunistic grab for power – and he’s getting away with it.

Some commentators have rightly highlighted the risk that new rules imposed to control the spread of Covid-19 will lead to an abuse of state power, but an even greater danger to civil liberties is posed when Maori activists take it upon themselves to limit people’s freedom of movement. Politicians can at least be punished at the next election if they get things wrong or overstep the mark, but who is Harawira accountable to? No one.

We didn't see this coming, but perhaps we should have. Harawira comes from a whanau with a long history of bullying and aggressive behaviour.

His concerns about the threat posed to Maori health in the Far North by thoughtless overseas tourists might be entirely valid. Elderly Maori are especially vulnerable. But no one, Maori or otherwise, gave Harawira the right to take matters into his own hands (with the help of his rugby league-playing mates, whose presence at the roadblocks can be counted on to intimidate travellers into complying with their instructions/requests).

This is a classic try-on: a direct challenge to the authority of those who are supposed to be in charge, such as the police and district council. And far from resisting him, they’re cravenly waving him through.

Police deputy commissioner Wally Haumaha dresses up police co-operation with Harawira as a matter of supporting local iwi and encouraging people to work together. It’s not about putting roadblocks in place, he assured Radio NZ. But that’s exactly what it is, even if Haumaha prefers to use bullshit euphemisms such as “safe assembly points” or “community safety zones”.

Harawira was also interviewed on RNZ but predictably wasn’t asked the obvious questions, such as who appointed him as local commissar or where he got his authority. He talked of “weeding out tourists” and “politely” turning them around and sending them back to Auckland. He sounded like a man confident no one would try to stop him, and indeed claimed he was working with the police.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who remembers the failure of the police to take action on previous occasions when Maori protesters defied the law by blocking public roads leading to disputed land, or allowed the iwi of James Takamore to keep his body against his family’s wishes when all the courts said it had no right to.

You could almost be excused for wondering whether Harawira fancies himself as a local version of the Middle Eastern and North African warlords who exercise total authority within their own domains and are answerable to no one.  The disgrace is that the people we rely on to uphold the rule of law are standing back and letting it happen.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Sleepless in San Francisco (not to mention Sydney, Grey Lynn and Hawke's Bay)

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on, March 18).

Not long ago, my wife and I spent a largely sleepless Saturday night in a Hawke’s Bay motel. The experience confirmed one of two things: either we’re lousy judges of places to stay, or we’ve been condemned by a vindictive god to share accommodation with the most inconsiderate fellow guests on the planet.

I admit there have been times when the former explanation may have been true. There was a memorable night many years ago when we ill-advisedly booked into a budget-priced San Francisco hotel where every other room appeared to be occupied by hard-partying Mexicans.

Our fellow guests caroused with such manic energy that you could have been excused for thinking they’d been told the Apocalypse was imminent and they were determined to make the most of their final hours. Riotous festivities raged all around us throughout the night, the din so all-encompassing that for much of the time we couldn’t identify exactly where it was coming from. Sometimes it seemed to be from the floor above us, sometimes below, and sometimes on the same level.

At times the revelry took on the character of a moving carnival, briefly subsiding in one part of the hotel before suddenly erupting with renewed vigour somewhere else. We felt as if we had blundered into a madcap celebration that involved everyone in the building except us.

Two or three times in the course of a long night I phoned the unfortunate clerk on the desk. He was sympathetic but there wasn’t much he could do in the face of such formidable odds.

I can’t recall whether we got any sleep. What I do know is that when we passed through San Francisco again a couple of weeks later, I made sure we booked into a reputable chain hotel where we could expect order to prevail.

Then there was the night when we stayed in a hotel in downtown Sydney. This time we were kept awake by male guests barking into their phones all night in what sounded like an Eastern European language. This was punctuated by the sound of doors being slammed shut or loudly banged on. My wife was convinced that our fellow guests were members of an international drug cartel setting up a deal, in which case they were the most comically indiscreet criminals since Pulp Fiction.

Perhaps hardened – or more likely discouraged – by our San Francisco experience, I didn’t bother complaining to the desk.

I could have confronted our tormentors, but there were several of them and one of me. I had to weigh up the moral certitude of having right on my side against the unpleasantness that would result if they took exception to being told off. I mean, what if they really were hardened criminals packing Glock pistols?

So, cravenly rationalising that it was for only one night, we decided to tough it out.

The scene now shifts to Auckland – to a motel in Grey Lynn. We were woken in the early hours by anguished and prolonged caterwauling from below us. A woman visiting a ground-floor unit had outstayed her welcome and been ejected. Now she was standing in the carpark wailing at the top of her voice and piteously imploring to be let back in, insisting – improbably – that she lived there.

The police were eventually called and the unfortunate woman, who appeared to be under the influence of some mind-altering substance, was persuaded to leave quietly.

Tribulations like these have led us to ponder whether such experiences are commonplace or – a more likely explanation – that we’re somehow jinxed. Certainly, we have learned to exercise caution in choosing accommodation.

Alas, that’s no guarantee of anything. The Hawke's Bay motel we stayed in not long ago was respectable and well managed, but we still had to suffer the familiar Saturday night curse of inconsiderate guests returning after a night of revelry, shouting to each other and noisily banging on doors. 

This time, though, we experienced something new and bizarre. At about 3am we were woken by the sound of a diesel motor idling immediately outside our door.

When the noise persisted, I went outside to check. Sure enough, there was a ute parked with its motor running – and no sign of a driver. It was as if the Marie Celeste had been reincarnated in the form of a Ford Ranger. 

Having no idea where the driver might be, I went back to bed. Not long after, we heard someone get into the vehicle, emphasising his indifference to sleeping guests by slamming the ute’s door as he did so, and drive off.

That was at about 3.30am. At last we could look forward to some undisturbed slumber.

Ha! Fat chance. Five minutes later, though it was pitch dark, a blackbird began singing its heart out in a tree beside our unit's front door. It's true then: we're jinxed.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Never mind unconscious bias - here are some conscious biases that I'm happy to declare

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, March 19.)

We’ve heard a lot in recent months about something called unconscious bias. Apparently this is the bias you have when you don’t know you have a bias. Perhaps we should call it the Claytons bias.

The genius of the concept is that people accused of having an unconscious bias are in no position to deny it, for the obvious reason that they weren’t aware of it. Thus they are held to be guilty by default, as it were.

Personally, I see no point in agonising over my unconscious biases when I don’t know what they are. In any case, I have plenty of conscious ones to keep me occupied, and which I’m happy to declare. Here are some of the things I have conscious biases about:

■ Sanctimonious vegans who aren’t content to quietly follow their conscience when it comes to dietary choices, but must parade their virtue and harangue those of us who enjoy meat and dairy products. I have an especially acute bias against celebrities who take advantage of their high profile in the media to push for a transition to a plant-based economy. I wouldn’t tell James Cameron how to make movies and I’d rather he didn’t tell me what I should eat. 

■ People who insist on inflicting their hideous musical tastes on everyone within a 100-metre range, whether they’re having a barbecue at the beach or driving down the street with the car windows wide open and the stereo cranked up to 11. It goes without saying that their musical tastes are invariably hideous because that’s the sort of people they are. But they apparently believe that the only reason we don’t all love Led Zep is that we haven’t heard them loud enough. Excessive noise is a pernicious invasion of privacy that should be punishable by internment in a confined space where loudspeakers play It’s A Small World After All on endless rotate.

■ Ageing, tough-talking politicians who address reporters as “Sunshine”, channelling Inspector Jack Regan from The Sweeney and imagining that they sound menacing.

■ Australians who make jokes about the New Zealand accent. A British-born Aussie columnist recently referred to Raelene Castle, the New Zealander who runs the Australian Rugby Union, as the Vuccar of Dubbly, thereby mocking her accent while simultaneously making a snide comment about her looks.  Apparently it didn’t occur to him that no one born in England – a country where an East Ender struggles to understand a Liverpudlian, and someone from the West Country might as well speak in Swahili to a Geordie from Tyneside – is in any position to disparage another country’s way of speaking; and still less so when that person has taken up citizenship in Orstrylia, whose national accent, in its more extreme forms, is about as euphonious as the screeching of a galah.

■ Shared plates in restaurants, which I suspect are a cunning plot to make people pay more for less.

■ Freedom campers who treat the landscape with contempt, transforming scenic spots into something resembling Sudanese refugee camps, only with less exacting hygiene standards. It beggars belief that some councils humour these spongers by making available an app that advises them on places where they can set up camp and presumably defecate on any convenient patch of ground. Most New Zealanders would be only too happy to tell freedom campers where to go – preferably the nearest airport.

■ Tiresome left-wing moralists masquerading as stand-up comedians, kidding themselves that they’re edgy when in fact they play it safe by pandering to the smug, conformist group-think of their like-minded audiences.  

■ Taxpayer-funded broadcasters using their privileged position to promote their pet ideological agendas.

■ David Attenborough – not so much for his preaching about climate change, although God knows that’s tedious enough, as for his habit of manipulating viewers’ emotions by anthropomorphising the creatures in his documentaries – in other words, encouraging us to think of them as behaving and feeling like humans.

■ Transgender activists who aren’t content to quietly follow their inclination without any fuss, as transgender people used to do (the author Jan Morris, for example), but who demand to be noticed and paid homage to as an oppressed minority.

■ Neo-Marxist ideologues who want to reconstruct the English language by erasing all reference to biological sex. In one of the more bizarre idiocies of 2019, a parliamentary select committee considering the abortion bill was urged to replace the term “pregnant woman” with “pregnant person” – a proposal that found favour with Green MP Jan Logie, who thought “pregnant person” was more inclusive. Seriously. And to think they let these people out unaccompanied in public.

Friday, March 6, 2020

A few thoughts on that Concert FM brouhaha

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, March 5.)

I’m not a Concert FM listener, but my father was. He was no activist; I don’t recall him ever expressing a political opinion about anything. But for years he conducted a one-man letter-writing campaign urging that the Concert Programme, as it was then called, be broadcast in Hawke’s Bay.

It may have come as a shock to the broadcasting bureaucrats that there was someone in Waipukurau who wanted to hear Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Elgar’s Cello Concerto as played by Jacqueline du Pre. They possibly assumed that the interests of people in the provincial heartland didn’t extend beyond the Ranfurly Shield and crossbreed wool prices.

Dad wasn’t just a classical music aficionado. Being an engineer, he understood the technical issues involved in extending the Concert Programme’s reach and wasn’t easily brushed off by arguments that it was too difficult. He finally got his wish only a couple of years before he died.

Naturally, I thought about him when RNZ announced its now-superseded plan to ditch Concert FM.  Notwithstanding Dad’s devotion to the Concert Programme, I didn’t care one way or the other. But the resulting stoush was interesting because of what it said about contemporary New Zealand political dynamics.

For RNZ and its political masters, it was a sharp lesson in who not to upset. Concert FM listeners may represent only a tiny proportion of the population, but they are not people a Labour-led government can afford to get offside with.

They tend to be the very people Labour depends on most for public support – high-profile people in the arts, academia and the media. And they know exactly which buttons to push to get their way.

But the Concert FM fiasco, and the rapid U-turn it prompted, highlighted something else. It showed that the people who exert most influence on modern Labour are not the blue-collar battlers who historically formed the core of the party’s support.

Labour is now the party of the affluent urban elite – the type of people who attend film festivals, NZSO concerts and book readings. I bet there weren’t a lot of checkout operators and truck drivers at the pro-Concert FM demonstration outside Parliament.

It’s interesting to contrast the government’s sensitivity to the uproar over Concert FM with its indifference to the concerns of gun owners, who object to their rights being eroded on the bogus pretext that it will reduce the risk of another Christchurch mosque massacre.

It couldn’t be clearer who Labour identifies with – and it’s not people who wear Swanndri shirts and drive utes, who in Norman Kirk’s time would have been counted among the party’s natural constituency. 

There’s one other point worth making about the Concert FM furore. Some commentators asked whether the public money lavished on Concert FM was justified, given that it caters to a small audience. But doesn’t the whole of RNZ exist for the taxpayer-funded gratification of a minority?

The state broadcaster employs a lot of talented, dedicated people and does some things very well. But no one can pretend that it caters to the broad tastes and interests of mainstream New Zealand, and it certainly doesn’t accurately reflect mainstream political values as indicated by voting patterns.

Rather, RNZ uncritically embraces voguish leftist causes and can be relied on to provide a platform for anyone attacking what were once called establishment values.  

Turn on RNZ National at random and you’re likely to hear someone expounding a fashionably woke position on issues such as climate change, race and gender politics. They go unchallenged. RNZ is a vast left-wing echo-chamber. Like many public broadcasting organisations overseas, it is a self-perpetuating ideological monoculture.

As a result, an enormous number of New Zealanders simply never listen. As far as they're concerned, RNZ might as well not exist. They don’t feel it’s theirs, despite the fact that their taxes fund it. RNZ doesn’t feel like my radio station either, although for many years I was an habitual listener.  

Of course RNZ can point to a high level of listener satisfaction, but that’s because it has narrowed its audience down to a segment of the population that applauds its “progressive” content.

Do I hear New Zealand in its totality reflected on RNZ? Absolutely not. I get a much wider and more complete picture listening to NewstalkZB or Magic Talk. But the price of hearing the diverse opinions of rank-and-file New Zealanders is that you also have to listen to intrusive, repetitive commercials. Only RNZ listeners have the privilege of getting their radio content free of advertising.

Forget the howls of outrage from Concert FM’s entitled listeners; the much bigger issue, which everyone ignores, is RNZ’s failure to fulfil its statutory obligations to the country at large.

Sudden converts to the cause of free speech

The double standards of the left-leaning commentariat (is that a tautology?) have been laid bare by the fuss over Australian philosopher Peter Singer.

Singer, you’ll recall, was scheduled to speak at Auckland’s SkyCity Theatre in June, but the event was cancelled by risk-averse management worried about possible protests. Disability activists object to Singer, and with very good reason: he has argued that in some circumstances, it’s morally acceptable for parents to kill a seriously disabled child.

It should be noted that no one had threatened to disrupt Singer’s appearance, so SkyCity’s cancellation was a case of corporate timidity which the company tried to disguise with some PR mumbo-jumbo about the need to respect values of “inclusion and diversity”. In any case, Singer’s tour promoters soon secured an alternative venue, so his speech will go ahead – as it should in a country that professes to allow freedom of expression, regardless of whether some people find the speaker’s views repugnant (as I do in this instance).

But never mind all that. The really significant thing about the Singer kerfuffle was the sudden emergence of a whole bunch of new converts to the cause of free speech. Commentators who were silent about the de-platforming of the Canadian speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux in 2018, and in fact by their silence gave the impression of approving it, seemed to undergo a remarkable Road to Damascus-type experience now that it was a favoured leftie philosopher’s right to free speech that was threatened. But their feeble attempts to justify this  about-face left them open to accusations of rank hypocrisy.

Danyl Mclauchlan on The Spinoff was among the first to object to SkyCity’s cancellation of Singer’s speech. Possibly alert to the risk that he would be accused of double standards, Mclauchlan asserted that Singer couldn’t possibly be compared with the Canadians. Why not? Because according to Mclauchlan, “Singer is a category of thinker we should pay attention to and whose ideas we should consider, even though we disagree with some of them”.

So how, exactly, did this make him different from Southern and Molyneux? That wasn’t explained. We are left to conclude that Singer should be allowed to speak because Mclauchlan thinks he has something worthwhile to say, whereas the Canadians couldn’t possibly have been worth hearing.

Perhaps I can help here by suggesting some reasons why Mclauchlan might find Singer acceptable and the Canadians not. The obvious one is that Singer supports causes that the left embraces. He donates 40% of his income (which, given the enormous fees paid to celebrity speakers, plus his author’s royalties and professor’s salary from Princeton, would be not inconsiderable) to charity. He’s a champion of animal rights and veganism, and he believes people in wealthy Western countries have an obligation to help those living in poverty (none of which strikes me as either profound or original, but then what would I know?).

All of these stances tick the right boxes with the left – so much so that they seem willing to overlook the inconvenient fact that Singer has advocated euthanasia for disabled babies, which even hard-core lefties must find hard to defend.

While Mclauchlan is prepared to cut Singer a lot of slack, no such tolerance was extended to Southern and Molyneux, who were summarily dismissed at the time of their visit to Auckland as being “far right” or “alt right”, whatever that means, and who therefore couldn’t possibly have had anything interesting or provocative to say. (As it happens, New Zealanders still have little idea what message the Canadians intended to push, because we weren’t able to hear them and evaluate their arguments for ourselves. The totalitarian bigots of the far left, ably assisted by Phil Goff, the Gauleiter of Auckland, made sure of that.)

Mclauchlan went on to write: “ … thinkers who genuinely challenge conventional wisdom and the status quo are going to be wrong a lot of the time, and even their good ideas are going to generate a lot of uncertainty. If we ignore them because they’ve been cancelled for being wrong about something else we diminish our ability both to change our own minds and change things for the better”.

So this argument, which is a classic justification of free speech, applies to Singer but not to the Canadians? We’re supposed to retain an open mind about Singer’s provocative positions and allow that he might be right, but squeeze our eyes shut and clamp our hands over our ears for fear that Southern and Molyneux might have contaminated our thinking?

Here, laid bare, is the conceit of the leftist elite that presumes to know what opinions other New Zealanders (presumably less enlightened ones) may safely be exposed to. There’s an element of plain, old-fashioned bigotry in play here, combined with an authoritarian urge to control the public conversation. Together they make a toxic mix.

A similar line – essentially, “We believe in free speech, but not for people we disapprove of” – was taken in a commentary by someone named Emile Donovan on the Newsroom website. Donovan recalled the controversy over the Canadians in 2018, then went on to say: “But this case is a bit different. Singer is a world-renowned philosopher whose professional role is to conceive and debate boundary-pushing ideas and arguments”.

There it is again. Singer is somehow "different" from Southern and Molyneux, though Donovan makes no attempt to explain why Singer’s “boundary-pushing ideas and arguments” are worth hearing while those of Southern and Molyneux were not. The leftist commentariat has taken upon itself the right to decide whose ideology makes them acceptable and who should be regarded as beyond the pale.

Donovan then goes on to quote broadcaster Graeme Hill, who has twice interviewed Singer, about the dangers of society succumbing to oppressive groupthink. Er, quite so.

Now we turn to a Stuff editorial headlined The slippery slope of cancel culture, which talked admiringly of Singer’s “deep engagement with tricky and important moral issues” and his “eloquent” advocacy for Syrian refugees wanting to emigrate to New Zealand. All of which is fair enough – but the editorial simultaneously rebuked a rival media outlet for daring to suggest that Singer was in the same category as those “infamous YouTube activists” Southern and Molyneux. 

Again, by implication the Canadians’ views were without merit and therefore not worthy of a platform, although the editorial writer didn’t bother, or perhaps wasn’t able, to make a case for that proposition.   

It was clear that the writer heartily approved of free speech for Singer, but didn’t think the same right should be enjoyed by couple of provocative neo-conservatives from Canada. But that’s not how free speech works; it can’t be applied selectively so as to reinforce approved political prejudices to the exclusion of unpopular ones. I find myself again forced to quote Noam Chomsky: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

Thursday, March 5, 2020

What I've been watching (and not watching)

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on, March 4.)

There’s a dismal daily ritual in our house. I glance at The Listener to see what’s on TV and gloomily pronounce to my wife, “Nothing to see tonight”.

It’s so utterly predictable that I don’t know why I bother.

Here’s a typical example, chosen at random from one night’s programmes: on TVNZ1, or whatever it calls itself this week, Location, Location, Location, followed by Living with the Boss; on TVNZ2, The Bachelorette NZ; on Three, Married at First Sight Australia; on Prime, Traffic Cops followed by Ambulance.

That was a Wednesday. On other nights in prime time we could have watched Dog Squad Puppy School, My Dream Home, Escape to the Chateau – DIY, Booze Patrol, Zumbo’s Just Desserts, Shipping Wars, The Undateables and Restoration Home

Oh, and I shouldn’t forget Survivor in its many endless permutations, MasterChef (ditto), The Bachelor, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, The Great British Bake Off, Say Yes to the Dress, Embarrassing Bodies, Wife Swap and of course Big Brother, which started the whole wretched ball rolling.

Most are described as reality shows. Yeah, right: they put people in contrived and stressful situations, point cameras at them and expect us to accept that their consequent behaviour represents something called reality.

Some such shows are openly voyeuristic. Others revel in the humiliation of their subjects or exploit their psychological, emotional and even physical vulnerability. John Logie Baird would probably want to throw himself off a tall building if he were alive to see the debasement of the medium he invented. 

Needless to say, most of the above-mentioned shows are from overseas and tell us nothing about New Zealand.

I’m proud to say I’ve never wasted 30 minutes of my life watching any of them. And to those who ask how I can condemn shows I haven’t watched, my answer is that I know enough about them to regard them with utter contempt.

True, there are a few “reality” shows that can claim some authenticity. Piha Rescue, Life Flight, Border Patrol and RPA (for Melbourne’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital) at least show people in real-life situations, although we can never be entirely sure that what’s happening on screen isn’t influenced by the presence of a film crew. Neither do we know what might have been left out for one reason or another.

But hang on; things are not as dire as they might seem, because one benefit of the multi-headed monster we call digital technology is that we have other options besides old-fashioned, steam-powered, free-to-air TV.

You may have to burrow through piles of dross to find them, but there are gems lurking on the streaming platforms Netflix, Lightbox and Freeview. There are three in particular that I’ve enjoyed recently, and oddly enough they all have religious themes.

The quirky Shtisel, on Netflix, takes some getting used to but rewards patience. It’s an Israeli drama series (the dialogue is all in Hebrew, with subtitles) that revolves around the affairs of a strict Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem. 

It’s a soap opera, essentially, but superbly done – and like all good soap operas, it draws you into the lives of its flawed but very human characters. As a bonus, you get a fascinating insight into a religion and lifestyle alien to New Zealanders.

Then there’s Ramy, which you can find on Freeview (though I see it’s now also on TVNZ1). The likeable title character in this often wickedly irreverent American series is a young Muslim man living in New Jersey and trying valiantly, but not always successfully, to live according to his religion’s moral code.

What’s amazing about Ramy is that it was made at all, given the sensitivity surrounding the Islamic faith and the deference shown to it by most Western media. Many of the Muslims in Ramy are greedy, selfish, hypocritical and profane. They take drugs and indulge in illicit sex. In other words, they display the same weaknesses as the rest of us.

My third religious-themed series is more conventional but packs an immensely powerful emotional wallop. In Broken (Freeview), Sean Bean plays a Catholic priest wrestling with his own problems while conscientiously trying his best to serve a troubled working-class parish in a city in the north of England.

Created by Jimmy McGovern, who gave us the memorable Cracker in the 1990s, it’s an ineffably sad series in parts and more than once left me feeling like a wrung-out rag. Bean is outstanding, giving a pitch-perfect performance that convinced me he must have had a Catholic upbringing himself (he didn’t).

Three drama series, three very different religions; but the common factor is the flawed humanity of the characters, who somehow manage to defy the bizarre religious strictures governing their daily lives.

I’m not going to urge readers to watch these shows, because it’s a big mistake to assume that everyone shares common tastes. I can only say that Shtisel, Broken and Ramy tell us a good deal more about the human condition than Married at First Sight Australia.