Sunday, November 29, 2020

And now for something completely different ...

We went out to dinner last night, my wife and I. We ordered a Misha’s pinot noir from Central Otago and it arrived on the table accompanied not by traditional stemmed wine glasses, but by two elegant tumblers.

It was a lovely, lighter style of pinot noir and it looked, smelled and tasted just fine in tumblers. They were tapered inwards at the top, so you could still swirl and sniff the wine if that’s your thing.

We have a similarly shaped set of glasses, made of an usually fine plastic material, that we use for wine when we're camping.

It set me thinking: why don’t we use glass tumblers more often? We’ve encountered them in Germany and Italy, where they’re regarded as acceptable alternatives to stemmed wine glasses. Admittedly some were a bit clunky, but that couldn’t be said of the stylish ones we drank from last night.

Then this morning, quite by chance, I happened to read a column in The Spectator by the always entertaining and thought-provoking British ad man Rory Sutherland.

According to Sutherland, the stemmed wine glass is the world’s most ludicrous object. Allow me to quote him:

“Nobody briefed to design a [wine] receptacle from scratch would say: ‘Let’s give it a high centre of gravity for maximum instability, with a base so small and a stem so long that one misjudged gesticulation will catapult the contents into the lap of someone three feet away. We’ll also make sure it doesn’t fit in the dishwasher’.”

Sutherland continued: “So why does this idiotic item persist? Because restaurants already own hundreds of the things. And most homes contain six or more. While these do break, tragically they rarely break simultaneously. And so, when you break one stemmed glass, you replace it with another to maintain the set. The whole hideous business becomes self-perpetuating.”

Most wine enthusiasts would argue there’s a reason why wine glasses were designed the way they are. They have a stem so that the temperature of the wine is unaffected by body heat from the drinker’s hand (especially relevant for white wines, which are served chilled), a wide bowl so that the wine can be swirled to release the aroma and a tapered opening which minimises the risk of spillage (especially when swirling) and which, in theory anyway, traps the aroma in the glass so that it can be better appreciated by the nose.

But these are considerations that matter only to wine nerds. Most people drink from stemmed wine glasses because custom decrees that’s what sophisticated wine consumers do.

It’s true that some wine glasses are preposterously ostentatious. We have some that were given to us years ago that are 260mm tall. I don’t think we’ve ever used them. They were designed to be smashed by over-exuberant dinner guests, of whom we’ve had a few (not all of them guests, in fact). But even with normal-sized stemmed glasses, the risk of breakage, either at the table or in the sink or dishwasher, probably outweighs any benefit to the casual consumer who drinks wine primarily for social enjoyment rather than the aesthetic experience.  

So maybe Sutherland has a point. Perhaps the traditional stemmed red wine glass, if not those for white, will go the same way as the spectacularly impractical glass known as the coupe (supposedly inspired by the Empress Josephine’s breasts), which was once the fashionable way to drink champagne.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Ferguson method

 This interview with Lady Tureiti Moxon is a classic example of Susie Ferguson’s modus operandi.

Ferguson obviously approves of her interviewee so treats her gently, obligingly prompting her with leading questions – rather like a good lawyer – knowing what the answers will be. (Example: “Is Grainne Moss’s position untenable?”)

I think we can safely assume they are answers Ferguson agrees with. They are the answers she wants. If they weren’t, you can be sure she would take a more aggressive approach.

At the end of the interview we are left with the impression that uplifts of Maori babies were primarily motivated by racist malevolence. But even allowing for the possibility that Oranga Tamariki’s practices were flawed, shouldn’t we at least acknowledge that the department’s social workers – some of whom may very well be Maori – were motivated by sincere and genuine concern for the babies’ wellbeing?

It seems to me that by not putting that possibility to Moxon, Ferguson was party to an unjust calumny.  

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

In New Zealand today ....

 On Morning Report, we heard again that structural racism was behind the forced uplifts of newborn Maori babies from mothers whom Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry for Children, deemed incapable of looking after them properly.

We hear a lot about structural, aka “institutional”, racism. It falls into the same category as so-called unconscious bias, which can be defined as the bias you have when you didn’t know you had a bias. (So how do you know you have it? Because woke activists tell you. They recognise it even when you can’t.)

Structural racism is an ingenious notion because it means racism no longer needs to be intentional or even conscious. We’re told it’s an intrinsic part of the power structure created by privileged Pakeha.

By this yardstick all whites are racists. We are all smeared with the taint of racism, regardless of how much goodwill we might feel toward Maori or people of other ethnicities. The purpose of this is to make us feel guilty and ashamed of the society we’ve created, and therefore more amenable to radical change. That’s what makes it such an ingenious concept.

But back to that Morning Report item, in which we heard from RNZ’s Maori news director, Mani Dunlop, that besieged Oranga Tamariki boss Grainne Moss now concedes that the “structural racism” represented by baby uplifts has had detrimental consequences for the relationship between Maori and the Crown. (Incidentally, the line between journalism and activism is now so hopelessly blurred that I’m not sure we can rely on Mani Dunlop for neutral, balanced reportage on issues concerning Maori.)

We’re told there’s an urgent need for change in the way Oranga Tamariki operates. Dunlop reminded us that Maori babies are five times more likely than non-Maori to be taken from their mothers, as if that’s conclusive evidence of structural racism.

Taken at face value, it’s certainly a damning statistic, and few people would deny that forced uplifts must be a very traumatic experience. But rather than accepting the five-to-one figure as proof of racism, shouldn’t we consider the possibility that Maori babies are disproportionately at risk of harm, and ask how that might be remedied?

Later in the programme we were told that transgender people are having trouble accessing “gender-affirming” health care. Some have to travel to other towns to obtain prescriptions for hormone treatment or see a psychologist. One such person, who identified as neither male nor female, complained that “they” (RNZ uses the gender-neutral pronoun) couldn’t get public funding for surgery to remove breast tissue and had to raise the money from family members.

Apparently it’s now the taxpayers’ responsibility to ensure that free “gender-affirming” health care is available on tap for people with every permutation of sexual or gender identity, including some that were unheard of a few years ago. They’re a tiny minority, but their needs are evidently so urgent that we must have a national strategy to deal with them. We even learned there’s an organisation called the Professional Association of Trans-Gender Health Aotearoa. (Of course there is, Karl; don’t be silly.)

Meanwhile, over on NewstalkZB, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta was trying to explain to Mike Hosking why she intends to abolish a law that allows voters to veto council proposals to create special Maori wards.

While emphasising how much she valued local democracy, Mahuta clearly didn’t think this should extend to voters exercising their right to reject the idea of race-based wards that provide Maori with a short cut to power.

All the evidence indicates that when strong Maori candidates run for councils, they have a good chance of being elected. If more Maori could be encouraged to engage in the democratic process (or as Kelvin Davis put it in 2016, “get off their arses and vote”), their prospects would be even better.

But Mahuta wants guaranteed seats for Maori, which strikes me as extraordinarily patronising. It suggests Maori can’t get elected on their own merits, when history shows otherwise. But worse than that, it amounts to differential treatment on the basis of race – surely the essence of racism.

As I wrote in a column when Northland Maori were lobbying for a greater say in local government last year, what we’re really talking about here is power through the back door. The advocates of guaranteed Maori representation want to bypass the democratic hurdles that other candidates for public office must leap over.

I pointed out in that column that in the 2016 local government elections, Porirua elected its first Maori mayor, Mike Tana, who beat a favoured Pakeha rival. Wellington acquired a Maori deputy mayor, Paul Eagle – now an MP – and a new Maori councillor who succeeded Eagle in the deputy mayoralty. Eagle, incidentally, had increased his majority in three consecutive elections.

In those same elections, South Wairarapa voters elected three Maori to their district council, Napier gained a Maori councillor and a Maori was elected to the Horizons Regional Council. All this happened without the benefit of separate Maori wards or other forms of special treatment. (I haven’t checked to see how Maori candidates did in the 2019 elections, but it doesn’t matter; the point is made.)

I also mentioned Georgina Beyer and Ron Mark, former Maori mayors of Carterton, and rugby league hero Howie Tamati, who served on the New Plymouth District Council for 15 years (and then contradictorily insisted that Maori needed their own ward). Case made, surely.

On NewstalkZB this morning, Mahuta had no convincing answer when Hosking put it to her that all Maori had to do to ensure better representation in local government was to run for office. But at least the question was put.

On Morning Report, by contrast, people promoting the identity politics agenda are rarely, if ever, challenged with awkward questions. State radio’s flagship news and current affairs show has morphed into a Woke Chronicle: a daily recitation of grievances and demands by minority groups whose special pleading is accepted without so much as a raised eyebrow.

New Zealand has to decide what type of place it wants to be: a diverse, harmonious, tolerant, multicultural country with a common interest in prosperity and freedom, or a splintered one in which multiple groups jostle for special treatment on the basis of real or imagined differences of ethnicity, sexual preference, culture, religion, gender or any one of the many other divisive “identities”. I think I know which society most New Zealanders would opt for.


Monday, November 23, 2020

Why Guled Mire irritates me

I see Guled Mire was back in the media last week, complaining again about what a racist place New Zealand is.

It’s a recurring theme from Mire, but this time he came up with a slightly different slant. Invited to speak at a forum on Wellington’s future, the Somalian refugee and Black Lives Matter activist suggested Wellington was missing out economically by not tapping into the potential of its migrant communities.

That might be a valid argument as far as it goes, if it’s true. But Mire typically took it a step further by implying that this was due to racism.

He recalled moving from Auckland to Wellington and how he “struggled for the longest time to feel that this was home”. Wellington, he said, felt like a “very white city”.

“I just would walk around and I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never felt so black in my life before.” Apparently we’re supposed to accept his personal feeling of alienation as proof that Wellington is a racist city.

Mire went on to talk about the economic case for addressing racism, apparently without offering any evidence (other than feeling black in a predominantly white city) that immigrants were somehow being prevented from contributing economically.

To reinforce his point, he tweeted a picture of himself with some of the other speakers at the forum with the caption: “As always just adding some much-needed colour to the room.” Witty, or snide? You be the judge, but he doesn't strike me as the jokey type.

I’ll be honest about my feelings toward Mire. He irritates me intensely. Even more irritating is the fact that the media obligingly provide a platform for his tiresome discourses.

Mire has been a regular fixture in the news since the March 15 massacres. His comments in the aftermath of that event, when he claimed New Zealand was in denial of the racist hatred that supposedly exists here, was conspicuously at odds with the conciliatory tone struck by members of the Christchurch Muslim community.

He sounded a similarly discordant note three months ago when the mosques shooter (who, it bears repeating, was not a New Zealander and as far as we know, acted alone) was sentenced. On that occasion we saw Muslims and Pakeha police embracing outside the court. The TV news showed a member of the Muslim community kissing a New Zealand flag. We heard praise from Muslim leaders for the comments made by the New Zealand judge who put the murderer away for life, and we again saw ordinary New Zealanders placing flowers at the scenes of the killings.

But when Mire was invited onto Morning Report the day after the sentencing, he preferred (with plenty of encouragement from interviewer Susie Ferguson) to talk about the racism and white supremacy that he claimed was being swept under the carpet.

This is the country that gave Mire and his family – a mother and eight siblings, refugees from a violent, oppressive, corrupt society – a fresh start (and in his case, enabled him to go to university and win a Fulbright award). You’d think that might count for something, but all he can talk about is how racist we are. Mire is the person who’s invited to dinner and spends the evening complaining about the food and criticising the furniture.

His is not the language of acceptance and inclusiveness. It is the language of divisiveness and polarisation. Far from fostering harmony, Mire’s rhetoric emphasises and exacerbates points of difference – and the danger is that in the warped minds of the tiny, subterranean right-wing extremist fringe that very likely does exist in New Zealand, it will be taken as an invitation to crank up the race war.

I welcome cultural diversity and I welcome Muslim immigration. We are all immigrants here, Maori included, and it would be wrong if those of us who benefit from being New Zealanders were to deny that same opportunity to others – though always with the important proviso that immigration must be carefully managed so as not to destabilise the host society, as has happened with disastrous consequences in Europe.

That said, I object when, having taken advantage of the freedom and opportunity this country offers, people such as Mire use their right of free speech – a right not available in the countries they came from – to bad-mouth the place that gave them sanctuary.

I object too to the politicisation of religion. We no longer tolerate the Catholic Church exercising political influence as it once did. And when Don Brash, then leader of the National Party, held secret meetings with members of the Exclusive Brethren who wanted to promote a clandestine campaign against Labour, he was rightly excoriated.

The same rules should apply to Islam. Muslims must be free to practise their faith without discrimination or harassment, but this is still a secular society. It’s possible to deplore the despicable bigotry and racial hatred that resulted in the mosques massacres while simultaneously objecting to attempts by Muslim activists to exploit that atrocity for political leverage, as Mire and the Islamic Women’s Council seek to do.

It would be pointless to deny racism exists in New Zealand; you don’t need to be a “person of colour” (to use the fashionable phrase) to realise that. But that doesn’t make this a racist country. This is a crucial distinction that the activists and promoters of identity politics prefer to ignore.

People emigrate because they see something of worth in the country they’re moving to – typically, something not available to them in the place of their birth, such as freedom, prosperity and opportunity. This is true of virtually everyone who has settled here, right back to the Polynesian voyagers who first discovered the place.

But there’s never any acknowledgement from Mire that New Zealand has been good for him, and rarely any concession that New Zealand’s race relations are anything less than shameful. When there is, as when he briefly acknowledged the aroha that prevailed post March 15, he quickly reverts to his central theme, which is that New Zealand is a racist society.

Moreover, he gives the impression of believing the onus is on New Zealand to reshape itself to meet his particular needs rather than on him to adapt to the society that welcomed him, as immigrants worldwide have done through history.

Note his apparent indignation at Wellington being a “white” city. Well, hello; we’re dealing with the world as it is, not as Mire might prefer it to be. Wellington doesn’t exist for his personal gratification. Adjusting and adapting to a society in which you’re a minority is part of every immigrant’s experience; it’s not a symptom of repression or discrimination.

Yes, Wellington’s a predominantly white city, just as Mogadishu is black. White people would probably feel just as out of place in the Somalian capital as Mire apparently does here (and very likely a lot less safe than Mire when he strolls down Lambton Quay). If he went to Guangdong, he’d probably feel just as conspicuous there. I guess that means China’s a racist country too.

By a striking coincidence, the day after Mire made his comments at that Wellington forum, Stuff published an interview with Mohamed Hassan, an Egyptian-born poet who emigrated to New Zealand with his family when he was eight.

The article quotes Hassan as saying that while the transition from Cairo to Auckland was difficult, moving to New Zealand was the best decision his parents could have made. “We got the opportunity to grow up in this really beautiful, caring country and it’s obviously shaped everything about me.”

Later he talks of his feeling that he has a responsibility to “feed this place the same way it has fed me”. Make of that what you will.


Friday, November 20, 2020

Doris Ferry and the phonics debate

 In 1994 I wrote an article for the Evening Post (R.I.P.) about a remarkable woman named Doris Ferry. Doris, who was then 78, was a retired teacher who lived on the Kapiti Coast. All she wanted to do was devote herself to her large garden, but instead she found herself spending half of each day providing individual tutoring at home to local kids who had fallen behind at school. The reason they were failing, without exception, is that they couldn’t read. Parents came to her in desperation after word got around that Doris was succeeding where schools were failing. By the time I interviewed her, she had brought 1500 kids up to speed with their reading – kids who, in many cases, had fallen hopelessly behind at school, even after completing so-called reading recovery courses. The difference to their lives was dramatic.

I’m sure Doris’s empathetic manner and one-on-one tuition  helped, but there was no doubt in her mind that what counted most was her use of the teaching method known as intensive phonics, whereby children learn to read by recognising letters or combinations of letters and the sounds associated with them. Many readers of this blog will recognise that description, because until the 1960s it was how reading was taught in all New Zealand schools. Then, in one of those sudden theory-driven shifts in direction to which the education system seems fatally susceptible, phonics was supplanted by a method known as whole-language.  Under the whole-language approach, children are taught to recognise words by the context in which they occur.  Critics of the phonics method – and here I’m quoting from my 1994 article – say it takes a mechanical approach and inhibits understanding of words by divorcing them from their context. Advocates of phonics, on the other hand, argue that the whole-language method takes a “near enough is good enough” approach, encouraging children to guess words from their context or the illustrations accompanying them.

The results achieved by Doris, and the gratitude of the parents whose kids’ lives were transformed under her tuition, demonstrated convincingly that the phonics method often succeeded where whole-language failed. At least one academic – Tom Nicholson, now an emeritus professor of education at Massey University, and still an advocate of phonics – endorsed Doris’ approach. But what seemed both incomprehensible and reprehensible when I wrote that story was the education system’s single-minded zealotry in enforcing the whole-language approach. The teaching of phonics, which had previously been mainstream, was now deemed heretical. Official disapproval was so vehement that the parents of Doris’s pupils feared serious repercussions if their kids’ schools found out they were learning from her. Children would crouch down out of sight when their parents delivered them to Doris’s address, or make their way to her house using a neighbour’s gate further down the street. Parents spoke to me only on the strict condition that I didn’t use their names in my story.  I was exaggerating only slightly when I described Doris’s clandestine teaching activity as reminiscent of Resistance operations in Nazi-occupied France.

It had somehow been my impression in recent years that this battle was now history - that the Ministry of Education had relaxed its uncompromising opposition to phonics. But no: according to Morning Report today, some schools are raising large sums of money – hundreds of thousands of dollars in one case – to fund the teaching of phonics because the ministry still refuses to, despite clear evidence the officially approved method, which is apparently now known as “balanced literacy”, isn’t working. RNZ reporter Ruth Hill interviewed several principals whose schools had adopted phonics – sometimes against initial resistance from teachers who had to unlearn the officially approved method – and all were emphatic about the benefits, which one described as “phenomenal”. Another said it was impossible to put a price on what her pupils had gained. All sounded exasperated by the ministry’s refusal to provide funding for alternatives to “balanced literacy”, especially when the ministry throws more than $29 million a year at reading recovery programmes of dubious benefit. (Incidentally, no one from the ministry was available for an interview. Fancy that.)

These schools have learned, at considerable expense, what was obvious to Doris Ferry and the parents of her pupils 30 years ago, yet still the bureaucrats cling doggedly to their failed doctrinaire model.  We can only wonder how many New Zealand children – those not fortunate enough to attend schools that are prepared to buck the system – are being penalised as a result by being denied the opportunity to achieve their full potential.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

In New Zealand today ....

 ■ Lots of reminders this morning that today is the 10th anniversary of the Pike River mine disaster. Morning Report devoted two lengthy items to it, including an 8-minute interview with Sonya Rockhouse and Anna Osborne, who lost a son and husband respectively when the mine exploded. Much has been heard from these bereaved women over the years, to the point where there’s little that hasn’t been said already – in fact many times. Oddly, the media seem to be less enthusiastic about interviewing another bereaved mother, Marion Curtin, whose take on Pike River is strikingly at odds with that of Rockhouse and Osborne.  Curtin has said she wants the remains of her son left undisturbed and that people shouldn’t assume the Pike River activists speak for all the bereaved. She has also been sharply critical of the public money spent on the re-entry operation, a piece of political theatre which the Taxpayers’ Union says has so far cost $50 million for negligible benefit. You can read the Taxpayers' Union statement here.  

■ The Dominion Post website had a story about a truck crash that blocked the Akatarawa Road, which connects Upper Hutt with the Kapiti Coast. The story was illustrated with a large, panoramic photo of the Paekakariki Hill Road – a different route altogether. Does anyone notice? Does anyone care? On paper, today’s journalists are the most highly qualified ever, yet they demonstrate over and over again that they know little about their country’s geography or history. On the other hand, their understanding of social justice issues such as sexism, racism and trans-gender discrimination is impeccable.

■ The Wairarapa Times-Age reported that Masterton district councillors voted 6-5 to reject an officials’ recommendation that two much-loved vintage tractors in the Queen Elizabeth Park playground be removed because they posed a safety hazard. Generations of children have played on the tractors and strangely enough, I don’t recall any reports of any being maimed or permanently disfigured. The council officials also have the playground’s popular flying fox in their cross-hairs. While they’re about it, why not demolish the park's swings? Or ban kids’ bikes because occasionally someone falls off and grazes a knee? Prediction: we have not heard the last of this. The council bureaucrats won’t let the matter rest until they’ve shown the elected councillors who’s boss.

■ BTW, two iwi representatives voted to have the tractors removed. They are not elected councillors. No one voted for them.

■ Someone complained on Twitter that food books by the Australian celebrity cook Pete Evans, who is accused of sharing a social media post that included a neo-Nazi symbol, were still available from the Warehouse, Mighty Ape (an online retailer) and Kmart.  The Warehouse, obviously eager to display its woke credentials, promptly fell into line. “Thanks for raising this with us,” it tweeted. “We are currently in the process of withdrawing [his] stock in our stores and online.” Meanwhile, Stuff entered into the spirit of the witch-hunt by approaching other retailers wanting to know whether they’ll do the same. No pressure, mind. Stuff also reported that Mighty Ape had pulled a book by New Zealand author Olivia Pearson because she criticised Jacinda Ardern’s appointment of a Foreign Affairs Minister with a moko. Stuff reported that Mighty Ape was promptly alerted to Pearson’s tweet by other users. “Hey team, I see you stock her book,” wrote one. “Could you please consider removing considering she advocates for racism in our beautiful Aotearoa?” It’s hard to know which is more disturbing: the left-wing vigilante squads constantly patrolling social media like sharks (and in this case, trying to conceal their priggish authoritarianism behind phony empathetic language), or the gutless companies that so cravenly kowtow to them.

■ Back to the Times-Age, which refers to “students” at Gladstone primary school. There used to be a general rule of thumb that primary school kids were pupils and those attending secondary school or university were students. It was a useful, if informal, distinction which now appears to have been lost. By logical extension, it means that kids at kindergarten or day care can also now be referred to as students. Perhaps “pupil” is considered demeaning and not in keeping with the inclusive spirit of the times. “Boy” and “girl” may be on the way out too, if the gender-identity activists have anything to do with it.

That was New Zealand today (or at least a little part of it).

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

A striking change of editorial tone

Is Newshub protecting the government? It seems a reasonable question to ask after last night’s 6pm News.

Once again Newshub found itself with an exclusive, agenda-setting story from its investigative reporter Michael Morrah, who has been ahead of the pack throughout the Covid-19 crisis. Morrah interviewed leading epidemiologist Professor David Skeggs, who was scathing – albeit in a politely restrained way – about repeated failures to intercept infected persons at the border.

This followed the announcement that a worker at the Sudima Hotel in Christchurch, where Russian and Ukrainian fishing boat crews are quarantined, had tested positive for the virus. This in turn led to concerns about a nearby Countdown supermarket, which the infected hotel worker had visited, and a close contact of the infected person who attended Cashmere High School.

Skeggs told Morrah that repeated failures at the border (there have been six in three months, starting with the Americold scare in August) posed the risk that New Zealand might have to go back into lockdown. He was particularly critical of people sharing rooms in quarantine hotels, which he said contravened basic isolation principles. "How many wake-up calls do we need?" Skeggs asked. "Soon our luck will run out."

Skeggs largely echoed what one of his University of Otago colleagues, public health expert Professor Nick Wilson, had told Morning Report yesterday morning. Wilson said the pattern of border failures showed the system wasn’t working properly. He urged a whole-of-system review and specifically called for pre-flight testing (why not, for heaven’s sake?) and a ban on people arriving in New Zealand from countries where the pandemic is out of control.

All this was decidedly at odds with soothing assurances from the prime minister and Ashley Bloomfield that the system is working exactly as intended, yet it was these bland assurances that led the 6pm bulletin on Three. In striking contrast with Newshub’s usual approach of leading the bulletin with its most arresting item, typically dressed up in florid, alarmist rhetoric, it served up Jacinda Ardern and Bloomfield saying officials were on top of things (“No horse has bolted,” in Bloomfield’s words) and nothing was happening that hadn’t been anticipated.

Morrah’s item squarely contradicting this anodyne message was deemed of less significance and ran second in the bulletin. Okay, it still ran; but its placement struck me as inconsistent with the aggressive, go-for-the-jugular ethos that Newshub normally favours, and which it used mercilessly to derail Judith Collins and the National Party during the election campaign.

Now that the election is over and National has crawled off to a cave to lick its wounds (job done, Newshub), I would have expected normal service to resume. That would mean fiercely and rigorously holding the government to account.  But someone at Newshub apparently made the decision last night that soft and reassuring trumps edgy and alarming, and I can’t help wondering about the sudden change of editorial tone. Just saying.