Friday, January 29, 2021

In New Zealand today

■ Susie Ferguson is a disgrace. Interviewing Hone Harawira on Morning Report this morning about the police decision to shut down iwi checkpoints on highways in the Far North, she seemed at pains to avoid even the remotest hint that the checkpoints weren’t legitimate in the first place.

I would have been content if she had asked Harawira just one crucial question – namely, by what authority did he and his fellow activists set up the checkpoints? Harawira holds no public office and is accountable to no one. He has no public mandate. On the contrary, Maori voters in Te Tai Tokerau rejected him in the 2014 and 2017 general elections. He leads a far-left political splinter group called the Mana Movement, which won a resounding 0.1 per cent of the party vote in the last election it contested. So who or what gives Harawira the right to stop traffic on public roads?

My beef, however, isn’t with Harawira. He’s a seasoned political opportunist who will seize every chance to assert Maori autonomy, which is what the checkpoints are about. He owes the public nothing.

Ferguson, on the other hand, occupies a position of public influence and authority which she regularly abuses. This morning she ingratiated herself with Harawira by asking soft, leading questions (for example, “Are you concerned that the government is making decisions that are not in the best interests of Maori as regards this current outbreak?”, to which there was only going to be one answer) and murmuring assent to his replies.

The crucial question raised by unauthorised iwi checkpoints is this: either New Zealand is a society based on the rule of law, in which authority is exercised by people who are publicly accountable, or it’s a free-for-all where anyone with sufficient audacity (which Harawira has by the bucketload) can claim rights not available to others, such as pulling motorists over and disrupting traffic on the pretext that they want to give people information that’s freely available elsewhere. But Morning Report and Susie Ferguson delicately tiptoe around such inconvenient issues.

■ Duncan Greive, founder and managing editor of the left-wing news and commentary site The Spinoff, has unblushingly outed himself as an enemy of free speech.

In a commentary on John Banks’ sacking by Magic Talk, Greive suggests the station’s boss, former Air New Zealand executive Cam Wallace, should either restrain Magic Talk’s other conservative talkback hosts – he names Peter Williams and Sean Plunket – or “ease them out”. The problem, evidently, is that they express and invite right-wing opinions, which makes Magic Talk something of an outlier in an otherwise overwhelmingly woke media environment.

Greive then goes on to say: “… This is not just a question for Wallace and his board. It’s a question for us, for New Zealand. Because the views espoused by Banks and his caller, dismal as they are, remain out there and available on any number of platforms. His axing doesn’t change that.”

Translation: New Zealand will never achieve ideological purity until it’s purged of dissenting conservative opinions. Greive laments that such opinions persist, but there’s a remedy: the spittle-flecked, drooling knuckle-draggers who hold them should be denied a public platform. How very open and inclusive.

He goes on to sneer not only at talkback audiences but writers of letters to the editor as well, observing that such people are “older and further from the centre of society’s gravity than they once were”. Translation: old people should shut up and stand aside in favour of younger, wiser heads.

Well, at least we now know exactly where we stand with Greive and The Spinoff. He wishes to assert the right of free speech for himself but deny it to others.

■ Wellington’s abject humiliation continues. Earlier this week, sewage flowed in the central city after an ancient pipe burst. Yesterday a geyser erupted in the Aro Valley; same cause.

Interviewed by Corin Dann on Morning Report this morning, mayor Andy Foster made a valiant effort to sound confident and in command, but he’s not fooling anyone. He talks as if the city’s epidemic of failing pipes took everyone by surprise, but hang on; Foster has been on the council since 1992, so can hardly plead ignorance of the city’s decay. What was he doing all that time?

Ageing infrastructure isn’t Wellington’s only problem. The city is burdened with an ineffectual mayor struggling to assert control over a fractious council dominated by shrill, woke harpies. Its finest public buildings lie empty and its most ambitious projects (the Shelly Bay development and the laughingly named Let’s Get Wellington Moving initiative) are bogged down by indecision, sclerosis and litigation.

How long will it be, I wonder, before the city’s long-suffering citizens – especially those old enough to remember prouder times – stage an insurrection?

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Orwell saw this coming

 John Banks can be a hard man to defend, but defend him we must.

The former cabinet minister and mayor of Auckland has been banished in disgrace from radio station Magic Talk, where he was filling in for regular morning talkback host Peter Williams, after suggesting Maori were a Stone Age culture.

According to a report on the leftist news and commentary site The Spinoff, a caller identifying himself as Richard said Maori were genetically predisposed to crime, alcohol and educational under-performance. “Richard” said he was not interested in his children learning about Maoris’ Stone Age culture, to which Banks reportedly responded: “Your children need to get used to their Stone Age culture because if their Stone Age culture doesn’t change, these people will come through your bathroom window.”

The response was drearily predictable. Social media lynch mobs called for Banks’ head. Magic Talk advertisers Vodafone, Kiwibank and Spark virtually fell over each other in their eagerness to display their woke credentials by pulling their ads, while NZ Cricket joined the pile-on by threatening to review Magic Talk’s broadcast rights to Black Caps matches played in New Zealand.

I’m struggling to decide which was more objectionable: Banks’ statement or the nauseatingly sanctimonious platitudes from advertisers parading their commitment to “diversity and inclusion”.

Of course Banks issued the standard obligatory apology, in which he tried to shift responsibility for the furore onto his caller before acknowledging, almost as an afterthought, that he had made some negative generic comments about Maori “that could have been misconstrued as racist”.

None of this would have surprised anyone who has followed Banks’ turbulent career as a politician and radio host. He has a long history of running off at the mouth and making impulsive errors of judgment that he later had cause to regret. He seems unable to help himself. But Magic Talk management must have known this when they offered him the slot. They’re as culpable as he is.

The important question here is this: which poses the greater threat to our liberal, open democracy – Banks’ inflammatory statement, or the rush to shut him down? 

He expressed a provocative opinion that’s possibly shared by some of his listeners. Yanking him off air doesn’t get rid of the opinion. On the contrary, it can only accentuate the perception that freedom of speech is under attack, and intensify the resentment of those who feel excluded from the public conversation.

To put it another way, we have far more to fear from the prigs and bigots trying to silence him than we do from Banks himself. We live in a robust democracy that has demonstrated over many decades that it’s perfectly capable of dealing in a civilised way with contentious opinions. The free exchange of ideas is how democratic societies evolve and advance. What has changed is not the existence of such ideas, but the frightening insistence that they be stifled.  

This is happening with the connivance – indeed, encouragement – of virtue-signalling corporate advertisers, and more alarmingly with the enthusiastic backing of mainstream media outlets that should be manning the barricades in defence of free speech. The promiscuously loose use by reporters of subjective terms such as “racist”, a word for which there is no settled definition, is proof of the media’s abandonment of traditional journalistic principles.

Meanwhile, to their everlasting shame, gutless politicians, intimidated into silence by the venomous rhetoric of neo-Marxist activists, look the other way.

Both the range of subjects New Zealanders feel free to discuss, and the language they may use in discussing them, are being constantly narrowed down. George Orwell saw all this coming, but if he were still alive I don’t imagine he would derive any satisfaction from seeing how right he was.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Wall of Sound, or Wall of Noise?

So Phil Spector has died. I was on holiday on a remote part of the coast with limited internet access at the time, so couldn’t have read the obituaries even if I’d wanted to. But let me guess that they almost unanimously hailed him as a flawed prodigy.

They would also, I imagine, have mentioned the so-called Wall of Sound – the recording technique Spector pioneered, in which masses of musicians were packed into the recording studio to create a dense, multi-layered aural barrage. I mean, why use only one drummer, one guitarist, one bassist and one keyboard player when you could have three or four playing each instrument in unison?

With Spector in the control room, the dial was permanently set at 11. That was supposedly his unique genius, and it led to preposterously hyperbolic comparisons with Wagner.

To be fair, lots of people admired him. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, for one, was in awe of Spector and yearned to emulate his sound, to the point that it became an obsession that almost literally drove Wilson mad. But if you ask me (and admittedly, no one has; the phone has inexplicably been silent), Spector didn’t produce a Wall of Sound so much as a Wall of Noise.

It was surely no coincidence that he was at his creative and commercial peak in the 1960s, an era when the American taste for bigness and excess was also evident in the grotesquely large, ostentatious cars rolling off Detroit assembly lines. Spector’s records were the aural equivalent of a 1960 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, with its enormous bulk, acres of vulgar chrome and tailfins that were both outlandish and utterly pointless.  

It has always puzzled me that Brian Wilson measured himself against Spector and found himself wanting. Musically as well as physically, Wilson was a colossus compared with his pint-sized idol. I remain unconvinced that the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is the perfect album everyone says it was (although it included God Only Knows, one of the most exquisite pop songs ever written); but though Pet Sounds was supposedly influenced by Spector, it had subtlety and nuance in abundance. These are not qualities associated with Spector, any more than they are associated with the Cadillac de Ville (or, for that matter, the Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide, which came from the same era).

And here’s another thing. At the same time as Spector was being lionised for making noisy, overblown, bombastic music in LA, British producers and musical arrangers whom virtually no one has heard of – people such as Johnny Franz and Ivor Raymonde – were creating records which, while just as imposing sonically, also showed finesse, restraint and an appreciation of light and shade. Just listen to any of the big hits by the Walker Brothers or Dusty Springfield –  songs such as Make It Easy On Yourself, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, All I See Is You, I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten – and you might see what I mean. These are big, powerful songs, but they resonate emotionally in a way that Spector’s records never did.

By way of contrast, check out River Deep – Mountain High, by Ike and Tina Turner. Spector regarded this 1966 recording as his magnum opus, the ultimate expression of his talent, but to my ears it’s a frenetic, undisciplined din with little to commend it other than its furious pace, noise and energy. (The original video’s worth watching, mind you.)

Spector was bitterly disappointed when River Deep tanked, peaking at No. 88 on the Billboard chart. Perhaps public taste had moved on by then; the 1966 Cadillac Coupe de Ville was notably more restrained than its predecessors, and all the better for it.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

If it's a hate crime, where does the hate start?

Stuff reports today that someone damaged the Hatupatu rock, beside State Highway 1 near Atiamuri, with a sledgehammer. This could have been simply a mindless act of vandalism (God knows they’re common enough), but predictably, someone has suggested it was a hate crime.

I know the Hatupatu rock; I remember stopping there when our kids were little. They were familiar with the legend of Hatupatu, and how he hid in a cavity in the rock to escape Kurangaituku, the terrifying Bird Woman, because I had read them the story many times.

The hate crime theory has been advanced by South Waikato district councillor Arama Ngapo Lipscombe, who’s quoted as saying: “I am absolutely disgusted that anyone should choose to deface a wahi tapu site. It is a significant site that is part of our local and national history.

“It leads one to think that maybe this is a hate crime. A significant site to Maoridom has been deliberately attacked. There’s no other way to put it.”

Now it strikes me as a bit of leap to assume the vandalism was motivated by hatred, but perhaps we should consider that possibility. If indeed it was a “hate crime”, we need to ask how the putative hatred is being generated, and by whom.

Certainly the politics of race in New Zealand have become steadily more heated and polarising – not just between Pakeha and Maori, but also between the white majority and a few vociferous members (a small minority, as far as we can tell) of some immigrant communities.

Note that I say the politics of race rather than race relations, because relationships between people of different ethnicities in New Zealand – including Maori and Pakeha – remain overwhelmingly respectful and harmonious. But how long this will continue, when ideologically driven agitators are doing their best to create grievance and division, is a moot point.

It needs to be noted that the people dialling up the heat in the race debate are not hateful whites. The inflammatory rhetoric is coming from those who defame New Zealanders daily as racist oppressors and white supremacists.

To call it hate speech may be hyperbolic, but there’s no question which participants in the so-called culture wars are using language likely to incite ill-will and hostility. The danger is that the further this escalates, the greater the likelihood that inarticulate people who resent being harangued by incessant woke propaganda will decide to strike back in the only way they know how – for example, by attacking places and objects precious to Maori.

So while we can’t be sure the vandalism to the Hatupatu Rock was a hate crime, no one can rule out the possibility that it's a primitive backlash. The irony is that by jumping to the conclusion that it was a hate crime without any clear evidence, Arama Ngapo Lipscombe is guilty of cranking up the social tensions that make hate crimes more likely.