Thursday, April 19, 2018

The truth about accents

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, April 18.)

A recent edition of my favourite magazine, Britain’s The Spectator, included a travel article in which the writer had made a brief stopover at Auckland.

She described New Zealand as “utterly draconian” about what people are allowed to bring into the country. “I disembarked to dire warnings of crippling fines for smuggling in food, seeds, plants or pets. It’s a brave traveller who wanders in with a forgotten banana skin in their bag.”

She went on: “To my horror, I was pounced on immediately.  A guard grabbed my handbag, dragging it off my shoulder. ‘D’you hev food of eny kind in your beg?’ she demanded. ‘Boris [her bouncy beagle] thinks you hev’.

“My bag was wrenched from my grasp, emptied out on to a table, and given a thorough snuffle by Boris.”

I suspect a bit of journalistic exaggeration here. Granted, our border protection people sometimes lack a bit of finesse. This is a hazard of their occupation internationally. Customs and immigration people everywhere have a way of making innocent travellers feel guilty, or at the very least under suspicion.

But what particularly struck me was the writer’s mocking of the New Zealand accent.

Before I go any further,  a disclosure. I cringe at the way many of my fellow New Zealanders speak.

The New Zealand accent is changing, and not in a pleasing way. I reckon the time will come when people of my generation will struggle to understand what millennials are saying.

Younger staff in cafes and shops are often incomprehensible. They speak a dialect recogniseable only by their contemporaries.

On a recent Air New Zealand flight I winced at the strangled pronunciation and grotesque, sing-songy vocal cadence of the 30-something woman making the in-flight announcements. Our national airline leaves no stone unturned in its efforts to recruit cabin crew who speak atrociously.

But here’s the thing. As a New Zealander, it’s my right – a right of citizenship, you might say - to comment critically on the way we speak. But when people of other nationalities make disparaging remarks about the New Zealand accent, that’s a different story. I always feel my hackles rise.

Why? Because it’s the sneerer’s way of asserting cultural superiority.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to make fun of the way other nationalities speak, but it reveals more about the mocker than the mocked.

The Brits still carry a lot of imperial baggage, and some can’t help revealing their disdain for cultures that they once governed, and which they still consider a bit primitive – like us, for example.

The United States-based TV host John Oliver is another Pom who enjoys making fun of the New Zealand accent.  The irony that has escaped both Oliver and the Spectator writer is that their own country is home to a wondrous assortment of bizarre regional accents and dialects, some of them almost incomprehensible to outsiders. 

This illustrates two truths about accents. The first is that most human beings can’t help the way they speak, any more than Oliver can help looking and sounding like a dork. Accents are markers of regional origin, social class and education. They are part of a lifelong cultural conditioning that starts at birth and over which most people have little control.

The other truth is that most national and regional accents sound funny to outsiders and are therefore ripe for mockery. This is just as true of a farmhand from the English West Country – or, for that matter, a Welshman or an Old Etonian with marbles in his mouth – as it is of a biosecurity officer at Auckland Airport.

The British are not the only nationality who derive amusement from the way New Zealanders speak. Australians do it too.

A recent example was when the now-disgraced former Australian deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce was revealed as having dual citizenship of Australia and New Zealand. This was the cue for much gleeful satirical comment on Australian TV shows in which Joyce mysteriously acquired what was presumably meant to sound like a New Zealand accent.

Sigh. Australian jokes about the Kiwi accent are as tedious, predictable and infantile as the tired old ones about sheep. But who’s to say that our accent sounds any more ridiculous to an outsider than the Australian one?

Done without malice, mimicry of other accents can be funny. The late Peter Sellers made a career out of imitating Hindus and Frenchmen – something he would never get away with today. But the way the New Zealand accent was described in the Spectator article had nothing to do with humour.  

It was a sneering putdown of a crude colonial – one, moreover, who had the impertinence to subject the English journalist to the inconvenience and humiliation of a bag check.  How dare she!

It’s a sign of insecurity when one nationality tries to build itself up by putting others down. The sooner people realise this, the sooner the disparaging jokes about national accents will dry up.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Trump gives us a new reason to parade anti-Americanism as virtue

(First published in The Dominion Post, April 6.)
This column comes to you from America. Yes, that’s right, the America of Donald Trump.
The current occupant of the Oval Office has given us a whole lot of new reasons to make condescending jokes about America and Americans. But the America of Donald Trump is also the America of Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickinson, Franklin D and Eleanor Roosevelt, John Steinbeck, Benjamin Franklin, Charlie Chaplin, Martin Luther King Jr, Francis Ford Coppola, Cesar Chavez, Ernest Hemingway, Rosa Parks, Bob Dylan, Frank Capra, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Meryl Streep, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ella Fitzgerald, Bruce Springsteen …

I could go on, but you get my drift.
New Zealanders are conflicted about America. It sometimes seems as if the people mentioned above, who are widely admired and even worshipped, come from a different country than the America we sneer at over dinner tables.

But of course they don’t. America comes as a package deal, the good and the bad all bundled up together.
It’s fashionable to regard the US as a country to be avoided. When I told a colleague that my wife and I were going to California for a few weeks, she mentioned that she had once lived in San Francisco for a year and loved it.

She thought Californians were a unique breed of Americans, “in a good way”.
Perhaps I misunderstood her, but she seemed to be saying that Californians were OK but other Americans might not be.

This would not be an uncommon view in New Zealand. Generally, among sophisticated metropolitan types, America is considered, at best, a place to fly over on the way to somewhere more civilised.
Even then, many people try to avoid it. Conventional wisdom has it that LA Airport is the worst airport in the world, although I’ve had far worse experiences in Heathrow and Sydney.

A few American cities are considered hip – San Francisco, for example. Portland, Austin and New York are considered fashionable too. It’s permissible in sophisticated circles to visit these places and say you love them.
Stockton, Amarillo, Duluth or Flint? Not so much. But while it might suit people to divide America into the good bits and the bad, it’s all the same country from sea to shining sea.

Where do we get this aversion to America? I can offer a few suggestions.
The Americans have done some bad things. They treated Native Americans appallingly, dispossessing them of their lands and putting them on reservations where they almost lost the will to live. 

America has propped up corrupt, totalitarian regimes from Asia to Latin America and was despised for what it did in the Vietnam War (although we should remember that it was the American people who eventually demanded US forces withdraw from that conflict).
America is also the home of the Ku Klux Klan – a country where until the 1930s, a black man could be hanged if a white woman didn’t like the way he looked at her.

It has a deeply flawed justice system and a gratuitously harsh and vindictive way of dealing with people accused of crime. Many states still administer capital punishment, often by grotesquely cruel methods, long after the civilised world abandoned it.
In addition to all this, distaste for American ways is almost embedded in our cultural DNA. New Zealanders inherited British reserve and are uncomfortable with America’s fervent, hand-on-heart nationalism. We balk at American exuberance and exhibitionism.

We were grateful to them when they were here during World War II but we also resented them. American soldiers had more money than our boys and wore much smarter uniforms. Our women couldn’t help but be attracted to them, which touched a very vulnerable spot in the national psyche.
But this same America is the source of much of our popular culture. The same people who despise Trump will queue for tickets to a Springsteen concert, use an iPhone, communicate with their friends using Facebook, wear Levi jeans, read the New Yorker, watch the latest Martin Scorsese film and admire the wit of American late-night TV talk shows.

And the Americans I’ve met over the past six weeks, as on past visits, have been unfailingly warm, friendly, open and almost embarrassingly courteous. They strike me as fundamentally decent people who want to do the right thing.
Can you admire America and despise it at the same time? Maybe, at a stretch, but I think we should admit that Trump has given us an excuse to parade a lot of blind anti-American bigotry as if it were some sort of virtue.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

How my heart bleeds for Mark Zuckerberg

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, April 4.)
I note that $80 billion was wiped off the value of Facebook’s shares following a scandal over privacy breaches.
Oh dear, how sad, never mind, as the crusty sergeant-major in It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum used to say in mock pity whenever misfortune befell one of the motley crew of misfits under his command.

I delighted in Facebook’s discomfort, just as I admit having derived some satisfaction from the embarrassment of the British-based charity Oxfam after some of its aid workers were exposed as sexual abusers who took advantage of vulnerable girls and young women in disaster-ravaged countries such as Haiti.
There was a time when I admired Oxfam and happily donated to it. Then it became stridently and piously anti-capitalist - committed to the dismantling of an economic system that, for all its shortcomings, has done more to lift people out of poverty than all the international relief agencies put together.

Schadenfreude - the enjoyment of other people's misfortunes - can be strangely satisfying. I thought there was poetic justice in the spectacle of Oxfam officials squirming over the sexual abuse scandal, and I felt a similar frisson of pleasure when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was forced to undertake a public mea culpa after it was revealed his firm had allowed users’ personal data to be covertly “harvested” for political purposes.
The Facebook controversy resulted in millions of users worldwide de-activating their Facebook accounts or deleting them altogether, which can only be a good thing. Perhaps the social media phenomenon has peaked.

Before I go any further, I should disclose that I’m a former Facebook user myself. I first joined years ago because it was a way of keeping up with news and photographs of my grandchildren, who are spread over three countries.
I soon became disillusioned and bailed out, but I rejoined after a lapse of several years. I guiltily admit that I did so partly for self-serving reasons: I wanted to publicise a book I had written. Whether my being on Facebook sold any books, I can’t say. But I did connect with a lot of people – relatives, old friends and former colleagues, many of whom I had had no contact with for years. And for a while I enjoyed it.

This, of course, is the great lure of Facebook. It acquired its aura of legitimacy by harnessing the power of digital technology to connect people – hence the phrase “social media”. But it could just as accurately be described as anti-social media, because its addictive qualities mean that many users become fixated by digital relationships to the detriment of real-life ones, spending hours every day online at the expense of those closest to them. It offers escapism and distraction on a massive and frightening scale.
This was no accident. Sean Parker, a billionaire early investor in Facebook, told a conference last November that Zuckerberg had knowingly created a monster that was designed to act like a drug delivering a dopamine-type hit.

And of course the commercial genius of the Facebook model, its real raison d’etre, was that it gave advertisers a platform on which to sell people things, while simultaneously harvesting personal details about users that enabled them to be very precisely targeted – not just by people with something to sell but as we now know, by shadowy political operators building personal profiles as a means of targeting votes.
I quit Facebook for the second time last year and won’t be going back. Friends and family members still happily use it, but I developed Facebook fatigue. You could call me a recovering Facebook user.

Although I was a moderate user by comparison with many addicts of my acquaintance, I felt liberated after leaving. As is often the case, distance lends perspective: when you look at Facebook from the outside, its pitfalls can be seen in sharp relief.
Sure, there are good things about it: funny stuff, useful stuff, quirky stuff, and of course lots of charming family photos. But there’s also an awful preponderance of boastful “look at me” posts (guilty, your honour), a lot of tiresome barrow-pushing and a huge amount of material that’s stupefyingly banal.

A crucial element of the Facebook model is that it depends heavily on human vanity and caprice. There is a powerful temptation to blurt out something on Facebook – something you imagine to be clever – and later regret it. Perhaps there should be a mandatory 30-minute time lag in which you can reconsider.
And of course there’s a scarily high price to be paid for all this self-aggrandisement and titillation, because Facebook relies on people being willing to expose the minutiae of their personal lives. That was Zuckerberg's other stroke of genius: Facebook invites users to become accomplices in the relinquishing of their own privacy, and lemming-like, they comply.  

In the end I decided that the rewards from surfing Facebook didn’t justify the time spent. But as I had discovered previously, Facebook doesn’t make it easy to quit. Zuckerberg seems as determined to keep Facebook users captive as Kim Jong Un is to prevent dissidents fleeing North Korea.  That in itself tells you something.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

How Windows almost robbed me of my will to live

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, March 21.)
Readers may be familiar with the expression “to go down a rabbit hole”.
It has its origins in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In the story, Alice follows the White Rabbit down such a hole and finds herself in a topsy-turvy world where nothing makes any sense.

To go down a rabbit hole, then, is to enter a parallel universe that challenges your concept of reality and may even cause you to begin doubting your sanity.
I didn’t fully understand the meaning of the term until I recently disappeared down a rabbit hole myself - several, in fact, in rapid succession.

My rabbit-hole experiences came courtesy of one of the biggest and most powerful companies in the history of capitalism. How Microsoft attained that status, despite reducing users of its Windows operating systems to a state of impotent rage and despair, is one of the profound mysteries of our time.
All I wanted to do was transfer email addresses from my desktop computer at home into the laptop that I was taking overseas. I assumed all it would take was a few key-strokes – perhaps a routine copy-and-paste operation.

Ha! More fool me. Never assume anything with Microsoft, whose operating systems are created by geeks who are clearly incapable of placing themselves in the position of everyday users. I lost several hours of my life, and disappeared down a succession of rabbit holes, trying to accomplish this elementary task.
At one point I searched on Google for a clear, step-by-step guide and let out a little whoop of triumph when I found a site that assured me it was all quite simple and straightforward.

More fool me again. That only led me down another rabbit hole. The explanation was written in techno-speak – in other words, by a geek for fellow geeks – and assumed a level of computer knowledge that was beyond me. Such is invariably the case.
Besides, the computer screen depicted on this purportedly simple guide bore no resemblance to the one on my laptop, although it supposedly related to the same version of the Windows Outlook programme as the one I was running. So I fell at the first hurdle.

In the end I turned for help to two people – one an IT professional – whom I regard as being highly computer-savvy. Both sighed sympathetically and admitted that copying email addresses from one Windows-powered device into another, while theoretically it should be a simple, everyday exercise, was beyond them.
Both went further and confessed that they routinely experienced exactly the same frustration and despair as I did when trying to make sense of Microsoft’s perverse operating system.

It struck me forcibly that if even computer-literate types can be constantly thwarted by Windows, there must be millions of users silently enduring the same helpless fury. And not for the first time I wondered how arguably the least user-friendly product in the history of civilisation could have attained such overwhelming market dominance.
On the face of things, it’s an abject failure of the capitalist model. Where are the hungry competitors that, according to market theory, should be piling in to exploit customer dissatisfaction with Microsoft?

And please don’t mention Apple. I know there are Apple users who are evangelically loyal to the brand, but I’m also aware of many Apple product owners who curse their machines with the same passion as I curse Windows.
In the end I painstakingly typed all my most important email addresses into my laptop, but my problems didn’t end there. I still had to work out how to navigate a Windows Outlook programme on my laptop that, although ostensibly the same version as the one on my computer at home, looks and functions quite differently.

That’s another thing I hate about Windows. On the rare occasions when I’ve got it functioning to my satisfaction, I can count on Microsoft unilaterally changing things so that I waste more precious hours of my life, and disappear down yet more rabbit holes, trying to make it work – and trying to decipher the nonsensical, infantile terminology Windows users are expected to familiarise themselves with.
Such was the case when Windows 10 was installed in my home computer despite my having clearly indicated I didn’t want it. The fait accompli appears to be a crucial part of Microsoft’s business model.

What I require from my computers is simple. I need to create documents, send and receive emails and attachments, conduct online searches, make bookings, do online banking and occasionally buy stuff.  I teach myself how to do what I need to do and most of the time I get by.
But every so often Microsoft throws me a curve ball and after wasting several hours trying to make sense of whatever they’ve inflicted on me, I almost lose the will to live.

In my imagination, there’s a very dark place in Hell for Bill Gates, who started all this, and not even the billions he spends on philanthropy – presumably in atonement for the misery he has inflicted on people like me – will spare him from it.
FOOTNOTE: Predictably, this column triggered a barrage of comments on Stuff from people sneering at my inadequacies and boasting how easy it was to do what I failed to do. I felt strangely uplifted by this, and perversely proud that my failings as a computer user serve as a point of difference from these tedious, subterranean-dwelling tech-heads. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

The wondrous randomness of New Zealand highway signs

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 23.)

I wonder if the people who design highway signs ever put themselves in the position of travellers unfamiliar with New Zealand. Judging by the evidence, I doubt it.

Sometimes the most obvious destinations are omitted from highway signs in favour of places that only a few people are likely to be going to. It all seems weirdly random and illogical.

Travelling north on SH50 through inland Hawke’s Bay, for instance, there are signs pointing to Napier and Taihape. But how many motorists on that road are likely to be going to Taihape?

Bugger all, I’d guess. The lightly travelled road from SH50 to Taihape isn’t even gazetted as a state highway. Motorists on SH50 are far more likely to be ultimately bound for Taupo or Gisborne, but these destinations don’t show up on highway signs until you reach Napier.

By that time I bet a lot of travellers have stopped to check the map just to make sure they’re on the right road. (Yes, I know people have GPS, but who trusts it?)

Equally odd are prominent signs pointing to tiny places like Ongaonga and Tikokino while ignoring major destinations. Most people going to Onga or Tiko, as the locals call them, know where they are and don’t need to be told how to get there.

Some signs lead you on tantalisingly, then mysteriously stop. You’re driving into an unfamiliar city, say, and following the arrows to the city centre, when pfft! Suddenly the arrows aren’t there anymore.  I experienced this recently in Tauranga.

At this point you’re on your own; it’s pure guesswork from here. Perhaps this is the signage guys’ way of amusing themselves.

And don’t get me started on roundabouts. Even on SH1 there are roundabouts where you search in vain for a recognisable place name on the signs as you approach. It’s only when you’re halfway around that you see what you’re looking for, often at knee-height and half-concealed in shrubbery.

Then there are the useless signs that appear only after you’ve exited the roundabout, by which time you’ve committed yourself. Tough luck if the place names aren’t those of the towns you want to go to.

An expat New Zealander on a recent visit back home admitted being bamboozled as he navigated the roundabouts on the SH1 Taupo bypass for the first time.

His main complaint was that the complicated schematics were impossible to decipher in the few seconds available as he approached. More than once he completed a full circuit of the roundabout before figuring out which exit he was supposed to take.

I bet this also happens regularly to people unfamiliar with the SH2 interchanges in the Hutt Valley.

I’ve been tricked myself into taking the wrong exit on the Taupo bypass. Yet driving overseas, I’ve rarely taken a wrong turning. Do our traffic engineers observe the way things are done elsewhere, or are they determined to re-invent the wheel?

My expat informant also noted that when approaching intersections with multiple lanes, there was often no overhead signage to indicate which lane he needed to be in.  The only markings were painted on the road – not very helpful when they were obscured by vehicles in front.

This is a person who drives tens of thousands of kilometres a year on American freeways. If this can happen to an experienced driver who knows New Zealand well, how do strangers fare?

Do staff of the New Zealand Transport Agency, or whatever it’s called this week, ever drive the length of the country with travellers from overseas, or imagine themselves in the position of someone unfamiliar with our geography? 

Somehow I doubt it. Perhaps they should give it a try.

And while I’m on the subject of road signage, how many times do you see temporary speed restrictions in force, ostensibly because of road works, when there’s not only no work being done, but no sign of any having been done in the recent past? Could there be any better way of encouraging people to treat speed signs with contempt? 

Perhaps we should try the American approach.  There, they don’t automatically impose arbitrary speed restrictions when roadworks are underway.

You’re more likely to see a big sign warning that if your car hits a road worker you face a $200,000 fine and/or two years in the slammer. So if no one’s working, you’re free to proceed at a sensible speed.

This puts the onus on drivers to be careful without subjecting them to unnecessary speed limits that encourage disregard for the law. It all seems eminently logical, so don’t expect to see it here.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The snarling and hissing of the illiberal Left

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 9.)
It’s hard to imagine now, but censorship was a cause celebre in the 1960s and 70s.

The banning or restriction of movies, books and even records was never far from the headlines. Post-war liberalism was colliding head-on with traditional morality and the official censors were struggling to draw new boundaries between what was acceptable and what wasn’t.

The film censor featured in the New Zealand media so often in those days that he (it was always a “he”) became virtually a household name. Between 1957 and 1973, cuts were made to 37 per cent of films because of sex, violence or bad language.

Even without the film censor or Indecent Publications Tribunal standing over them, some government agencies took it on themselves to act as moral guardians – including the monopoly New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, which refused to play any record deemed subversive (for example, the pacifist protest song Eve of Destruction) or sexually suggestive (the Rolling Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together).

It was the era of the indomitable Patricia Bartlett, secretary of the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards. The former Catholic nun became the scourge of movie distributors and book publishers, pouncing on smut – a word almost never heard these days – wherever it raised its lubricious head.

Why am I recalling all this? Because in the censorship battles of the 1960s and 70s, it was the liberal Left that led the push for freedom to choose what people could see, read and hear.

Ultimately they won the battle against the moral conservatives. But at some point in the intervening decades, something strange began to happen.

The New Zealand Left executed a gradual 180-degree turn. Now it’s the Left who are the self-appointed censors, mobilising to shut down any ideas and opinions that offend them.

The old term “liberal Left” has become a contradiction, because many of the strident voices on the Left are frighteningly illiberal – not on questions of sexual morality, where anything is now permissible, but on matters of politics, culture and ideology. Their antennae twitch constantly, acutely alert for imagined evidence of racism, misogyny and homophobia.

This is especially true of the social media generation, who block their ears, drum their feet on the floor and hum loudly to block out any idea or opinion that upsets them.

This is a generation of New Zealanders who never experienced a sharp smack when they misbehaved, were driven to school every day by over-indulgent parents and were taught by teachers and university lecturers who lean so far to the left that many need corrective spinal surgery.

The threat to freedom of speech and opinion no longer comes from bossy government agencies (although the Human Rights Commission makes a sterling effort to deter people from saying or thinking anything it disapproves of) but from platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, where digital lynch mobs indulge in snarling, hissing gang-ups against anyone who challenges leftist orthodoxy.

An example was the hysterical outcry against Sir Bob Jones over a column written by him for the National Business Review, in which he suggested that Waitangi Day should be renamed Maori Gratitude Day and marked by Maori doing nice things for Pakeha, such as bringing them breakfast in bed and weeding their gardens.

It was obviously satirical – a classic piece of Jones mischief – but humour is lost on the prigs and bigots of the new Left. Someone launched a petition to have Jones stripped of his knighthood and NBR, to its shame, removed the column from its website, using the weasel-word justification that the column was “inappropriate”.

Public discourse has reached the point where almost any mildly right-of-centre opinion is liable to bring forth frenzied denunciations and calls for the offender to be silenced, fired or boycotted. The silly, melodramatic term “hate speech” has come to mean anything that upsets someone.

New Zealand has so far largely been spared the extremes of intolerance shown on overseas university campuses, where violent protests force the abandonment of lectures by anyone the Left doesn’t like.

Could it happen here? Of course it could. Only last year, University of Auckland students tried to exclude a pro-life group from campus activities, Yet 50 years ago, New Zealand student newspapers were at the cutting edge of demands for free speech.

I wonder what the old-school liberal Left make of all this. It took generations for New Zealand to mature into a tolerant, liberal democracy and now it sometimes looks as if we’ve not only slammed on the brakes, but engaged reverse gear.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Playing the blame game over "Polish" death camps

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, March 7.)
Truth can be elusive. Consider the recent furore over the Polish government’s introduction of a law that, according to some critics, will greatly restrict public discussion of Poland’s involvement in the Holocaust during World War Two.

The new law prohibits mention of “Polish death camps” – on the face of it, an interference in the right of free speech. Yet it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Poland’s lawmakers.

Auschwitz (or Oswiecim, as it’s properly known in Polish) and other notorious extermination camps – Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek – may have been sited on Polish soil, but they were not put there by Poles.

They were built and administered by Nazi Germany, which preferred to conduct its programme of genocide outside its own borders. Perhaps that was the Nazis’ way of pretending their hands were clean.

I have been to Auschwitz, but even standing on the site of the gas chambers, it’s impossible to grasp the enormity of what happened there.

The Germans alone were culpable, but the commonly used phrase “Polish death camps” carried the implication that Poland was somehow responsible for these abominations. And as the generations who remember World War Two gradually die out, there was a risk that people who don’t know any better might be misled into thinking that Poland as a nation was complicit in the Holocaust.

Seen in this context, who could object if the Polish government wanted to prohibit usage of the term? Yet Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu strenuously denounced the law change and even implied that Poland was guilty of Holocaust denial.

Really? Weren’t the Poles entitled to protect their national reputation?

My 95-year-old Polish mother-in-law, who remembers the war only too well, was seriously indignant at Netanyahu’s objections, as I imagine most New Zealand Poles would have been. She interpreted his statements as suggesting that the Poles collectively bore some responsibility for the Nazi death camps, which would have been a grievous slur on Polish honour.

But this is where it gets complicated. Some Israeli critics argue that the Polish law change threatens to stifle debate about Poles who killed Jews during the war.

As is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere between extremes. Polish people were neither fully complicit in the Holocaust, nor wholly innocent.

There were documented cases of Poles, police included, playing an active role. As in some other eastern European countries, a degree of anti-Semitism was rooted in Polish culture.

Against that, as my mother-in-law would point out, there were many well-documented cases of Poles risking their lives to save Jews from the Nazis. The Polish nurse Irena Sendler was credited with smuggling 2500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and thereby saving them from the gas chambers – a feat of extraordinary courage for which she was honoured in 1965 by the state of Israel.

The Polish underground organisation Zegota, of which Sendler was a member, operated secret cells that supplied aid to an estimated 50,000 Polish Jews in hiding.

These examples run counter to the narrative, promoted by some Jewish critics of the recent law change, that portrayed Poland as complicit in the Holocaust.

An article by Alex Ryvchin, director of public affairs at the Australian Council of Australian Jewry, made the scurrilous claim that “Poles were often only too happy to see the demise of their Jewish neighbours”. There you have it – an entire country casually libelled in a few words. 

As a public relations strategy, the tendency of some Jewish activists to stridently allege anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial everywhere they look seems doomed to produce diminishing returns. It has become a kneejerk reaction to allege anti-Semitic motives even where none exist. A possible consequence of this tendency to play the blame game is that people will take the phone off the hook.

Like the Polish politicians who worry that ignorant people might interpret the phrase “Polish death camps” literally, Jewish activists are concerned that generations will grow up knowing nothing of the atrocities committed against Jews during the war.

But in their eagerness to remind us of the terrible things that happened to Jewry, they run the risk that they will be seen as promoting a perception that only Jews are allowed to be seen as victims of Nazism. And in their determination to portray themselves as being at war with an implacably hostile world, they risk alienating people who might otherwise be their friends.

No one can deny that Jews were uniquely targeted for extermination, but others suffered terribly too.

Poles, like Jews, were considered an inferior race by the Nazis. Nearly six million Poles died under German occupation. Many of those who survived, my parents-in-law among them, were forcibly displaced and put to work in slave labour camps.

The truth, as I said at the start of this column, can be elusive. The Polish death camps were Nazi creations – that’s one truth. Some Poles collaborated in the persecution of Jews – that’s another truth. These truths can co-exist without cancelling each other out.

The ultimate, incontrovertible truth is that war is brutally dehumanising; terrible things happen.

The Madonna crossed with Wonder Woman: how the media portray Jacinda Ardern

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 23.)

Living in a country as small and intimate as New Zealand can sometimes feel like being wrapped in a cuddly warm blanket. These occasions arise whenever the nation is enveloped in a state of feel-goodism and self-congratulation.

It happened when we won the America’s Cup and it happened when Lorde swept the world pop charts. On such occasions it can seem unpatriotic not to share the general mood of elation.

It happened too when the Labour government took a stand against nuclear weapons in the 1980s and prime minister David Lange faced down American critics in a celebrated Oxford Union debate. Even New Zealanders who were uncomfortable with the government’s stance took pride in Lange’s famous killer line (actually pinched from an Australian cartoon, according to Sir Gerald Hensley) that he could smell the uranium on his opponent’s breath.

At times like this there can be a certain amount of subtle pressure not to deviate from the national script, which demands that all New Zealanders’ hearts should swell with pride.

This phenomenon no doubt affects many countries, but it’s magnified in our case because of our isolation and diminutive size. It’s plucky little New Zealand standing up and demanding to be noticed. Whether the rest of the world pays attention or not seems almost immaterial. We do it mainly for our own sense of well-being.

Not falling into line with the national consensus on such occasions is seen as letting the side down. Nothing must be allowed to dampen the mood.

Right now feels like one of those times. If the media are to be taken as an accurate barometer of the national psyche, the country has been in a state of almost preternatural contentment since last year’s election.

Not only do we have a young, likeable, left-of-centre female prime minister, but she’s going to have a baby while in office. Even hard-nosed and normally sensible Wellington press gallery veterans almost swooned with delirium at the announcement of Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy. What could be more 21st century than giving birth and then going back to work after six weeks, leaving the baby in the care of her partner? 

In the outpouring of gushing media comment, there was much puffing of chests at the idea that New Zealand, the first country to give women the vote, was again showing the world how things could and should be done.
Journalists promptly coined a term for this phenomenon: Jacindamania. They seem to see no irony in the fact that they delight in using the word even when they exhibit symptoms of the affliction themselves.

Some of the most cringe-inducing journalism was prompted by Ardern’s attendance at Waitangi, where her hosts invited her to have the baby’s placenta buried in line with Maori custom. Political reporters cooed their approval.

Much was made too of the fact that she pitched in and helped cooked the steak and sausages on the barbie. This simple but effective PR ploy – the prime minister presenting herself as an ordinary, unpretentious Kiwi, which she genuinely appears to be – was applauded as if it were a latter-day miracle of the loaves and fishes. 

But it’s hardly surprising that journalists are attracted to Ardern. She’s of the same generation as most people working at the front line of the media, and the same sex as a large proportion of them. It’s fair to say that her political views probably mirror those of many, if not most, New Zealand journalists.

Besides, journalism thrives on newness and novelty, and Ardern represents what many journalists see as an exhilarating and overdue generational change in the Beehive.

For nine years we were governed by middle-aged men in suits.  Ardern is still in her 30s. She’s fresh, personable and seems effortlessly in control of things. To use a silly popular expression, what’s not to like?

Her pregnancy is the icing on this cake, although it raises questions that have been delicately sidestepped by the media. What if she experiences complications, or struggles with the combined demands of motherhood and the prime ministership? No one discusses these possibilities because they conflict with the presumption that women can do anything.

Of course the prime minister can’t be blamed if the media portray her as a cross between the Madonna and Wonder Woman. But it may make the eventual reality-check more painful when the long media honeymoon ends, as it eventually must, and the strains of office start to tell on her untested government with its incongruous assortment of political bedfellows.  

My inauspicious introduction to Airbnb

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, February 21.)

I used Airbnb for the first time during the summer holidays. It wasn’t an experience I’m in any hurry to repeat.

I had booked the house several months in advance. Our son and his family were coming from overseas and we were looking forward to spending some time with them.

The property wasn’t ideal, but accommodation in the area we wanted was already getting tight and I was worried that if we waited for something better to come up, we might miss out altogether.

The house boasted five-star reviews, but no photos of the interior – in hindsight, a warning sign. Instead, the listing emphasised the lovely view (true enough) and the appealing location.

Alarm bells started ringing when the owner told me, after I had booked, that Airbnb had made a mistake with the listing by understating the rental fee.

Call me naive, but I agreed to pay the extra amount she requested. The advertised fee did seem modest compared with other houses we’d seen listed, but it occurred to me that she might have deliberately pitched it low to attract business in the hope she could then talk the renter into paying more.

My suspicions about the owner’s modus operandi were heightened when the time came to pay the extra money and she asked me to transfer the amount to her bank account, rather than pay through the Airbnb site. By doing this, she presumably avoided paying a share of the fee to Airbnb.

She also asked me to label the payment in such a way that it wouldn’t look like income. Why do that unless it was to avoid paying tax?

I should have questioned this dodgy-looking arrangement, but by this time we were in the house and I didn’t want to spoil our holiday, which was brief anyway, by getting into a potentially unpleasant dispute with the owner. In any case, I was philosophical about the sum of money involved. It bought us precious whanau time.

Later, when the owner came up with a far-fetched justification for claiming still more dosh, I politely but firmly declined.

Now, the property. The owner lived there herself and had vacated it for our stay.

We arrived in the early evening – too late to make alternative arrangements when we saw the state the house was in. It was a matter of making the best of a bad job.

The fridge was filthy and half-full of the owner’s own food, much of it looking well past its use-by date. The oven, one element of which had burned out, was in a similarly disgusting state. The first hour of our stay was spent getting the two appliances clean.

The dishwasher, which still had some of the owner’s soiled dishes in it, was even more vile. Its interior was coated with a layer of scum. We bought some dishwasher cleaning fluid the next day and ran a two-hour cleaning cycle.

The cutlery drawer, too, was thick with grime. We removed as much cutlery as we needed, thoroughly cleaned it and kept it separate for the duration of our stay.

There were bins full of rubbish, the bed linen was tired, and when my wife mopped the bathroom floor it turned out to not be the colour we thought it was.

Half the light bulbs in the house didn’t function and the two gas bottles for the barbecue were empty. (After I had confirmed with the owner that there was a barbecue available, my wife asked me whether I’d established that full gas bottles were supplied. “Of course they will be,” said I. “If there’s a barbecue, there’ll be gas bottles.” Ha! More fool me.)

We couldn’t believe anyone could live in such conditions, let alone have the nerve to charge others for the pleasure, but perhaps it just doesn’t occur to some people that their houses are a mess.

I should also mention that there were the owner’s two cats to be fed and a couple of sheep in a neighbouring paddock that needed to be kept supplied with water. We were basically house-sitters, paying to look after the place while the owner enjoyed a holiday. The grandkids did, however, love the sheep – a rare sight where they come from.

The crowning indignity – which now seems almost comical in retrospect – came early one morning when, padding down the darkened hallway in bare feet, I stepped in something slimy and repulsive. Close investigation revealed the disembowelled remains of a small furry animal, obviously brought in by one of the cats, and next to it a pile of cat excrement, which is what I trod in. You've gotta laugh, as they say.

I know from talking to friends who have used Airbnb that our experience was atypical, but I’ll need some persuasion before I risk it again. I pulled no punches in the review I wrote for the Airbnb site and wasn’t surprised to note later that the property was no longer listed.

The remarkable thing is that we managed to have a good time. Some readers will no doubt think we were mugs for putting up with the conditions, but we’re a resilient lot, and our time together was too short to ruin it by being miserable or waging war with the owner.

Oh, and did I mention the cockroaches?

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

I reckon eventually, something will blow

Barry Soper made a surprising statement on Newstalk ZB yesterday. I didn’t take down his exact words, but essentially he said nothing was going to happen in the next three years (he meant politically) except that Jacinda Ardern was going to have a baby.

Perhaps it was intended as a tongue-in-cheek comment on the media’s fascination with the prime ministerial pregnancy. But if not, it was an astonishingly bold pronouncement from someone who has covered politics as long as Soper has, and who must surely know the risks of making predictions.

Just hours later, Bill English announced he was retiring, and immediately the political landscape looked very different. Presto – just like that.

Now Wellington is buzzing with speculation about who will succeed English and what difference it might make. The consensus seems to be that National must look to the 2023 election rather than 2020 to regain power. This is based on the conventional wisdom that National’s fatal strategic mistake in 2017 was that it lacked a strong coalition ally, and that it’s going to take longer than three years for one to emerge.

This is an entirely plausible scenario, but it overlooks one possibility. No one can predict with any certainty that the present Labour-led government will hold together for a full term. Its internal contradictions and tensions are such that it could easily tear itself apart, in which case all bets will be off.

The greatest challenge will be reconciling the strains between New Zealand First and the Greens, who represent polar opposites on the ideological spectrum. There will be ample opportunity for this fault line to rupture, and I think we got a glimpse of one this morning with the announcement that the government might scrap plans to put video cameras on fishing boats to monitor bycatch (albatrosses, seals and so forth) and possible illegal dumping of fish.

This is hardly likely to play well with Labour’s Green allies, whose attitude toward fishing companies was summed up by former Green MP Kevin Hague’s statement that the industry couldn’t be trusted. This puts the National Party – which supports the video cameras proposal – in the unusual position of being able to claim the moral high ground with environmentalists, which won’t go down well with the Greens.

For conspiracy theorists, there’s a delectable note of intrigue here because of Winston Peters’ well-documented association with fishing industry interests. Fishing companies have been generous donors to New Zealand First and Peters was instrumental in the Labour-led government’s decision to kybosh the Kermadec marine sanctuary, which was initially championed by Green MP Gareth Hughes.

That backtrack ruffled Green feathers, and so will the retreat from the video cameras proposal. It will be nigh impossible to allay suspicion that Peters wielded his baneful influence behind the scenes.

There is potential for many more such irritants in the fraught relationship between New Zealand First and the Greens. We’ve seen a few already and the government is only four months old. Green MPs, who are driven by idealism and like to think of themselves as highly principled, will be able to button their lips and play the pragmatic game for only so long. I reckon eventually, something will blow. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Pssst - don't mention asylums

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 9.)

We should always cherish the lone voice – the individual bold enough to go against the flow and to speak out against conventional wisdom when conventional wisdom has got it wrong.

Andy Espersen of Nelson is such a voice. I’ve never met him, but I’ve been reading his letters to the papers for years.

Like most lone voices, Espersen is a single-issue crusader. In his case, the issue is mental health. His consistent and persuasive message is that New Zealand made a grievous mistake when it shut down its mental hospitals three decades ago.

Unlike some lone voices, Espersen is not a crank. He spent 40 years working in mental hospitals as a staff nurse and psychiatric social worker (he’s in his 80s now), so he’s no armchair theorist.

In his most recent letter to this paper, he asked whether the mental health inquiry ordered by the new government would dare question the policy of de-institutionalisation and the airy-fairy concept of community care for the mentally ill.

I suspect he knows the answer to his question. Although prime minister Jacinda Ardern has promised nothing will be off the table in the inquiry, community care is such an ideological sacred cow that no one, other than Espersen, even considers the possibility that the old way might have been better.

My prediction is that activists will do their best to ensure that the inquiry focuses on the supposed “drivers” of mental illness. These will include poverty, racism, colonisation, homelessness and homophobia. In other words, they will want to make it all about victims.

No one will want to talk about the virtues of the old “asylums”, because the word is deeply unfashionable. But they were given that name for a reason. An asylum is a place that provides sanctuary. That’s why we talk about political prisoners seeking asylum and asylum-seekers who have fled from unsafe countries.

An asylum was a place where the mentally ill were guaranteed a warm bed, three meals a day, medical care and company, if they wanted it. There were nurses to ensure they took their medication. It wasn’t an ideal existence, but it was safe and secure.

In the 1980s, however, mental health professionals decided the system was inhumane. Hospitalisation was little better than imprisonment, they argued. The mentally ill were entitled like everyone else to live independently and autonomously.

Wrapped in the warm embrace of that amorphous thing called the community, they would be liberated to fulfil their true potential as human beings.

It didn’t seem to matter if they were incapable of cooking, shopping, managing their finances, holding down a job, washing their clothes or showering. And so they ended up living in squalid flats, boarding houses and caravan parks where there was no one to ensure they took their meds. At best, a nurse or mental health worker might check on them occasionally.

It was an ideologically driven change, but the government bean-counters and deconstructionists liked it because it meant the closure of all those big, expensive old institutions.

Doubtless this bold experiment worked for some people, but its negative consequences can be seen in frequent heart-breaking newspaper reports about acutely ill patients living in the community who have committed murder or suicide. Ironically, the victims of their mad rage are often the people who are closest to them and care most about them – their families.

If you missed the last such newspaper story, don’t worry. They’re like buses – there’ll be another one along soon.

There’s a recurring pattern to the human tragedies described in these accounts. Usually they have stopped taken their medication. They may be abusing illegal drugs or alcohol. Often they are living in chaotic circumstances. None of this would happen if they were in a hospital.

Their families are driven to despair. Pleas for help fall on deaf ears or get swallowed up in a cumbersome and unresponsive bureaucracy.

The system allows district health boards to wash their hands of difficult patients the moment they’re out the door. Too often it’s left to the police to pick up the pieces.

Coroners repeatedly make recommendations about how the system needs to be improved. The authorities solemnly nod in agreement, then ignore them.

The prison system ends up bearing part of the burden too. Espersen estimated last year that there were about 2000 mentally ill prisoners who should be in mental hospitals.

As he said in one letter, "We as a society ought to be ashamed". The mental health inquiry has an opportunity to do something about this - but will it?

You can argue with Mallard's method, but not his motive

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, February 7.)

The census figures say it all, really.

Since 1991, the number of New Zealanders describing themselves as Christian has tracked consistently and quite sharply downwards, from nearly 70 percent to 48 percent.

There has been a corresponding upward trend in the number claiming no religious belief – up to 42 percent in 2013, the most recent census year.

If this pattern continues, it would be no surprise if the 2018 census showed non-believers outnumbering Christians in New Zealand, confirming our status as one of the world’s most secular countries.

As a point of comparison, 83 per cent of Americans described themselves as Christian in a poll last year and only 13 percent said they had no religion. In Australia the figures are 52 percent (Christian) and 30 percent (non-believers).

Meanwhile, there has been a steady rise in the number of New Zealand residents adhering to other religious beliefs besides Christianity – notably Hindus (whose numbers doubled between 2001 and 2013), Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs.

This is the consequence of a radical change in immigration policy dating from 1987, when the Lange government shifted from a system that gave preference to applicants from Britain, Europe and North America to one that was essentially skills-based. This opened the door to migrants of diverse ethnicities and religions from Asia and other parts of the Third World.

In the light of all this, it was unsurprising that Trevor Mallard, who became parliamentary Speaker following the change of government, decided that the explicitly Christian prayer which opens proceedings when Parliament is sitting was overdue for a rewrite.

When Parliament resumed after the 2017 election, reference to Jesus Christ and the Queen had been deleted. Mallard apparently made this decision unilaterally, short-circuiting what was expected to be a consultation process.

It seemed high-handed but it was consistent with his style. And he was within his rights, since the Speaker is the boss in Parliament in much the same way as judges decide how their courts are run. It may seem paradoxical, but Parliament is not an institution run on strictly democratic lines.

After the summer recess, however, Mallard back-pedalled. When Parliament resumed last week it was with a compromise version of the prayer. The Queen had been reinstated – as she should be, given that she’s our head of state. But of Jesus Christ, there was no mention. And just to rub salt into the wounds of traditionalists, Mallard recited the prayer in Maori.

Setting aside the question of whether he should have consulted before barging ahead in the first place, the muted public reaction to the change suggests that most New Zealanders are pretty relaxed about it.

That’s not surprising, given that fewer than half the population now profess to be Christian. I suspect that if the census drilled down a bit further and asked respondents whether they solemnly believed that Jesus Christ was truly the son of God, which is what defines a Christian, they might be even fewer in number.

Many people who think of themselves as Christian use the term in a much looser sense, denoting someone who tries to live according to Christian values. Such people are unlikely to take great offence at Christ no longer being mentioned in the parliamentary prayer, the wording of which was clumsy and archaic and thus due for revision regardless of religious feelings.

Those who believe in the existence of a supreme being will be consoled that the prayer still acknowledges “almighty God”, although in such a way that adherents of other religious beliefs besides Christians can feel it refers to their God too.

Naturally, not everyone is happy with this compromise. The TV news showed a rally at Parliament protesting at the change. The ecstatic singing, the blissful facial expressions and the waving of arms toward the heavens suggested this was an evangelistic fringe of New Zealand Christianity rather than the mainstream.

If I understood him correctly, the protesters’ leader argued that our system of government largely derives from Judeo-Christian principles and that Parliament should therefore acknowledge and honour Christ as embodying and inspiring those principles.

It’s a legitimate argument but it only goes so far, because modern democracy requires that we acknowledge and respect other religious beliefs.

Some devout Christians struggle with this idea, because their faith in Christ is absolute and allows for no alternatives. Most of us, though, accept that modern New Zealand is a pluralist society that accommodates a range of belief systems, just as long as they don’t intrude on anyone else’s rights.

We should thank God, if you’ll pardon the expression, that we live in a tolerant, liberal society rather than an oppressive theocracy, such as Iran, or one of those countries where religious passions can lead to murder and mayhem, such as India or Myanmar.  

Mind you, it does our MPs no harm to start their day with an acknowledgement that they are answerable to a higher power. If only they could make a more sincere attempt to live up to the sentiments expressed in the prayer, particularly the bit about humility.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Time to dial back the anti-Trump vitriol?

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 26.)

The late country singer Waylon Jennings once wrote and recorded a song with the splendid title Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand.

It was a wry comment on the consequences of being identified as a key figure in country music’s outlaw movement, so named because it rebelled against the white-bread conservatism of the country music mainstream.

A magazine article about Jennings had referred to his cocaine use, which resulted in federal drug agents raiding the studio where he was recording. That was the genesis of the song, which included the lines: “Someone called us outlaws in some old magazine/And New York sent a posse down like I ain’t never seen.”

It wasn’t exactly Jennings’ most memorable song, but its title sprang into my head a few days ago while I was reading the latest frenzied denunciations of Donald Trump. 

I loathe Trump, as does virtually everyone I know. But things have got to the point where it’s fair to ask: Don’t you think this Donald Trump bit’s done got out of hand?

The unceasing barrage of anti-Trump vitriol in the media has reached fever pitch, but you have to wonder what it’s achieving. The polls show virtually no decline in the number of American voters who approve of him, while the number who strongly approve of him remains steady at 28-30 per cent.

Meanwhile, inconveniently for Trump despisers like me, economists are talking about the “Trump bump”. The American economy is humming along merrily and there has been a rise in consumer confidence.

Some anti-Trump comment is right on the nail. An example was Tom Scott’s cartoon three days ago which had Trump saying: “Fake news says that I am a narcissist, which I am not. But if I was, I would be the best narcissist ever, period, no question!”

It perfectly encapsulated the US president’s combination of vanity and oafishness and might even have coaxed a grudging smile from Trump fans.

But mostly the condemnation directed at Trump is preaching to the converted. After all, the people who are appalled by him made up their minds long before he got to the White House. Constantly disparaging and ridiculing him may reinforce their sense of moral certitude, but there’s no evidence that it will change anything.

In fact it may be counter-productive, because those who support Trump look at the outpouring of loathing in the media and take it as proof that he’s the victim of a conspiracy by elitist journalists who are overwhelmingly biased against him and interested only in publishing material that reflects badly on him.

Some American journalists are wise enough to see this. On America’s National Public Radio last week I heard Michael Woolf say that the US press was behaving hysterically and making a fool of itself. “As we go after his [Trump’s] credibility, our credibility equally becomes a problem,” he said.

Woolf is no cheerleader for Trump. He’s the author of the recent best-seller Fire and Fury, an exposé of the president’s bizarre behaviour in the White House. 

It was also on National Public Radio (which, incidentally, wrings it hands in anguish over Trump 24/7) that I heard an even more damning condemnation of the US media from another journalist, Glenn Greenwald.

This might seem surprising, since Greenwald is a hero of the Left. He collaborated with National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden and came to New Zealand for Kim Dotcom’s much-vaunted “Moment of Truth” event, which was supposed to turn the tide against John Key’s government immediately before the 2014 election.

I can’t imagine Greenwald is a fan of Trump any more than Woolf is. But to his credit he exposed the fact that several major American media outlets, including CNN and CBS, published a false story implicating the Trump camp in a Russian hacking operation.

The media outlets portrayed the story as a smoking gun and claimed it had been verified by multiple sources. But a crucial date proved to be wrong, which completely nullified their account – and when it became obvious they had got it wrong, they tried to wriggle out by broadcasting a grudging, half-hearted correction.

According to Greenwald, it was the latest in a series of serious mistakes made by journalists reporting Trump’s suspected links with Russia. He says the US media are in such a frenzy to “get the goods” on Trump that they are willing to violate the principles of good journalism, thereby confirming public suspicions that they cannot be trusted and inviting Trump’s taunts about “fake news”.

If Waylon Jennings were still around, it would make a great song.  I’ve got just the title for it.

FOOTNOTE: An anonymous commenter took a whack at me on Stuff yesterday for making the supposedly “obligatory declaration for media types” of disclosing my loathing for Trump. Well, I do loathe Trump. Would this person have preferred that I was dishonest about admitting it? Didn’t the rest of my column serve as a warning that “media types” – that includes me – risk having their journalistic judgment distorted by their aversion to him? And didn't I acknowledge that the US economy was thriving, as this commenter was anxious to point out? Sigh. You just can’t win. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Jacinda Ardern and the Trudeau effect

It’s natural that journalists are attracted to Jacinda Ardern. For a start, she’s of the same generation as most people working at the front line of the media, and the same sex as a large proportion of them. It’s fair to say that her political views probably mirror those of many, if not most, journalists too. To put it simply, she’s like them.

Besides, journalism thrives on newness and novelty, and Ardern represents what many journalists see as an exhilarating and overdue generational change in the Beehive. For nine years we were governed by middle-aged men in suits – men who, moreover, were nominally on the conservative side of politics, even if their policies didn’t always reflect that. Ardern is still in her 30s. She’s fresh, spontaneous, personable, accessible and seems effortlessly in control of things. To use a silly popular expression, what’s not to like?

Call it the Trudeau effect. Admittedly Pierre Trudeau was a lot older, at 48, when he became prime minister of Canada in 1968, but the media reaction was similar. The press were mesmerised by the charismatic, left-leaning lawyer – a phenomenon replicated more recently by his youthful-looking son Justin.

It happened under John F Kennedy too, and anyone who was in Australia in the 1960s and 70s will remember South Australian premier Don Dunstan having a similar effect. Dunstan was another suave lawyer and intellectual whose relative youth and liberal views set him apart from the crusty old reactionaries – such as Queensland’s Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Victoria’s Sir Henry Bolte – who then dominated Australian politics. The Australian media loved him.

There’s an obvious professional hazard here, because it’s hard to write critically about someone you like. Journalists should be aware of this trap – women journalists especially, since they are more likely than men to identify with Ardern. They should recognise their affinity with her and offset it by making an extra effort to be hard-headed in the way they report her, but there’s not much evidence of that happening. You have to search hard in the mainstream media for any comment pieces that are critical of Ardern, or that even ask awkward questions about her leadership. I believe most of the journalists covering her want her to succeed and, consciously or otherwise, shy away from writing anything that might shatter her golden halo. But democracy depends on politicians being held accountable – and for that, we need journalists to be professionally sceptical, regardless of how they might feel personally.

The golden halo effect has been obvious – you might say almost nauseatingly so – in the way the media covered the announcement of Ardern’s pregnancy.  The political scientist Bryce Edwards compiles a very useful daily compendium of virtually everything written about New Zealand politics in the mainstream media and the better-known blogs. Monday’s summary contained nearly 100 news stories and comment pieces on the Jacinda Ardern-Clarke Gayford baby, many of them written in  fawning tones more appropriate to the women’s magazines. Even a few veteran, hard-nosed hacks in the Press Gallery seemed to have been reduced to jelly by an attack of Woman’s Weekly-style baby fever.

The coverage rarely failed to rise above facile, superficial slogans and feel-good clichés. Amid all the gushing, a few commentators seized the opportunity to push ideological barrows or score points in the gender war. But almost without exception, it was cheerleader journalism. Conspicuously absent was any cool, detached analysis of the announcement, its timing or its political implications. No one wanted to break ranks and suggest that Ardern giving birth while running the country might be anything but a resounding triumph for New Zealand womanhood.

Bizarrely, you had to turn to the sport section in Stuff today to read a clear-eyed piece – by columnist Mark Reason – asking some of the questions that need to be asked. Reason used tennis star Serena Williams’ struggles with the demands of motherhood as the basis for a thoughtful and courageous analysis of the reasons why we shouldn’t necessarily be ecstatic about Ardern’s pregnancy. His reasoning (pun not intended) was probably summed up when he wrote: “Being a mother is one of the greatest and most demanding jobs a human being will ever do. So is being a prime minister. Do we seriously expect anyone to fully function in both at the same time?” It’s a question no political commentators dared ask because we’re told that girls can do anything. But not all can, as the experiences of some first-time mothers show.

Reason’s piece is important because he’s a dissenting voice at the back of the room breaking through the excited chatter and saying, “Okay, but hang on a minute”. An informed democracy needs such voices. It makes me very uneasy when media opinion runs so overwhelmingly one way that people become frightened to express a contrary view.

Before I finish, one more point about the prime minister’s pregnancy. Ardern believes in a woman’s right to have an abortion and it’s a fair bet that most, if not all, the people applauding the news of her pregnancy do too. I imagine most would support moves to liberalise the abortion laws, which are likely under this government.

What mystifies me is that the same people can be enraptured about the impending birth of a baby in one set of circumstances, yet believe that in a different situation, it can be disposed of without qualms. Pro-choice activists will say the crucial difference is whether the mother wants the baby or not, and Ardern clearly does. But how can a baby be regarded as a source of immense joy in one situation and as an inconvenient lump of tissue to be got rid of – flushed down the toilet, in effect – in another?  After all, the intrinsic worth of the baby doesn’t change from one situation to the other; it’s still the same human being in the making. Can someone please explain?