Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Standing in the doorway

‘Every dollar that is spent on welfare has to be earned
by a hard-working New Zealander.’ Thus Paula Bennett,
who by fronting the latest ‘welfare reforms’ has probably
wiped out in one hit whatever goodwill she brought
with her into the job of Social Development Minister.
All the evidence is that, apart from a tiny minority, the
kind of people who get welfare benefits move from
work to welfare and back to work again, depending on
the state of the economy; the average stay on the
unemployment benefit is less than a year. In other
words, the hard-working New Zealanders who earn the
dollars that get spent on welfare are also the people
who gratefully accept that welfare when they need it.
They themselves have helped to pay the taxes that make
this possible. With remarks like the above, Bennett
contrives to paint a picture of two New Zealands, one
industrious and responsible, the other leechlike and lazy.
In fact, we are all in this together, as one people: today’s
‘hard-working New Zealander’ (it could be you) is
tomorrow’s beneficiary, and vice versa.

Politicians, particularly those on the right, commonly use
the failings of a few as a stick to beat the many with; to
see government ministers like Bennett doing it now is
desperately depressing. At a time of high unemployment,
where exactly are the jobs for those who will be forced off
welfare by these 'reforms'? Maybe there are two New
Zealands after all, because the picture this paints for me
is of one standing in a warm well-lit doorway driving the
other out into the snow.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The light of a burning forest

Driving through Wairarapa I see with fresh force what we
have done to the land. The early European colonists
called the stretch from Masterton to Pahiatua the Forty
Mile Bush. Little trace of that remains: just the odd stand
of native trees and manuka scrub. All now on either side
of the highway is pasture for cows and sheep. Here is your
open-cast mine, your quarry: the trees were extracted
from the land, leaving a scarred surface fit only for grass.
From 1840 on, New Zealand has been mined for milk,
butter, beef, mutton and wool. I wish I could remember
who wrote the following, but I copied it out of a magazine
once and it goes like this:

The Wairarapa had once been a great lowland forest
and now it’s gone. And gone with it is the humus in
the soil. Once we had a 30m canopy going down
through a succession of canopies to a 30cm depth
of humus. Now there’s nothing but 12mm of grass
and the climate of the Wairarapa has gone up by 12
degrees at ground level.

Your question is, of course: so? Humans were supposed
to arrive here in their hundreds of thousands, looking to
make a new life, and not disturb a branch or a leaf? No.
But we need continually to acknowledge that the impulse
that brought them from (mainly) the British Isles was
both a destructive and constructive one, and that their
legacy is our life here today—just as we bequeath to
future generations the consequences of every major
ecological decision we make. We may not know better
than they did but we know different; possibly, we have a
more developed view of consequences, if only thanks to
the fires they lit. Strange how one sees better by the light
of a burning forest. W P Reeves did:

The axe bites deep. The rushing fire streams bright;
Swift, beautiful and fierce it speeds for Man,
Nature's rough-handed foeman, keen to smite
And mar the loveliness of ages. Scan
The blackened forest ruined in a night,
A sylvan Parthenon that God will plan
But build not twice. Ah, bitter price to pay
For Man's dominion—beauty swept away!

That's from his poem 'The Passing of the Forest,' written
in the 1890s and subtitled 'A Lament for the Children of
Tane.' It took fewer than 50 years for a threnody like
that to be quarried from the guts of a poet aghast at what
he saw—'the fire's black smirch, the landslip's gaping
wound.' How much have we learnt since then? Your
mission now, should you choose to accept it, is to think
of New Zealand as the Thousand Mile Ecosystem and
work with that.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Thousand-page Reich

I have just emerged, somewhat groggy, from the oppressive
experience of reading Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly
Ones, in which a former SS officer recalls his Second World
War experience on the Russian front and back in Germany
as the Third Reich crumbles. It’s a thousand pages long and
so densely detailed that the eye cannot help but skim at
times. But the detail is necessary to Littell’s purpose, which,
as far as I can tell anyway, is to get us inside the Nazi mind
and show us how it accommodated the idea of killing
millions of Jews, Poles, gypsies and other lesser breeds
without any single individual ever feeling, or having to feel,
fully responsible. There are so many committees and
councils and multi-layered operating procedures that the
book might well have been subtitled The Bureaucracy of
the Holocaust. The Jews were herded into concentration
camps not by humans but by acronyms, and gassed and
burnt there by a process of documentation. In triplicate.
Such, at least, was how the Germans under Hitler justified
or excused what was happening. A lot of it was apparently
done in the name of efficiency too. Personally, whenever I
hear the word efficiency I reach for my sense of history.

The Kindly Ones is not just a thinly disguised documentary,
though. It succeeds as a great novel should—as a
masterwork of the imagination, illuminating reality by the
force and scope of its conceptualization. Coleridge said of
the actor Edmund Kean that seeing him act was like reading
Shakespeare by flashes of lightning. Reading Littell’s novel
is like seeing the Nazi war that way, with sickening claps of
thunder to boot. Through the torturous twistings of the
mind of his narrator, Maximilian Aue, we witness, indeed
virtually experience, every possible shade of degradation of
the human spirit. The last hundred pages or so are a tour de
force, from the abandoned country house in western
Poland where Aue acts out, as it were, the history of the
Third Reich as a copro-erotic tragi-comedy, through his
flight across country ahead of the advancing Russians, to
the final days in Berlin—including, even, a previously
unrecorded encounter with Hitler in his bunker.

Many scenes remain engraved in my mind, but for some
reason the words I can’t shake are those—almost certainly
taken by Littell from a true event—on a sign hung around
the neck of a disembowelled farmer by Russian soldiers
who, having repelled the German invasion of their
homeland are now swarming unstoppably towards Berlin
to get this war over and done with: YOU HAD A HOUSE,

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Exercise of benefits

Ah, the heady aroma of welfare reform: conservatives love
to drag it up their nostrils and inhale deeply. Nothing is
quite so satisfying to the political right as the pleasure of
telling the poor where to get off. The rest of us can only
envy the moral authority thereby asserted, as the righteous
remind the underprivileged and the unemployed that they
should be grateful for what they’re grudgingly given by the
state. It allows these moral giants to exercise their dogs,
those rhetorical rottweilers with names like ‘Handup-not-
handout’ and ‘Safety-net-not-trampoline.’ We can also
only gasp in awe at the legerdemain by which the pittance
the poor get from the state is called a ‘benefit’ and the
advantages enjoyed by the not-so-poor (the regressive
nature of GST, for instance) are so taken for granted that
they don’t have a name at all, least of all ‘benefit.’ For the
connoisseur of irony, there is pure delight in seeing the
victims of our economic system victimized over again:
how could anyone feel this to be unfair, knowing, as we all
do, that however inadequately these wretches manage
their lives, at the end of the financial year they will still get
a whopping bonus? Personally, I can't conceal a sneaking
admiration for the reactionary right when it rises from the
trough, stands on its hind legs and brays about
beneficiaries ripping off the state: assuming this semi-erect
posture is often the only real exercise it gets, and we all
know the benefits of exercise.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Here yourself

Wanting to tell your life story, exploring your own past
and trying to find out what really happened at the crime
scene of your childhood, and why, puts you in the same
position as the person in the street asking for directions
who accosts a passer-by, only to be told, 'Sorry, I’m a
stranger here myself.' Why, when seeking directions,
with a streetful of people to choose from, do we
unerringly single out the one who doesn’t know the
place—who cannot answer our question, who gives at
best a sympathetic shrug? It is then that you realize
afresh that, in trying to understand your own life, you are
both the asker and the asked, the seeker and the sought;
and will always be a stranger here yourself.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sphere and loathing

When the blogosphere swims into focus for most people,
it’s usually because of some juvenile revelation that the
mainstream media, for reasons best kept to themselves,
seize on and beat up. I would rather not even dignify any
of the latest examples of this dismal genre. What I would
like to do is point out that some bloggers do first-class
journalistic work that ought to be acknowledged by the
msm: work that involves a bit of digging around and
connecting up of loose ends. Gordon Campbell, for
instance, sought to get to the bottom of the ‘$140 billion’
figure being bandied about as the supposed potential
worth of the minerals currently lying lonely, forlorn and
heartbreakingly unexploited beneath our national parks.
Campbell shows, convincingly as far as I’m concerned,
that the figure originates from a geologist with close ties
to the mining industry, which has an obvious interest in
talking up the amount. And No Right Turn used the
Official Information Act to establish just how people like
Brian Neeson are appointed to the Human Rights
Review Tribunal. No one in the msm, as far as I know,
followed those issues up to that extent. I mention it not
to diss msm journalists but because there's a risk that
the Cameron Slaters and Clint Heines of this world will
give blogging a permanently bad name with their antics,
making the blogosphere a byword for meretricious
maunderings and mouthings-off. G Campbell and N R
Turn are at the forefront of those who give the lie to that.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Unfortunately, although the Government may have backed
away (a little) from some of the more egregious options for
mining in our national parks, it now seems possible that
they are looking at mining on Radio New Zealand land.
This would be a tragedy both from an environmental and a
broadcasting point of view. As is well known, Radio New
Zealand offers some of the most stunning scenery in the
country. The views from the tops of Mt Robinson and Mt
Plunket can be spectacular, in the right light. Native birds
are heard at regular intervals. Hourly, actually. On a clear
day you can see from nine to noon. And there are not only
mountains but hills too. Kim Hill, for instance. Plus
ancient landforms like Hewitt Humphrey, rugged and
weatherbeaten but still standing. These are national
treasures that require propping up, not undermining;
subsidy, not subsidence. Whatever mineral wealth lies
below Radio New Zealand—according to one stocktake,
there are rich seams of tannin under the cafeteria—it’s
not worth trashing a taonga for the sake of it. We here at
Thumbcorp say: No mining on Radio New Zealand land!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Resist them

What we must remember at all times is that the interests
of capitalism are not identical with the interests of
democracy; that the interests of business and commerce
are not identical with the interests of politics; and that
government is not identical with economic management.
Tremendous forces seek continually to persuade us
otherwise; resist them.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Some other group

You’ve got to love the guys affectionately known
throughout New Zealand as ‘the business community.’
They don’t mess around when it comes to letting you
know what they think, except perhaps in the few weeks
before a general election, when, like their political
representatives the National Party, they soften the
harsher outlines of their true agenda. Right now, they
grow more shameless every day, as evidenced by the
recent front-page headline of the appropriately titled
National Business Review:


Right. Got that. What follows, in a report written by
Jock Anderson, is in effect a briskly outlined manifesto
for privileging business profits over the voice of the
voting public. Getting rid of MMP and replacing it with
what longtime anti-MMP campaigner Graeme Hunt
calls a ‘majoritarian system’ would, it seems:

• restore responsible decision-making
• minimize political compromise
• bring certainty to future development
• bring stable, definite and decisive government

What’s more, says that other dedicated anti-MMPer
Peter Shirtcliffe, still smarting from losing the fight to
retain the first-past-the-post system in 1993, ‘if we
retain MMP as it is, or in any form, we do not have a
snowball’s chance in hell of getting up with Australia.’

Minimize political compromise? Good grief. Correct me
if I’m wrong, but minimizing political compromise is
what great democrats like Vladimir Putin do, and it’s a
short step from that to eliminating political compromise
altogether, which is what beloved leaders like Kim Jong-
il do. As for bringing certainty to future development,
Hitler and Mussolini thought that was a good idea too.

All the goals listed above are thinly veiled—actually,
bare-ass naked—arguments for putting as few checks
and balances as possible in the way of unbridled
capitalism and ensuring that, as Hunt so helpfully says,
‘business can plan without worrying about the Maoris or
some other group coming in.’

‘Some other group’—that’s you and me, folks. Us. The
people of New Zealand, the majority who don’t have
‘business interests’ or big money to protect.

The fact that NBR can give such notions oxygen tells us
that (a) its idea of the level at which debate over MMP
should be pitched is abysmally low and (b) business
leaders like Shirtcliffe have learnt nothing from their
defeat in 1993 and remain insufferably arrogant about
what they think is best for this country. Interestingly,
Alasdair Thompson, frequently sought by the media as a
spokesperson for Auckland business, was reluctant to
comment to NBR because, in his view, over-emphasizing
the MMP ‘bogey’ last time caused a pro-MMP backlash.
Perhaps we should be grateful that Shirtcliffe still has no
problem with over-emphasis, as that 'snowball' quote
shows; as we approach another referendum on electoral
reform, it might even be that he will again be the best thing
MMP has going for it. Keep up the good work, Peter.

NB: The actual ‘business community’ and the people
purporting to speak for it are not necessarily, or even, the
same thing.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Thinking outside the square

Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma is a kind of Chinese War and
Peace for modern times. It’s hugely overwritten, and I
struggled to consistently distinguish between all of the
characters, but what a canvas he paints on. This is an only
thinly fictionalized history of what, by way of geopolitical
shorthand, we call the ‘Tienanmen Square massacre.’ You
want to know what really happened, go here: not to some
non-fictional account. It was the most serious challenge the
ruling Communists have faced in their 60 years in power,
which is why they crushed it with such brutality. In Ma’s
novel, the story is told by the narrator who, having taken a
bullet in the head near the square on 4 June 1989, now lies
in a vegetative coma, able to think and reflect but not to
speak or move a muscle. The narration alternates between
the historical action in the square and the current inaction
on the comatose man’s bed. His condition is all too plainly
a metaphor for the Chinese state’s inability to function fully
and humanly. Read this, and you will weep for China; or, if
tears are not your thing, read it as an antidote to the
juvenile outpourings of publicity about China's 'growth' and
allow yourself to believe that economic development alone
makes no nation great and no people sane and whole.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Don’t get me wrong about cars. Cars have been great
friends to us human beings. I co-own one; I drive one.
I once owned an Armstrong-Siddeley, God save me. I
respond deeply to lines in songs like ‘I’m driving a big
lazy car, I’m rushing up the highway in the dark, I’ve got
one hand steady on the wheel, the other hand trembling
over my heart’ (Bruce Springsteen, of course). It’s just
that, well, cars have become too much—you know? We
have passed the tipping point with them. We used to
contain them; more and more, they contain us. I look at
them now, whizzing around city streets, crowding out
those of us on foot, bullying us with their speed and
power, and I see them with new eyes; I see how much we
are sacrificing to them. And I say it must stop. It will have
to stop anyway, because with the decline of easily-got oil
they will become too expensive to run; but in any case the
tide has turned: cars are so, like, 2oth-century? They have
had their day. They will always be with us, in one form or
another, but from now on they have to take a lesser place
in the scheme of things. Take a fresh look at cars, fellow
citizens, and see them with new eyes. The same way you
look at black-and-white silent movies.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Pun and names

Newspaper subeditors and headline writers are generally
discouraged from making puns on people’s names. It’s a
hard habit to break, though, as the numerous Tiger Woods
headlines along the lines of ‘Not out of the woods yet’ have
shown. Bill Birch, George Bush and Rodney Hide are just
three political luminaries of recent times whose names
have attracted paronomastic activity, and John Key's a
sitter, of course; few media outlets in New Zealand have
been immune from plays on his name. I did it myself in a
headline two blogs ago. Come to think of it, I williefully
misused another name to head up my last blog too. Must
curb this bad habit. For a stunningly clever personal name
pun, however, you'd go a long way to beat the title of
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman's forthcoming book on Pakeha
ethnologist Elsdon Best (1856–1931) and his relationship
with Tuhoe, among whom he spent many years. It's called
Best of Both Worlds.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Api ever ata

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t a little bit too much
being made by the media over the exploits of New
Zealand soldiers and SAS troops in Afghanistan? The
television news bulletins in particular seem to be in a
state of almost permanent arousal over Willie Apiata
and the boys. It takes just one so-called ‘firefight’ for
them to start spouting words like ‘heroic.' Simon
Dallow on One News tonight was brimming with pride
about a Kiwi soldier who’d performed a brave action,
and Europe correspondent Paul Hobbs was virtually
weeping with joy. Not to take anything away from
these frontline troops but I’m sure that they themselves
would be highly embarrassed by such a carry-on. I trace
it to a desperate need on the part of the New Zealand
media for a bit of biffo that doesn’t, for once, involve
just American or British troops and packs a visual
punch not usually found in your average prime-
ministerial press conference. The truth is that New
Zealand's involvement in Afghanistan is negligible to
the point of invisible, and whether or not you agree
with it, it's only soldiers doing what soldiers anywhere
do. Seizing on every little military engagement as if it
were the equivalent of Stalingrad does them no favours,
does the rest of us a disservice and—worst of all—
reduces the complex conflict in Afghanistan to a sort of
sporting tournament in which we only take an interest
if our team is playing.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Key words

By virtue of a kind of political naivety, coupled with
a little difficulty in finding the right words at times,
John Key can say some remarkably revealing things.
Here's one, from a feature in yesterday's Weekend
about the idea of mining on conservation
—an excellent feature, by the reliable Geoff
Cumming, who quotes Key's assertion earlier in the
week that the Government could achieve a balance
between protecting 'our clean, green image' and
extracting valuable minerals from the conservation
estate. Said Key: 'We are reflecting on what we think
is right and what is achievable. I think we've got that
balance about right.'

The balance between what is right and what is
? I invite readers in their turn to reflect on
the meaning of that statement. Personally, I just about
fell off my chair.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Lose the looting

Despite my remonstrations against it on Nine to Noon two
days ago
, the news media are inexplicably continuing to
use the words ‘looting’ and ‘looters’ indiscriminately in
connexion with the aftermath of the Chile earthquake.
Foreign reporters and correspondents keep deploying the
words and our media parrot them unthinkingly. I have
every sympathy with this tendency, having spent a great
deal of my life unthinkingly parroting other people’s words
and ideas, but there is a limit. As Rebecca Solnit has so
persuasively argued
, what journalists and those convenient
characters called ‘the authorities’ like to call looting is more
often a desperate attempt to get food and basic supplies by
those stripped of all normal means of survival by disaster.
What would you do, asks Solnit, if your home had been
destroyed by an earthquake and there was no food for your
children? Sit and wait for ‘the authorities’—who, by their
own admission, in Chile’s case, have been slow to react to
the quake and subsequent tsunami—to come and look after
you, or take matters into your own hands? This is not to
deny that some people will take advantage of disaster
disruption to steal and plunder, but to lump criminals in
with the great mass of ordinary people is a kind of crime in
itself. These are people like you and me who would
normally never shoplift a stick of chewing gum but who, in
exceptional circumstances, do exceptional things.

All too often, alas, as Solnit very forcefully points out, the
immediate concern on the part of ‘the authorities’ (cheerled
by international media) is the preservation of normal
property relations. So any attempts to get hold of what you
need just to feed and clothe and heal and shelter yourself
and your family is easily labelled ‘chaos’ or ‘panic,’
justifying the claims of ‘deteriorating security’ and the
imperative need for a ‘crackdown’ by armed forces. Today’s
report in the Dominion Post, reprinted from the Los
Angeles Times
(one of the targets of Solnit’s criticism
following the Haiti quake), is a classic case of the media
faithfully following the usual narrative arc. How does it
begin? With the heroic triumph of the forces of law and
order: ‘The Chilean army marched yesterday into the ruins
of ConcepciĆ³n…rounding up looters and receiving the
applause of besieged survivors.’ The report goes on to quote
people praising the police and army presence on the streets,
but one is left with the uneasy feeling that the people being
quoted are those who were better off to start with (and thus
more readily accessible to Western media hungry for a
soundbite when deadlines are pressing), and that the voice
of the truly poor and most disadvantaged is not being heard,
at least not as loudly. Even the accompanying photo—a
helmeted soldier pointing a gun at a young man lying face
down on the pavement—bespeaks the same old script. What
a sad, tired choice of picture at such a terrible time. This is
journalism asleep at the wheel. ARMY MOVES IN TO QUELL
, crows the headline. For God’s sake, editors, get a life
—someone else’s life, the life of someone truly suffering, not
the life of the comfortable middle and upper classes
worldwide. Make a start by banning the word 'loot' and
asking yourself, every time you automatically start to type
it, what would I have done in that situation?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Lost tribes

According to a new survey, somewhere out there in our
society there’s a ‘lost tribe’ of long-term school truants. The
Education Minister, God bless her, has vowed to put ‘more
manpower’ into searching known hangouts of these truants
—places such as shopping malls. Good luck with that. It may
not be easy to distinguish them from the biggest lost tribe
of all, the ordinary consumers who throng the malls and
megacentres in their thousands, trailing soullessly from
shop to shop, milling around the Muffin Breaks and making
obeisance at the altars of Mastercard and Visa. If ever there
was a lost tribe it’s us—we Westerners trained from birth to
know no higher aim than material consumption, and
condemned to spend even when it makes no sense to do so,
other than serve the grotesque requirements of rampant
capitalism. This was brought home with some force to me
when I read recently that the problem with the Chinese
economy, and by extension the global economy, is that the
Chinese are not spending and consuming enough. That is a
kind of madness; it's like telling people on foot that the best
thing they can do is jump aboard a runaway train.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Driving sideways

To hear fresh debate about how much alcohol people ought
to be allowed to drink before they drive is to be reminded
of just how tight a grip the liquor industry has on the levers
of power in New Zealand. Thanks to its lobbyists, and to its
ever-obliging lackey the Alcohol Advisory Council, it has
never let policy-makers stray too far towards the abhorrent
and unprofitable idea that one should never drink before
driving. Thus we can all continue to dance, however shakily,
on the head of a pin discussing how much is all right, the
unchallenged and commercially useful assumption being
that some is. Not none. Some.

Sensible enough, you think? Moderation in all things? One
wouldn't want to be too wowserish? Yet 60 years ago you
could come across a public-service advertisement like this
one in the Listener (7 October 1949), which compared with
today's advertising directed at adult drinkers seems scarily
straightforward and hard-hitting:


All he had were two 'quick ones' before he left for the
party. He felt fine. What if they were running late? He
could make that up easily. But he didn't. He ended up
in hospital. His wife was killed. Those two drinks had
made him feel on top of everything, but they had made
him slower—too slow—in an emergency. If YOU are
driving, don't touch alcohol.

(Original caps and italics.)

But wait, you may say: surely the message to young people
these days is just as clear: 'If you drink and drive, you're a
bloody idiot' etc—complete with grisly depictions of crashes
and injuries in TV ads. And now there's talk of making it
illegal for anyone under 20 to drink and drive. Well, fine.
But I'll believe in the sincerity of all that the day Tui, DB,
Speights and the rest of them no longer advertise on TV and
in the cinema. Because, as long as they do, with every ad
about the great things that alcohol can do for your social life
and your self-esteem, they effectively undo whatever good is
done by the don't-drink-and-drive ones. If you produce
alcohol and promote it, you're a bloody idiot.