Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Light years

It is a truth universally acknowledged among the Patagomanian people (an alien species who monitor the human race's antics from a distant planet) that the New Zealand fixation on the road toll is a form of psychological substitution. Unable to cope with addressing truly complex social problems—so the Patagomanian reasoning goes—the New Zealanders find satisfaction and even pleasure in simple numerical reduction. A falling road toll signifies progress, suggests collective responsibility, conveys a sense of the nation working together to save lives. Fair enough, as far as that goes (as an old Patagomanian proverb has it). Yet on that planet, where life is lived in an indeterminate, oblique fashion, they reckon the New Zealanders have no idea what to do about the problem they call 'child abuse,' and would rather, for the sake of not having to think too hard, reduce the number of road deaths than reduce the number of children's deaths at the hands of violent adults.

Actually, the Patagamonians are troubled by the very term 'child abuse.' On the planet where they live, the name of which is never the same two days running, to define something is essentially to destroy the meaning of it. To them, the term 'child abuse,' while useful in some respects, has come to be a convenient catch-all for a wide range of behaviours and conditions, enabling it to be isolated from the ever-changing activity systems that give rise to it and shape it. The term even has the curious effect of seeming to diminish the worst crimes of all—murder and torture—by lumping them in with everything from bullying to bad language.

Leaving that aside, however, what mainly disturbs the Patagomanians, among whom no hand is ever raised to a child, is the inability of the New Zealanders to recognize the economic connection with 'child abuse.' They would roll their eyes (if they had them) at the idea that the murder and torture and beating of children could be 'solved' by setting up a committee or commissioning an inquiry or putting more resources into frontline programs. They marvel at the wilful refusal to perceive that the way an economy operates is inseparable from the way the people who are part of it live. Though they hold no particular brief for the New Zealanders, many of them wish that perception could be politically acknowledged and acted on. As one Patagomanian elder (her words are translated) has said, 'The day I hear a New Zealand politician mention GDP growth and child abuse in the same breath, that's when I'll believe they're beginning to understand.' In fact, incredible as it may seem, one team of Patagomanian observers has traced a connection between the selling-off of state forests in the late 1980s and the brutally violent death of an Auckland toddler 20 years later.

Incredible. Patagomania is light years away from New Zealand.

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