Thursday, April 30, 2009

One cuckoo's nest over the flu

When Morning Report led off at 8am the other day with a
string of reports about swine flu from around the world, all
of them mentioning New Zealand among the countries
affected, Geoff Robinson—mildest of men—virtually burst
into song by trumpeting ‘New Zealand’s prominence in
international headlines.’ As if this was something we could
take pride in. As if we ought to congratulate ourselves on
being noticed by the world’s media. As if it mattered. So the
'largest wooden building in the southern hemisphere’
syndrome is clearly still alive and cringing. Frankly, along
with those antidotes to swine flu, it would be a great relief if
someone came up with a cure for a far more chronic Kiwi
affliction—inferiority complex, and its longtime companion
attention deficit disorder.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Drifter's escape

A hilarious interview with Bob Dylan in the latest
Star-Times (appropriately, in the section
called Escape). ‘In an exclusive extract, Bob Dylan
talks to music writer Bob Flanagan,’ according to the
intro, but no source for the interview is given.
Actually, it’s Bill Flanagan, described elsewhere as a
‘leading rock critic and MTV producer,’ but the whole
thing reads like a parody. Why anyone should bother
trying to interview Dylan is a mystery, as he has never
been known to make a foolish move or for that matter
give a straight answer. ‘Everybody has dreams,’ he
tells Flanagan. ‘I’ve always thought of them as coming
out of the subconscious.’ Really? Must say, that never
occurred to me before. As for Barack Obama, who was
born in Hawaii, ‘Most of us think of Hawaii as
paradise,’ says Bob (to Bill), ‘so I guess you could say
that he was born in paradise.’ Wow. I guess you could.
‘You’ve sold over a hundred million records!’ exclaims
Bill (to Bob). ‘Yeah I know,’ replies Dylan inscrutably,
‘It’s a mystery to me too.’ Unfazed, Flanagan presses
on (and here, I think, is where he shows real journalistic
integrity): ‘How do you think this new record will be
received?’ One imagines Dylan thrown for a moment,
but swiftly he recovers his poise: ‘I know my fans will
like it. Other than that, I have no idea.’ No wonder the
interview is headlined ‘Conversations with God.’

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Oh grow up

In a recent blog I discussed the views of the Russia-based
New Zealand financier Stephen Jennings on MMP. I’ve
now had the chance to read the full text of Jennings’s ‘Sir
Ronald Trotter Lecture’ earlier this month: it reveals a
man well read in economic history and theory but with a
tragically limited view of the planet that provides him with
the air he breathes and the means by which he makes his
millions. In the course of a long speech chiefly devoted to
the glories of economic growth, or viral growth as he likes
to call it, Jennings makes not a single reference to the
ecology of Earth; growth, to him, is something that can go
on happening indefinitely for those seeking to profit by it.
There is not a flicker of recognition that the way in which
‘economic growth’ is measured is corrupt and false; an
idol that the world worships, it has about as much meaning
as a golden calf or a weeping statute of the Madonna.
Magnates and millionaires such as Jennings are like
infants with counting frames who think their playpen is the
whole world. Well, they have every right to be what they
want to be and to see the world the way they want to see it;
but let none of the rest us be deluded by their fame,
crunched by their numbers or misled by their myopia. If
Jennings must grow, then let him grow up.

Clayton's politics

Having long thought that there’s less difference between
New Zealand’s ‘two major parties’ than people like to
believe, I’m not surprised that on the question of an
alternative prison rehabilitation unit for Maori, as
proposed by Maori affairs minister Pita Sharples, the
National Party has emerged looking more progressive
and liberal, while the Labour Party is being downright
reactionary. Scratch a supposedly conservative Nat and
you’ll often find a social liberal underneath: a very good
column by Patrick Gower in the last Weekend Herald

shows convincingly that justice minister Simon Power is
one such. And certain Labourites with pinkish profiles
often turn out to have necks in shades ranging from violet
to vermilion. Clayton Cosgrove has certainly done Labour
no favours by taking the line he has on the prison unit
idea. Political commentators like Richard Long and Guyon
Espiner have been quick to point out that his comments
put Labour in the ‘One law for all’ camp that Labour found
so reprehensible when Don Brash advocated it five years
ago. Thus the 'two major parties' syndrome produces such
posturing for the sake of mere opposition. The truth is that
Labour and National agree on far more than they care to
admit; we would have a much more honest and productive
politics if they did admit it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Twisting in the wind

The Labour Party is making a mess of choosing a candidate
to replace Helen Clark in Mt Albert. The National Party
must be rubbing its hands in glee. The simple, logical thing
would have been to let Phil Twyford put his name forward
for the nomination (he's clearly been positioning himself
for it for years); and there seems little doubt that if he did
seek the nomination he would get it, and then go on to win
the seat comfortably for Labour and hold it for as many
years as his predecessors Clark and Warren Freer did.

Instead, he’s twisting in the wind while the Labour
hierarchy apparently tries to make up his mind whether it
wants him to switch from being a list MP to being an
electorate one, because moving over would bring the next
person on the list, Judith Tizard, back into Parliament. And
Tizard is regarded by many as a tired old retread who would
not, to put it politely, add lustre to the Labour caucus.

If Tizard really is such anathema, how come she is where
she is on the list? Clark’s resignation could surely have been
foreseen when the list was being compiled before the last
election. After all, something called the Moderating
Committee, which has 37 people on it, spent a long time
wrestling with the ranking. Now, with every passing day,
Labour is digging a deeper hole for itself, virtually
disowning one of its own and undermining Twyford into the
nargain. Not a good look —whatever you think of Tizard.

I also find it dismaying that Labour commissioned UMR
Research to hold several focus-group meetings in Mt Albert
to find out what voters thought of Tizard and other matters.
This is where political parties have got to, is it? You don't
trust your own people to know what’s going on at ground
level, so you get the professionals in to find out. You spend
money because you can't be bothered spending your own
time. Call it the commodification of human communication.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Through a civ, darkly

Very few of us realize with conviction the intensely
unusual, unstable, complicated, unreliable, temporary
nature of the economic organization by which Western
Europe has lived for the last half century. We assume
some of the most peculiar and temporary of our late
advantages as natural, permanent and to be depended
on, and we lay our plans accordingly.

That was J M Keynes in 1919; but most of us in the 'West'
have continued to believe that our kind of economic
organization is something natural and organic, as God-
given to us as the sky and the grass—whereas in fact it is
at all times conditional and contextual. It suits us, too, to
subscribe to the myth that eventually all the less
fortunate peoples of the world can be brought up to our
standard of living by the continual application of more
layers of capitalism, like paint on a wall. What we may
have to accept, like it or not, is that sooner or later we
will be brought ‘down’ to their standard of living,
through an inexorable global process of equalization.
Because—and this is the hardest thing for us to accept—
we've only been able to live the way we do for the past
century or so because they have lived the way that they
do. Our relative prosperity, our relative security are
contingent on their relative poverty, their relative
insecurity. Even to speak of 'us' and 'them' is a kind of ,
doublethink, actually: everyone is 'us'. It's just that
some of us, through historical luck and circumstance,
are better fed and sheltered than the rest. That's no cause
for congratulating ourselves on our cleverness; we
should be asking, rather, who's picking up the tab for that
unreliable and temporary phenomenon called 'Western
civilization.' Or, to put it as Lenin did: 'Who whom?'

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Nuisance value

A revealing interview in the Weekend Herald with Stephen
Jennings, the New Zealander investment banker who
made and lost a bundle in Russia and has now come home,
though whether to stay, the article does not say. Jennings
says that New Zealand’s reacting too slowly to a ‘once-in-
500-year economic adjustment of which the global credit
crisis is just a symptom,’ and that MMP must be abandoned
so that our governments can make bigger and bolder
decisions and get the country into the ‘high-growth league.’

This argument—essentially one for unbridled capitalism—
used to be wheeled out by opponents of MMP when the
nation was debating whether or not to introduce it. First-
past-the-post (FPP), they said, had the virtue of delivering
majority governments unhampered by coalition partners
and consequently able to take swift bold action without the
pesky need to consult and negotiate. Or, it should be added,
to represent the people’s will. New Zealand voters ditched
FPP precisely because it had allowed governments to take
'swift bold action'—with disastrous results. Between 1984
and 1993 Labour and National governments treated the
people with contempt, blatantly lying to them and betraying
them. MMP puts a curb on that kind of behaviour: not much
of a curb, it’s true, but enough to prevent the recrudescence
of toxic outbreaks like Rogernomics.

It’s all too predictable that people like Jennings should now
revive the idea of an electoral system with an exemplary
tendency to produce governments beholden to no one but
themselves. It should be resisted, utterly. From Jennings’s
point of view you can see what messy, annoying nuisances
people are, with their pathetic insistence on not being
ridden roughshod over. How much simpler and cleaner it
would be to take them for granted and get on with the real
business of making serious money without democratic
impediment! In that case, as Brecht once suggested, why
not dissolve the people and elect another?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Two legends

The legend of Panthera: that Jesus was conceived when
the teenaged Mary went with a Roman centurion, and
that Joseph—an older man in this version—married her
to give the child legitimacy. It was only when Mary
approached the cross on Golgotha that Panthera,
guarding the crucifixion site, recognized her and realized
who Jesus was.

The legend of St Brandan, Benedictine abbot of Clonfert,
Galway, who, in the course of a seven-year search for the
Land of the Saints, came to the polar regions. There he
met Judas Iscariot, who, because of a single act of
generosity when he was alive (he gave his cloak to a leper),
was freed from the fires of hell for one hour every

Friday, April 3, 2009

The G genie

All the big-talking boosterism from people like Gordon
Brown and Barack Obama at the G20 meeting—
‘Together we can beat this thing,’ etc—fails to conceal
the fact that the world’s most powerful politicians and
money men are desperate to keep the genie in the bottle.
What if word got out that the world is now relying for
solutions on the very people who got us into this shit in
the first place? If it did, you might even see the world’s
most powerless people doing something about it; and
we all know where that can lead: think Berlin Wall,
Eastern Europe 1989–90. Even the cleverest banker is
helpless against mass action; even governments are
forced to take notice, if indeed they survive in office.
Already people are taking to the streets—and that’s only
the start. As reported by Rod Oram in the Sunday Star-
Times, business consultant Andrew Grant told the jobs
summit that the global crisis had already progressed
through four phases—mortgage market collapse, credit
market collapse, steep falls in economic activity, drastic
drop in expectations—and the fifth phase had already
begun: social and political unrest. ‘You should have been
able to hear a pin drop in the cavernous Manukau City
Events Centre,’ wrote the oracular Oram. ‘But instead
the delegates kept munching their sandwich lunches.’

Another genie being kept in the bottle, by the way, is the
dread word ‘depression.’ It’s patently clear that we’re in
a major depression but the world’s most pp & mm (see
above), backed by the mass media, will do anything but
use the word. Favourite euphemisms: meltdown, crisis,
downturn and of course recession, a hunble word
currently being loaded with far more weight than it can
bear. Somehow, the rote repetition of 'It’s a recession’ is
supposed to make us feel that it’s only the invisible hand
of the market at work, and soon everything will right
itself and normal transmission will be resumed. To say
‘depression,’ on the other hand, is to allow the possibility
that human agency is behind it all. And that, of course,
would never do.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the day when the press
can run with the following headline:


Thursday, April 2, 2009

The bottomless lake

Driving through the streets of my old home town, where
I was born and spent my first 17 years, I cannot escape
a feeling of stifling sadness. This for me, I guess, is a
place of unfinished business. No matter how much the
town has changed in reality, it stopped changing the day
I left home. I still see the old buildings, those long
demolished to make way for new ones. Every street,
every corner stirs echoes, memories. The air is always
still and the past is very near. Is it true, as W G Sebald
suggests, that time is just a disquiet of the soul? I know
I should have gotten over this kind of stuff years ago,
but it only seems to grow worse the older I get.

Unfinished business; the hand on the table,
a fall in the woods, someone crying
unanswered, the party still going on
and you running away with a stone in your back
about as much, then, as you could take
but not enough now—you want more,
you want footfalls in the orchard,
you want a bicycle cast aside,
you want the back wheel still spinning,
and you tumbling down the bank to the river
ice cracking in puddles on frosty mornings
expansion of body, contraction of soul
a book on the go, the unspooling film
a long, long wait for the train to come,
reach up with your fingers and pull down a plum
the moment of pain still echoing like a shout
the last remnants of the birthday party,
on your plate, inexplicably, uneaten cake
the baffling silence at the shed door
the unpacked item in the case
the widening stain on the bedroom floor
the mystery at the bottom of the bottomless lake.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The economy

I heard Greens co-leader Russel Norman on the radio the
other day saying that a reduction in the use of plastic bags
would be ‘good for the environment.’ It crystallized some
thoughts I’d been having about the way we think and talk
about ‘the economy,’ which is generally confined within
fairly narrow parameters, most of them numerical:
interest rates, share prices, percentages, growth figures
etc. The economy, global or national, is much, more than
that, of course, but you wouldn’t know it from the public
discourse that passes as economic analysis and debate.
It’s not just the exchange or movement of money and
commodities, it’s the way we live and what we do in order
to survive and how the planet copes as well. Here lies the
danger in talking about ‘the environment’ as if it were
something discrete and separately definable, like, say,
‘industry’ or 'education.’ Actually, the environment is the
economy is the environment; it’s all one. The Greens
should talk less about ‘the environment’ and more about
'the economy,’ not only because it’s more realistic but
because it'll keep them from being partitioned off in the
public mind as people concerned only with nature and
trees and wildlife, and from thereby being politically
diminished as a sectional interest group. I know they
understand this: they just need to say it more clearly.
Reducing the use of plastic bags is good for the economy
full stop. Every time you find yourself about to say ‘the
environment,’ pause and say ‘the economy' instead. It
will take you interesting places in your mind.