Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The Bird Is The Word

June 12, 2017

 

 

In 1963 a band called The Trashmen took a song called Surfin’ Bird  to the top reaches of the US charts. It was their only hit but the song endured and these days is best know for the phrase ‘The Birds the Word’ a line I happened across when I caught a segment of animated comedy show ‘Family Guy’ on YouTube recently.

It was revealed to be star character Peter Griffin’s fourth favourite song ever and for about half the episode (‘I Dream of Jesus’ Season 7 Episode 2) Peter drove everyone crazy with the question.

Peter: “Hey have you heard the word?”
Some Poor Sap: “What word?”
Peter: “The bird is the word.” 

But what does it mean? I had no idea until US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited NZ recently. I was driving around Hamilton when they started talking about it on the RNZ evening show. “Is the Bird impolite?” intoned the presenter “Well of course it is” he added fending off texts from the easily outraged, “I am simply asking the question to facilitate debate”.

This being public radio however it was mostly thoughtful people sending in considered opinion laced with witty asides and it was all very amusing but I had no idea why the ‘bird’ was being discussed. Maybe it was because I was in and out of the van and missed crucial bits like ‘Visiting US Secretary of State’ ‘motorcade’ ‘bemused American press’.

It all came clear the next day when I went online and there it was, a story about Wellingtonian’s letting the US Government know what they thought of its current policy direction. Besides the much-reported ‘bird’ there was the thumbs down, some jeering and a big Greenpeace banner hanging from a crane (yes, of course there was).

 

 

 

The story went global and was for a day or two something of a ‘hit’. Was there a better way to get under the thin orange skin of the Trump than to flick him or his representatives the ‘bird’ asked the ‘Fake News Media’? While some Kiwis were horrified by it all, (after all the US saved us from the Japanese during World War Two and didn’t we owe them some kind of respect?), most it seems were comfortable with using the ‘bird’ to express discontent.

 

For the last couple of hundred years the world has been coalescing in on itself and we have been forced to examine and reflect upon how we interact with each other in light of the harm that has been set loose by disparate cultures being thrust together so unevenly. It has been a hard and grievous journey but the last 50 odd years of endeavour has yielded results that could be described, by most standards, as positive and central to this process has been the USA.

With the recent and unexpected election of Donald Trump to the American Presidency (the worlds most powerful and influential leadership position) unified standards of human rights, environmental laws and a host of other measures designed to improve the way we interact with each other and the planet are suddenly under threat and it is unsettling many.

New Zealand has always been a world leader and lately I have been worried that we have forgotten our long tradition of social innovation and have fallen (somewhat) behind the frontlines of positive human endeavour but on the streets of Wellington the other day we witnessed ordinary Kiwi’s standing up and offering the world a potent new weapon with which to fight retrograde politics and this is how it goes:

Whenever a ranking member of he Trump Administration or the man himself is in town, take to the streets and flick them ‘the bird’. It’s a simple as that. Forget the Molotov cocktails, barricades and stone throwing; here is a non-violent way of making dissatisfaction clear. After all, nothing hurts a narcissist more than rejection and if we have learned anything about Trump over the last few months it’s that he is a textbook narcissist so dissenters lets hit him where it hurts the most, in the Ego.

 

As for the phrase itself The Urban Dictionary has this to say:

The Bird – To extend the middle finger and “flip someone off” is sign language for “Fuck you!”

The “Word” originated in U.S. Prisons. Original meaning was, “my word is my bond”, shortened to, “Word”, meaning to, “Speak the truth”.

Bird is the Word = Fuck You!

 

TV Review: The Handmaids Tale (2017).

May 4, 2017

 

The Handmaid’s Tale. (Dystopian Thriller)

9.5/10

Capsule Review: In 2004 the odious Brian Tamaki rallied his Destiny congregation for a march on Parliament to oppose Civil Unions. Some two thousand Evangelicals turned up (he had promised ten thousand) and dressed in black t-shirts pumped their fists in the air and chanted, “Enough is Enough”. Somewhat emboldened Tamaki predicted the Church’s political arm would triumph in the following years general election and turn New Zealand onto gods path. Want some idea of how that might have turned out? The Handmaid’s Tale will tell you all you need to know. One of the most potent and important stories ever conceived about the dangers of ideological theocracy (a system of government in which the religious rule in the name of a god) it has been turned into a TV series and the result is gut wrenching. Essential viewing for those concerned with liberty, freedom and justice. Otherwise The Handmaid’s Tale is brutal dystopian drama of the first order.

 

 

I didn’t want to watch this because knew what was in store: a horror of epic proportions (I have not read Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel but I have seen the very excellent 1990 film twice). Psychopaths, sadists and bestial violence – yes that and more, all of which I am pretty loath to tackle these days (as I get older I am discovering that I am les able to cope with the stress) but it is important, I told myself, to be reminded now and again of just how badly things can go wrong given the right set of circumstances.

The most glaring example of how a society can be hijacked by psychopathy is Hitler’s Germany but this is only one example out of the recent past that includes Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy, Hoxa’s Albania and Ceaușescu’s Romania. Then there is Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the reign of the Argentinean Generals, Pinochet’s Chile and apartheid era South Africa to name a few worthy contenders not to forget the subjection and genocide of the American Indian and the brutal slave system in the American South………. but I digress.

In a future that is only moments removed from now, America’s second Civil War is set in motion by an infertility crisis and with the exception of Alaska and a bit of the Pacific Northwest, the Union is in ruins. A fundamentalist Biblical religious movement called ‘The Sons of Jacob’ have managed a successful coup and have renamed the USA ‘The Republic of Gilead’ achieving something very similar to what we saw the Taliban enable in Afghanistan for a time and what ISIS is trying to facilitate with its ‘pure’ Islamist Caliphate in parts of the Middle East at this very moment.

The result is a nightmare for women and male non-believers as the Constitution is suspended and a new ‘moral code’ is enacted. The ‘Eyes’, a secretive police force charged with enforcing the strict new laws based on old Testament biblical morality, are everywhere (akin to Iran’s Gasht-e Ershad – Moral Police) and brutal with it. People are hauled off the street for minor and serious infringements and punishments ranging from eye removal to arbitrary hangings are now normal.

The judicial system could easily be compared with the Nazi’s ‘People’s Court’ where the accused are formally charged and penalties are handed out with no right of redress. Otherwise society is confined to a series of strange and perverse rituals designed to appease god for the moral waywardness that has resulted in the fertility crisis. The Handmaid’s of the title are those few women still able to conceive and thus blessed are set aside for mating with high-ranking officials. They are both treasured and jealously despised. They are also slaves.

Of course this society is immensely sadistic, punitive and corrupt as all extremist ideologies are and those at the top of the hierarchy pay due tribute to the law but behind closed doors they live as they please. The philosophy of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ is well-examined, reinforcing age-old warnings about those who flaunt their piety. These sort are often not pious at all, more like opportunists in search of the main chance. Images of American Republican notables like Paul Ryan and Ted Cruise on their knees and praying in public outside the White House come to mind.

 

We first met actress Elizabeth Moss in the groundbreaking TV series Mad Men (2007-2015) a few years back and latterly she has appeared in hit Kiwi mini-series Top Of The Lake (Directed by Jane Campion -2013). In The Handmaids Tale she tackles the complex lead role of June (later renamed Offred), a woman struggling under a kind of duress that is almost impossible to fathom.

A student, wife and mother with a job, she is a fairly standard representation of the modern American woman and through a series of flashbacks we examine her life in the ‘time before the fall’. An especially chilling scene is early on in the piece when June’s credit card is declined. “But I have four thousand dollars in my account” she says.

Yes she does, except the new laws enacted that day restrict a woman’s right to an independent life and require that a close male relative manage her finances. Besides “We don’t serve sluts here” she is incredulously informed. The next day all female employees at her work place are laid off and sent home ‘where they belong’. This brave new world is a man’s one and you conform or die. Simple as that.

She is now a slave womb in servitude to one of the most powerful men in Gilead the powerful and high-ranking Commander Waterford and through her eyes we examine the ritual, process and fear that makes up the machinery of the Handmaid system. The Commander and his infertile wife are counting on Offred to provide them with the child they need to bolster their social position and salve their precarious emotional state.

Besides Moss’s contained and deeply nuanced portrayal of Offred (whose head is being kept above water out of hope she might find her confiscated daughter) the talented cast includes Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love, Enemy at the Gates, American Horror Story) as the Commander, Yvonne Strahovski (Dexter, Chuck) as Serena Joy the Commander’s bitter wife and Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls) as Ofglen, Offred’s Handmaid shopping partner (shopping for the ‘families’ food is part of a Handmaid’s duties).

Her real name is Emily and she is a ‘gender traitor’, the new term for gay people, and when she is discovered having an affair with a ‘Martha’ (a lowly infertile female household servant) her punishment is genital mutilation. (Her life is otherwise spared because she is fertile – not so lucky the ‘Martha’) but the after Moss, the standout performer is Ann Dowd (a instantly recognizable character actor of roles to numerous to mention) as Aunt Lydia, instructor and guardian of the Handmaids.

Margaret Atwood talked to RNZ Broadcaster Kim Hill recently and in a wide-ranging interview shared her thoughts and feelings about The Handmaids Tale. A child of the 1930s she was born under the shadow of totalitarian regimes of various stripes including fascism and communism. She describes how these regimes happen as well as the personality types that make them work – from the complaint though to the sadistic and Aunt Lydia is nothing if not sadistic. In fact Aunt Lydia is exactly the type who made the Nazi extermination camps work as efficiently as they did.

 

I don’t usually review a TV series until I have seen the first season at least. It’s for reasons of clarity – making sure that I have seen enough so I can provide as substantive review as possible and besides, it hardly matters if you are a bit behind as streaming has changed the when and whys of viewing. A decent series is going to be just as potent in two years from now as it will be tomorrow so there is no real rush but there are exceptions and The Handmaids Tale is one of those because it is such an important and prescient story in light of the ‘populist’ politics at work in the world today.

Here I am thinking of Trump’s America, Duterte’s Philippines, and Erdogan’s Turkey among others and while the series sticks close to Atwood’s sharply drawn premise it manages some decent commentary on the current state of the USA and the growing influence of Evangelical politicians.

 

This is a skillfully conceived production and the attention to detail is astonishing. The camera work in particular needs special mention with every frame being a minor miracle of composition (often like something out of a Vermeer painting) and an example to all about how the lens can be used but so often isn’t. My only quibble is with Moss’s voice over which veers from commentary to diarist. When it is the former it works superbly. When it is the latter, not so much. Here it seeks to explain unnecessarily what the visuals are already describing aptly. In this context it is irritating.

Otherwise this is a gut-wrenching affair. I began this review by calling it a ‘Horror’ and that is what it is and the beast under the spotlight is not something exterior, but something from within – a monster created by the psyche and cast into life by social dysfunction. This is the greatest terror of all, man’s inhumanity to man by way of extremist devotion to belief and Atwood’s story reminds us that that this beast lurks behind every heartbeat waiting for the right moment to appear. This is why The Handmaid’s Tale is so important; because it reminds of how easily social cohesion can be undermined in times of stress and confusion. Beware, be wary and be warned.

 

Check out Kim Hill’s interview with Margaret Atwood here: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/saturday/audio/201841216/margaret-atwood-the-resurgence-of-the-handmaid’s-tale

 

Other notable works exploring dystopian political themes include:

George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (The 1966 film version was directed by French film master François Truffaut and is a lot better than many critics would have you believe)

The Children of Men by P.D James (The 2006 film is well on its way to ‘revered cult’ status)

Make Room Make Room by Harry Harrison (the very excellent film version is called Soylent Green)

The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin (Like Orwell’s Animal Farm this work puts the ideologies of communism and capitalism under the spotlight and finds both wanting)

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The Giver by Louis Lowry

The Trial by Franz Kafka (The great film director Orson Welles’s 1962 film version is hard work but visually stunning)

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick (The brilliantly conceived TV series is well worth a visit)

Film Review: Where To Invade Next

September 12, 2016

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I am a little late getting to Michael Moore’s latest film ‘Where to Invade Next’ but it was well worth the wait. A typically earnest and somewhat mischief Moore holds up the USA, (the greatest country on Earth), against a slew of various other countries (who are not the greatest) and finds the USA looking a little shabby if not paltry. In fact by the end of it I was convinced the good old USA was starting to look more like a retrograde ideological totalitarian regime than a modern progressive democracy and the comments from various leaders from far lesser countries seemed to confirm this.

A Female Icelandic CEO summed up the sentiment best with: “America confuses being most powerful with knowing everything. You do not know everything and looking at the way you treat your own people I am very happy not to live there. America is a ‘me’ society. Here (Iceland) it is all about ‘we’ and here ‘we’ look after each other and ‘we’ are all much better for it.”

I guess the most disturbing thing for me was examining my own country New Zealand (the worlds actual first progressive Social Democracy) against the worlds more progressive and prosperous nations. We are not doing too bad but our political leaders (especially on the conservative team) obsession with America’s economic model left me thinking wondering at the wisdom of that choice.

We have indeed embraced a ‘Me’ focused attitude over the last 35 years or so and we have replaced community focused ideals with the idea that the acquisition of personal wealth is the most important thing in life and the results speak for themselves: increasing child poverty, lack of housing, poor environmental management, lower wages and diminishing personal rights and so on. Fortunately we are a small and mobile society and a change of government and attitude could quickly turn this around so I live in hope.

“Where to Invade Next’ is thought provoking cinema for the progressively inclined that lifts the veil on the myth of the American dream and shows it up for what it is – a race where only a handful can possibly finish prosperous. Moore argues persuasively that the Socialist Democratic model (aka the EU, Scandinavia and Australasia) is far more successful method of delivering the promise of a decent life for the majority of people. Sure there will be fewer with lots (which goes against the American grain) but there will be many more with plenty and hardly anyone with nothing.

PS after watching numerous Moore films based in the US where he is ignored by CEOs, marched out by security and dodged by politicians, it is a real eye-opener to see him operating into the much more open and inclusive European environment.

Racism in New Zealand

May 28, 2016

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Eva.

Great Aunt Eva was a figure on the families periphery and not long before she died at the age of 92 I sat down with her curious to learn more about her life. I asked why she had never married and she explained that there had been someone once but her intuition warned her against it. He was a heavy drinker who later turned into an alcoholic and drank himself to an early grave. “A close escape,” she mused. For many decades a chain smoker, evident in her heavily wrinkled skin and gravely voice, she cadged a cigarette off me- her last as it turned out- and after a couple of puffs stubbed it out remarking that it held no interest for her anymore.

A career dental assistant and sometime nurse she gave up work to nurse her aged mother through dementia, an all-consuming 15-year affair that come with a high personal and emotional cost. In return for giving up her career to care for her mother her siblings renounced all claims on the families Dairy Farm (at Waharoa near Matamata in the Eastern Waikato) and it was given to her for her dedication to “mum”. With the farm income she lived out a long and comfortable retirement playing golf, spending time with family and travelling the world.

Her mother was Irish and her father a Scot who had been in NZ for several decades living on land he had procured by ballot. (The Liberal government of the late 1900’s had broken up the large family owned estates that dominated the NZ rural landscape at the time and through various schemes most notably the Ballot- a kind of lottery- had enabled people without few means the opportunity to acquire land on easy financial terms). He had developed the land into a productive dairy operation and raised a family and buried a wife before he met my great grandmother who had secured the farm next door, also by ballot.

She was infamously canny with money and she paid for the development of her land by handling the accounts of her neighbours including the Scot next door. Eventually they married, combined the farms and produced 5 children. Eva described a happy and carefree childhood and revealed her parents to be kind, hard working and practical. As she described farm life her thoughts fell to a small group of local Maori, (the former ‘owners’ of the land though Eva would not have considered them as such. The orthodox logic of time held that Maori did not understand the economic potential of land and were therefore poor custodians), who lived in whare made from fern and manuka down the back of the farm where it ended on the banks of the Waihou River.

A remanent population of a much larger tribal group that had been displaced by the land wars of the 1860s, this small isolated group lived on eels fished out of the river and whatever else they could glean which included milk, fruit and vegetables from the Johnstone family farm. “They were dirty ill-kept thieves,” she informed me, “lazy and untrustworthy.” A harsh assessment I thought as I considered their condition.

They had only recently lost their land, their culture had been subsumed and they had been banished to the fringes of the new social order. Being from a co-operative tribal culture I assumed that they saw anything growing on the land as mutual property. I imagined them living in their whare, somewhat bewildered by the momentous changes going on about them, unable to engage because of a lack of education and appropriate language skills and surviving as best they could in the only way they knew how. I explained this perspective to Eva whose eyes widened. She seemed startled at this idea and gathering her thoughts she looked squarely at me and wondered if I might be right?

She died suddenly two days later, the last of a pioneering generation whose immediate forebears had fled social oppression in search of freedom, opportunity and in the case of some at least, a desire to create a nation free of the hierarchical constraints they had left behind in the old country. In many regards they succeeded spectacularly but this was nation of two halves.

Besides the liberal voice seeking social equity there was a more potent and powerful voice determined that this new nation maintain a cultural balance firmly tilted in favour of White, Christian and British. This was to be a progressive society but only for the chosen few. It was also a society determined to undermine its founding document, a formal declaration of partnership between Maori and the British Crown called The Treaty of Waitangi.

 

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A Nations Founding Document.

The heyday of colonialism was stuttering to a close and the Maori encountered the British at time when that Empire had become somewhat more enlightened as regards its responsibilities as a ruling power and in this light the Maori managed to negotiate a treaty the likes of which had not been achieved by any colonised people anywhere through this age of cultural subjection. In brief:

‘The Treaty is a broad statement of principles on which the British and Māori made a political compact to found a nation state and build a government in New Zealand. The document has three articles. In the English version, Māori cede the sovereignty of New Zealand to Britain; Māori give the Crown an exclusive right to buy lands they wish to sell, and, in return, are guaranteed full rights of ownership of their lands, forests, fisheries and other possessions; and Māori are given the rights and privileges of British subjects’.

– Te Ara Encyclopaedia of NZ

NZ was a brand spanking new democracy and Maori were full participants from the start and here on these isolated islands at worlds end the two peoples worked and lived side by side fully equal under the law, a state of being somewhat blighted by the European world-view of the time. The wisdom was that the white races were somewhat superior and deserved inheritors of the world a methodology of thinking that led to outrageous treaty breaches as regards land ownership. As a result Maori were often violently disrespected, insulted and manipulated endlessly by a system that promised much but seldom delivered on those promises.

Perhaps this fight for Maori equality is best exemplified through the story of the Maori Battalion, a much-eulogised unit of the NZ army that fought valiantly on several fronts through World War Two. Maori leaders at the time hoped that but fighting harder faster and better than anyone else Pakeha would wake from their dream of superiority start to treat Maori more with respect.

It didn’t happen and as late as 1960 the South Auckland town of Pukekohe banned Maori from hotel bars, barbershops and general seating in movie theatres. This was neither standard nor unusual and wholly against the spirit of the law and the Treaty of Waitangi. It was also a glaring reflection of the attitudes at work in the hearts of many Pakeha and by the 1970s rolled around Maori had had enough and started exerting themselves to the fright of the nation. Almost 40 years later Maori now compensated, consulted and recipients of all manner of formalised apologies are still considered by much of mainstream culture as second rate though few in their right mind would ever dare say so out loud.

A friend recalls being on a course with a Maori guy who she described as pleasant but somewhat haunted. Though they talked extensively and got to know each other well he would never meet her eyes, a trait which upset her. She queried this and he confided that next to Pakeha he felt like a second-class citizen and a lesser human being. To him this feeling was visceral and kept him form fulfilling his potential as a citizen, which was why he was on this particular course: seeking a solution to his pain and confusion.

120 years of land confiscations and cultural subjugation had taken a psychological toll of the sort that scars the intergenerational psyche and this troubled man was but a symptom of this scarring. This pain has manifested itself through mental illness, anger and emotional dislocation serving the behavioural dysfunction that many Pakeha identify as a Maori trait.

 

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A Covertly Racist Society.

The Maori were not the only people to suffer from Pakeha notions racial superiority. Until the 1960s immigration laws were covertly structured to exclude or dissuade anyone not of British or Irish origin including Indians, a policy that was seriously questioned by the UK who considered Indians to be British subjects. While Scandinavian’s, Czech’s, German’s and French got a relatively easy time (NZ often struggled to find enough suitable migrants and when quotas were not filled, Western Europe was the next best stop though few could be persuaded to travel so far from home) the more exotic Dalmatian’s (a major migrant group originating from Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast) found themselves restricted and frequently victimised by laws designed to favour people of British heritage.

During the Second World War NZ accepted 734-orphaned Polish children at the behest of the Polish government in exile. These children infamously found themselves in a climate informed by suspicion and prejudice and were hardly able to cope unlike the robust working class Dutch adults who, fulfilling NZ’s requirements for white similarity, flooded a post war country desperate for skilled tradesmen. Many came from the former Dutch colony of Indonesia and some unfortunates discovered that even a drop of Indonesian blood disqualified them as suitable migrant material.

Early Chinese migrants lured here by the prospect of finding riches on the Otago goldfields in the 1860’s encountered appalling racism and a tax designed to discourage them. The nation was wary of the ‘Yellow Peril’ (it was feared that the Chinese might overrun us through sheer force of numbers) and besides they were heathen opium smokers with strange ways. In 2002 the NZ Government formally apologised to the local Chinese community for past injustices yet despite this acknowledgement the Chinese remain the first port of call when the media need someone to blame for whatever trouble is about- everything from bad driving to property prices.

That same year the Government also apologised to Western Samoa for the abuse this community suffered while a colony of New Zealand (1920-35), which brings to mind the 1970s and the lot of Polynesian migrants who had arrived in droves through the 1950s to fill labour shortages in factories. By the 1970s the economy was undergoing decline and these same migrants were now a useful scapegoat for governments seeking easy solutions to complex problems.

These events, much like our cosy relationship with apartheid era South Africa stand today as rank examples of how low Pakeha can sink when given the chance. With South Africa we reached a kind of nadir when we succumbed time and again to requests from the apartheid -era South African government to exclude players of colour from touring the country with the All-Blacks.

The Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team, played their first match against the NZ Natives during their 1921 tour of NZ and it was reported that it disgusted them. The All-Blacks excluded Maori players from their 1928 South African tour at the request of the South African government and though the Springbok refused to play a ‘native’ team on their 1937 visit to NZ, Maori were not excluded from the All-Blacks.

In 1959 the All-Blacks were invited to tour South Africa and again were asked to leave out players of colour. The outrage at this grievous insult to Maori reached fever pitch with 160,000 people signing an anti-tour petition and thousands more marching down the mainstreets of the nation in protest, all to no-avail.

The rugby field was the one place where Maori and Pakeha found unity and common cause and with this decision the Pakeha administered game of Rugby, blinded by its own self-regard, handed Maori one hell of a slap in the face proving once again that despite the promise of Waitangi, this was a Pakeha country and when push cam to shove, Maori be damned. It took until 1981 for the Rugby Union to change its ways and only after some of the most virulent public protests this country has ever seen.

A Department of External Affairs memorandum from 1953 stated: “Our immigration is based firmly on the principle that we are and intend to remain a country of European development. It is inevitably discriminatory against Asians – indeed against all persons who are not wholly of European race and colour. Whereas we have done much to encourage immigration from Europe, we do everything to discourage it from Asia.’

By the 1960s NZ began to re-examine its ideas about race and culture and in 1971 the then Prime Minister Norman Kirk argued that our future as a people lay with Asia and the Pacific and we should no longer judge migrants on colour, race and religion. Finally we had begun our long march toward a better standard of human regard.

 

Pākehā is a Māori language term for New Zealanders who are “of European descent.”

Eva, like many of her generation, had never stopped to properly examine the circumstance of the Maori and her experience with a small and disparate band without means living at on the margins had forever framed her outlook, an outlook not uncommon amongst Pakeha of that era. I remember as a child listening to adults publically describing Maori in less than generous terms. By the time I had become an adult the only thing that had changed was that now it that it had become unacceptable to voice these kinds of thoughts out loud and in public. The terms had changed but the method has become more surreptitious.

Maori had bent under the weight on the Pakeha onslaught but eventually sprung back and using Pakeha law, the same law that undid them in the first place, forced the nation to address injustice and while Pakeha have finally acknowledged their treaty obligations certain attitudes remain unchanged (though not unchallenged). Comments behind closed doors like “I am not racist but………” and devious jokes designed to belittle and reinforce stereotypical notions of Maoridom sadly abound. Despite our shared history, Maori remain in many minds the somewhat lesser cousin: tolerated, occasionally respected but somehow never quite up to the mark.

Ides of racial superiority have morphed into resentment about the cost of Treaty, which really hasn’t cost much considering the current value of land and its bounty. Mostly the treaty cash has given Maori enterprise capital and across the nation tribes have been building profitable endeavours that have contributed not insubstantially to the overall wealth and wellbeing of the nation.

Pakeha judgement casts a long shadow and while we deny our racism but it is an undeniable undercurrent that haunts perception. Parliamentary speeches going back a century demonstrate that alongside discriminating and dissenting voices are other voices that recognise the plight of Maori and have long sought redress and redemption. It has been a long battle that remains unresolved in many hearts and minds here in Aotearoa.

 

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Racism Is Alive and Well Though Not Unchallenged.

There is a strain of decency running deep through the heart of Pakeha culture but when confronted by challenges to the cultural status quo we often slip into racial cliché and confused garbling as we seek to reconsider the world and our position in it. Not all of us, but an aspect of us and this reaction is natural if misshapen. Eva was an average person of her time whose truth was shaped by a particular mythology about the world and the white persons place in it. It is a mythology that no longer dominates but regardless Pakeha racism remains alive and active.

I remember my first day as Sales Manager for an Auckland company in 2010. I opened the previous managers company email to discover that some of the staff were sharing anti-Maori jokes. I confronted the people in question and were met with shame-faced denials. I understood that these actions were more to do with thoughtlessness than anything else, much like the words I encountered one day while travelling across Hamilton on a city bus.

I was the helpless and unfortunate witness to a very loud conversation between a group of Pakeha high school girls sitting in the seat immediately behind me. “Where do get off?” asks one girl of another. The girl explains and her companion responds “Oh, that’s a dirty Maori suburb.” “Yeah I know,” she responded, “I hate Maoris.” Her friend laughs “Oh me too.” Sitting behind them were several Maori, both young and old. Like me I am sure they had no choice but to hear and I felt shocked and upset for them, myself and the girls in question. Sometimes ignorance is simply what it is and sometimes it is wilful. I hope in this case it was just plain old ignorance informed by youthful thoughtlessness.

 

On the bright side I spent several hours on the streets of Auckland talking to Asian and Indian students about Kiwi’s and racism. The response was positive and along the lines of “Kiwi’s are very nice and helpful and no, I have not encountered any racism.” The only negative came from a group of Saudi Arabian boys who were angry at the way Kiwi men interacted with women. “The have no respect, they treat woman as friends and equals and this is against our culture.” To a tee they found this offensive and especially so in regard to their female compatriots. “Kiwi men should not talk with them in such a friendly manner, this is very bad and they insult us when they chat with strangers the way they should only chat with their sisters or mother.”

Culture is a complex thing and should be navigated with care and informed consideration by all sides. Too often this is not the case and results are not pretty. My immediate mental response to these boys was to think “your cultural perspective is outdated” and perhaps I should have said something but I remembered another conversation with a young Saudi woman who is in NZ studying computer science. (She chose NZ because of its reputation for peace, safety and kindness).

Her widowed father, guardian to a family of daughters, did not see the world in this way at all and his daughter described him as “enlightened” and “encouraging”. This and stories I has been reading about female activism in part of the world give me hope that the outlook of these boys is essentially doomed. History is against them and the wars raging across the Middle East at this time are in part but a response to the momentous changes sweeping through the hearts and minds in the Middle East. New ideas about culture and society are displacing the old and the old is responding with anger, the only method it has left in its fight to remain relevant.

 

Changing Attitudes.

NZ has come a long way over the last 50 odd years. This once racist society has overcome its worst tendencies and is now ranked consistently among the world’s most open and progressive societies. It is a socially bold young nation and our ability to overcome our worst tendencies is a great lesson for the world at large. We must never forget the wrongs that we have perpetuated and the ease at which we often gravitate toward the lowest common denominator but nor should be underestimate our strong collective impulse for better and fairer.

This is a nation without a formal document to define us, our constitution is unwritten but it exists deep in our communal heart. It asks us to be fair and decent, to live and let live, to be trustworthy, virtuous and honest, to consider those with less and to be compassionate in our approach to all things. Pakeha follow this method vigorously as regards other Pakeha but sometimes forget that ‘me’ is actually ‘we’ and that ‘we’ includes Maori, Asian, Polynesian, Indian and all the other diverse peoples with whom we share these islands.

Resentments and misunderstanding still discolour the relationship between the two peoples central to the life of this nation and there is still much healing required before Maori can properly stand tall amidst humanities vast cultural swirl and as for Pakeha…… a little more self-reflective soul searching would do us all a world of good.

The future is a world is one where humanity is not defined by colour, religion or sexuality but by the quality of our actions. Some of us already know this, some are still learning it, others deny it and some have yet to consider it. This is humanity in motion today, an evolving broader culture fuelled by better access to information available beyond the old physical and mental borders that defined us before the age of super-fast communications.

Racism is composed of many factors, some being informed by an instinctual mistrust of strangers (those whose colour and culture are different to our own) and others being informed by social conditioning. I remember as a child being possessed of negative racial notions toward Maori and others, notions inherited from my family and community but as I grew into myself I discovered that these feeling were not my own and I was able to easily shuck them off. To my relief I discovered that I was essentially colour blind and that I viewed culture not as an irrefutable natural law set in stone, rather as a series of habits: some good, some bad making culture –in my mind at least – a malleable method of social organisation capable of positive evolution.

When I sat down to write this story I had little idea of the journey and challenges ahead and how little I actually knew about my own cultures racist past. The research, thinking and consideration has been a cathartic experience that has done my heart and mind a world of good. This effort has better informed me, altered my perceptions and made me better than I was. Who could ask for more?

 

Epilogue:

Though I did not agree with her brand of middle class Pakeha politics I always liked Eva and we become great friends towards the end of her life. I will forever remain grateful to her for that conversation as it sparked something in me that facilitated change. I lived and worked in a small community whose conservative social views clashed with my own my liberal inclinations and still young and unsure of my own voice I had gotten used to nodding my head in agreement with things I did not agree with in order to maintain peace. After that encouraging talk with Eva I felt less inclined to do so and with her death following soon after it freed me of the need to consider regard when discussing difficult topics with loved ones.

Besides the sunroom, kitchen, bathroom and one bedroom Eva kept the rest of her 1940s brick and tile house in the Hamilton suburb of Hillcrest effectively sealed. She had no need of it and kept the heavy curtains tightly drawn. The house was dark, cool and quiet, an odd oasis of peace. She was dutiful, cared for her extended family and possessed a good heart capable of grand sacrifice and I could not help but think that has she been born back in Ireland she might have spent out her days serving as a Nun.

Whenever I called in National Radio was playing in the background and the Herald and the Listener were spread out on the little table in the cosy sunroom out the back. She loved Winston Peters and his brand of opportunistic politics: “I like what he says,” she would say but I was never going to agree with her on that topic so I kept my mouth shut and let her talk.

She was a champion of the golf player and several engraved cups in the cabinet at the Walton course where she was a member are probably the only physical proofs left outside her gravestone to remind us that she once walked the earth. Those who knew her in person are now few and far between. Eva is buried at the cemetery off Morrinsville Road near Hamilton and lies next to her beloved mother, Mary. Her time was due as were her generations general attitudes toward non-Pakeha peoples.

 

 

 

Raul Castro and Why he should have Negotiated the TPP For NZ.

April 4, 2016

 

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Cuban President Raul Castro.

“Democracy and the Free Market,” Obama beamed to his Cuban audience outlining the path to prosperity.

“Free Health Care, University and gender pay equality,” Cuban President Raul Castro shot back reminding America before it starts telling Cuba what to do it needs to gets its own house in order first.

The context was Obama’s recent and historic visit to Communist Cuba who have been on America’s blacklist since the early 1960’s when a plan to host Soviet nuclear missiles and point them at Washington didn’t go down as well as everyone on the ‘yes’ side might have hoped. With the world only moments away from nuclear war the Soviets backed down but it has taken this long for the US and Cuba to start properly speaking again.

While Cuba is certainly no great model of democratic freedom Castro had a point, taking America to task as he did about social equity. To his credit Obama acknowledged this gracefully responding, “America is not above criticism.” A nicely played piece of diplomacy where he suggested ever so subtly that America is, in certain areas of social development, behind the main thrust of developed nations and really needs to start getting in on the game.

America’s evangelical mission to democratise the world belies the fact that its own Democracy rates down the scale for effectiveness and transparency. It is a system whose integrity has latterly been undermined by a vast industry of lobbyists who spend some nine billion US dollars a year buying influence from elected representatives, a practice outlawed or severely constrained by most other mature democracies.

American law considers lobbying to be fully in line with the nations constitutional right of free speech and despite the myriad regulations aimed at keeping lobbying above board, politicians and special interests are forever finding new ways of subverting the rules. The money is just too good to ignore and as we all know, money can be a terribly corrupting influence when mixed into a political cocktail.

As for the Free Market, that shinning brass ring of a world where business is conducted on a level playing field across international borders and where goods and services flow unimpeded from farm and factory to consumer without trade barriers and subsidises distorting competitive value……. America’s rhetoric belies the actuality.

America is still home to some of the most restrictive trade barriers in place anywhere and the nation supports a bewildering array of manufacturing, farming and other subsidies that make a mockery of the so called ‘Free Market Purity’ of the American business model. America is a nation who encourages one and all to open their doors to American business without properly reciprocating. This ‘Do as I say not as I do’ position grates but it is impossible to argue with a nation as immersed in it’s own mythology as America is.

Americas’ central vanity is that it is world’s greatest country in every conceivable way and if your country is not like America then it is somehow wrong. “This great country,” “This great city,” “This great State,” the words that preface every American introduction to all things America. Yet America at times seems like the fervent Evangelical Christian Preacher who stands and decries immoral lifestyles to his rapturous audience while entertaining rent boys in clandestine motel rooms. America’s problem is that it talks the talk without fully committing to its own idealism.

If all this sounds Anti-American, then I apologise. There is much to admire about this democratic collective and it’s manyfold positive contributions to the world but its tendency to wave the flag of superiority in defence of its position does not stand up to rational scrutiny. The now infamous scene from the opening episode of the US TV series ‘Newsroom’ (2012-14) underscores this point. The star anchor of a fictional network Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is asked during a public Q&A: “Why is America the greatest country in the World?” His answer was so astonishing it became actual news and perhaps the first time someone fictional or otherwise actually said what many Americans already suspected but were reluctant to articulate least they be perceived as unpatriotic:

Will: There’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labour force, and number 4 in exports. We lead the world in only 3 categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defence spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined. 25 of whom are allies. Now, none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student. But you, nonetheless, are without a doubt a member of the worst, period, generation, period, ever, period, so when you ask, “what makes us the greatest country in the world?” I dunno know what the fuck you’re talking about! Yosemite? It sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons, we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons, we waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbours. We put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it, it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in our last election, and we didn’t we didn’t scare so easy. We were able to be all these things, and to do all these things, because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered. First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.  Enough?

 

The advent of the TPP ( an American led international free trade deal between Pacific nations including New Zealand) has bought New Zealand closer to the American method than ever before and perhaps the time has come for this little trading nation to examine its heart with the goal of confirming our place in the world. NZ is a robust and pioneering Socialist Democracy with a long tradition of human rights focused public organisation. We are secular, progressive, caring, generous and commercially sharp, having traded our way to first world prosperity despite our distance from often-hostile international markets. Our problem lies with the deference we tend to bestow toward other nations while failing to acknowledge our own strength as an international leader, opinion maker and all round positive influence, one who indeed walks the walk while talking the talk when it comes to human rights, commitment to democratic values, freedom of expression and free trade.

We are in danger of selling aspects of our soul for a slice of the American pie, that while a tasty enough tends toward empty calories and second-rate pastry fat. While we grapple with the supposed promise of the TPP we are forgetting the potential of our existing free trade deals, ones we have negotiated off our own bat and all without the caveats that come with US style horse-trading. America not only wants our business, it wants our hearts and souls as well and the concessions we have agreed to, aka Pharmac, underline the potential dangers ahead as regards our rights to democratic self-determination.

While I may not be fully in tune with Raul Castro’s politics (Cuba’s treatment of dissidents is questionable) I certainly admire his balls: ‘you wasn’t to trade with us America? Fine, just none of your bullshit please. We go into this as equals or not at all’. Sadly, NZ has erred toward the ‘bend over and pick up the soap’ route, afraid that if we don’t do as we are told we will end up excluded from the holy grail of markets, Club USA.

Prosperity and Austerity: A Brief History of the Economic Tensions that Define Modern New Zealand.

March 22, 2016

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John A Lee 1936.

John A Lee: Portrait of a Well Meaning Extremist.

John A Lee was 21 when the First World War broke out. He had been on the road since he was 14, sleeping rough and eating inadequately. He had been in and out of institutions (mostly for petty theft) and had picked up tuberculosis somewhere along the way. Not especially interested in the idea of fighting for King and Country he nevertheless volunteered immediately imaging death on the battlefield preferable to death in a hospital bed if that was the way his disease was going to take him. It was the condition of his lungs kept him out of uniform but he persisted and with the help of an understanding Doctor was finally able to join the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces in 1916. He often said that he went to war as an observer and not as an ardent soldier nevertheless his time in service was remarkable.

He singlehandedly captured four German soldiers manning a machine gun emplacement on the Wytschaete Road near Messines in Belgium in 1916 and later that same year saved his Taranaki Company from a machine gun nest when he and two others crept up around behind it and captured forty two men and two machine guns. His left forearm was amputated after he was caught in an explosion during the Battle of the Somme in September 1916 and his war was over. For his efforts he was awarded the DCM, The Distinguished Conduct Medal.

His war adventures go some way toward describing his character and temperement but only pain half the picture. Born in 1891 he was the child of a solo mother in a time when such a thing was considered shocking. (His father was by all accounts a wild and charismatic entertainer with a gambling habit). His siblings shared different fathers and his mother often sought charitable help to keep everyone fed. He described their family life as one of ‘grinding poverty.’

He attended school infrequently and drifted into a life of petty crime. A sometime ward of the state he experienced the harsh indignities of the workhouse/borstal system (the infamous Burnham Industrial School) an experience that was to inform him for the rest of his life. An incorrigible escapee he was often on the run and through various misadventures learned the art of subterfuge in order to maintain his freedom.

He educated himself at provincial libraries and remained a voracious reader throughout his life. He was a particular and devoted student of socialist writers Jack London and Upton Sinclair and by the time he joined the army he was so deeply committed to the concept of socialism that he was nicked named ‘Bolshie Lee.’ His last jail stint ended in 1913 after he was released from Mt Eden Prison for smuggling alcohol into the King Country.

*Liquor was prohibited in the King Country for more than 70 years although tales of ‘sly groggers’ who smuggled alcohol into the district abound. Prohibition began in and ended on 13th November 1954 after the locals voted for an end in a referendum.

His 1963 book ‘Simple on a Soapbox’ was Lee’s account of his time in the first Labour Government and addressed his the events that lead to his expulsion from the Labour party and was one of the three books on the shelf of my childhood home that weren’t Readers Digest Condensed Books. I used to wonder at the title and often took it down to examine the cover art, a sort of modernist style sketch that I found endlessly fascinating.

Of course the subject matter itself was way and afar beyond my ability to understand but not so his autobiographical work ‘Children of the Poor’ which I found later in the school library. A rip-roaring account of his time in institutions and on the run from the law it is also a powerful political polemic that takes square aim at the social and economic injustices Lee was keen to expunge from society. I was shocked and moved by Lee’s portrait of social injustice in New Zealand and experienced my own first primitive political stirrings as a result.

I later learned that this book created quite a storm when it was published in 1934 lifting the veil as did on mainstream attitudes toward the poor, disadvantaged and disenfranchised. His critics accused him of overstating his case and exaggerating his experiences nevertheless it was an influential work that sold by the truckload and stirred much debate and reflective soul searching.

Lee, variously described as charismatic, fiery, impetuous and witty, believed that New Zealand was uniquely placed to create a unique brand of democratic socialism that recognised the nations inherent individualistic qualities (i.e. that perhaps socialist collectivism was not the best method for our primary industries) while providing for the disenfranchised and standing up for the rights of the workers.

With the tsunami of the Great Depression sweeping over the land Lee wrote ‘We are living in an ethical twilight, with the ideals of the new in our hearts and the pattern of the old upon our minds.’ In his mind Capitalism was collapsing and all societies had to choose, he believed, between fascist reaction and socialism. ‘We will lead you on a march that will inspire the whole of the earth’ he prophesied and indeed, the experiments of first Labour Government (1935) were closely watched and had a profound influence on many societies seeking solutions to the challenge of the Great Depression.

Lee was first elected to parliament in 1922 (the youngest ever MP at that time), lost in 1928 and won again in 1935 with single biggest majority ever achieved in the young nations history but despite his value to the party as an orator, policy maker and charismatic frontman (as a war hero his presence was invaluable), his impetuous and fiery temperament set off warning bells with the parties leadership.

Savage Vs Lee

 

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Michael Joseph Savage on the campaign trail

Like Lee, Michael Joseph Savage came from a background marked by poverty and hard labour and like Lee he was a self-educated and well-read socialist and with that education came a desire to improve the lot of the working person. Savage, who was a first hand witness to the tragic lot of the working poor and socially disenfranchised, described his take on socialism as ‘true Christianity in action’ a political philosophy that was interested primarily in social and economic justice rather than hard-core socialist ideology. In Savage’s mind, capitalism wasn’t beyond redemption, a position that was at odds with radicals like Lee who believed that capitalism was essentially a failure. This difference in perspective proved the breaking point in a friendship that had had otherwise been very close.

Savage had inherited the leadership of the party after his predecessor and fellow Australian Harry Holland died suddenly of a heart attack while attending the funeral of the Maori King in 1933, an accession that was rigorously opposed by Lee who felt that Savage was too cautious in his approach yet in the eyes of the electorate, then as now suspicious of extremism, the centrist and conciliatory Savage was the perfect figure for the day and carried Labour to their first electoral win in a landslide victory in 1935.

Lee began to resent Savage and Savage become wary of Lee (describing him as ‘too wild and unconventional’) and despite Lee’s obvious abilities as an organiser and manager; Savage kept him at arms length. The frustrated Lee did not help his case for a Cabinet position with a constant stream of abusive backbiting aimed directly at Savage whose considered approach to change clashed with Lee’s radical urgency.

In 1938 Savage fell ill with colon cancer but he postponed the required surgery focused as he was on a raft of reforms and the looming European war. Sensing opportunity in Savage’s misfortune Lee stepped up his campaign against him with the publication of an essay in 1940 titled ‘Psychopathology in Politics’ which implied that Savage’s physical condition had destroyed him mentally.

Savage responded at that years Labour Party Conference by stating that Lee had made ‘ two years my life a living hell with all the venom and lying innuendo of the political sewer, using my illness to destroy me as a political force’. As a result Lee was expelled from the Labour Party and 24 hours later, early on 27 March 1940, Savage died at his home in Wellington.

Lee had been undone by his inability to control the aspects of his nature that allowed him such success on the field of battle. His temerity given full reign became an obsessive urge that undermined his position in Labour’s inner circle, and whatever he thought about Savage, the party and public did not agree.

Lee’s response was to launch a new political movement called the Democratic Labour Party renamed the Democratic Soldier Labour Party for the 1943 elections. Lee’s autocratic leadership style had a negative impact on the new party and confirmed that Labour’s decision to keep him out of the central leadership had been a wise one. Lee lost his Grey Lynn seat and political career was effectively over. He devoted the rest of his life to writing, critiquing Labour (‘Labour is a despotic machine, hostile to democratic values, and victim of an unholy alliance of greedy unionism with corrupt politicians’) and running a successful bookshop, Vital Books. He died at his home in 1982, aged 91.

 

Reform Within Capitalism

Savage’s government of reform shaped the economic and social direction of New Zealand for decades to come creating in the process not only one of the world’s wealthiest nations, but also one of the fairest. 40 years after Savage’s historic victory, NZ had the distinction of having the most equitable distribution of wealth in the world.

Despite their differences Lee and Savage helped transform the nature of the society they had inherited. Dispensing with the social and economic traditions inherited from Britain, they and their contemporaries set NZ on a new course of economic self-determination that made humanitarian concerns the central factor of economic policy and the process redefining the nature of nationhood and the purpose of society.

Labour won 4 consecutive elections before losing the government benches in 1949. It would be 8 years before they would govern again. In the meantime the new conservative National party government maintained Labour’s ‘cradle to the grave’ universalist welfare state, building on those early foundations and further enhancing NZ’s status as a world leading social laboratory.

Tension is a defining factor in any robust democracy and in New Zealand this tension has manifested itself in a endless tug of war between private and public interests and the challenge of governments, both of the political left and right, has been to maintain a balance that does not tip the scale too far in either direction. As New Zealand matured as a democracy one thing became certain to among most political players, this electorate did not tolerate extremism, favouring instead a sense of fair play that considered the needs of the majority above the needs of the few. A delicate balance that governments by in large maintained successfully until the 1980s when the nation set itself on a new direction.

With Lee’s passing in 1982 the nation buried the last of the reforming architects of the 1930s. Two years later that legacy became the target of a robust ideological war of attrition that was to become the defining hallmark of that decade. The 4th Labour government introduced free-market liberalism by stealth.

The previous conservative government headed by the autocratic Robert Muldoon was a strange mix of heavy-handed interventionist socialism and conservative social values that divided the community on a series of issues. The early 1980’s were marked by anxiety and an atmosphere of tension as New Zealand examined itself with rigorous intensity. By the time the 1984 election rolled around the electorate was ready for change. The nation had looked into itself and did not like what it was seeing and a new Labour government with revolutionary social agenda marched triumphantly into office.

Led by the charismatic David Lange this government was ready to met all the expectations of a community ready to take a bold step forward into the future but for one factor. The new minister of finance Roger Douglas surprised everyone, including the party itself, with a reformist economic agenda that was totally at odds with Labour’s traditions. Trade barriers were dismantled, financial rules were loosened, unions were disempowered and much of the nations state owned infrastructure was sold off in what could be described as a knee-jerk reaction to the previous forty years of state control.

The Doors to Fortress NZ were thrown wide open and the nation was set to wheel and deal its way to a new level of prosperity, or so the sale pitch went. With hindsight it is easily argued that the economy was due an overhaul and some liberalisation was necessary but for ordinary working Kiwis the extent of the changes came as a psychological shock. None of the caution of Savage here, this was the anti-Lee given full reign.

The government fractured, warped and ate itself as the reformists argued for further and more radical economic liberalisation while the traditionalists called time saying enough was enough. A new conservative government elected in 1990 took up the argument.

Centrist Prime Minister Jim Bolger held his radicals in check for a considerable time before being rolled by the extremist faction headed by Jenny Shipley. The nations first female Prime Minister was an avowed right wing conservative of limited ability whose biggest fault was her lack of perception regarding the wider electorate and its intolerance for ideological politics. Mistaking her inner circles enthusiasm for extreme reform as the pulse of the nation she found herself quickly and unceremoniously dumped at the next available election.

Since then the electorate has selected economically centrist governments dedicated to New Zealand’s tradition of social progressiveness but 81 years after the first Labour government addressed the dire social condition of working people, our love affair with unfettered free market economics has bought us perilously close to that which we left behind many decades ago.

Today our income disparity rates among the widest in the developed world, total combined national debt has reached staggering heights and many of the acquired rights of working people have been watered down if not struck for the law books. Child poverty is at it’s worst since the 1930s and public housing is being sold off at a time when the working poor are finding it difficult to pay the rent.

The official response from the current conservative government has consistently been “there is no poverty in New Zealand,” or in other words, “nothing to see hear move along,” a similar response to the conservatives of yore as they faced the looming threat of the Great Depression.

In early 2016 comments from the conservative Minister of Finance Bill English warned that a period of ‘Austerity’ might be necessary to address national debt. As with the rest of the developed world the conceit in New Zealand has been that that it is the Corporations and wealthy individuals who create jobs and that by providing them with tax breaks we are encouraging them in their noble endeavours.

These tax breaks have been instrumental in powering the nations debt as the government has been borrowing to fill the gap between tax revenue and the needs of the community. The statistical evidence reminds us that it is in actually small business that provides for the bulk of working people yet the mythology overstating the contribution of the 1% persists meaning that ‘Austerity’ will be directed at those who can least afford to bear it.

I return here to John A Lee. In 1932 he persuaded the Labour Party to organise mass meetings to address the conservative governments ‘retrenchment’ response to the Great Depression. At a meeting in Dunedin Lee declared: ‘we are at war against those who are trying to drag the people down to degradation and poverty. We are starving our way to prosperity in a world of plenty, and it can’t be done’.

 

Epilogue

My grandfather Bill was a young Dairy farmer in 1935 when the Savage led Labour government came to power. The price for butterfat was low, his debt was high and like so many other farmers he was wondering if he was going to lose his land. Lee and Savage were monetary reformers determined to use the mechanics of the banking system to benefit the nations people and the plan was use Reserve Bank credit to pay Dairy Farmers a guaranteed price for butterfat. (This was one of the areas of disagreement between the two men. Lee wanted to take the use of reserve band credit much further than Savage was prepared to do. Savage preferred a more orthodox approach using a mix of conventional debt borrowing and government credit fearing inflationary kickbacks if too much new money was set loose in the economy).

Bill had been to see both Lee and Savage speak and returned to the farm convinced by their plan and besides the ruling conservatives (the traditional party of the farmers) had nothing offer beyond belt tightening.

The first Labour Government paid Dairy farmers a pound for a pound of butterfat, more than enough to shore up the farms finances. It allowed him and his contemporaries the income to invest in their local dairy Co-Operatives and create solid middle class lives for their families. For the rest of his life my grandfather spoke fondly of both Savage and Lee and the differences these men made to his life.

My paternal grandfather, forever after a proponent of monetary reform (using the Reserve Bank to create and distribute debt free money to stimulate growth and pay for the necessities that couldn’t be covered through general taxation) shared something of Lee’s suspicion of overly powerful Unions (in order to strengthen the position of working people in society the first Labour government had made unionism compulsory and thereby powerful, a power which many, including Lee, claimed made them somewhat corrupt) and transferred his vote to Lee’s Democratic Labour movement hence the books pride of place on the families bookshelf.

I grew up in the 1960 and 70s safe in the bosom of a middle-income family, the third generation to be raised on that piece of land my grandfather had wrested from infertile former swampland. We were not rich but neither did we want for anything and there was never any doubt that our prosperity was due to the likes of Lee and Savage. Their story is not history; rather it is a prescient tale about the swings and roundabouts of political fashion, a story that reminds us that when testing times come knocking complacent orthodoxy is not the solution but then neither is radical extremism. The truth lies always in the vast grey rather in the carefully drawn black and white and best of New Zealand has always been found in that grey.

Government has a sacred duty to step up when times are tough and provide where private interests cannot and will not and to ensure that the needs of ordinary citizens are adequately provided for. Contemplating the heady times of the 1930’s and the approaching Austerity of 2016 I realise as much as everything has changed, so much stays the same. I am also reminded of the importance of perspective, a quality valued little the arena of ideology.

Books by John A Lee:

  • Children of the Poor, 1934.
  • The Hunted, 1936.
  • Civilian into Soldier, 1937.
  • Socialism in New Zealand, 1938.
  • The Yanks are Coming, 1943.
  • Shining with the Shiner, 1944.
  • Simple on a Soapbox, 1963.
  • Shiner Slattery, 1964
  • Rhetoric at the Red Dawn, 1965.
  • The Lee Way to Public Speaking, 1965
  • Delinquent Days, 1967.
  • Mussolini’s Millions, 1970
  • Political Notebooks, 1973.
  • For Mine is the Kingdom, 1975
  • Soldier, 1976
  • The Scrim-Lee Papers. 1976 (with CG Scrimgeour & Tony Simson)
  • Roughnecks, Rolling Stones & Rouseabouts, 1977
  • Early Days in New Zealand, 1977
  • The John A. Lee Diaries 1936–1940, 1981

 

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John A Lee 1981, the year before his death

 

 

Film Review: Trumbo

January 28, 2016

 

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Once upon a time life for many working people in the industrialised West was barely a step up from outright slavery. Those that toiled on farms, construction sites and in factories could expect to work 12 hours plus a day 7 days a week for survival wages and few rights of redress. While there were enlightened employers who maintained reasonable working hours, decent pay, benefits and a day off every week but there were many more who maintained that the exploitation of workers for profit was not only their right, but also a sacred duty. In many industrialised societies including NZ this all began changing in the early part of the 20th century as the people, now armed with the hard won right to vote, began demanding a fairer share of the communities collective wealth and power.

The financial turmoil and ensuing chaos of the Great Depression, which kicked into full gear in the early 1930s, was the deal breaker and in many parts of the world established political orthodoxies collapsed ushering in a new wave of political reformers dedicated to making society a more equitable place for all its members.

In NZ it was the first Labour Government under Michael Joseph Savage that ushered in this new era of social democratic values that included free and compulsory education for children, (who until very recently had few rights and whose labour was often exploited in the worst possible ways), free health care, financial support for societies most vulnerable and a whole host of new laws aimed at improving wages and working conditions.

In the US, the Democratic Party led by F.D.R (Theodore Delano Roosevelt) under the banner of The New Deal, led the way in a brutal war of political attrition where conservative opponents accused Roosevelt, born into wealth and privilege, as being a traitor to his class. Reviled by the Republican elite, but beloved by the people, F.D.R persevered and ushered in an era of economic and social reforms that were define America for decades to come.

By the time of the Second World War, Roosevelt’s New Deal had gone a long way toward returning the nation to economic prosperity, but as America’s huge industrial base roared into life manufacturing the necessaries of war, the workers manning the production lines were no longer content to sit back and have their terms and conditions of employment dictated to them.

For working American’s, the Second World War was an era of unprecedented industrial unrest as workers demanded better conditions of employment, a fight that was still raging as the war came to a close and many tens of thousands aligned themselves with the Communist movement as they sought ever more radical solutions of wealth and power inequality.

One of these activists was successful Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Wealthy enough not to have to care, Trumbo nevertheless did care and was happy enough to put his neck on the line in support of the army of underpaid workers who maintained the motion picture industry; carpenters, electricians, technical assistants, make-up artists, hairdressers, runners and designers to name but a few.

This made him less than popular with those that ran the Hollywood studios but his bankable talent made him, to a degree, untouchable until the Republican led anti-communist movement began to flex it’s muscles. Unsettled by the growing power and influence of the Soviet Union, they began to actively persecute anyone associated with the communist movement who they considered ‘a clear and present threat’ to democratic values. Overnight many thousands of communist leaning white and blue-collar workers found themselves out of work and socially ostracised.

Singled out by a powerful industry organisation called The Motion Picture Alliance (for the preservation of American ideals), Trumbo and his close associates were targeted, outcast and banned from working. Trumbo was no communist ideologist, rather a workers rights campaigner for whom the communist badge was just a tool in his activist’s arsenal. Called before Congress to answer charges of un-American activities, Trumbo stuck to his guns and determined to defend his constitutional right to freedom of thought and expression refused to respond to the charges made against him and served 11 months in prison as punishment for his contempt.

There is a compelling scene where Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) accompanied by friends attends a meeting of The Motion Alliance to hand out pamphlets that offer another point of view of their activities. They listen on while movie star John Wayne gives a speech lambasting the traitorous activity of communist sympathisers whose work he declares serves to dishonour the sacrifices made by the brave men and women (counting himself among their number) who fought the forces of oppression so recently in Europe and the Pacific.

Trumbo confronts Wayne after the meeting and asks him (rhetorically) “There you are standing before us and making it sound like you won the war all on your own but what did you actually do during the war? While the rest of us were away serving overseas in various capacities, you were safe on the movie set having make-up applied and play acting.” Trumbo’s less than subtle implication being that Wayne was disingenuous, pointing the finger while he himself had not been prepared to make any considerable sacrifice for the cause of freedom. Needless to say, Wayne did not take this favourably but Trumbo’s point was well made, his accusers were hypocrites who were not above utilising the same tools of ‘divide, rule and oppress’ as the enemies they feared.

Bryan Cranston got his big break playing the put upon father in the long running absurdist TV comedy series Malcolm In The Middle and then surprised one and all a few years later when he returned to the small screen as Walter White, a science teacher turned methamphetamine king-pin, in the massively influential series Breaking Bad. With White, Cranston demonstrated the depth of his acting ability and in the process, turned himself into something of a cultural icon.

Cranston’s Trumbo is an intellectual ‘tour de force’ who will not be cowed those by those who accuse him of being the ‘danger’. At times Cranston’s performance comes precariously close to caricature, but he is self-aware enough as an actor to pull it back as needs require. The effect is to give the film a delirious dynamic that makes it hum along at a pleasing pace and while this film has a very serious point to make about a shameful period from America’s political past, this is no dry polemic, this is an entertainment that inspires, educates and provokes.

Trumbo proves to be a remarkable man. A wag, a wit, a searing intellect, a creative powerhouse, (both as an artist and an entrepreneur), and a man with a compassionate and steadfast heart, a quality that makes his accusers look as paltry while reminding us that today’s version of The Motion Picture Alliance, (Trump, Plain and their ilk), are basically nothing more than self-aggrandising fear peddlers that play fast and loose with the truth. Trumbo’s lesson is how to wear them down, show them up for what they are and defeat them.

As usual Helen Mirren proves why she is in such demand with her pitch-perfect turn as faded film star turned gossip columnist Hedda Hopper who uses her 35 million readers as a tool to threaten, manipulate and intimidate anyone who questions her motives as she storms and rages against those she considers traitors to her version of the American ideal.

Michael Stuhlbarg (The Coen’s ‘A Serious Man’) offers a sympathetic portrayal of movie star Edward G Robinson who emerges from the film as among the most tragic victims of The Motion Picture Alliance’s Hollywood witch-hunt. In real life Robinson was a cultured and gentle intellectual who described himself as a progressive social democrat. His affiliation with Trumbo and associates found him outcast and unable to work and facing financial ruin, he eventually caved to the Alliance’s demands and spoke out against his friends. Chastened and beaten, Robinson was allowed to return to work, albeit it somewhat broken.

Louis CK as screenwriter Arlen Herd (a composite character), Diane Lane as Cleo, (Trumbo’s’ courageous wife) and John Goodman as John King, “I am in this business to make money and score pussy and I am doing brilliantly on both fronts,” (a B-Movie Mogul who defies the ban against Trumbo and uses his skills to make some of the most iconic films of the time: Gun Crazy, The Brave One), offer the best of themselves in a film that reminds me why I like movies so much in the first place.

My pick for the best movie of the last year and a potent reminder that the hate and fear mongers of this world will only triumph if we let them.

 

Waitangi Day, A Good Outcome for all Concerned.

January 27, 2016

A few weeks back I was stopped by an anti-Treaty protestor on Queen Street in Auckland who informed me in no uncertain terms that Egyptian explorers had discovered the islands of New Zealand a thousand years before the Polynesians, (shoving some photos of rocks that may or may not have Egyptian like markings on them under my nose as proof), therefore making null and void the Treaty of Waitangi. “A compelling case is it not?” he said nodding vigorously while I looked about desperately for an escape route.

Yes, Waitangi day is just around the corner, annual event that brings the crazies discontented and self-righteous out in force, folk represented at one extreme by privileged Pakeha like Mike Hosking whose line is that Maori just need to get over themselves, (I mean how likely would you be to just ‘get over’ an orchestrated and ongoing campaign designed to divest you of your most valuable asset), and at the other end by Maori radicals who would see all non-Maori sent ‘home’ tomorrow, an intellectually indefensible position that ignores the fact that most non-Maori have nowhere to go to, coming from genetic lines that have been here long enough to make us fully as one with the soil of these islands.

The series of events which lead us to the current state of affairs begins 175 years ago when a group of Maori chiefs signed a treaty with the British Crown at the northland settlement of Waitangi that gave the Crown the exclusive right to buy lands Maori wished to sell and in return, Maori were guaranteed full rights of ownership of their lands, forests, fisheries and other possessions and were given the rights and privileges of British subjects in return for their co-operation. Later that year the British claimed full sovereignty over these islands kicking off the story of modern New Zealand.

While some Maori leaders wanted no part of the British plans for these islands, others accepted that the growing wave of European migrants was not going to stop and they had better get used to it and find a way to adapt. Some also hoped that British law would unify the various the Tribes and put a stop to the endless wars of conquest and retribution that had been plaguing the Tangata Whenua (a Māori term that means ‘people of the land’) for the last several hundred years. For these tribal leaders, the Treaty of Waitangi was a pragmatic act that they hoped would secure a better future for Maori.

 

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In many ways the Treaty was a resounding success. Unlike the less than satisfactory fate that befell almost every other colonised people at this time, the Maori were never racially marginalised nor excluded from the mainstream of political and social life. Maori men received full voting rights in the fledgling NZ democracy in 1867, (12 years before European men), and in 1893 all women, both Maori and Pakeha, were ‘allowed’ the right to vote.

The problem was land, the new settlers wanted it and Maori, still figuring their way around the European philosophy of land ownership, found themselves ripped off left right and centre and when land sales were not forthcoming, some new migrants took it upon themselves to form militias and simply take it at the point of a gun which lead to the only internal war New Zealand has ever experienced.

Between 1840 and 1860 Pakeha and Maori faced off in a series of conflicts that introduced the British to trench warfare (a Maori innovation) and the world to the concept of non-violent resistance, an idea developed and refined by Taranaki tribal leader Te Whiti. It was a brutal time and while Maori lost a great deal of land, they proved themselves to be a formidable foe, but in the end war proved to be the least effective way of appropriating land so for the next 120 years or so the Crown used legislation in various guises to sequester land as required, deliberately breaching the tenants of the Treaty under the guise of law.

 

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Redmayne, Thomas:Attack on the Maori Pah at Rangiriri. [1863].

 

By the time the 1970s rolled around Maori had had enough and Dame Whina Cooper sparked a fire than wasn’t going to be put out when in 1975 when she led a march from Northland to Wellington protesting the unjust and ongoing confiscation of Maori lands. In 1978 Eva Rickard led an occupation of the Raglan Golf Course in the Waikato, an incendiary act that caused a great deal commotion, arrests and breast beating but she won, claiming back a large tract of ancestral land that had been ‘borrowed’ by the Government for the building of a WW2 airfield and that somehow had ending up as a golf course for local Pakeha.

 

 

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1975: Dame Whina Cooper (aged 80) begins her historic land march

 

At the same time in Auckland a fuss was brewing over a parcel of land on Bastion Point, one that the Government had ‘borrowed’ in 1882 for strategic defence purposes, (it was feared that the Russian’s were planning an invasion and Bastion Point and its position overlooking the harbour entrance to Auckland was the perfect place for defensive gun impalements), and that had not been returned as promised.

It ended up in the hands of the Auckland City Council who in the early 1970’s were planning to sell off the land for housing development. This upset the local Iwi who moved in and after 507 days of ‘illegal’ occupation were forcibly removed by 600 police and army personnel. Messy as the whole business was, it proved a turning point for Maori. Bastion Point was eventually returned to the Iwi concerned and the era of intense soul-searching, apologies and financial restitution for past wrongs had begun.

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Maori Protestors occupy Bastion Point 1977

 

The relationship between Pakeha and Maori has not always been easy but underneath all the shenanigans there has always been a strong impulse toward unity and by and large, two culturally disparate people have forged an extraordinary bond while building an exceptional first world democracy.

In the end Maori are only doing what the law allows, challenging a breach of contract and the reactionaries are doing what reactionaries do, finding ways of invalidating the Treaty for whatever ends they are serving. For the rest of us, the Treaty has given cause for honest self-reflection on the nature of justice, obligation, kinship, loyalty and nationhood and the result has been deeply rewarding for almost everyone concerned.

Don’t freak, I’m Sikh

November 15, 2015

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Fridays and Saturdays nights on Auckland’s Queen St are when the religious come out to sell their wares. An elderly man with a long grey beard sings scratchy little songs on a ukulele about Jesus and eternal damnation. When he isn’t singing he lets us know in no uncertain terms that Mohammed is a false prophet and that we, you and I, are in desperate need of ‘saving’. He speaks in terms of absolutes and uses fear as a selling point. He message is not terribly palatable but hell, the ‘truth’ never is.

Down the way a buff and macho young Polynesian man is also selling truth. “You see,” he says thrusting a bible out toward the passing crowd, “I was a sinner. I used drugs and drank alcohol and had sex with lots of women then I found the truth,” he waves the bible around some more before proclaiming: “I WAS SAVED.” “Why would you want to be saved from that?” I quipped toward the Alpha Male type running the show this evening. It was impulsive of me. I was tired and grumpy. He was unimpressed and I don’t blame him.

Next up are the Mormon’s. They are bold American’s selling ideas the way McDonald’s sells fries, with persuasive guile and gleaming smiles. They walk in suited in pairs, greeting everyone as they go sharp eyes seeking out an opportunity to ‘pitch’ their story. They remind me of circling sharks.

A canny and ambitious Indian religious teacher goes to America and the result is Krishna Consciousness. This Hindu sect is an American innovation and like their cousins the Mormon’s, they ‘hard sell’ their version of the ‘truth’. They want your heart and soul and financial resources, a typically American preoccupation that the Krishna’s have honed to a fine art. On Friday nights, they bring their women out and party up hard, dancing and making music in honour of their Lord. Religious ecstasy makes for a beguiling spectacle but at heart this is a conservative outfit with patriarchal tendencies, strict rules and some extreme ideas, fairly typical stuff for this end of town.

The Pilipino group down by Aotea Square put on a regular a passion play. It’s a little bit Sound Of Music with a big dose of interpretive dance. Their Jesus tends toward compassion and virtue and stands in stark contrast to the ‘Jesus of the fear and loathing’ their neighbours favour.

The other notable religious group on Queen St are the turbaned Sikh who are not out selling religion, they are just out and having a good time. The turban is a sign of devotion to the Sikh way of life and a statement that says the wearer is a man or woman of integrity, one who believes in equality and follows a path of compassionate living.

Sadly since the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS, the less informed have confused the Sikh turban with the traditional headdress worn extensively by Middle Eastern men, an innocent enough item of clothing designed to shield the wearer from the Sun and windblown desert sand, it has more recently become associated with militant Islamic extremism and like the hijab (the scarf like head covering worn by many Muslim women) has become an item that in some eyes singles out the wearer as a person of suspicion.

 

Sikhism was created by Guru Nanak Dev (1469 – 1539) in response to the ongoing sectarian warfare between Hindu and Muslims that was the condition of his Punjab homeland (North India) at that time, (Guru is a title bestowed upon those considered to be wise and expert teachers).

Appalled by the harsh social conditions engendered by religious extremism Nanak Dev designed a values system that addressed religious intolerance, social inequality and offered a clear and deeply considered description of the meaning of God meant to counter the misconception common between people’s that different religion meant different god. His idea of God was a unifying principle that came without all the usual human centric add-ons. He was an astute politician whose progressive social philosophy gave rise to a cultural movement that currently numbers some 35 million people worldwide.

The three underlying principles of the Sikh way are: Sharing with others / Making an honest living / Remembering God at all times. Otherwise, ‘Be selfless, fight superstition, have empathy with the poor and less fortunate’. Dev’s message was simple and without affectation: “Live an active, creative, and practical life of truthfulness, fidelity, self-control and purity”

Social Equality is an essential element of being Sikh and Dev declared male and female equal in all things, remember this was in the 15th century and in the context of its time, a revolutionary declaration. The goal of a Sikh is to have no hate or animosity to any person regardless of race, caste, colour, creed, gender, or sexuality. Sikhs believe that ‘all religious traditions are equally valid and capable of enlightening their followers’. Sikhs respect Jesus and other prophets but do not believe that Jesus or any other prophet is the only way to meet God.

What is God?

God is first and foremost, love. Secondly, there is no Muslim, Hindu, Christian nor Sikh God, there is just God. Otherwise God is: indescribable, inestimable, indubitable, infallible, intangible, imperishable, immutable, immortal, immaculate, immanent, unconquerable, unique, formless, fearless, deathless, timeless, ageless, compassionate, omnipresent and creator of all. God, in other words, is an elemental mystery that cannot be quantified, but can be experienced. God is an ‘experience’ that encourages peace and love.

The Sikh culture values learning and casts an open mind toward the world. Nanak Dev, himself an avid traveller, encouraged travel as an educational opportunity and a way to broaden ones horizons. In that context it is worth noting that there has been a Sikh presence in NZ for around a 100 years, most notably in the Waikato where they are sizeable players in the regions behemoth Dairy Industry.

“The community is one of the best anywhere,” replies a young Indian Muslim man to my query about Sikhism. “I was advised by my father that if I get into trouble in NZ I must go to a Gurudwara, they will help.” The Gurudwara, (The Lords Place), can be identified by tall flagpoles bearing the Sikh flag, the Nishan Sahib.  The buildings are usually white and sometime posses a golden dome. The Gurudwara is a place of sanctity. Common to each Temple is a communal kitchen.

A free meal is to be found 24hours a day for anyone (Sikh or not) at each and every Gurudwara. This is a practical demonstration of sharing. Everyone gets the same meal on the same plate in the same proportions. Everyone eats off the same bowl sitting on the same level floor. This is a practical lesson in equality.

If I have made Sikhism sound like some transcendent utopia I apologise because it’s not. Sikhism is like any religious/political culture, it has been around long enough to have been corrupted by habit and suffers the same ills as most human enterprises; those dedicated to Nanak Dev’s essential message of equality and compassion are beset by the reactionary, the conservative and those who are there only by way of family tradition. That’s said; Sikhism at its very best encourages a degree of integrity among its numbers that is rare in the world and Dev’s essential message of equality remains one for the ages.

The last word goes to a young turbaned man I accost in the hallway. What does it mean to be Sikh? He pauses to gather his thoughts and replies, “Sikh are the people that help other people.”

 

British born Indian Pardeep Singh Bahra made the video ‘Don’t Freak I’m Sikh’ (available to view on YouTube) to explain the purpose of the turban: “Sikhism is a religion of equality and the turban should be viewed as a symbol of that. The next time you see a turbaned man walking the streets, remember that he is a man of love, equality and peace… The next time you see a Sikh, you’ll know the turbans true meaning. My turban reminds me to be a good person.”

 

Sikhs do not pursue people to convert them to Sikhism but if someone wants to become a Sikh, they are welcome to join, a stark philosophical contrast to the religious salespeople that ply the streets calling out our sins and asking for our hearts, minds and money in return for salvation. The Sikh way is exemplified not by dogmatic words but by living example.