Monday, 15 August 2022

Too Many Angels And Devils.


He’s got the fire and the fury
At his command
Well, you don’t have to worry
If you hold on to Jesus’ hand
We’ll all be safe from Satan
When the thunder rolls
We just gotta keep the devil
Way down in the hole

─ Tom Waits, “Way Down In The Hole”

WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE about Stuff Circuit’s Fire and Fury? It’s a well-made documentary of the sort New Zealand television used to make, but now only produces intermittently. It seeks answers to the questions many New Zealanders have been asking themselves since Parliament Grounds went up in flames on 2 March 2022. The driving force behind Fire and Fury, the highly-experienced journalist, Paula Penfold, has delivered on her promise to go behind the events of that day and name the names of those who were, at least in part, responsible for the disturbing scenes that marked the end of the weeks-long anti-vaccination protest.

Why, then, has the documentary left me feeling vaguely uneasy? And, before you object – “It’s meant to! – my uneasiness has nothing to do with the unsavoury cast of proto-fascist conspiracy theorists and “influencers” whose faces and words feature so prominently throughout the documentary. Sure, these people are loathsome, and their comments teeter alarmingly on the brink of outright criminality, but that is entirely unsurprising. From the get-go, the tone, sound-track, and crepuscular palette of the production cues the viewer for the darkness of its subject-matter.

Borrowing their title from Tom Waits’ Way Down In The Hole suggests that the makers of Fire and Fury see their subjects as being down there with the Devil. Perhaps that’s it? Perhaps it was my unconscious conflation of “Jesus’ hand” with the hands of the documentary’s producers, that gave me the uneasy feeling that I was being led to someone else’s holier-than-thou explanation for the rolling political thunder of our times.

Bluntly, Fire and Fury relies much too heavily on the “expert” commentary of Kate Hannah, a principal investigator and director of The Disinformation Project, a state-funded research exercise run out of Te Pūnaha Matatini at the University of Auckland. In an interview with Dale Husband on the Māori radio station, Waatea, Hannah revealed that The Disinformation Project had been set up in February 2020, immediately prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 Pandemic, to counter the anti-government, anti-scientific, and anti-medicine narratives that the authorities were clearly anticipating.

What is it that disturbs me about The Disinformation Project? Surely, having people monitor the misinformation and disinformation being spread deliberately during a major medical emergency is an entirely sensible government initiative? Any undermining of the collective effort to protect the population from the effects of a potentially deadly virus is prima facie evidence of evil intent. Many would say that identifying and neutralising such anti-social elements is an important state responsibility.

True enough, but why bury such a unit deep in the dense undergrowth of academia? And why appoint as its director a woman whose Masters thesis was on Nineteenth Century American literary culture, rather than a qualified medical administrator? If such a unit was needed, then why not set it up within the Ministry of Health, and make it answerable to the then Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield?

The problem is, the moment you start asking questions like this you immediately run the risk of being branded a conspiracy theorist. And that just circles the whole argument back to its starting-point: the dark narrative of evil intent which lies at the heart of Fire and Fury.

The question, never satisfactorily answered, which lies at the heart of the heart of Fire and Fury is – Why? What is it that prompts individuals to create false political, economic and cultural narratives in the first place? More importantly, what is it that makes otherwise perfectly sensible and caring people follow these fantasists down their rabbit holes?

Well, what led Alice down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carrol’s famous children’s story? Wasn’t it the sight of a waist-coated white rabbit consulting a pocket-watch and muttering “I’m late!”? Who wouldn’t want to get to the bottom of a sight as peculiar as that!

Many people find themselves caught up in events over which they exercise no control, and which they do not understand. Since, in small matters, they find it easy to identify cause and effect, they assume (wrongly) that big events can be equally easily explained.

This is by no means an unreasonable assumption, given the propensity of governments to explain large events in the most simplistic terms. Those who remain unconvinced by these official versions, all too often discover their scepticism is entirely justified. Nothing encourages the growth of conspiracy theories faster that citizens discovering that their own governments have conspired to deceive them.

In Fire and Fury, Kate Hannah explains the concept of what she calls “necessary” or “protective” violence. Once a group of citizens convinces themselves that their government, motivated by pure evil, is “coming after their kids”, then there is nothing they will not contemplate to keep their loved ones, and their homeland, safe.

Step this argument back a few paces, and it is possible to grasp how individuals of an authoritarian and/or paranoid temperament, having learned that their government has deliberately lied to them, decide that striking back with lies of their own is not only justified – but also the only effective way to balance the scales.

Like the evil wizard in the tale of Aladdin, the conspiracy theorists come offering “new lamps [lies] for old”. And, like all good liars, they mix in a hefty portion of the truth in with their falsehoods. “Why is it,” they ask, “that you will never encounter people with information contradicting the government’s claims in the mainstream news media?” While most people will respond by pointing out the idiocy of spreading false information during a pandemic, a not inconsiderable minority will accept the conspiracy theorists’ explanation that the news media are nothing more than the paid mouthpieces of a government unwilling to tell its citizens the truth.

It is a great pity that Paula Penfold and her team did not spend more time talking to the fiery and furious individuals around whose behaviour the documentary was constructed. A pity, too, that they did not explore in greater depth the popular conviction that the Public Interest Journalism Fund – which paid for Fire and Fury – is proof of the conspiracy theorists’ contention that the mainstream news media has, indeed, been bought and paid for.

Yes, there is an argument to be made that it is better to allow these “influencers” to condemn themselves out of their own mouths, than it is to interview them one-on-one. Equally, there is an argument for doing both: broadcasting their views – and also asking them to explain why they continually engage in such dangerous speech. Watching Fire and Fury, it is easy to apprehend its makers’ fear of “the mob”. The hostility directed towards journalists who were “just doing their job” by militant anti-vaxxers certainly was frighteningly intense.

And yet, these people are New Zealanders, too. And perhaps that is what, in the end, made me feel so uneasy about the Fire and Fury documentary. Watching it, the viewer cannot help being struck by the vast epistemological gulf separating its subjects from its makers.

Listening to Hannah and the other, equally disdainful “experts” consulted by Penfold and her team, the viewers could be forgiven for thinking that they was listening to a team of anthropologists describing the cultural practices of a particularly belligerent tribe of indigenes. Certainly, the inclusion of Rebecca Kitteridge, Director of the SIS, among that commentary team does not bode well for the future safety of this truculent tribe.

Fire and Fury didn’t quite call them “deplorables” – but it came close.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 15 August 2022.

Friday, 12 August 2022

Parting Shots.

On The Way Out: Gaurav Sharma has clearly had enough of Parliament and is more than ready to return to his life as a medical professional. What he has been willing to do on the way out, however, is draw aside the curtain, if only for a moment, and let the electors of New Zealand see how their representatives are treated. For this, those same electors owe him a vote of thanks. 

GAURAV SHARMA has clearly had enough of parliamentary life. Equally clearly, he is not suited to it. Nevertheless, he has made an extremely useful contribution to the bullying debate.

His op-ed piece for the NZ Herald confirms what all political journalists should know: that Parliament is Ground Zero for institutionalised bullying. It would, however, be naïve to expect members of the Press Gallery to augment Sharma’s observations with their own. The Press Gallery is no less enmeshed in the system of punishments and rewards that pervades every corner of the parliamentary complex than the MPs themselves.

What emerges from the Gallery and the Labour Party itself over the next few days promises to be a master-class in the art of dismissing, diminishing and disparaging an individual who has had the temerity to breach the iron law of omerta which governs the practice of party politics.

Like Fight Club, the first rule of party politics is not to talk about party politics.

It is to be hoped that Sharma is a resilient person, because the amount of emotional violence heading his way will likely be personally devastating.

That hope may be a vain one, however, since Sharma appears to have entered Parliament without the necessary acculturation to the vicious political environment of the New Zealand Labour Party.

Purely from the perspective of an outsider, Sharma’s selection appears to have been a pro-forma affair. Very few Labour strategists would have anticipated success in the Hamilton seats – which, prior to 2020, had been in National’s column for four elections in a row. Sharma would likely have seen himself as nothing more than a booster of Labour’s Party Vote. A not unreasonable view, given his Number 63 position on Labour’s Party List. Just as it did for most Hamiltonians, Sharma’s victory in Hamilton West would have come as a mighty shock.

Nothing like as big a shock, however, as the political culture of the Labour Caucus. Those Labour politicians who spent years fighting their way into Parliament would have had an enormous advantage over a political naïf like Sharma. They would know what to expect. Whose way to keep out of. Whose prospects to block. And, whose hunting party to join when the Leader’s minions identified a member of caucus to be taken down a peg or two. All of them would have mastered the courtier’s art of sucking-up and punching-down. Putting it bluntly, a disturbingly high proportion of Sharma’s colleagues would be – as he has now charged – bullies.

Those who weren’t bullies would’ve been doormats. Selected as candidates for their placidity and biddability, they are the sort of people who can be relied upon to back their party right or wrong, and to support whoever occupies the top leadership roles with an equally undiscerning fervour. The traditional term for these types is “hack”. Sharma likely found these Labour lambs even more disturbing than Labour’s wolves.

Judging from his op-ed piece, Sharma may even have been labouring under the misapprehension that he was in Parliament to represent the electors of Hamilton West. He may even have thought that they were the people to whom he was ultimately answerable. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! That is merely his constitutional role.

His actual role is to shut up and do as the Whips command. Make a speech on a subject he knows nothing about. Sit on a Select Committee and vote exactly as the Labour Chair indicates – no matter how wrong or stupid. Most importantly, say nothing, write nothing, and do nothing that attracts unwanted attention.

The poor man would soon have discovered that this “sit still and shut up” rule applied with equal force in caucus. If he was ever incautious enough to stand up in front of his colleagues and express views contrary to those of the Front Bench, then he would very soon have appreciated why those tasked with the responsibility for keeping the Back Bench under control are called “Whips”.

Think about it for a moment. Labour has a caucus of 65 MPs. Most of them, like Sharma himself, highly qualified professionals. How, then, is it possible that all but two of these intelligent and (presumably) principled men and women (the exceptions being Louisa Wall and, now, Sharma) have never even once spoken out of turn or (God forbid!) expressed a viewpoint on any major – or even minor – issue that was not in 100 percent conformity with the official party line? What does it take to inspire and maintain that sort of collective discipline? The answer, tragically, is fear. Fear of being written-off as a troublemaker; and fear of the emotional violence inevitably inflicted upon those who, at least initially, refuse to be bullied, by those who long ago abandoned all resistance.

The good little bunnies of the Labour caucus will, of course, object that party politics cannot function without party discipline. They will remind their critics that politics has always been “the art of the possible”, and that nothing will ever get done if a government is mired in endless internal debates.

These objections will be backed-up energetically by the Press Gallery as basic common-sense. How could they not, when the members of the Press Gallery are just as much victims of the “Stockholm Syndrome” as the MPs they cover. Gallery journalists are expected by their editors to hunt as a pack – not on their own. They are also prone to being bullied by the darker variety of ministerial minion, who will threaten them with a denial of access to the key newsmakers if they step too far out of line.

How many of the current crop of Labour MPs and Gallery journalists are aware of the fact that the First Labour Government’s caucus was a hotbed of dissent and disputation, and not above over-ruling the demands of Cabinet Ministers? Strangely, given the dictates of “common sense”, that First Labour Government still managed to keep its promises to the electors – and transform a nation. Which is not to say that the 1930s party was lacking in bullies, merely that, back then, there was no shortage of Labour MPs willing to stand up to them.

Sharma, sadly, is not doing that. He has clearly had enough of Parliament and is more than ready to return to his life as a medical professional. What he has been willing to do, however, is draw aside the curtain, if only for a moment, and let the electors of New Zealand see how their representatives are treated. Those same electors owe him a vote of thanks: not only for the glimpse of the bullying culture that pervades their Parliament, but also for the demonstration that is bound to follow of how that same, sick, system responds to its critics.

Undoubtedly, there will be Labour supporters reading these words with mounting disbelief – and fury. It is fitting, then, to close with a vivid illustration of Labour’s long-standing culture of bullying.

At the Labour Conference of 2002, a tiny handful of mostly younger delegates attempted to protest the Labour-led Government’s decision to sent troops to Afghanistan. As Helen Clark began speaking, one young man rose to his feet and attempted to make his opposition known. As he did so, a number of party heavyweights (fortuitously seated next to him) also rose to their feet. The dissenter was grabbed – none too gently – and physically dragged from the auditorium. Two young women, positioned closer to the stage, who attempted to unfurl an anti-war banner, received very similar treatment.

When Willie Jackson boasts that Labour has a different definition of democracy – he’s not kidding.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 12 August 2022.

The Flashman Factor.

The Empire Within Which Bullying Never Ceased: The bitter truth about Great Britain’s “public” schools (and their many imitators in the Empire’s far-flung dominions) is that they were consciously designed to produce a very particular kind of imperial administrator. These men needed to be courageous, but not compassionate; clever, but not too clever; up for anything their superiors deemed necessary, and indifferent to others’ pain and suffering. 

TOM BROWN’S SCHOOL DAYS defined a whole generation of “Muscular Christian” English gentlemen. The author of this immensely popular Victorian novel, Thomas Hughes, set out to redefine the values deemed essential to ruling the greatest empire the world had ever known. He had no time whatsoever for effeteness, and even less for arid intellectuality. What Great Britain and its sprawling empire needed were strong and practical souls – leavened by a sound education. What it had absolutely no need for, Hughes insisted, were bullies.

Tom Brown’s School Days provided the model for all the many “school novels” that succeeded it – the most recent of which, J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series – owe a great deal to the original. The all-wise figure of Professor Dumbledore, for example, bears an uncanny resemblance to Dr Thomas Arnold, the real-life headmaster of Rugby School from 1828-1841 who “plays himself” in Hughes’ partly autobiographical novel.

In many respects, Tom Brown’s School Days represented a girding of British ruling-class loins for the great tasks that lay ahead, as British imperialism got its second wind in the Nineteenth Century’s second half. Certainly, the novel’s hero possesses an impressive tally of the virtues required for the daunting mission of imposing “civilisation”. He’s physically fit, amiable, courageous, and up for any challenge. As the novel unfolds, however, it becomes clear that these muscular qualities are not of themselves sufficient. Minds need training as well as bodies, and courage must always be tempered by compassion.

Lest their be any confusion, however, Hughes introduces the unforgettable figure of Flashman, Rugby’s biggest and most brutal bully. It is Flashman who supplies the novel’s most memorable scene, in which a defiant Tom is held in front of a roaring fire by Flashman’s accomplices. Although Tom is ultimately rescued from Flashman’s torture, it is the bully’s viciousness that remains with the reader.

As George MacDonald Fraser, author of the best-selling Flashman novels, realised, it would be the anti-hero’s amorality, not Tom’s Christian piety, that titillated readers in the much darker Twentieth Century.

Hughes’ civilising mission, though indisputably admirable, was always doomed to fail. A thousand Dr Arnold’s could not overcome the brutal fact that imperialism is a brutal business. Seizing and holding other peoples’ lands is an undertaking for which the Flashmans’ of this world are much more suited temperamentally than the Tom Browns.

The bitter truth is that Great Britain’s “public” schools (and their many imitators in the Empire’s far-flung dominions) were consciously designed to produce a very particular kind of imperial administrator. These men needed to be courageous, but not compassionate; clever, but not too clever; up for anything their superiors deemed necessary, and indifferent to others’ pain and suffering. Most importantly, these imperialists needed to enjoy wielding power and subjecting weaker peoples to their will.

In other words, producing bullies was what Eton, Harrow, Rugby, and all the other public schools, were all about.

Why else would public schoolboys be expected to read Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul in the original Latin? (Hint: It wasn’t because he demonstrated Muscular Christianity!) The other great lesson these privately educated gentlemen were required to learn, apart from the practicalities of genocide, is that what a ruling class tells the world it is doing, and what it actually does, are two very different things. Hypocrisy is, always, the indispensable aspect of effective governance. Take note of what I say, not what I do (or have done in the past) is the necessary expectation of those who wield power over others.

These, the instincts and habits of domination are much too important to learn on the job. That is why the pliable young saplings that enter our elite schools must be bent, twisted and violently pruned until they are ready to be released upon the world. It’s why the people responsible for running these schools turn a blind eye to the brutalities by their star pupils, and protect them when they go too far. After all, isn’t life just one long game of rough-and-tumble? And isn’t it better to win at that game than to lose?

The Powers-That-Be may say they want a world filled with the likes of Dr Arnold and Tom Brown. What they really want, however, is a world filled with the likes of Flashman.

Bullying isn’t a bug in the private education system – it’s a feature.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 August 2022.

Wednesday, 10 August 2022

The Way We Used To Want It – And, Maybe, Still Do.

Representing Pakeha Racism: The important thing to remember about Rob Muldoon, and the racist policies with which his name is associated, is that he drew his power from the hundreds-of-thousands of anxious, angry, and yes – racist – Pakeha who voted for him, and that his most effective campaign slogan was:
“New Zealand the way 
YOU want it.”

GREEN MP TEANAU TUIONO hopes to introduce a Private Members Bill repealing the Citizenship [Western Samoa] Act 1982. The Act, introduced by the National Government of Rob Muldoon, and supported by the Labour Leader of the Opposition, Bill Rowling, prevented Samoans born between 1924 and 1949 from exercising the rights of New Zealand citizenship.

Had the legislation not been passed, the decision of the Privy Council (then New Zealand’s highest court) affirming the New Zealand citizenship of all Samoans born when New Zealand exercised a League of Nations “Mandate” (later becoming a United Nations “trusteeship”) over Samoa, would have stood, and tens-of-thousands of Samoans would have enjoyed free entry to New Zealand.

Yet to be drawn out of the Private Members Bill “lottery”, Tuiono’s proposed legislation would presumably restore the citizenship rights of Samoans born between 1924 and 1949. Obviously, this would encompass a much smaller group of people than was the case in 1982. Samoans born in 1949 would today be 73 years old – coincidentally the average life expectancy of a Samoan citizen.

In much the same way as the formal New Zealand Government apology for the notorious “Dawn Raids” of 1974-76, Tuiono’s PMB would stand as a marker of both condemnation and regret for the racist policies inflicted upon Pasifika by the New Zealand state.

Given that any legislation would, after 40 years, be almost entirely symbolic – i.e. only a handful of Samoans would be in a position to take advantage of their restored New Zealand citizenship – the Greens stand to lose very little by their endorsement of Tuiono’s gesture. Slightly more challenging for the Greens’ would be the following counterfactual.

Let us suppose that Tuiono’s bill passes, and citizenship is restored to Samoans born between 1924 and 1949. Then, let us further suppose that a new legal case is mounted, and that the New Zealand Supreme Court ultimately determines that the Samoan descendants of the New Zealand citizens born between 1924 and 1949 are also New Zealand citizens. Suddenly the number of people affected by Tuiono’s legislation jumps from hardly any, to a just about all of Samoa’s population of roughly 200,000.

In these circumstances, the Greens would be faced with the same political dilemma as Labour’s Bill Rowling in 1982. Should they uphold the law and welcome 200,000 new citizens to Aotearoa-New Zealand, or, should they bow to the deafening racist clamour for closing the country’s borders to what would be, in effect, an entire Pacific nation?

Back in 1982, Rowling chose the second option. He calculated that Labour would sustain much less damage, electorally, by throwing in its lot with National, passing the legislation quashing the Privy Council’s judgement with all possible speed, and simply living with the loud moral objections of their Pasifika supporters and the increasingly vociferous anti-racist movements of the time.

As well as, it must be said, the loud objections of Labour’s own youth wing, whose president, Sean Fleigner, released a statement bitterly critical of his own party’s capitulation to the undisguised racism of Pakeha New Zealand. For this gutsy demonstration of moral fortitude, Sean and his fellow Dunedin radicals received a “visit” from the party’s dynamic young president, Jim Anderton, who, no doubt acting on Rowling’s instructions, warned them against any further gestures of public defiance which, in addition to being unsupported by all but a handful of party members, and therefore doomed to fail – were bloody embarrassing to the Leader.

Some young New Zealanders will be appalled at Labour’s open collaboration with the Rob Muldoon depicted in the 2021 television series about the Polynesian Panthers. The very same Rob Muldoon who set New Zealander against New Zealander by refusing to ban Apartheid-era South Africa’s Springbok Rugby team from touring New Zealand in July-August 1981. But, what appears outrageous with the benefit of 40 years hindsight, was almost always perceived very differently by the people living at the time.

The Privy Council’s bombshell decision had been handed down in September 1982 – barely twelve months after the civil strife that so shocked and dismayed New Zealanders the previous year. In a manner oddly foreshadowing contemporary New Zealanders’ determination to avoid any further lockdowns and just “live with” Covid-19, the Kiwis of 40 years ago wanted no more unpleasantness about racism, and were keen to put all the violent passions of 1981 behind them. Very few voters would have thanked Bill Rowling and Labour for dying in a ditch over the Citizenship [Western Samoa] Bill – and expecting them to do the same.

Labour’s concern for what was in the minds of its (overwhelmingly Pakeha) supporters was no less influential in March 1974 when Norman Kirk set in motion the policies that would culminate in Muldoon’s draconian Dawn Raids of 1976.

Kirk and his government were acutely aware of how deeply unpopular his decision to ban the scheduled 1973 tour of the Springboks was among Labour voters. While the Commonwealth Games held in Christchurch in January-February 1974 had given his government an enormous boost (which wouldn’t have been the case if the Springboks’ tour had gone ahead) Kirk was anxious to reaffirm Labour’s attachment to his country’s longstanding “White New Zealand” immigration policy. With the economy faltering, and mass unemployment threatening, sending the “Islanders” home appealed to his government as the least electorally damaging option.

Difficult though it may be to accept, such openly racist policy-making enjoyed solid bi-partisan support. Following Kirk’s death in August 1974, the anti-Pasifika feeling only intensified. Indeed, between September 1974 and November 1975, when Muldoon’s National Party decisively defeated the Labour Government, New Zealand shifted sharply to the right. Over the ensuing months, the New Zealand electorate expected – and was treated to – some of the most retrograde and vicious policy-making in New Zealand’s political history. The Dawn Raids were just one aspect of White New Zealand’s backlash.

Watching The Panthers television series, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Polynesian Panthers played a critical role in the Dawn Raids drama. The truth is they were never more than a minor irritant to the authorities. In spite of their name, they experienced nothing like the level of repression visited upon the Black Panther Party of the United States – most of whose leaders were either murdered by the Police and the FBI, or incarcerated for lengthy periods.

The Panthers’ obsessive focus on Muldoon unhelpfully obscures the fact that most New Zealanders were more than happy to limit Pasifika immigration. Politically, the Dawn Raids offered the public dramatic proof that the Government was “doing something”. Having demonstrated the requisite “hard line”, Muldoon quietly wound the theatrics down. By 1977 it was all over.

Herein lies the virtue of putting the Greens to the test of an historical counterfactual: to see whether they fully appreciate just how deeply racism remains embedded in the Pakeha population. Socially liberal New Zealanders have either forgotten, or been given the wrong information, about their country’s recent past. Much has changed since the mid-1970s and early 1980s – but an awful lot has remained the same.

It’s easy to say “sorry” when your apology can be made without political cost, and in the absence of a political leader capable of harnessing the popular resentments and prejudices it might inflame. 

The important thing to remember about Rob Muldoon, and the racist policies with which his name is associated, is that he drew his power from the hundreds-of-thousands of anxious, angry, and yes – racist – Pakeha who voted for him, and that his most effective campaign slogan was: “New Zealand the way YOU want it.”

White and Right.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 9 August 2022.

Monday, 8 August 2022

Work, Work, Work!

Laughing With The Poor Folks - Or At Them? Christopher Luxon took rapper LunchMoney Lewis’s lyrics at their face value. “Bills”, as heard by Luxon, is a cri-de-cœur from a hard-working man determined to pull himself and his family up by their own bootstraps. It simply wouldn’t occur to him that LunchMoney’s rap was a tribute to his own escape from the bills ordinary people gotta pay and the “work, work, work” they gotta do to fill all those mouths they gotta feed.

“BILLS” by LunchMoney Lewis, must be the all-time strangest theme-song ever chosen by a National Party leader. Christopher Luxon made the whole weird musical theme even weirder by attempting his own personal rendition of LunchMoney’s tongue-in-cheek tribute to the world of work. 

Bizarre, because the lifestyles and values of rap artists are about as far from the hardscrabble existence of the average working family as one could imagine. LunchMoney Lewis has bills to pay, no doubt, but they are for products and services well beyond the reach of most African-Americans! This artist is a businessman.

Now, it would be nice to think that Luxon gets LunchMoney’s joke. That he understands the Kiwi battler’s bills, and his bills, are truly chalk and cheese. Such sly self-knowledge and brutal political honesty would be refreshing in our hyper-mediated world. By bounding onto the stage to LunchMoney’s rap, Luxon would be admitting (sub-textually) that a man who owns seven houses, and the centre-right party he leads, are cats every bit as fat as the Florida rapper. Such transparent inauthenticity would, paradoxically, make the Leader of the Opposition a more – not less – authentic politician.

But, that would be too much to hope for. In all probability, Luxon took LunchMoney’s lyrics at their face value. “Bills”, as heard by Luxon, is a cri-de-cœur from a hard-working man determined to pull himself and his family up by their own bootstraps. It simply wouldn’t occur to him that LunchMoney’s rap was a tribute to his own escape from the bills ordinary people gotta pay and the “work, work, work” they gotta do to fill all those mouths they gotta feed.

Luxon’s crude literalism is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s use of Bruce Springsteen’s anthem “Born in the USA” in his re-election campaign of 1984. The Gipper simply had no idea that Springsteen’s song was about the tormented existence of a Vietnam veteran robbed of his buddies, his peace of mind, and the possibility of a good life, by the murderous demands of Uncle Sam.

“America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts”, intoned Reagan. “It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire, New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”

In the end, being born in the USA was the only thing the song’s hero had left. Far from being a hymn of praise to Reagan’s “shining city on a hill”, Springsteen’s song is laced with bitter irony and bankrupted hope. It is, however, doubtful that Reagan ever realised his mistake.

Doubtful, too, that Luxon’s journey into the bright lights and dark alleys of popular culture will be a long one. Doubtless, there is a huge amount to be learnt from the rappers and hip-hop artists of South Auckland. Who knows what insights he might come away with if he sat down with them in a place without cameras, without microphones, and just listened to the life-stories of these often spectacularly successful artists and businessmen?

That is, after all, what another National Party leader, Rob Muldoon, did, more than 40 years ago, with representatives of Black Power and the Mongrel Mob. The Project Employment Programmes which, in part, grew out of these encounters, set many young gang prospects on a new path, leading them away from crime, and towards steady employment, family life, and an altogether more productive existence.

Rob Muldoon sat his final accountancy examinations in between fighting the Germans in Italy in 1944. He became a moderately successful businessman, comfortably off, but not rich: an Auckland suburbanite with a family bach at Orewa. The National Party he came to lead was a huge organisation, filled with people very like himself. The experience of “The War” bound National Party members together in those days – as it did Labour’s. What came to be called the “RSA Generation” understood that, when the bullets start flying, who your father is and where you went to school doesn’t matter a damn. Character is not determined by class – but by courage.

Luxon’s speech to the National Party’s annual conference could have used the Covid-19 Pandemic – the closest contemporary New Zealanders have come to the solidarities and vicissitudes of war – as a new starting-point for the state’s efforts to get disengaged young jobseekers into the habits of learning and working that the whole country so desperately needs them to acquire.

He came close:

National believes those closest to the problems should be closest to the answers. That’s why we back community-led solutions. For example, the Covid vaccine roll-out showed that bureaucrats in Wellington don’t always know best how to reach people. Just ask the Māori organisations who had to take the Government to court so they could get people vaccinated.

If young New Zealanders are to re-engage with learning and working successfully, it will be through the efforts of autonomous, community-driven initiatives akin to those that ensured Māori rates of vaccination matched those of the rest of the population. The key words here are “autonomous” and “community-driven”.

Sadly, National’s policy-makers lack the courage to trust the poor to take charge of their own destiny. Luxon’s plans for moving young jobseekers “From Welfare To Work” (where have we heard that slogan before?) by contracting “community groups” to “coach” the long-term unemployed out of their “welfare dependency” and into paid employment, will undoubtedly be met with the approval of conservative New Zealanders. Many will welcome the reappearance of Bill English’s “social investment” approach. But, will it work?

Those on the receiving end of policies setting them up as “suitable cases for treatment” are seldom grateful. Community organisations funded by the tax-payer have a long history of offering their “clients” little more than the condescension of middle-class professionals. Before successful coaching can begin, it is necessary to have a team. If National could only find the courage to allow these teams to form themselves, with sufficient resources to hire their own coaches, then the party’s social investment policies just might succeed.

Taken in its entirety, LunchMoney Lewis’s rap is not the positive statement Christopher Luxon obviously believes it to be. In the accompanying video, the artist makes clear his scepticism that the “work, work, work” of ordinary people will ever get them out from under all those bills. Rappers speak of a world rigged by the Man, for the Man. That’s why they portray working for the Man as a fool’s game. Luxon and the National Party would have a lot more credibility if they offered the young unemployed the chance to become their own bosses.

Then they’d be businessmen. And businessmen don’t have bills – they have accounts payable. And, as the former CEO of Air New Zealand knows, the larger your pile of accounts payable, the more likely it is that someone else will pay them for you.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 8 August 2022.

Friday, 5 August 2022

In A Wizard's Garden.

In The Wizard’s Garden: George Dunlop Leslie, 1904

IT ALL SEEMS so long ago now, and, to be fair, in human terms, 48 years is a long time. New Zealand was a different country in 1974. Someone unafraid of courting controversy might say it had achieved “Peak Pakeha”. Although the Labour Government of Norman Kirk had struck out boldly in the direction of a truly independent foreign policy: recognising “Red China”, and sending a New Zealand frigate to “observe” (but really to protest) the French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll, this was still a very “European” place. In the South Island, particularly, the two largest cities – Christchurch and Dunedin – had been built to look as though they were founded in the Middle Ages – not the mid-Nineteenth Century.

Born and bred in the South Island, I had not been back there since 1969, when the family moved to Heretaunga in the Hutt Valley. Barely 18, and in search of – well, I wasn’t quite sure – I boarded the Union Steamship Company’s inter-island express steamer, the TEV Rangatira, and sailed south to Lyttleton. Yes, that’s right, Lyttelton. Forty-eight years ago it was still profitable to run a ferry service a wee bit further than Picton. I’ve seen many beautiful places since that journey in 1974, but none of them could match for sheer wonder sailing up Lyttelton Harbour on a brisk Autumn morning, as the sun came up behind the Rangatira’s stern and bathed the hills and houses in a magical golden light.

Magical, yes, that’s the word. Magic is what this essay is about. The magic of art and memory.

It was on that journey south, in the autumn of 1974, that I first encountered George Dunlop Leslie’s mysterious painting, “In The Wizard’s Garden”. It was hanging in the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, situated behind the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch’s splendid Botanic Gardens. Leslie’s painting stopped me in my tracks. The room in which it hung was deathly quiet, I was the only person in it, and I felt myself drawn to it like Edmund and Lucy in C.S. Lewis’s “Voyage of the Dawn Treader”. The melancholic gaze of the young woman, the painting’s principal subject, held me spellbound. Who was she? Where was she? And who was the dark figure striding through the garden’s narrow gate?

I can’t remember registering the artist’s name. If I did, then I soon forgot it. But the painting itself, its eerie stillness and its disconcerting sense of menace – that I did not forget. Passing through Christchurch many times in the latter half of the 1970s, I always made a point of making my way to that quiet room, and to the half-sad, half-challenging gaze of the young woman in the garden, and the dark figure who kept her there.

Until the day came when I entered the room and found Leslie’s painting had been replaced by another. Not unusual, of course, for art galleries to rotate the works in their collections, but I was devastated. “In The Wizard’s Garden” had become a kind of talisman, a corporeal reminder of a time in my life when magic seemed very close. It’s removal struck me as both a judgement and an instruction: time to put away childish things. But, the child in me preferred Leonard Cohen’s poetry:

Magic is afoot
It cannot come to harm
It rests in an empty palm
It spawns in an empty mind
But Magic is no instrument
Magic is the end

And so the years passed, and New Zealand changed, and I changed with it. Magic seemed very far away indeed in the narrower and more materialistic nation we had become. If I thought of the painting at all, it was only as a symbol of what had been lost. Our culture had become much less European and much more global in its focus. This was thought to be a good thing. A better thing, though, was the indigenous culture of the Māori, unfurling from the cracks in the colonisers’ concrete, and shimmering with a magic all its own.

And then, just a few weeks ago, I saw it. No more than a tiny circle of colour beside Lynda Clark’s Twitter handle, but the human brain is a marvellous thing and mine instantly recognised the sad figure of the young woman in the red dress. Not hesitating for a moment, I messaged Lynda and shared with her my longstanding fascination with the image she had chosen. Turns out I wasn’t the only person enchanted by Leslie’s painting: Lynda, too, had visited it whenever she could, transfixed, like me, by the young woman’s soulful gaze.

It was Lynda who supplied me with the artists name and the painting’s title. (I had thought it was called “The Magician’s Garden” – which was close, but not close enough for Google Images!) With the correct details, the Internet flooded me with images and information.

According to the Christchurch Art Gallery:

“In response to the adverse impacts and uncertainties of the industrial age, many late Victorian and Edwardian British artists were drawn to somewhat escapist historical or literary themes. Lavishly displaying this tendency, George Dunlop Leslie’s In the Wizard’s Garden was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1904, and in New Zealand at the 1906–07 Christchurch International Exhibition. Because the painting puzzled visitors, Leslie was asked for an explanation of its meaning. Its unhappy subject was a young medieval noblewoman who had sought an alchemist or wizard’s guidance to discover the secrets of the future. The theme originated from American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Rappacini’s Daughter’, a macabre tale featuring a garden filled with poisonous plants. The setting of the painting was, however, English rather than Italian: it is known to be based on Leslie’s own garden in Wallingford, Oxfordshire. London-based, former Dunedin merchant Wolf Harris, a friend of many leading artists, bought the work almost as soon as it arrived in Christchurch and then gifted it to the Canterbury Society of Arts.”

The secrets of the future, ah yes, that is the stuff of wizardry. For me, however, the joy of being able to look again into the wizard’s garden served only to unlock memories of the past. Like the works of those Victorian and Edwardian artists among whom Leslie’s skills shone so brightly, the New Zealand of 1974 strikes me now as an elaborate lie, designed to protect its Pakeha inhabitants from the “impacts and uncertainties” of their inescapably Pacific destiny.

The Christchurch I arrived in that autumn morning in 1974 is no more, shaken to bits by the constantly moving tectonic plates upon which Aotearoa does its best to stand upright. “God is alive, magic is afoot”, wrote Leonard Cohen. “It moves from hand to hand”. And it is moving now. Perhaps, in her half-sad, half-challenging way, the young woman in the wizard’s garden is urging us to step, finally, beyond its enchanted walls, and discover who, and where, we really are.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 5 August 2022.

Seating Arrangements

Proximate Cause:  Tellingly, it was Helen Clark who was seated close by when, earlier this week, Jacinda Ardern delivered a speech carefully crafted to keep New Zealand’s dairy exports heading China’s way. Photo by Politik

PURISTS WOULD ARGUE that New Zealand’s foreign policy should not be determined by who its Prime Minister sits next to. Their preference would be for consistency of message and predictability of action at all times.

Easier said than done, of course. Contradicting the President of the United States when you’re seated next to him in the White House would be a diplomatic incident in its own right. Small wonder, then, that Jacinda Ardern decided that when in Washington, talk like a Washingtonian.

Ms Ardern is not so naïve, however, as to imagine that both the tone and the vocabulary of her Washington pronouncements would go unnoticed by those who speak the language of Beijing.

Aware that the New Zealand Prime Minister’s next stop would be the Nato summit meeting in June, China’s diplomats opted to remain silent. They were keen to hear what she would say when she was seated next to the Nato Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg.

In the official White House communique of 31 May 2022, President Joe Biden and Ms Ardern jointly singled out the Peoples Republic of China as “a state that does not share our values or security interests”, noting that any Chinese attempt to establish “a persistent military presence in the Pacific” would, by fundamentally altering the region’s strategic balance, give rise to national security “concerns” in both New Zealand and the USA.

One month on, the heady incense of Ukraine’s heroic resistance to Russian aggression which suffused Nato’s Madrid summit (28-30 June 2022) seemed only to brighten the militaristic glint in the New Zealand Prime Minister’s eye. Impressed, no doubt, by the lengthening geopolitical reach of the Nato partners – now extending all the way to the Indo-Pacific – Ms Ardern wound her diplomatic rhetoric up a notch. China, she said, “has in recent times also become [like Russia] more assertive and more willing to challenge international rules and norms.”

This was too much for Beijing. China’s Wellington embassy described Ms Ardern’s comments as “wrong and thus regrettable” and “not helpful in building trust”.

To the untrained ear, this may sound like a mild rebuke. But to those, like the Australians, who have, in the relatively recent past, forfeited China’s trust, the economic penalties following such rebukes have been anything but mild.

It’s all very well to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the shieldmaidens of Finland, Sweden, Estonia and Denmark and breathe in the heady perfume-du-jour – L’air du Cordite. But, eventually, all New Zealand Prime Ministers are obliged to get off at the World’s last bus-stop and breathe in L’air du Cow.

Not for nothing is our foreign service dubbed MFAT – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. By asserting the indissoluble linkage of New Zealand’s diplomatic and economic interests, our diplomats might just as easily have called themselves the Ministry of Milk Fat. It has always been thus. In two world wars we traded blood for butter, and, even today, it is the brute calculation of who pays for what that ultimately determines our allegiances.

Ms Ardern may have thrilled to the martial music of our “traditional allies” and longed to strike the heroic poses of her North European counterparts but, for all their war songs, the Americans and the EU nations weren’t offering to bankrupt their own dairy farmers by taking all the milk solids we can send them.

Thankfully, at least some of the employees of MFAT still have their eyes on the only prize that matters – the well-being of New Zealanders. Thankfully, some still understand that the only “national security” worth a damn is the security that comes from being able to pay your country’s bills. And the only country making it possible for us to do that; the only country willing to take all the milk solids we can send; is the Peoples Republic of China.

To her credit, Prime Minister Ardern always comes back to that single, crucial, fact of New Zealand economic life. It helps that the National Party’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee, “gets it” too. Even more helpful is the fact that the woman who negotiated New Zealand’s free trade agreement with China is as alive and alert as ever.

Tellingly, it was Helen Clark who was seated close by when, earlier this week, Jacinda Ardern delivered a speech carefully crafted to keep those milk solids heading China’s way.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 August 2022.