Matt Nippert - certified hack, Auckland

Friday, June 25, 2004

To be, or...?

I know it's been a long while since I last rapped at ya, but things have been kinda crazy in this automotive city of automotive snails (catch the bus, green lanes rule). To collapse into to seedy metaphor, I'm guessing gynecologists fit into one of three camps. One; they're paid-up porn producers who have a stall at Erotic Expo, or two; when they sign job contracts there's an implicit don't-take-work-home burnout going on (much like vegetarian butchers, or pacifist boxers), or three; they're gay.

Recent craziness has seen me sign my soul (aka copyright and the hours of 9-5) away to the commercial media (the Listener, it could be worse - I could not be working for them). I write all day, and do I really want to come home at night to hammer out a blog? Or am I such a media junkie (or lacking social life) that'll interview my keyboard until we both, at 3am, run out of things to say? Depressing and mind-numbing; quite likely.

I've cleared my volunteer slate. No more bFM morning shifts, no Wire production, student mediawatch on holiday, and best of all (timewise at least) - no AUT. With only eight hours of my day taken up - what to do with the rest?

While the blog model, I think, works - nil publishing costs, the ability to link with stories under discussion - it ain't entirely costless. There's time, and the risk of stepping on various toes. As a young journalist, I'd prefer to keep my career on-track. But what does writing here achieve, and more importantly, does anyone read it?

The second every Fightingtalk Readers Poll is now open: Is it worth writing a blog, in particular, this one? Results will be announced if there's a positive response.

I never thought I'd actually say this, but I find myself agreeing with Garth George and Pat Buchanan more and more often. I caught the icon of the religious right (and whipping boy of the secular and liberal left) on a PBS panel discussion last night. Buchanan said the war in Iraq was a mistake, Clinton didn't do too bad (compared to Reagan at least), and Bush is fucking thing up. Triangle Television is responsible for all this international content (the only channel where the Voice of America is followed by the Voice of Islam).

Recommended: PBS is where you get to see the Berkeley Law Professor who drafted the 'torture is okay, as long as you're aiming to get information, not to cause extreme pain' memo - go head to head with the head of Human Rights Watch. (Monty Python's Terry Jones has a hilarious column on the memo.)

Garth George is where our third hypothetical gynecologist comes in, with queer notions about gays. His column in the Herald earlier this week was quite restrained. No biblical quotations, and even a sensible conclusion: the effects of the Civil Unions Bill, pass or fail, will be practically negligible. The sky ain't falling.

(George's references to 'the homosexual question' isn't something I'm buying into though.) Regardless of the significance in policy outcome, the politics of symbolism shouldn't be ignored. Pass or fail, same-sex couple will still be cohabitating. Much like earlier in the year, the Prostitution Reform Bill didn't invent the oldest profession, but it did acknowledge it existed and tried minimising pointless, costly, and inconsistent sanction.

Parallel? I couldn't possibly comment.

Although I am willing to comment on criticism that Tim Barnett shouldn't chair the select committee looking at the bill because of "conflict of interest". If that's the case, when considering any bill promoting top-tier tax cuts, no MP should consider the bill in committee. They're all in the top bracket and thus have a clear financial stake in the outcome. Only truly impoverished MPs should consider such law. Ridiculous? Quite.

Queer Nation interviewed me today, about the Wizard, which I dissected in a short piece in this weeks Listener (article if offline, sorry). The Wizard isn't especially evil, it's just taken a mailing list and made it very user-friendly. The genie is out of the bottle on this one, any lobby group worth their salt will be spamming letters.

But it's all, really, up to editors and whether they want credibility attached to their letters to the editor pages. Political debate is war - it's always a brutal battle in the marketplace of ideas - but that doesn't mean it shouldn't have codes of conduct and limits. Even the US is now acknowledging this. Does editorial policy matter?

And hey, if this ends up being my last blog, here's a couple a funny links worth checking out. I even may have them carved on my tombstone...:

Remember John Mitchell? It's good to laugh at national tragedy. Check out this very funny faux-Scribe track by Jamie Linehan from Pulp Sports.
Student Choice activists get busted (possibly) falsifying letters to the editor down in Dunedin.
Trogdor - the burninator.
Drinking alert: I'm having a pint or two at Shakespeares tonight (Friday) from six. Come and vent your spleen and replace bile with hoppy goodness. The more the merrier...

Lyndon Hood - discursite, Lower Hutt

Thursday, June 24, 2004


Alcohol Alley

Last weekend I went to the Food Show at Wellington's Westpac Stadium. There was a surprise $15 entry fee (it wasn't specified in any of the publicity) but the indoor space of the stadium was a donut filled with people giving away food or (mostly) drink.

There were any number of wineries giving away measurable quantities of product - a number more if you forked out three dollars for a glass. There was also Belgian beer (I'm told that if you didn't make eye contact and took a turn around the stadium in between you could get more than one helping). And coffee, though I wish to note the Caffee L'affare had the check to charge full price. But, between reminding me what all those grape varieties taste like and what the difference between oaked and unoaked chardonnay is, my highlights were actually foods.

Pastrami, for instance - supermarkets would have you believe that you make pastrami by fixing it so the edge of the slice has that coating on it. Proper pastrami has to be properly cured - cured of not tasting fantastic.

Am I the only one that didn't know that olive oil mellows with age?

And somebody was importing (from Spain, I think) saffron-infused vinegar. I haven't actually had much direct experience of saffron, and I tried it because I wanted to test something I'd read in a book (which was mostly about pigments rather than food, but recommended infusing it in hot water). Saffron makes you laugh. It turned the vinegar yellow, gave it a pleasant earthy taste, and when I tried a little on a scrap of bread it sent a big warm belly-chuckle into the world.

Now, saffron filaments have to be picked out of their tiny little flowers by hand, so they're not likely to be less expensive than your drug of choice. But the experience was, and this is the word I'm after, nice.

This is what happens when you take sports seriously

Now, I happen to think that people representing a country in sport should be, as they say, of good character. But surely, where that's a question about that it should be answered by people who have looked into the issue rather than talkback radio listeners.

And I happen to think that once somebody served their sentence we should stop punishing them. If not, where do you stop? It's not much incentive to reform if you're never going to be allowed to do anything with your life anyway.

For God's sake, let the man go to Greece and get beaten up.

National: The Bomb

Is it just me, or was National's stunning backdown on the nuclear issue precisely what they were proposing to do anyhow?

Should be called uncivil union if you ask me ha ha ha

Just listened to Today in Parliament, with New Zealand First a clear winner in the show-us-your-rednecks competition, by fielding someone sufficiently bigoted to, judging from what I heard, not address the substance of the legislation in any way. Fella complained about the use of the term "gay" to denote homosexuals and then asserted that same sex couples could not possibly enjoy the same depth of relationship as hetrosexuals, though the former would naturally not be able to understand the transcendant experience of the latter. I would love to know what his grounds for comparison were.

Correspondence entered into

It's a modern liberal faux pas to assume that everyone at the dinner party agrees with you. However, since this blog started up I've got a lot of work done on my being-opinionated and I won't try to avoid offending the Internet. And when I write about the current American Government I seem to loose all my wry self-depreciation.

I got this in the email shortly after my last post:

Hi Lyndon - The Krugman book was published 9/03. How do you calculate this to be "early in the wave of pre-election anti-Bush publications"? Also, while he is a Princeton professor, this doesn't make him "nobody's flake". Any dispassionate reading of his NYT columns reveal him to be little more than a partisan hack. His predictions of economic doom following the Bush tax cuts have not come to pass - in fact, quite the opposite has occurred. To finish, where did you get the "their behaviour is of a character with the way they got elected, by doctoring the rolls in Florida to a huge extent" line? I can see why you admire Krugman - you are both inclined to make stuff up! Later - Sean.
Leaving our respective rhetorical flourishes aside, I'll stand by what I wrote. If controvesy inspires you to reading, Krugman's NYT columns are indeed online. US economic indicators are here (check out that deficit!).

Ah, yes: sometimes I wonder whether there is such a thing as constructive political debate.

When I asked to quote him, Sean said that he mostly enjoyed the blog, which is good. Otherwise I would have to recommend that he avoid it lest the hate poison his soul (I once had this problem until I stopped reading Frank Haden's opinion pieces). I sure don't expect to be writing anything positive about the Bush administration anytime soon.

And as for the Florida election, well, I'm glad you asked, but we're running out of space. Tune in next time!

He's, like, a celebrity for actors

Keith Johnstone invented Theatresports and is pretty much the father of modern performance improvisation. And (in case you were hiding under a rock or something) Keith Johnstone is in Wellington right now.

I attended a question-and-answer session on Monday morning. I was fascinated and inspired, but I won't go into too much detail, partly because all I wanted to do was publicly associate myself with Keith Johnstone. Patrick was there too, so he is also cool.

You should go see the show ('The Sercet Origin of Improv') with him and the people he's workshopping with this week, who include a unique gathering of creamy improv talent from all over NZ. Sunday (June 27) 7pm at the Illiot Theatre.

Else you're just ungrateful.

Max Johns - Armchair halfback, Dunedin

Monday, June 21, 2004

Pig-headed idiot worse than the half-witted, unskilled loser thugs that he coaches

There's something about the All Blacks and World Cup holders. Although it's been four tournaments since we've actually won the damn thing, we can at least boast victories over every other World Champion team in the first year of their tenure (leaving New Zealand's two unbeaten years on top all the more impressive). The All Blacks' fine decimation of the world champion English has truly made my week, even though it's only Monday. Not only were the scorelines better than we'd dared to hope for (36-3 represented the biggest whipping ever taken by a World Cup-holding team), but the nature of the contest had just the right level of bitterness between teams to make victory even sweeter. And both teams have returned to their roots - the All Blacks, after a few years playing a game based around the backs and arguably being slightly behind the world's 8-ball, based play around the forwards and never really looked like going backwards. The English, after a few years on top of the rugby world, have reverted back to their crumbly game-pattern we fondly remember, and off the field have rediscovered the one thing they'll never be beaten at - whinging like little girls.

Firstly, it's good to see a bit of biff back in the game. About bloody time. Pity that none of the commentators who were calling for it in John Mitchell's ruckless days have been brave enough to say so (I'm looking at you, Phil Gifford), but boots have sprigs and hands have knuckles for a reason.

Secondly, Sir Clive Woodward is a prize chump. He may not have had much practice at being completely rolled by a superior team between 1998 and this year, but it's time he learnt how to lose. Before this series he coached a team still generally respected in this part of the world, even after a shithouse third placing in the Six Nations. Kiwis don't like the way the English won the World Cup - deliberatly slow rugby with a near distain for try-scoring - but we accepted that it worked, and that the white and red forwards were bloody good. Better than us, even. And that admission hurt. Our one comfort was that our approach to the game was, on some sort of subjective scale, better. There's something about using all fifteen players and grouping points in fives and sevens, rather than threes, that appeals to the true fan, we limply claimed. Forget that, Woodward said in classic British style, judge us on our results.

Gladly. Three points to 36 in Dunedin: you lose. Twelve to 36 in Auckland: you lose. Eight tries against, zero for: you lose. One red card and a five-week suspension - both for unnecessarily violent behaviour - to one yellow given for a technical foul: you lose. Two games to none: you lose. Time for Clive to stiffen that upper lip, concede that things didn't go his way and look forward to next week's replay of last year's cup final against Aussie, right? Apparently not.

It seems that a combined 72-15 trashing doesn't prove that there is a serious difference between teams. Woodward still thinks the English team is the better. He wasn't even coy about it. "I still think England is a better team", he said. That's 'arrogant tosser' territory at the best of times, but coming on the back of his smug "look at the scoreboard" build-up, it's something closer to 'straight-faced denial of an ass-whipping from someone who writes, reads and believes his own press'.

Fantastically, Lawrence Dallaglio - a terrible choice for captain, given his inability to handle pressure and his love of the rough stuff - left his last NZ press conference early and in a huff. With a few empty threats concerning the Lions tour here next year, he was up and gone. Woodward should've followed, but was too busy trying to justify Simon Shaw's attack on Keith Robinson (just a wee "knee between the shoulder blades to let him know he was there", you see), complaining about the resultant red card, blindly claiming that the All Black defence - which now has England in a three match tryless streak - was weak, and insulting the match officials' impartiality.

It's bad enough that he brought out a team not good enough to even test a newly combined All Black team with six days' training under its belt. It's even worse that he responded to that first loss by telling everyone that his team was going to lessen their use of self-control. What a stupid thing to do - everyone knows that you're meant to up the aggro on the quiet. But when a coach can't accept two thrashings for what they are, that's the worst thing of all. (Funnily enough, England's second stringers went down to the Maori team over the weekend in a ridiculously close Churchill Cup final and, despite having possibly had a fairly converted penalty that would have won the game disallowed, were a fine example of how to handle defeat. It's a great time to be from the colonies.)

Thirdly, and focusing on New Zealand for a moment, Graham Henry and co. are doing a fine job so far (although John Mitchell should never have gone - we've all learnt a lesson about pissing off the media from that one). From what we've seen, this season has the chance to be one of the finest possible in a non-World Cup year (which, let's be honest, tend to yield our better vintages). But as much we need the Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cups to stay here, there's something about beating teams that really, really deserve it. That's why I can't help thinking that the Lions tests in 2005 are going to be the next time supporting the All Blacks is this much fun.

Michael Appleton - student, Cambridge

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Tradition, oversized cyclists, etc.

Cambridge is graced with the presence of two competent, weekly student papers: the student union-published The Cambridge Student (TCS) and the independent Varsity. This week's issues - the last of the academic year - discuss at some length three issues that have been taxing the minds of many students in the last few weeks: balls, exam results, and safety.

TCS leads with "Class dismissed!", an account of efforts by the Cambridge University Students' Union (CUSU) to have modified the way in which the university announces exam results. Since time immemorial, all results have been put up on noticeboards in the centre of town for all to see, and then been printed in the official information rag Cambridge University Reporter. So, not only can you see how well you have done, but also how well your friends and enemies have fared.

I suspect that this would never be allowed in New Zealand universities - it would surely breach privacy law - but some dons here are resisting CUSU's efforts to have student numbers listed instead of names. TCS quotes one (anonymous) academic as saying the CUSU's plans are "deliberately flouting tradition for the sake of being overly democratic". I'm not entirely sure what this has to do with democracy, but the quote is a delicious expression of conservative principles: why change something which has worked for centuries?

In fact, the CUSU plans don't actually cover the privacy issues involved anyway: under their proposal, names and results would still be published in the Reporter, but students would at least be able to see their results first on the noticeboards before anyone else could find them out. CUSU President Ben Brinded explains that the proposal was motivated not out of concerns over privacy, but rather a belief that the current system "infringed the right of the individual to see their results first".

But pity the poor (but affluent) Cambridge maths students who have to get together - in shades of the way British election results are announced electorate-by-electorate by the returning officer in front of the assembled candidates - to hear their results read out, in descending order. This brought me back to my Form Two year at Scots College, what would now be called an "independent boys' school" whose grounds are in Strathmore, just next to Wellington Airport. (Am I being pedantic for pointing out that this school, whose website is headlined "World Class Education", cannot get apostrophes right? It claims to be a "world class independent boy's school". Oh dear.) My form teacher - a man who had spent pretty much his whole life at the college, as a student and educator - took great pleasure in announcing the results of our interminable tests. He would march around the room, marked papers in hand, and announce - but in this case, in ascending order - each student's result, adding a comment for good measure. Those consistently at the bottom of the class were thus treated to almost weekly snide, belittling comments in front of the class. Lovely.

It's hardly a politically correct teaching method, and I wonder whether he still gets away with using it (assuming he hasn't yet retired). It in any case probably had mixed results: some students would have been spurred on to do better and avoid further embarrasment, while others would have become depressed and given up trying. My only consistently terrible results came in handwriting - thankfully, my parents and I took this "subject" less seriously than my teacher, so his biting remarks about illegibility didn't cut too deeply into my eleven-year-old esprit.

But what I found particularly terrifying about the result announcements was the idea that my work was on public display: everyone in the room could see how you were doing, there was no hiding. Which, incidentally, is something that journalists should be praised for. They often get a bad rap, and sometimes with good reason, but critics often forget both the pressures journos are under and the unique aspect of their job, which sees their work publicly displayed and thus open to critique on a daily basis. Editing student paper Salient last year, the stream of phone calls and letters from the irate and pleased alike certainly kept me on my toes.

Meanwhile, Varsity has gone big with a feature entitled "Safe on the Streets?". Fighting Talk readers may remember the bicycle-riding "Cambridge slasher" mentioned in this column last month. Well, Cambridge police claim to have "neutralised" the threat, though nobody has yet been charged for the four stabbings in question. I wonder whether "neutralised" is the best verb for the police to be using - to me, it sounds like a euphemism for "we've killed off the bastard", just as the Texans like to neutralise their worst murderers, and some of the world's more brutal states like to "neutralise" their political opponents. Anyway, Detective Sergeant Alan Page said three of the four stabbings were definitely connected because, reports Varsity, "on each occasion the victim has been approached by the cyclist from behind whereas [in] the second attack the cyclist approached from the front". We also learn that "the bike which he rides is said to look too small for him".

Finally, with the Black Caps losing to country side Derbyshire and the West Indies falling to Ireland, is there even any point in playing the tri-series starting next week? Maybe the New Zealanders and the Carribean men would be better served by flying home for some much needed practice. That said, the Black Caps' recent ODI form is at least more promising than that displayed in the longer form of the game. However, they are sure running out of time fast.

Lyndon Hood - follower, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Cons, damned cons, and neocons.

Russell Brown's latest on the American neoconservative liars put me in mind of a book I own. Paul Krugman's The Great Unravelling came early in the wave of pre-election anti-Bush publications. Krugman is a Princeton economist and nobody's flake (his unofficial fansite is here). In fact he is named by Naomi Klein as one of the usual suspect sweatshop apologists. Unravelling is a selection of columns concerned, among other things, with the Bush administration's mangling of the US economy. A broader theme is said administration's consistent use of deception.

I'm not talking about the generalised presumption that they meant to govern in the interests of the American people at large, or the belief that cutting taxes and increasing spending in a recession is a good idea, or even that oath Dubya had to make about preserving the constitution. I'm talking specific, shameless and sometimes blatant, lies. I'm quite convinced that George W. Bush is a charming person, but if he told me it was a nice day I would be running to the nearest window to check.

Krugman generally sticks to his field. The story starts with misleading campaign claims (to an economist, obviously misleading) in favour of privatising social security. Later, there is a triumph as they convince almost everybody that Bush's tax cut package was mostly for the middle classes (Democrats who bought that one, and there were plenty, are having trouble renouncing their votes to this day). See also Bushes public outrage over dodgy corporate schemes structurally identical to ones that he had been involved in. It goes on.

Krugman, in his introduction, ascribes this behaviour to the attitude of a "revolutionary power". The phrase was used by, of all people, Henry Kissinger in an early academic work to describe governments like revolutionary France or Nazi Germany, and their dealings with the rest of Europe. Powers that do not accept the legitimacy of the system - either the way their country was or the way the world is - and consequently will happily lie to achieve their ends. And if they are caught out, they can lie again, or intimidate, or just ignore it.

Previous statements by Bush advisors have demonstrated their contempt for the world order and the constitution. And even a whiff of something like Cheney's ongoing links to Halliburton would have been enough to cause a resignation or at least some action - if, that is, they shared any kind of moral compass with the rest of us.

Generally speaking their behaviour is of a character with the way they got "elected", by doctoring the rolls in Florida to a huge extent (and that almost wasn't enough). My faith in politicians' honesty is probably as low as everyone else's, but Krugman confirms that these guys are in a class of their own.

A question of transcription

In parliamentary question time last night Don Brash referred to the Prime Minister's statement that "quote when you have y'know targeted assistance like this you always end up with y'know abatement levels end quote". He used the intruding syllables as if the had some kind of relevance, such that the Hansard transcriber was compelled to write "you know". There was a sense of distaste, as if he were pronouncing a grammatical anomaly at arm's length. Brash is a careful speaker and for all I know he actually does find that kind of thing offensive.

Anyone who's ever tried to transcribe natural speech knows that it's crammed full of these "conversational noises" - ums, ers, y'knows, repetitions, false starts... When transcribing for public consumption, one normally leaves them out. It may be that there is less of this random verbiage in the pre-prepared speeches of Parliament. In fact, one of the things that is intimidating about Helen Clark is the way that, particularly for a woman, she uses very few of them (which has, it seems, led to her being taunted when she does). To generalise: women tend to use them as part of the emotional-connection side of conversation. Men tend to read them as sign of weakness.

To me, who knows all this, Brash is displaying a kind of malicious pedantry. Normally I'm not one to complain about politicians being cruel to each other, but that seems an unusually childish way of going about it.

Tom Goulter - hyphenate, Christchurch

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Ronnie, I hardly knew ye

By Tom Goulter, aged 24

- He had a Garbage Pail Kid modelled on him.
- He spent a lot of time trying to get his cockamamie Star Wars system off the ground.
- I don't know anybody who doesn't think that system was the craziest thing you ever heard of.
- Mikhail Gorbachev, while counting him as a respected political contemporary, says he concluded an early meeting with the man by telling Russian aides, "I have just met a caveman."
- If childhood memory serves correctly, he had some sort of association with fallen bombshell Olympia Dukakis.
- In The Matrix, Cypher is called "Mr. Reagan" by Agent Smith right before he agrees to sell his soul to the machines. Some have suggested this is because many people thought Reagan was evil incarnate. This has always seemed an extremely unlikely piece of reasoning.
- I was raised to believe that Gram Parsons and Roger McGuinn's Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man was an explicit critique of Reagan; however, further research (something I intended to do none of before writing this collection of ill-preserved memories) suggests it was actually a sideswipe at Ralph Emery. Being as I was also raised to believe that the song was originally by Joan Baez, I'm going to file this one under Tangental Things I'll Probably Never Resolve.
- I'd always thought his line, "What does an actor know about politics anyway?" was an apocryphal piece of silliness along the lines of that stupid Mariah Carey "flies and death" quote. Apparently not, though he did also say, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help'", and to honor Mr. Reagan's memory, I pledge to use this delightful bon mot as often as possible.
- Nancy Reagan's Diff'rent Strokes appearance is remembered as one of the canonical examples of jumping the shark.
- He was considered for the part of Ric in Casablanca, and really, if that had happened, I think it's safe to say we'd live in an entirely different world. (One, I hesitate to speculate, with a better Washington and a worse Hollywood).
- His "You Got The Right One, Baby" adverts sold a hell of a lot of Diet Pepsi.

Over the past week I've had very little time for fervent would-be iconoclasts trying to be controversial by dissing Mr. Reagan. If nothing else, it's too easy; how much of an anti-establishment guerilla-opinion do you display by saying anything as dumb as, "I'm glad Ronald Reagan is dead"? (But then, nine fervent would-be iconoclasts out of ten manage to irritate the fuck out of me with their every statement, so that shouldn't be such a surprise). Fair and balanced (with apologies to Bill O'Reilly) critiques of the man and his politics, meanwhile, are surprisingly prolific in the print media (the Press, of all publications, managed to reprint a dignified farewell that didn't gloss over Reagan's gross fuckups as President, though their local comment was a little more simpering); I admit to having avoided anything that looks too truly fawning, as, well, fawning tributes to a President with as patchy a track-record as Reagan's seem almost as pointless to me as fervent would-be iconoclastic ramblings about how good it is that the Gipper's pushing up daisies.
The disclaimer for the above, then, being that as a President, nothing about Reagan's politics impresses me all that much; but he's still a dude, and when death touches a dude, that dude's loved ones have every right to grieve; and while silly little bloggers have every right to write self-deprecating little pieces lampooning their youthful perceptions of that dude's public image, surely fervent would-be iconoclasts can find something better to do than loudly try to deny that dude his right to a decent legacy. You know, as a dude.

Lyndon Hood - radio listener, Lower Hutt

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Through the Triangle Window

National Radio's Australian correspondents have been reveling in the frufraw about Play School. It seems the children's show in question aired a sequence about a child going to the amusement park with her two mums. Gah! Sapphic lust for tots!

It's often difficult to tell how significant an issue is from another country is (my sister, who used to live in the US, likes to remind us that those freaky American law suits you hear about are generally either lost or overturned by a higher court). But this seems to have politicians in government and opposition rushing to scold the ABC. On Monday Channel 9's Today show interviewed opposition leader Mark Latham about Peter Garrett's candidacy, Iraq, environmental policy, and Play School. Someone has since drawn attention to another sequence which featured a child visiting the father then going to see her mother and her mother's new boyfriend.

The main issue seems to be that it's raised questions for children that a lot of parents don't particularly want to answer. Oh, and having the "homosexual agenda" forced down our children's throats (as it were). But my impression is that it's gotten so much coverage because same-sex marriage and adoption are live issues for the government (as something to be prevented). Not that these children are going to be voting anytime soon.

Now to my mind (warning: postmodernism), supporting the dominant paradigm is just as political as subverting it. It's just that people notice the latter. And if you were constantly wondering what effect your every action had on the formation of impressionable young minds, I imagine you would turn into an activist pretty quickly.

I want to leave aside discussion of whether they should be encouraged to make television only for the children with one mummy and one daddy. Also whether parliament has any business interfering in the content of a state-owned TV channel. I just want to say that people who think that Play School is a natural haven of conservative social values are wrong.

New Zealand Play School, like the other local kids shows from my childhood, was made in Dunedin. Hanging out with the theatre crowd, one hears stories. For example, I'm told that to relieve the tension caused by being relentlessly cheerful and safe the presenters would often make the dolls perform unspeakable acts on each other between takes. Then someone had the idea of giving little kids tours through the studio, which meant presenters had to be on their best behaviour the whole time. I don't recall if it came to the threat of industrial action, but the tour thing got dropped pretty quickly.

Another bit of information, more relevant to the present discussion, is to do with the programme having an agenda. They had an agenda and they were proud! The example cited was that, whenever there was any heavy lifting work to be done, the girl dolls would do it, while Humpty and the Teds (Major and Minor) would sit around and watch. Which seems to me an elegant combination of 'girls can do anything' activism (which was big around then) and telling it like it is, and I was assured that it was utterly deliberate.

On the other hand, as a male, I feel I should wonder whether such things may have damaged the development of my own sense of self-worth. But I can't bring myself to get too worked up about it. If I was bullied at school, I don't think it was because my generation lacked positive inanimate role models.

In closing, the least relevant Play School story: A friend of mine told me about a radio interview with a onetime presenter (I think it was Tim Bartlett) who explained the downside of being a celebrity with the under-five set. He would often be placed in an awkward situation when a child, seeing him outside of a TV set, would point at this man their parents didn't recognise and burst into tears. That's another one for all the postmodernists.

Michael Appleton - student, Cambridge

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Summer clippings

1. Predictive qualities
Let us hope that I'm about as good at predicting US Presidential races as I am at picking the winners of upcoming cricket test series. To remind you: a few weeks ago, I wrote in these virtual pages: "My guess is that New Zealand will win the series [against England] 2-1, so long as the fickle weather lets them. The New Zealand side, its embarrassing loss to Kent notwithstanding, just seems to me more battle hardened and have more match winners than its opponents." Yesterday, I watched as England completed a comprehensive series victory, and all I could do was shake my head in disbelief and agree with former England captain Bob Willis, who opined that on the evidence of the first two tests New Zealand had the weakest attack in test cricket.

It's probably rare that a test side's batsmen have so comprehensively outdone its bowlers in class, temperament, and application. In both matches, New Zealand's batsmen have done enough to set up match-winning positions against a top-notch England side: sent in twice, the Black Caps made 386 and 409 on very difficult wickets and against an impressive attack boasting the world’s best fast bowler. Every batsman (with the exception of Styris) who has played in both games – from number one right down to number nine – has produced at least one innings of significance. By my count, there have been fifteen useful knocks so far, from Richardson (93, 101, 40), Fleming (97), McCullum (96, 54), Astle (64, 49), Cairns (82, 41), Oram (67, 39, 35*), Vettori (35), and Papps (86). But there has yet to be a single sustained, impressive spell of bowling from anyone, with the possible exception of Vettori’s useful but fruitless final day display at Lord’s.

So, from one deadly serious matter to another: George Bush will win this November’s election. Pollster Zogby famously said recently that this election was now John Kerry’s to lose. All my instincts say he will do just that. Why? Well, he is just too boring to win in a country where elections are all about spectacle. They have been about spectacle since the 1960s and have become increasingly so ever since. Say what you want about George W, but he gets people’s pulses racing: much like Clinton, he polarises. Boring candidates haven’t tended to win Presidential elections in the television era. And by “boring”, I don’t mean simply people who lack charisma; I also wish to include those without an exciting story to tell - a message that resonates with a large enough section of the American electorate. The only bores to have succeeded since television watching became prevalent - Lyndon Johnson and Bush père - did so with the help of incumbency and the legacies of more charismatic predecessors (Gore would have done exactly the same had he drawn Clinton close). Conversely, the only incumbents to lose their re-election races in that period – Carter and Bush senior - did so against candidates (Reagan, Clinton) people could get excited about.

And so one should ask of Kerry what was asked of Gore, the ultimate bore: what’s your story? What are you about? I’m usually the last person to turn to Mark Steyn for guidance on political matters, but his various piss-takes of Kerry should give those hoping for a Bush defeat pause for thought. The conventional thinking seems to be that Kerry’s not being Bush could just be enough. Unfortunately, US Presidential elections are not like parliamentary ones: it’s not enough to wait quietly in opposition for the government to screw things up. You need a counter-narrative, and Kerry simply doesn’t have a compelling one. And even if he did, it’s not one he has the charisma to tell convincingly.

2. Hitting the books
The best thing about being a graduate student doing work in the humanities: you get to spend all your time reading books. The worst thing: as undergraduates celebrate the end of exams and stream out of town for a summer of fun in the sun, you are left with six weeks till thesis submission and, already, it’s pushing thirty degrees Celsius. My current vocation, which is to continue for another three years hence, obviously involves more than reading books, but that is what I spend a lot of my time doing. And it is an interesting position from which to test a hypothesis I have forwarded for a while: that journalists and academics are, ideally, doing very similar things – i.e. finding out about the world and then communicating those findings lucidly to others.

I was thinking of this when I read recent comments by two of New Zealand’s three most perceptive media commentators, Russell Brown and David Cohen (the other being, of course, Warwick Roger). In a recent NBR column, Cohen offered a "how-to" guide to blogging, based on Brown’s recent work. In one entry, Cohen inferred that Brown – the undisputed doyen of New Zealand blogging – displayed in his web writings a disdain for knowledge acquired from books:
Literary allusions: Best avoided altogether … Successful bloggers are in too much of a hurry to read books, which requires much time and often leave the reader grappling with nuanced conclusions about the human state that cannot possibly be summed in 600 words. Much better to clinch your arguments on the great moral issues simply by presenting an exciting electronic link or two.

Whether this inference is fair, I don’t feel qualified to say (simply because I haven’t read Brown consistently enough), but what is interesting about most political commentary in blogs is that it is drawn primarily from material that can be accessed via the web. Does this matter? Well, one could argue that this is precisely what blogs are supposed to be: logs of what you’ve read on the web. But that’s not quite true in practice: the best bloggers – including Brown – show evidence of reading some material in hard copy, publications (newspapers, magazines) not freely available on the web. The interesting question is whether the work of commentators (whether in blogs or newspapers) would be significantly improved if they read high-quality non-fiction titles on the subjects about which they pontificate. Should someone like Brown be familiar with (as he may be), say, the work of Bernard Lewis, John Esposito and Nazih Ayubi on the history of, and current trends in, the Middle East before offering his views on the prospects of American success in Iraq?

There’s no right answer to that question, but it illustrates a key difference between most journalist-commentators and academics: the former are generalists, the latter are specialists. And, in general, once you get passed the jargon, academics have more interesting and informed things to say than journalist-commentators, not because they possess superior intellects, but because they have had more time to think about, read about, and investigate their issues than have journalist-commentators. All of this suggests to me that it’s a healthy thing that, in Europe and the United States, many people straddle the academy and the media, fulfilling roles as “public intellectuals”. It would be to New Zealand’s eternal benefit if more Kiwis could carve out such spaces with a foot in each camp, as have Steven Price (of Victoria University), Denis Dutton (of Canterbury University), and to an extent Jane Kelsey (of Auckland University). Reverence for academics is not something for which New Zealanders are renowned, but it would be beneficial for the quality of public debate.

3. Bureaucracies work!
At least since Weber, bureaucracies have had a bad name: inefficient, inept, more interested in self-justification and self-enlargement than providing the public with services. Well, an exception to prove the rule: I recently received an official polling card which will allow me to vote in this Thursday’s local and European elections. I found this very surprising, because I had not enrolled to vote, and the only organisations which know my address are British Telecom, the University of Cambridge, and my sponsors, the British Council. Therefore, I’m not entirely sure how the Electoral Registration Officer worked out both where I lived and that I was eligible to vote, but I am mightily impressed. And somewhat worried as to how easily my personal information has been passed around from government agency to government agency.

The elections are expected to be a disaster for Labour, unleashing another round of premature wonderings about Blair’s imminent demise. Judging from the material that has passed through my letterbox, Iraq, Europe, and university fees are the three issues the parties think will influence the way Cambridge students vote. The first two really turn on this country’s view of itself and its place in the world. The erudite Timothy Garton Ash (the paradigmatic public intellectual) – who actually comes across as even more intelligent and informed in person – has been offering Guardian readers samplings of his latest book (which grapples with these important issues of self-identity) over the past few days. The first three extracts can be found here, here, and here. I heartily recommend them.

Max Johns - Lazy writer, Ashburton

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Ten things I wish I was allowed to say in print

1. Michael Cullen is a self-satisfied git. Ministers of Finance should not be made out of guys that used to get beaten up for their lunch money.
2. The Listener is rapidly chasing the Sunday Star-Times down Quality Hill and it won't stop until Dean Barker is on the cover every second week with his arm around some dumb blonde and extensive coverage is given to the latest dieting techniques.
3. I'm a New Zealander, but I never saw the last two Lord of the Rings films because I just didn't care. Middle Earth shouldn't look like Matamata. And while I'm at it, Taranaki doesn't look like Japan, either.
4. That Maori TV station sucks most of the time.
5. The US legal system is such a mess that they might as well just free Michael Jackson now. Besides, it'd be fun to see what he does next.
6. If Ozzy Osborne was Dave Dobbyn, it'd be a "charter program" and Helen Clark would pretend she watched it.
7. The foreshore is just a bunch of wet sand.
8. Matt McCarten is the political equivalent of a kamikaze pilot with experience. He's the worst possible strategist a new party could hope for, and any party that employs him shouldn't expect to survive two elections. And, yes, that includes byelections.
9. It's bad enough that most people are inescapably and cripplingly stupid, but when they all get the chance to have their say in how things happen in my world it's just plain unfair on me. We'd be better off if we didn't let every last idiot vote, and you know it.
10. Petrol would cost less if the western world got its act together and took over one of them oil-producing nations for once and for all.

Matt Nippert - couched potato, Auckland

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The Maori Queen in white pants

On television the other night I saw the Maori Queen, and he was wearing white pants. The screen flickered with 12 dancers dressed in white belting out 'Find Me Somebody to Love' whilst I killed time channel-surfing before Eating Media Lunch. It was Maori Television, a show called Mau Mahara, a variety performance from the dreadful early 80s. I prefer Karaoke Japanese-style; in private, amongst close friends, and drunk. Now this was synchronised New Zealand Idol, with more moustaches, bigger hair and less branding. Painful, hilarious, amateur. I guess that's why it's on prime time...

The main event however, was well worth the warm-up. Jeremy Wells flying solo (except for the legion of fine writers and editors around him) is at his best doing deadpan self-deprecation. Arriving at the Qantas Awards he questioned his ability to accurately critique television, saying his experience came from "occasionally watching Flipside and cricket."

An excellent selection of clips rounded out highlights from the first half of the year including; Brash discussing mud-cleaning-remedies with his wife, Holmes scolding children for being lively, and a vitriolic Leighton Smith on Tama Iti. As Wells said, "2004 is already anus horribilis, and it's only June." Can't wait for that second half.

(I'm guessing the only people amused by Media Dog were Anthony Ellison and Jonathan Marshall - and the Beavis and Butthead generation. Anus: Heh heh heh.)

Normally I'm against product placement, but tying in Scoop with an interview with Robert Fisk is something worth saluting. Television inevitably has to edit to extremes, and having the transcripts available online is not only appreciated, but commended. Good to see Anita McNaught keeping her fingers in the New Zealand media pie. (If she's after a soft retirement option, Judy Bailey's looking a little creaky. I might even start watching One News again.)

Robert Fisk himself was, as expected, gruff and forthright. I like the cut of his jib, refusing to "climb the greasy ladder" into editorial positions, and preferring his home in Beirut to "an office in New York with air conditioning". From a man who's spent his professional career reporting conflict in the Middle East, he'd have to be classed as an informed pessimist. "Everything we're doing, we are doing wrong ... Bin Laden wanted to draw the West into the Middle East and trap them. And he's done that to a large extent."

Ouch. His response to claims he's lost his objectivity including emotion in his reporting was also interesting. He says he's a reporter, but because of his status he's "a reporter who's allowed to say what he thinks." Not having an open opinion, or reporting bare facts without context is, according to Fisk, tantamount to lying. Is reporting the personal corrupting news?

McNaught: Isn't this telling people how to feel?

Fisk: I'm telling people what I feel.
The self-congratulation of media awards were nicely skewered with wonderful writing. The preponderance of awards makes the event rather like Christmas "but with egos instead of egg nog". Kevin Milne was artfully drawn into a discussion on the foxiness of television reporters, only to be floored by Wells taking the conversation into the bedroom. Classic. Milne might feel compelled to complain he didn't get a Fair Go, but every cranium needs deflating every once and a while.

Comparisons between Eating Media Lunch and Quality Time are inevitably going to be made. But, in my mind, they are completely unfair. Eating Media Lunch has twice the budget, and takes a tighter brief focussing exclusively on media commentary. Quality Time is a vehicle for the larger (and louder) than life Mikey Havoc - a personality-driven show. Sure Wells and Havoc gigged together for a while, but they've now long gone their separate ways. It's time viewers realised these two were Siamese twins on television only - no surgery's needed except in our minds.

Lyndon Hood - non-appointee, Lower Hutt

The other week I got a phone call with the Good News. The Destiny New Zealand Political Party was coming to Wellington! Knowing, as they did, I wanted to live in a decent society but that looking at the TV I could see that this wasn't the case, they had sent me my first spam phone message.

You know how automated answering services are always voiced by either that one guy or that one woman? I'm pretty sure that this recording was voiced by the chick. At first I thought she was the library about an overdue book.

Despite the novelty value, I hung up fairly quickly. In the time I was listening, they didn't mention God once. Nor a did they do so in the associated press release. Their website mentions God all the time. The FAQ contains the assertion that "Members who wish to hold office in the party do not necessarily have to be members of a Destiny Church". The top item on their vision statement is "A nation under the governance of God".

I find all this intriguing, because I think that Christian Government is the next best thing to a Logical Contradiction.

The novelty of the New Testament, read honestly, is that it is not designed for use by the powers that be. In fact, one of the things that got Christ into trouble was that he was such a revolutionary. Not just in the political sense (a significant point of the money-lenders-in-the-temple scene is that the Roman Emperor's head is on the coins) but spiritually. In the Sermon on the Mount, the moral order is a challenge to ordinary pragmatic morality and entirely incompatible with the idea of exercising power over others.

Meekness. Poverty. Turning the other cheek (let's be absolutely clear: that means when someone hits you you should encourage them to hit you again). Not judging and not casting stones.

There are reasons people think Christ was a hippy.

Judging (and the associated punishment) is a core action of civil society. We have a whole branch of Government called the Judiciary. Yet to do it at all is to sinfully and arrogantly undertake what is properly left to God. Hubris. I don't think I'm nitpicking. I think this is a basic point of Christian morality.

It is less of a problem for a traditional monarchy. Or at least, if you can support the notion of a particular monarch being appointed by the grace of God. From this it follows that everything they do is right and that they have the right to judge and can delegate that to appropriate Professional Judges. This position has a kind internal coherence, but does little to encourage modesty and consideration on the part of the leader. Some commentators have raised the idea that the Bush administration sees themselves as divinely appointed.

But in fairness, let's assume that God approves of civil society, or at least recognises that it is necessary to support the population that the world has. So somebody has to legislate, and to enforce, to gather funding by appropriation, and, at some point, to judge. But these are civil laws enacted for the practical end of preserving civil society. If we recognise this as a distasteful necessity, then surely it should be kept to a minimum. We arrive at something approaching Libertarianism, or at least something that stays out of personal morality and does not refer to religious principles in its actions.

Incidentally, it's not clear that one is permitted do something wrong for material reasons, either under duress or out of merely practical necessity.

But then, presumably by that principle enforced charity would also count as a good deed. That would make me feel even better about paying my taxes.

Of course logic has only ever had a limited effect on the behaviour of the electorate. For all the official secularity of the US government, Presidential Candidates generally play their own godfearing Christianity for all it's worth.

And I am, in my enthusiasm for intellectual rigour, missing the point.

Anybody proposing a Christian political party has come to terms with the above issues to their own satisfaction (or ignored them). I think their idea is that our morally wishy-washy institutions would be improved by reimposing some lost absoluteness.

They're forgetting that what drove this noncommittal approach were social versions of the hippy religious values discussed above. Compassion, non-judgement and mutual respect. Tolerance too. Consider the case of the good Samaritan.

I finally lost patience with Destiny's recorded voice when it was clear we were building to a 'family values' appeal. I'm not against families, but 'family values' is known to be a code encompassing an broad complex of conservative social ideas I just don't agree with. Yet, as a policy, it's not as scary as religion. Because the further the goals of government get from the material wellbeing of its people, the closer it gets to the gas chambers. Trying to make people behave according to particular moral standards is the spiritual equivalent of making the Trains Run on Time*.

*A lot of people don't realise that this can be done without resorting to fascism. The Hutt line, for example, is pretty good, and in the Barcelona underground they have timers accurately counting down to the next arrival.