Hard News by Russell Brown

Liberal ironies

I called Paul on Saturday morning to make sure he was still on the face of the Earth. After all, with the Anglican Archbishop of New Zealand boldly looking forward to a world without gays, there was every chance it'd been shuffled up God's to-do list. Which would be a disaster - I had Warriors tickets, and going there on my own might be way too depressing.

Happily, Paul was fully in existence, and up for the long, strange trip that is Ericsson these days: "That'll work nicely - so long as I'm back in town in time for the Golden Stilettos." So he was good to go. I was less sure about Bishop Whakahuihui Vercoe, 75, the new head of the Anglican Church in New Zealand.

Bishop Vercoe, as the Weekend Herald noted in a front-page lead under the screaming headline A world without gays, and a more measured and interesting profile in its Review and World section, both by Catherine Masters, has been a key personality in the Anglican church's embrace of Treaty rights and Maori self-determination in recent years.

He also thinks we should "close the door" on immigration, would never ordain a Maori woman as a priest (even though the church itself allows the ordination of women), and believes homosexuality is unnatural and morally wrong - so much so that he looks forward to the day that society embraces a "new morality" and homosexuality consequently disappears. (You wouldn't fancy his chances, given that historically God has determinedly kept churning out homosexuals in the face of the most hideous persecutions.)

Bishop Vercoe's rather unlikely vision is backed up by his even more curious belief that homosexuality did not exist in pre-European Maori society - this, he implied last year, provided a justification for anti-gay prejudice among Maori. In fact, the evidence appears to be that before the church got at them, Maori were relatively relaxed about sexual orientation.

The irony here is that the church's lurch to the right at the top is the result of the most PC, Treaty-hugging motivations you could imagine. Bishop Vercoe's election a month ago at the church's General Synod was widely seen as a further step forward in the church's embrace for a bicultural partnership under the Treaty - indeed, as this sermon by the Rev Richard Randerson indicates, he was chosen specifically because he was Maori.

As the pakeha caucus pondered those issues last weekend, no clear answer was seen. The Maori caucus was also pondering the issues prior to our convening in General Synod, along with Polynesia. But the more we talked about it as a pakeha caucus, the more it seemed evident that if partnership was to mean anything in this Church then leadership should now pass to tikanga Maori. As pakeha we felt we should not name a candidate, and that we should take that path not in a patronising spirit (like not running a candidate in a by-election so someone else could have a chance), but rather so that the full mana and leadership authority of another tikanga might blossom and enrich us all.

Thus was the oldest primate in the entire Anglican Communion, a man in poor health, chosen.

But it's largely his own people he damages when he resorts to "culture" to fluff up his own prejudices. What is a gay Maori teenager to think when one of his leaders tells him that the person he finds himself to be is an "abomination" to the "dark races"? Bishop Vercoe trots out all the usual qualifiers about loving his gay relatives, but to say that and then "by the way, the world would be better off without you" is untenable.

I'm not especially comfortable with the headline treatment accorded to issues of sexuality in recent weeks - it risks hysteria - but the shock-horror story may yet have an ironic payoff for the church itself, which, while it nominally has 630,000 adherents in New Zealand, has endured a declining share of a diminishing market in churchgoers, while morally conservative, new-fangled Pentecostal churches have grown strongly.

Anyway, the Herald ran its backlash story yesterday, along with the news that one big gay Maori, Witi Ihimaera, was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit. Readers' letters appear to have poured in.

I wonder if all the credit for winning/ending the Cold War being lavished on the late Ronald Reagan relies more on more perception than reality. Many tributes mention his 1987 speech in Berlin, urging Gorbacev to "tear down this wall" - the implication being that Reagan played a key role in what happened. But that speech was made nearly two and a half years before the Brandenburg Gate was opened.

What forced open the wall was not Reagan's urgings (realistically, Gorbacev's public advice to the embattled GDR leadership to embrace reform in October 1989 would seem to have been far more directly influential), but the courage and determination of East Germans themselves, who took to the streets in historic pro-democracy demonstrations - one of them more than a million strong.

What happened on the night of November 9, 1989, was that, after the general committee announced that applications for travel abroad would now be accepted, several hundred East Berliners went to the wall to demand their own immediate passage to the other side of their city. This was brave. They could have been shot. They weren't.

I was in Berlin a few weeks after that and people were still fizzing. Word had gone out that night that the wall was breached, and people grabbed their friends and some festive booze and went down to be part of history in the making. By the time I got there, the daily flow of Easties, in their crappy plastic shoes, spending the allowance the West German government gave them as they crossed over, was starting to become a little irksome to the West Berliners, so long used to always finding a park and never having to queue. Gorbacev was still much in the news - but I can't recall anyone talking about Reagan, who wasn't even president by that point.

I think we need to be careful too over the very frequent declaration that Reagan brought down communism by staging an arms race that bankrupted the USSR. I think Soviet communism had become internally unsustainable for any number of reasons; Gorbacev's reforms (which effectively set the scene for Reagan's 1987 speech) seemed more about domestic than foreign policy.

And, as we now know, certain other actions of the Reagan presidency - arming and training the mujahadeen so they could eject the Soviets from Afghanistan - had some unintended consequences. Where Reagan showed real courage and commitment was in sitting down with Gorbacev - against the urgings of many of his conservative backers - to negotiate the INF arms reduction treaty. As a Guardian editorial noted, at the time he left office the view that Reagan had either scared or spent the USSR into submission "was not widely shared … many believed he had delivered communism a hand-up rather than a knock-down."

So Reagan is surely a singular historical figure, but one subject to a mythology that grew mostly after he departed the stage. What isn't in doubt is that he allowed Americans to feel good about themselves, and that is at the core of his legend.

A number of readers have been unimpressed with the Maxim Institute's "snapshot" survey of parental attitudes. Mark Weatherhead and Rob O'Neill both questioned Maxim's willingness to pull quantative results out of its "qualitative" research, with Rob doing the numbers thus:

You can't accuse someone of not understanding qualitative research when the research is being presented as quantitative.

Qualitative research cannot be used to produce statistical analysis (that's why they call it qualitative) unless it meets quantitative criteria in the area of sample size, confidence intervals and confidence levels.

There is a handy tool that allows you to measure the margin of error of any survey. In this case you get something like a 95% level of confidence of a margin of error of + or minus 13 - way outside acceptable norms.

On the information I see, the only ones who don't understand quantitative research is Maxim. But this shouldn't be surprising as they are setting out to prove that "New Zealand has lost its way" - so they already have their hypothesis before they've even conducted any experiments!

Makes you wonder why they bother.

Kim Griggs pointed out that the writer of Maxim's press releases "was obviously unruly the day the teacher discussed apostrophes". John Langley of the Auckland College of Education had a measured and sensible response to the obtuse Herald editorial (as I noted, probably the work of Garth George) that both quoted the Maxim study and cheered on an Intermediate principal whose chief pride seemed to be in the number of children he had excluded from his school:

Stand-downs are not a disciplinary approach. They are a last resort used when other approaches have failed. It is also true that for many children they do not change the misbehaviour, or reach the parents who most need to be reached.

I am not condemning schools that stand down children. As a principal some years ago, I did so in extreme circumstances. Obviously, when a child is a danger to him or herself and others, or is abusive, it is likely such a measure will need to be taken.

But it is normally taken when a range of other measures have been tried and failed; when the school has run out of options and has nothing left to offer.

It is not taken as a regular course of action and certainly should not be crowed about in the manner that has occurred here.

The Weekend Herald, it should be noted, offered a more thoughtful story on school discipline that put the report in context.

There's a Transit of Venus webcast from Australia later today.

Finally, the Warriors won, the Black Caps got thrashed and - here's something we can all feel good about - Creed have broken up. Hallelujah.