Hard News by Russell Brown

Redefining worthless opinion

Deborah Coddington's Herald on Sunday column continues to redefine the concept of worthless opinion. Last weekend's was particularly woeful. It opens with her usual hyberbolic flourish:

I watched an X-rated video last week. Well, it wasn't X-rated when made, but if it was to be released into New Zealand's current climate of "cultural sensitivity" there'd be an outcry. Endeavour Films, the company that made the video, would be called upon to apologise to every member of the tanagata whenua - alive or dead.

The offending video was called The Best of Billy T James and what a rollicking politically-incorrect laugh it was. It reminded me just how stuffy, pompous, humourless and scared of offending anyone the country has become. No wonder Graham Lowe is scampering to Australia. How did we get so boring?

She then goes on to "remind" us of "some of Billy T's most offensive jokes": classic TV moments (Te News, the brilliant joke about Ben Couch being asked if he used witty repartee in his speeches and replying "no, but I have read some of his poems") that will be familiar to most New Zealanders over 30. "No, it would never be allowed today," Coddington declares.

Does she really not know that (taxpayer-funded) Maori Television ran the entire Billy T collection in prime time from its launch last year? And that it's now about to repeat the whole lot (it starts again at 9pm this Saturday)? Possibly not: she memorably told Paul Holmes that she hadn't bothered to watch Maori Television after its launch because she was opposed to it. But surely she might have noticed that Billy T's work has been regularly showcased by state TV over the years?

She concludes by wondering whether even Holmes (whose "cheeky darkie" moment she seems to regard as the height of wit) would be "brave enough" in these politically correct times to play Howard Morrison's whimsical 1960s hit 'Mori the Hori' on the radio. That would be the same 'Mori the Hori' showcased in the current summer catalogue of Radio New Zealand's Replay Radio service, would it?

Her claim that edgy racial humour has been chased from the culture by the commissars of political correctness looks even more preposterous when you consider that the (taxpayer-funded) Eating Media Lunch concocted a hoax Maori porn film, Anal Mana this year, and couldn't get a rise (so to speak) anywhere outside Taranaki. Somehow, I don't think that would have screened in 1980 (the year that Patricia Bartlett convinced Muldoon to pass a law specifically denying support to New Zealand's first gay feature film, Squeeze). One is obliged to wonder: what exactly is the point of La Coddington's column?

Ironically, the weekend's papers also covered an edgy exhibition by a young Maori artist, Wayne Youle, which explores ideas of appropriation and transgression by blending (a la Gordon Walters) the traditional Maori motif of the koru with the dread symbolism of the swastika. I think it's pretty good art: it does the job that art can do of encapsulating complex and provocative ideas in a single, simple location. The mayor of Wanganui, whose gallery is hosting the exhibition, has backed freedom of artistic expression, and the only organisation to attack the exhibition has been the New Zealand Jewish Council - which, curiously, has avoided a flurry of Act Party press releases condemning its unacceptable "political correctness".

On the other hand, it's hard not to sympathise with probation officer Josie Bullock, now the subject of a complaint after she refused to sit at the back of the room during a traditional farewell for departing prisoners. How far into the secular, mainstream world should marae protocol really extend? Is there an alternative view of the tikanga? Should it apply in an environment where women like Bullock play the same, challenging role as their male colleagues? This is worth discussing.

Elsewhere, the great irony of Andrew Moravcsik's essay Dream On America is that it apparently appears only in the international, and not the domestic, edition of Newsweek magazine. Lord forbid that, in the week of the grand, bland imagery of Bush's inauguration speech, a mainstream publication should seek to question the American dream. It's actually really worth reading. While various passages will annoy or anger some people (it skips too lightly over the nature of American brilliance and creativity, and the challenges that face welfare states), its premise: that the world's emerging market democracies are not adopting the American model, but something more akin to the way of Europe (and for that matter, the Antipodes) is sound. When I was at high school, we were presented with the American system, with its "checks and balances", as a model democratic design. Now, who would seriously adopt the American way as a detailed model?

Moravcsik, inevitably, invokes last week's BBC/PIPA global poll, which is provoking some truly amazing contortions in the right-wing blogophere in the hope of rationalising the Bush administration's failure in the war of ideas. This guy takes on the poll of 22,000 people - which found that a majority in 18 of 21 countries surveyed thought Bush's re-election was bad for peace and security - and works it around to a positive endorsement, by accepting only the results for the 10 countries for which detailed numbers have so far been published, arbitrarily dropping China (not a democracy), aggregating their combined populations, then "averaging out" the results from the nine favoured nations, including India, with its 660 million people. Nice work! He manages to ignore the fact that, even by the lights of his remarkable logic, it's ludicrous to count every Indian peasant as a Bush-backer when the polling was done only in cities. If reality doesn't fit, it must be re-interpreted until it does.

I picked up that one from a link in a comments thread at the website of the conservatives' favourite Pollyanna, Chrenkoff, who has taken a break from his 'Good News from Iraq' to rant about a bogus survey he took of Iraq coverage via Google News. Surprise! There are many more bad news than good news stories (although many of them are simply different publications of the same wire stories). But Google reflects the decisions of hundreds of editors in dozens of countries: it's not a global conspiracy to undermine the Iraq project, it's a fairly straightforward decision about what news actually is. The ideal Chrenkoff bulletin would lead with: "A school in some Iraqi village got two new classrooms today, according to a coalition press release ... meanwhile, in other, minor, news, 36 people were killed in bomb attacks and assaults on coalition forces passed 2000 for the month …"

In a comment on freedom and tyranny in the wake of the inauguration speech, The Guardian's Gary Younge dares to utter the U-word - "Uzbekistan".

In the Washington Monthly blog, Kevin Drum looks at Thomas P.M. Barnett's book The Pentagon's New Map, which proposes a new global divide - that between the "Core" (market democracies that play by the rules and are committed to globalisation) and the "Gap" ("a collection of disconnected, lawless, and dangerous countries such as Colombia, Pakistan, and North Korea, plus most of the Middle East and Africa"). Thus, China, with its growing economic engagement, is a Core country, and not a threat. (There's a map of good and bad states on which - quelle horreur! - New Zealand does not actually appear.)

I'm quite open to the idea of a rules-based global economy as the touchstone of peaceful development. But Drum finds Barnett then allowing himself "something little short of religious faith in America's ability to be right under all circumstances", and therefore to project its military might as it sees fit. The salient point, surely, is that no democracy has done more to bend the rules (torture, pre-emptive war, cute games with trade policy, etc) than Bush's America has done in the past four years.

In conclusion, I wonder what those who maintain that aid and welfare are properly the role of the private sector make of the rather curious sponsorship situation in the international cricket series between the Black Caps and the FICA World XI. The series aims to raise money for tsunami victims, and like the recent benefit match in Australia, has attached bonus sponsorship values to various match elements - $1000 for a boundary, $5000 for a six and so on. But while Australia companies lined up to donate to their match (Toyota Australia put up $50,000 per six), in New Zealand with the exception of one sponsorship from Vector, all the donations come from … the gummint, which presumably stepped in to avoid a terrible embarrassment for New Zealand Cricket. Given that the money being donated presumably comes from the already-announced government aid package, the only real sizzle in those sixes on Saturday was watching Stephen Fleming hit them into the stand. Where are the titans of economic freedom when you really need them?