Great New Zealand Argument by Various Artists


No Fretful Sleeper

by Paul Millar

In November 2004 Bill Pearson’s trenchant essay ‘Fretful Sleepers’ was posted on Public Address as part of Russell’s Great New Zealand Argument series. As I was then researching Pearson’s life for my biography No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson, I wrote a brief preface to the essay. But looking back I find my comments significantly lacking in detail and insight because in late 2004 I wasn’t fully aware how intensely private and complex was the life Bill Pearson had been forced to lead as a closeted homosexual. Only as I wrote the biography did I come to a full understanding of the extent to which the forced concealment of something as fundamental as Pearson’s sexuality impinged on every aspect of his life, particularly his writing.

The following extract from chapter sixteen of No Fretful Sleeper is therefore much closer to what I would write now for the Great New Zealand Argument series. The time is the early 1950s and the setting is London, where Pearson is completing his doctoral dissertation and beginning his novel Coal Flat. Never before or since would he enjoy such freedom to express himself as an intellectual, a writer, a political activist and a homosexual. But even as he revelled in London life his happiness and sense of well-being was tinged with regret because he had already decided it couldn’t last.


from No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson, Chapter 16 (with minor changes from the published version)

It had always been Pearson’s intention to return to New Zealand — ‘I just knew that I belonged to New Zealand and wouldn’t settle in England’.i So he gave himself a definite time frame, the completion of Coal Flat: ‘[W]hen I finish the novel I must return,’ he told Charles Brasch.ii ‘One knows one’s own people, subtleties of facial expression, tone of voice, gesture: who do I know here? I have been embarrassed in the company of half-a-dozen East Londoners, say, not catching the underlying motives of their talk — their patterns of gentle ridicule, friendly scorn of what really attracts them — feeling whatever I said would be out of key.’ As time wore on, he worried that he was already ‘out of touch with the NZ idiom’ and that this seemed to be silencing him: ‘One loses the desire to say anything here.’iii For all his fear of New Zealand’s ‘deadness after London’, it seemed vital to return for the sake of his writing: ‘The danger here is of drying up . . . the best solution for the New Zealand writer is to busy himself in the country, or involve himself in some activity, where he can get strength and depth in his writing.’iv

But by 1951 Pearson could see that London had ambushed him; he hadn’t expected to be so happy in the heart of the British Empire. The belief he had arrived with, that there was no problem of the New Zealand creative artist, was shaken by his enjoyment of the English summer, and by the pleasure he took in London life with its ‘sense of greater variety, and less fear and more freedom in talk than at home’.v He began to treasure those qualities enjoyed to date: largeness, diversity, anonymity, a manageable type of sexual freedom, an endless procession of art, theatre and dance, access to the cultures of Europe. It was this developing enjoyment of London that had prompted him to write to Charles Brasch in December 1950 (the first letter since his grumpy notice of departure over a year earlier) asking whether he would be interested in an idea he had had in his head ‘for some time of writing an essay or article criticising, arraigning and evaluating the “NZ Character” such as one may abstract from the behaviour and acts of New Zealanders. I don’t know if I could do it without carrying myself away into a kind of rhetoric.’vi He went on to ask whether Brasch thought his desire to remain in London was an attempt to ‘shirk a responsibility? Is it fear of “freeing” myself from ties of custom, social mores? I don’t know if you can really decide me, but I’d like your advice.’vii

Brasch, with long years of experience living covertly as a homosexual, understood that Pearson was asking him how he had managed to survive in New Zealand’s puritan bell jar. ‘I still feel the pressure to conform very strongly,’ he answered. ‘As you can guess, I am quite outside the pale — I’ve never had any illusions about that; it means isolation.’viii Brasch’s honesty was due in part to Pearson’s confession of his real fear that if he were to be true to himself, and live as his sexuality dictated, he would become the butt of the same sorts of jokes that Margaret Bennett had told him of, directed at Frank Sargeson:ix

. . . the neighbours, I daresay, don’t speak, but find him good material for keeping visitors amused, pointing him out thru the curtains. On the other hand the intellectuals — tho they are prepared, as students to use him, call round with half a dozen bottles, and brag afterwards of what F. & I said — treat him as someone to be avoided, the object of shaded jokes, remarks, askance at parties.

Such courageous difference risks humiliation, but what was the price of conformity? Pearson knew it would be ‘difficult to avoid some conforming in N.Z. if only out of self-protection: if you refuse to compromise you find yourself fighting and preoccupied with a battle no one takes seriously, you become a joke or boycotted’.x Brasch’s reply was soothing and pragmatic: ‘[I]t’s no use just fighting things in N.Z.; one must get on with one’s work as quietly and normally as possible, accepting other people’s view of one and looking for the best in them while rejecting whatever’s false in their outlook. Damned difficult; but life is long, and one’s business is to survive, as man and artist.’xi

Pearson never really arrived at the calm acceptance of other people’s negative views of him achieved by Brasch, and although he survived as a man when he returned to New Zealand, he perished as an artist. Only in the final dozen years of his life did he reach the point where hiding his sexuality seem ridiculous and he began, in a quiet but determined fashion, to come out as a gay man. One of the most creative pieces of writing in many years — his 1990 autobiographical essay ‘Beginnings and Endings’ for Fergus Barrowman’s literary journal Sport, with its coded allusions to his homosexuality — was a product of this period of increasing disclosure.xii. For most of his life he remained fiercely proud and instinctively defensive — it always galled him that although he considered himself as good as the next person, in homophobic New Zealand a single misstep was all it took to become an object of derision. The fact he even cared what others thought was equally galling, and he detested his own thin skin and habits of defensiveness, the more so as he frequently acted according to their dictates. Too often when relationships became threateningly intimate he placed self-deprivation and personal pain before the risk of humiliation, acting against his own interests to pre-empt situations developing that might leave him exposed and vulnerable to ridicule or rejection. More than once an important relationship foundered because he backed away from it at the point of commitment.

Pearson’s April 1951 letter to Brasch thus supplies the crucial context for appreciating ‘Fretful Sleepers’ — namely that it originated as his cri de coeur against the mainstream whose values sentenced him to the solitary confinement of the closet. However his fellow New Zealanders might receive the essay, Pearson wrote it with one reality at the forefront of his mind, that discrimination against homosexuals occurred at every level of New Zealand society, and in seeking to express his sexuality there ‘[he] wouldn’t have anything like the opportunities that [he] had in London’.xiii The thought repulsed him that on returning home he might feel compelled to repeat in some form ‘all the routines I went through in my adolescence, especially when I started at training college . . . that craving for protection, wanting to get myself a reputation that would protect me, like I did all the proper things that young men did’. His experience of alienation provided ‘the basis of [his] criticism of the New Zealand mores and ethos’. While conceding that a lot of the essay ‘of course was self-criticism, in that I thought of myself as a New Zealander’, there was the deeper reality that ‘[my] thinking and feeling as a New Zealander was imposed on me, and was foreign to my sexuality . . . the pressures towards conformity force you into certain falsities of thinking and feeling’.

Because many New Zealand intellectuals were no less condemnatory of homosexuals than the men drinking at the bar in Coal Flat amusing themselves at the expense of Pansy Henderson, Pearson was no less critical of intellectual pretensions than of small-town attitudes. When he expressed to Brasch his resentment at the deception New Zealand life required of him (‘What I hate is the drive to conformity, the fear of being different’),xiv Brasch perceived immediately that this plaint was also a rehearsal of an argument — ‘a sketch for an essay on N.Z. mores’ — and wrote encouragingly: ‘I would indeed like to see that when it’s written.’xv But when Pearson’s first, handwritten, draft of ‘Fretful Sleepers’ reached Brasch, he was taken aback by its length — ‘it’s not 8–9000 words, but nearer 15000’ — and read it ‘in waves of rising and falling interest’.xvi He concluded that it should be printed, although in its early draft it ‘does seem a bit long-winded and repetitive’. ‘I’d much rather wait until your return,’ he told Pearson, ‘only you can tighten up this version.’

Pearson didn’t want to wait until he was back in New Zealand to see his essay published, and he felt little inclination to rework the piece — ‘I’ve worked off my obsessions and don’t feel like any radical revision’.xvii He still felt keenly Brasch’s rejection three years earlier of his Holcroft article. But rework it he did, albeit grudgingly, and airmailed it on the 2nd of January 1952, expressing concern that ‘at the rate legislation is moving in NZ, it may soon be illegal — some of the tilts at Mr Holland you may even now have to cut’.xviii Brasch sent the sheaf of pages off to his own typist, and was delighted with the outcome:xix

I got your ms typed and have just finished reading it through, and I must say I am considerably impressed — more so I think than at the first reading . . . it now reads as a continuously developing argument . . . An excellent piece of work . . . I was struck several times by your admirable clarity and forcefulness and some very good longish yet simple sentences . . . The essay will take up very nearly half of LF . . . the only priority to you is Sargeson’s short novel, which will occupy most of one number . . . I’m afraid you will have to wait for September.

Pearson was pleased to have earned Brasch’s approval and only mildly frustrated by the delay: ‘I hope . . . Frank finds some urgent revisions to his novel before June,’ he joked in reply.xx In April he remarked to Brasch that he had thought of some minor ‘crystallisations’ to his argument, but none were that important and he was content to ‘leave the sleepers to nod until they are doused coldly in September’.xxi When the essay appeared, he wrote at once to tell Brasch how pleased he was ‘with the setting out’ and to express a hope that ‘it will stimulate some thought’.xxii ‘I don’t doubt that there will be a great deal of argument, and that I will be criticised,’ he concluded happily. It was therefore a matter of some small regret that although ‘Fretful Sleepers’ caused a stir amongst readers of Landfall, few of these seemed personally affronted by anything Pearson argued. Indeed, most readers appeared to welcome it as if it referred to anyone but them.

The main effect of the essay was to kick open a number of doors Pearson had been knocking upon, and admit him to the inner circle of New Zealand’s left-wing commentators. From being simply a promising writer of fiction, he had become with a single essay a leading voice of social criticism.

Paul Millar's No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson is published by Auckland University Press.

Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas About Ourselves, is published by Activity Press, and can be purchased from the Public Address Store.

With the kind permission of Donald Stenhouse 'Fretful Sleepers' is available to read here as part of the Great New Zealand Argument series

Calder, ‘An Interview with Bill Pearson’, p. 56.
WHP to CB, 12/04/51.
WHP to CB, 16/10/51.
WHP to CB, 2/07/51.
WHP to CB, 12/04/51.
WHP to CB, 17/12/50.
WHP to CB, 12/04/51.
CB to WHP, 17/06/51.
WHP to CB, 12/04/51.
WHP to CB, 2/07/51.
CB to WHP, 21/07/51.
See ‘Beginnings and Endings’, Sport, No. 5, Spring 1990, pp. 3–21.
WHP, interview with JPH, 23/04/01.
WHP to CB, 12/04/51.
CB to WHP, 17/06/51.
CB to WHP, 21/07/51.
WHP to CB, 29/07/51.
WHP to CB, 2/01/52.
CB to WHP, 1/02/52.
WHP to CB, 14/02/52.
WHP to CB, 6/04/52.
WHP to CB, 18/10/52.

My Imaginary Journey

by Fairburn 1

If Rex Fairburn had been writing now he would surely have been a blogger. Not one whose work fell easily on the "left" or the "right", but assuredly one who would not shrink from a good argument.

"He always wanted a scrap …" wrote Denis Glover and Geoffrey Fairburn on the jacket of The Woman Problem and other prose. "Right or wrong, he would argue the hind leg off a cow and bite a camel's bum. What he has to say is not so much to convince us that that his is the only thinking … as to make us think about these things for ourselves."

Fairburn's politics were neither consistent or wholly rational - his dalliance with Social Credit saw to that - but they were forthright. As the New Zealand Book Council profile declares:

"Fairburn’s targets are those individuals and institutions that encourage the worship of false idols - capitalist greed, puritanical repression, social status and power, hypocrisy and the cult of the respectable."

Some of his work - notably the gamely-argued tosh of The Woman Problem - would be considered "politically incorrect" now, and readers may divine a modern resonance in My Imaginary Journey's "female dictator", Madame Onions.

He was a man who in 1947 spurned Frank Sargeson's offer to arrange a stipend from the Labour government's State Literary Fund ("I'd take money from a friend, if the circumstances were right. But not from the State, not in the form of a pension anyway, because that allows the State to get a foot inside my door …") but in 1951 lamented that "I find it impossible to insulate myself against the infections of the market place, to evade the sooty hand of commerce …"

My Imaginary Journey was first delivered as a radio broadcast for the New Zealand Broadcasting Service on October 5, 1953, at a time when Fairburn was working (unencumbered by any formal qualification) as Lecturer in History and Theory of the Fine Arts at the Auckland University College in what would now be known as Elam. In it, he pokes at our smugness; both that of Sid Holland's mainstream New Zealand in 1953, and of the cultural establishment he worked alongside at the time.

This will be the first of a series of works by Fairburn to be published on Public Address in 2006.

The text here is taken from The Woman Problem and other prose, 1967 (Blackwood & Janet Paul Ltd; ed. Denis Glover and Geoffrey Fairburn) and is used with the kind permission of Dinah Holman and Janis Fairburn, literary executors of the Fairburn Estate.

The audio recording has been kindly made available by Sound Archives Nga Taonga Korero and was converted to MP3 by Richard Hulse at Radio New Zealand. Special thanks are due to Rachel Lord and Blair Parkes for their help.


IT WAS ONLY by the merest accident that I came to pay a visit to Autarkia, that paragon of twentieth-century states. At the time I was on my way home from a world tour. I had made a pile of money out of the publication of a book of poems - so much money, indeed, that after buying a new car and a string of race-horses, and making handsome presents to all my friends, I found I had enough left not only to pay my income tax, but also to take me on an extended tour abroad. By the time I left for home again my book of poems was in its fourth edition, the money was simply rolling in, and my bank account was threatening to burst at the seams: so I found I could indulge myself further by chartering a special plane to take me on the last lap of my Journey.

Unfortunately - or rather, as it turned out, very fortunately - a series of minor mishaps overtook us. First, my pilot dropped the bubble out of his spirit-level: and while he was fumbling for it on the floor of the plane, he lost his sense of direction. As a precaution, he had taken a pair of compasses on the trip: but these were of no use at all. On the contrary, they led to a further complication-for we found ourselves describing circles over a strange piece of territory, which neither of us could at first identify. In the end it came to a forced landing.

It wasn't long before I realised that we were in Autarkia. Apart from the slight worry at having lost our way, I wasn't at all displeased with this. Like the rest of you, I had heard so many rumours about this country that I was, in fact, delighted to have the chance of satisfying my curiosity. Autarkia is, as you all know, reputed to be the last word in modernity. For that reason it is, of course, practically a closed book to those who have not been there: since all the publicity and information services-including, I need hardly say, literature and the arts-are under direct control by the Government, it is quite impossible to discover by docu¬mentary evidence what conditions there are really like. And since it is almost impossible to get permission to enter the country, little is known by outsiders about the manners and customs of the Autarkians - except that it seems to be generally agreed that their customs officials have no manners at all.

The truth is - as you will know from your digest reading - that Autarkia has already come close to realising the dream of every twentieth-century state - that of cutting itself off completely from the rest of the world. It has succeeded, for instance, in reducing trade with outside countries to the absolute minimum. Almost all the things it needs are by this time produced internally-synthetic bananas, rice and cotton grown by hydroponics, wines with French-sounding names, chemical coffee and cocoa, plastic bicycles, woollen clothes made from seaweed, artificial beefsteak made from sawdust - I could name you a hundred such commodities. In point of fact, Autarkia imports only one commodity. Having an exceptionally cold climate, it obtains heat from the Sahara Desert: blocks of heat are frozen and then shipped in refrigerated space to Autarkia, in order to provide much-needed warmth for the inhabitants. Being a completely up-to-date and progressive state, Autarkia makes no attempt to pay in full for these imports of heat. It merely pays the interest on the debt incurred - and, in order to do this, it has developed an export trade in dried heads. In normal times of political tension these are provided in sufficient quantity by unsuccessful politicians. In periods of relative quiet, an auxiliary supply is obtained from members of the academic staffs of the universities-this, indeed, being the more economical source, since there is in such cases no need to go to the expense of drying the heads, nature and culture between them having already completed that process.

You will, I know, wish me to say a word or two about what happened to my pilot and myself after we had made our forced landing. We found ourselves on a broad expanse of turf, which must have contained several hundred acres. I at once recognised this as a golf-course. I was puzzled by its flatness, and found out later that the Autarkians have made golf, their national game, completely rational. Every fairway was as level as a billiard table-there were no bunkers to obstruct play-the greens were funnel-shaped to facilitate holing out-in fact, everything had been done that you can possibly think of to make the game accurate and scientific. Of course, only those who are in good odour with the Government are allowed to use these links. Those who are not in favour - the majority - are compelled to play three times a week on a huge expanse of dune country nearby, with nothing but loose sand from end to end of it.

Soon after landing, we were taken in charge by two officials dressed like Beefeaters, wearing gas-respirators, and were conveyed twenty miles or so by car to Sisyphus, the capital city. I know that it is customary for travellers abroad to discuss the transport arrangements, the alcoholic amenities, the quality of the soap in hotel bathrooms, and other vital matters. I do not intend to weary you with a detailed account of what happened to us during our brief stay in Autarkia. That would be altogether too tedious. My time will be much better occupied in describing to you the tremendous advances this nation has made in the techniques of civilised living.

Perhaps the greatest triumph to have been achieved so far in this astonishing country is that women have by this time completely got the upper hand. No male is permitted to own property, propose marriage, run a bank account, give up his seat to a woman in a jet-propelled bus, go fishing on Sunday, smoke tobacco, choose his own library books, sit about in braces, or do any of the other things traditionally associated with masculine privilege. It is ten years since the vote was taken away from men. Incidentally, democracy has been carried to new heights by the adoption, some two years ago, of the principle of votes for animals. There was talk at the time of restoring voting privileges to men, as a logical extension of the new policy, but it came to nothing, chiefly because the vote itself has come to mean little or nothing in Autarkia. The work of Government is all done by a permanent and hereditary bureaucracy, consisting mostly of women, under the direct personal command of Madame Onions, the female Dictator - who is known affectionately to her subjects as 'The Strong Woman'. We had the pleasure of meeting Madame Onions. It was quite an experience.

There is still, by the way, a Parliament, but the Members are no longer put to the bother of speaking or voting. Each has a gramophone record, prepared by the Department of Propaganda and Education, which is played whenever it is his turn to speak; and all decisions are made by Madame Onions. This saves a great deal of disagreement and obstruction, and makes for smooth, stream-lined running of the country's affairs.

There is one thing in particular about which the Autarkians cannot be accused of half-heartedness, and that is soil erosion. Whereas we are content to leave this to the casual activities of amateurs, in Autarkia the State organises and superintends soil erosion on a gigantic scale, and entirely systematically. Water is pumped into huge dams on the tops of hills, and sluiced down the valleys. This is in accord with the increasing national campaign to get rid of dirt. Behind it lies, however, the further intention of preventing the illicit production of food. The food industry is a State monopoly, the profits from which pay the wages, salaries and bonuses of the large army of bureaucrats. The State has its own forests, from which sawdust is obtained, and food of all kinds is manufactured from this. We were astonished to be told, after our first dinner in Autarkia - a seven-course meal - that every item on the menu, from soup to ice-cream and cheese-straws, was manufactured out of State sawdust. It is, by the way, quite illegal for private people to plant, or to own, trees. The penalties are extremely severe, and there is very little bootlegging in food, even during the famine period of the year, which usually lasts from early winter until later autumn. Senior bureaucrats - and their guests - are of course exempted from famine.

I must tell you that Autarkia has brilliantly solved another twentieth-century problem - that of city traffic. This has been done by the simple method of banning pedestrians from the streets. It is necessary to obtain a licence to become a pedestrian-the fee is a substantial one-and one is only allowed to walk on the footpaths-and then only if one does so in a respectful manner, raising one's hat politely to every car and truck that passes. Trespassing on the roadway is a serious offence: to knock down a motor-car or a truck is a hanging matter.

Let me say a word about the economic foundations of Autarkia. Of the heavy industries, the chief one is horse-racing. Here again, gigantic strides have been made towards complete rationalisation. The most startling instance of progress is that the horses have been got rid of. The members of the racing public sit in front of television screens watching horse-racing scenes taken from old movie-reels, and laying their bets by telephone. The placings are decided by drawing names out of a hat. This new system is extremely successful. There are no dull moments. Every race is packed with thrills, and may be watched in comfort from an arm-chair, or even a bed. The laws of chance apply fully, and quite fairly, and guarantee plenty of excitement in return for the money one loses. An additional advantage gained from doing without horses is that the oats saved are turned into fertiliser, which is used in the State forests, thus helping to increase the supply of sawdust for food.

And now let me tell you something about the education system of Autarkia. Common sense, and a feeling of responsibility to the nation, have at long last triumphed over the older policy directed at 'helping human beings to realise themselves' - as sentimentalists used to express it. There is no nonsense about the education system of Autarkia. Every child is now trained rigorously in some functional occupation that will serve the ends of State policy, and is allowed to do nothing else. 'If we are to hold our place in the modern world,' said the Minister of Propaganda and Education recently, 'we must make every citizen a cog: a happy, smiling, singing, contented cog-in the smooth-running machine of the State. Only thus can we succeed in preserving those traditional liberties which are more precious than life itself.' In these words we find the key-note of the Autarkian education system. Even the higher education has been remodelled completely along these lines. In the universities there are chairs of riveting, ice-cream making, boot-clicking, paint-spraying, handle-turning, and dozens of other useful activities. Classical studies, literature, philosophy, and other forms of mental thumb-twiddling which used to be called, with unconscious irony, 'the humanities', are now banned as subversive activities. The Autarkians have a genuine love of progress, and are busy building a happier world.

Speaking of their schools, I must not forget to mention one most remarkable instance of the way in which they have forged ahead-and that is in the matter of sex-education, which they take very seriously indeed. In all primary schools there are regular classes for the teachers, where they are provided by the pupils with the very latest knowledge.

I would have you know that in Autarkia the arts are not neglected. The Autarkian Government has a high sense of the importance of tradition and culture, and fully appreciates the role that art and literature have to play in the drama of history and the evolution of the human spirit. Every senior bureaucrat has two specially-chosen writers attached to his staff: their duty is to gather materials and write his biography. Similarly, he has on his staff an artist, whose function it is to paint his portrait at frequent intervals, so that posterity may have a complete record of the personalities associated with the glory of the Autarkian regime. For both writers and artists the expression of private thoughts is, of course, strictly forbidden, as being contrary to the principles governing the Autarkian way of life. The Un-Autarkian Activities Committee constantly supervises the conduct of artists and writers, and quickly checks any tendencies towards irresponsible personal expression.

If you ask me to give you a concise notion of the social and political ideals underlying Autarkian life, I can sum them up in one word - the word Freedom. The Autarkian attitude towards Freedom can be described only as one of worship.

This spiritual goal is like a great light shining above the pathway of life, leading them onward towards ever better and brighter things. The national motto, inscribed on every public building and on every banner, is, indeed, 'Freedom Through Conformity'. Freedom, they explain, is the end, and Conformity the means. On this principle the political philosophy of the Autarkian state is based.

I feel, personally, that it was a very great privilege to have been given the opportunity of inspecting at close hand this latest and most promising chapter in human history unfolding itself before my very eyes. And I must say that certain rumours I had heard previously about the inhospitable reception given to visitors turned out to be entirely unfounded - at any rate, in the experience of my pilot and myself. Wherever we went we were showered with bundles of most illuminating propaganda material-pamphlets, posters, reports, even full-length history-books. We formed many friendships. And when we came to leave that happy country we were sorrowful indeed. At our final interview with Madame Onions we wept unrestrainedly.

I am aware that I have not told you very much about our day-to-day experiences during our fortnight's stay in Autarkia. I am very much afraid that any curiosity you may have about these matters must wait until some other occasion, when we can talk more privately. I gave a solemn promise to the Minister of Propaganda and Education that on our return home we should not fall into the heresy of personal expression. I hope, however, that I have managed to convey to you something of the infectious enthusiasm, the forward-looking optimism, of the Autarkian people. I am convinced that future generations of humanity, looking back on the murk and darkness of the early twentieth century, will agree that it was Autarkia that led the van of progress, and showed mankind the pathway to brighter and happier things.

Nuclear Weapons Are Morally Indefensible (the Track)

by David Lange

The file on this page, 'Nuclear Weapons Are Morally Indefensible', is a derivative work incorporating audio from the recording of David Lange's speech in the 1985 Oxford Union debate, arguing in favour of the motion that "Nuclear Weapons Are Morally Indefensible."

The speech is used with the permission of David Lange, Margaret Pope and Television New Zealand. The music was composed and produced by Andrew B. White, aka Tomorrowpeople.

The record is a 192Kbit/s MP3 and is 8.93MB in size.

Creative Commons - Some Rights ReservedThis recording is copyrighted by Andrew B. White and may be freely distributed, played and broadcast in line with the attribution/non-commercial/share-alike Creative Commons Licence 2.5. See for further information on licensing.

Information Entrepreneurs

by Russell Brown

The following is the text of a paper presented to the Research, Libraries, Collections, Creating Knowledge conference at the National Library, Wellington, on September 2, 2005. A recording of the address, with a few more jokes in it, is available at


The handful of men who decreed the terms of what we now know as the Internet were benevolent dictators.

They made decisions on the basis of what was, in engineering terms, no more or no less than good taste. They weren’t averse to using more than moral suasion. They controlled a good deal of research funding, and they made it clear that universities that did not heed their instructions on crucial issues could expect to see the money dry up.

But at the same time, they established a process that allowed their decisions to be tested: the Request for Comment, or RFC. In comparison to the procedures of institutional standards bodies, RFCs are remarkably informal. Their distribution is typically unlimited. In principle, anyone in the world can respond to one. Joke RFCs are published every April 1st. RFC 2486, published in 1998, is not a technical document, but a remembrance of the first RFC editor, Jon Postel, the "Father of the Internet".

And yet, it is arguably the most effective development of practice in modern history. The standards and protocols that emerged from it facilitate every move we make on the Internet today. Competing network standards from some of the most powerful companies in the world have come and gone, as did one anointed by the United Nations.

The Internet's benevolent dictators did not simply win their technical argument. To the extent that environment determines culture, they set in place not only the engineering principles of the Internet, but its cultural template. By their own example, they established a pattern that occurs time and again on the Internet: a pattern of motivated individuals and mobilised communities.

This is the pattern we see now in the blogosphere; sometimes to spectacular effect.

During last year's US election campaign, CBS News' 60 Minutes programme ran a controversial story on President Bush's military service, based on a hitherto unknown memo from his commanding officer. The conservative blog Power Line was annointed "weblog of the year" by Time magazine for its work in showing that the memo was forged, but in fact Power Line's authors did little more than ask the question: the real legwork was done by a horde of readers, some of whom displayed a zeal and expertise that put professional journalists to shame.

More recently, blogs on the other side of the divide used a similar division of labour to demonstrate that a mysterious conservative journalist given press accreditation to the White House was working under an assumed name, that the news organisation he worked for was nothing of the kind, and that his services as a gay prostitute were being advertised - explicitly - on the Internet. In that case the labour of investigation was explcitly allotted to willing readers; volunteer investigators.

This is the modern phenomenon of the "blog swarm"; something as dizzying and angry as its name suggests. It has encouraged some commentators to hold forth - generally in their own interest - on "the power of the blogs". This power is so great, it is held, that the millions of individuals with their online journals will supplant the mainstream media.

But bloggers would soon run out of things to say were there not a steady flow of professional journalism from which to feed. With this in mind, the professionals - again, with their own interests to the fore - like to depict the blog hordes as no more than unprincipled amateurs.

In reality, good bloggers are neither the slayers of the mainstream or mere news parasites. They are Information Entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurialism is the novel combination of resources that results in an increase in wealth. And just as we depend on financial entrepreneurs to increase society's overall wealth, to take us forward, so we depend on "information entrepreneurs" to make the connections that increase our wealth of knowledge.

It is not a matter of "power", it is a matter of the usefulness of individual voices - and that is a story as old as the Internet itself. Linux, the open-source operating system that powers much of the Internet, was the brainchild of one man - the Finn Linus Torvalds. But it is the work of thousands, who cleave to the collaborative, sharing process overseen by Torvalds. Any work created by one Linux developer can be used by any other.

There are many other examples, including some which speak directly to the issues at this conference. We all know about Google; fewer of us understand why Google rose from almost nowhere to command its industry. When its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, began to shop around their ideas in 1998, search engines worked badly. The big companies behind them had compromised their integrity by selling results; none seemed interested in fixing the problem. One CEO memorably told Page and Brin that "our users don't really care about search."

We did, of course. And Google embodied a simple, brilliant idea. It was, effectively, to ask us what we thought was important. If a website had many links to it, or its key people were namechecked elsewhere, it was considered to be a trusted part of a community, and its ranking reflected that. In doing a Google search, we could draw on the knowledge, experience and good taste of everyone else.

In the same year that Page and Brin began to seek support for their ideas, an older Internet venture underwent a rite of passage: the Internet Movie Database was acquired by, as the technology bubble expanded.

IMDB emerged in 1990 as an undifferentiated mess of information about movies. Its founder, Col Needham, was simply a film fan, as were the people who started to send him cast lists and biographies. But as a Unix computer programmer he had access to an engineering heritage that helped it steadily develop into a resource without parallel.

IMDB now attracts 18 million visits a month, but the multi-million dollar deal has done little to change its essence. Its greatest resource is still its community: the 100,000 individuals who feed it information. Seventy per cent of its staff resources are devoted to ordering this information. Created and nurtured outside the screen industry, IMDB is now that industry's primary information resource.

These riches of community content extend, of course, far beyond IMDB. There are volunteer resources for stars, franchises, TV shows - even websites dedicated to individual episodes of TV series - and in many cases the phrase "fan site" does not do them justice. There are episode guides, histories - all the things that the owners of the original content did not think or did not bother to provide.

After a false start, Peter Jackson realised that it was better to hold close the creators of, rather than serve them with trespass orders. And TVNZ should be grateful to Regan and Rachel Cunliffe, the creators of Idolblog, for providing the New Zealand Idol franchise with a persistence and sense of community it would otherwise have lacked.

A similar principle is at the heart of a far more ambitious venture, launched four years ago: Wikipedia, "the free encyclopaedia that anyone can edit." You may be familiar with the standard criticisms of Wikipedia: that it is fed by amateurs with agendas, that it cannot be trusted.

A sign that Wikipedia's great strength is also its great weakness came recently when it emerged that one of its newer entries - on British pop star Jamie Kane - was fictional. Kane was a character in an online game launched by the BBC; his "biography" had been added by a staff member in a misguided attempt at viral marketing. The entry was swiftly corrected - without deleting the original - in line with the Wikipedia process, but it appears it may not have been the only stunt of its kind. So there is still a place in the world for authority.

But consider this: many of you will be familiar with Te Ara, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand Online. Nearly as many of you may be surprised to discover that it does not contain a biography of the late David Lange. More surprisingly, neither does its online sibling, the Dictionary of New Zealand biography, which does not trifle with the living, nor, apparently, rush to judgement on the departed. They are not alone: two weeks after Mr Lange's passing, the Encylopaedia Britannica - online, but not up to date - had still not noticed his loss.

So where might a New Zealand schoolchild turn to discover what all the fuss was about? A Google search on Mr Lange's name would render as its first result the Wikipedia entry for David Lange. It correctly identified him as deceased within a couple of hours of the news being made public, and in the days after his passing it blossomed.

I understand that when Te Ara was conceived, the idea of user-generated content was specifically rejected. This was a mistake. If there is one part of the site that grieves me, it is the section on New Zealand music. The last 15 years have seen an emergence of national identity in our popular music that is as significant as the arrival of a characteristically New Zealand literature in the 1930s.

And yet the New Zealand music entry in Te Ara is little more than a brochure. I would love to be able help build a deep and broad resource here, and I’m not alone. We have knowledge and skill. But there is no way in for us.

As I noted, not everyone sees user participation this way. In a rather spiteful essay this year, Robert McHenry, the editor in chief of Britannica, dubbed Wikipedia the "faith-based encyclopedia" and compared it to a public restroom where the visitor "does not know who has used the facilities before him."

In fact, the reverse might be argued. On any Wikipedia page you can click a tab to see its editing history: who added what, when, and every previous instance of the page. Effectively, you know not only who has used the restroom, but exactly what they did in it.

There is a parallel here with the Internet engineering process, and its RFCs. No RFC can ever be unpublished, even if it is obsolete. The argument must be forever apparent.

Bloggers often embrace this principle without even realising it. If a post later proves to be wrong or intemperate, the ethical thing for the author to do is generally not to delete it, but to make another post, or annotate the original.

This relates to an expectation of actuality in the Internet age - an expectation to which libraries and archive organisations must respond. People today do not want simply to hear of a thing, or have a thing explained to them, they want to confront the thing themselves.

We have seen, to quite revolutionary effect, a shift of this order in political life. Ten years ago, access to official reports and draft laws was the preserve of a select few, mostly in Wellington. Now, most of that is online. Similarly, we no longer have to settle for reading about party and lobby group press statements via the media. They are all posted to, the national noticeboard of political life.

But members of the public can not only view these things from anywhere on the Internet, they can direct others to them. A good political blog post might draw together a moment from Hansard, a ministry report, an old story from the Herald, today's party political press release and, of course, a comment from another blog to make an argument. That is what being an Information Entrepreneur means.

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Nuclear Weapons are Morally Indefensible (Audio)

by DAVID LANGE, Oxford Union debate, 1985

This audio recording of David Lange's speech arguing the proposition that "Nuclear Weapons are Morally Indefensible" in the 1985 Oxford Union debate is used with the kind permission of Television New Zealand.

A full transcript of the speech appears online here and is published in Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas about ourselves, with an accompanying commentary by Margaret Pope, the author of the original speech notes.

Thanks are due to Karajoz Coffee Company for covering costs associated with this project, and CactusLab for their technical assistance and bandwidth.

EDIT:  An hour of the debate, including the principal speeches, is now available on YouTube: