Monday, November 28, 2005

I Wouldn't Normally Do this But..

feel compelled to comment on recent pieces by two of New Zealand's "talkback radio in print" newspaper columnists, Rosemary McLeod and Joe Bennett.

Ok, so Bennett is not as bad as all that. It's just that you wonder why his rather banal whimsical musings should get published in a regular column, rather than anybody else's.

On this occasion, however, he makes some pertinent observations about how gardening acts as an outlet for the sublimated desire for order, power and the ruthless destruction of the Other.

Even those who have no experience or competence at the nurturing aspect of creating a garden have found themselves caught up in the manichean struggle which is weeding. Bennett's description of becoming intoxicated with slashing, cutting, tearing and uprooting exactly matches that of Simon Doherty, Mark Johnstone and I when we had to clear up the back garden before moving out of our flat in Church Square, Christchurch.

Amidst the mowing, cutting and digging, we got carried away, inspired by our discovery of what appeared to be a "lost" little brick patio behind the vegetable patch. Determined to bring civilization to the jungle, we ended up doing far more than was really necessary. As Simon Doherty said sheepishly "It was kind of like drivign back the heathen hordes".

McLeod is rather harder to find common ground with. Normally I would dig a "bitter and twisted" attitude, as it's one I tend to drag around too (friends have told me I'm well balanced--a chip on both shoulders). But if you're going to do b&t, it needs to be served with a side of humour, or at least a dash of self-deprecation--i.e. "look, I may be bitter and twisted, but...". Also, if you're going to do ad hominem, it's fair game to attack someone's pomposity, but not their weakness. Mcleod mostly ignores these rules--she simply serves b&t on the rocks.

Her most recent column also pronounces on matters of flora, in this case the planned regeneration of New Zealand native plants. Could this be rampant political correctness? You bet, says Rosemary. It's a conspiracy of "zealots":

"In Wellington they've taken over, like some rampant weed, dooming us to a future of khaki.

"We're supposed to be in ideological raptures about it, because it's the "natural" colour of New Zealand bush, and it goes with the organised tundra that currently passes for landscape gardening. Chuck a few rocks about, sprinkle with gravel, poke in a spot of some foliage resembling overgrown underarm hair, and wait for the passing dogs to bless it. Exquisite.

"The Tinakori Hills have always been one of my favourite vistas in this town, wonderfully ink-green and solid-seeming; beautiful on cold and misty mornings, when they're like a backdrop to some Grimms fairy-tale. But they're covered in pine, and pine is a foreign, and therefore bad, thing.

"Yes, the huge trees there have reached the end of their natural life, many of them, and there's an excuse to chainsaw. But the pines are being replaced with natives, khaki and sludgy green, and that dark visual drama is going for ever.

"Something like it will happen on Mount Victoria, too, before long. The giant eucalypts must already offend the taste fascists, and the very hills here have to be political. "

I guess the "foliage resembling overgrown underarm hair" is an implication that the zealots are probably also radical feminists?

In any case, apart from her rather subtle distinction between "ink-green" (good) and "khaki, sludgy green" (bad), McLeod has neglected to consult with reality. Here is what is actually happening on Tinakori Hill (which in misty or rainy weather has always made me feel like I'm in Twin Peaks).

Many of the pines were not only reaching the end of their natural life but were severely damaged by the series of extreme storms which have hit Wellington over the last couple of years, most recently in spring 2004. Some of the pines were felled by the storms, while others were unstable.

These have now been cut down, sawn up, and were lifted out by helicopter a couple of months ago. The trees that will go in their place will be southern rata. This is a cousin of the pohutukawa and, like that tree, produces beautiful red flowers in summer. Anyone who has seen them at this time of the year in one of the places where they grow wild, such as the Otira gorge area of the West Coast, will know that they produce spectacular splashes of vibrant colour spread across the hillside. Unlike the pohutukawa, which is introduced from futher north, they also grow naturally in Wellington.

If by any chance I am living here when the rata reach maturity, the prospect of them flowering in summer will be something I will look forward to, and its occurrence will brighten up my life. A reaction I am certain is entirely unpolitical.

McLeod goes on to mention the lupins in Central Otago,which she says are also under threat from the plant fascists. I'm also rather a fan of lupins--quite apart from their natural attributes, they were a cult favourite of Matt Kean, Paul Rickerby and I because of their link with Monty Python's Dennis Moore sketch ("your lupins or your life!"); driving down to Central during summer holidays we stopped the car and took photos of ourselves with the lupins.

I don't know anything about the situation she mentions, so can't really comment. But given her total misrepresentation of the Tinakori Hill case, I suspect that the lupins, along with the other ubiquitous and loveable introduced flora of the South Island drylands such as thyme and wild briar, probably aren't in danger of eradication.

In linking the preservation of indigenous flora with attitudes to immigration, Mcleod again misses the point. Protecting something unique doesn't imply a value judgement that it is superior, rather the reality that it doesn't exist anywhere else and if you don't preserve it, it will be lost forever.

Worked up into a lather by her straw man fascist greenies, she writes:
"...this country has a vast hinterland of bush, while we behave as if we've destroyed everything and must panic. Does no-one ever drive out there? Is that the problem? Don't we know what this country is really like?"

Her flippancy here suggests that perhaps she doesn't understand quite how comprehensively this country has been trashed--which is something I've only start to become aware of recently. Actually, people who aren't well-to-do enough to get well into the back country probably won't have much of an idea "what the country is really like". And even those who do won't see the bits that are gone forever. Apparently the Horowhenua used to be covered in lowland warm termperate forest. Today, not a jot remains in its natural setting.

The southern half of the North Island copped it particularly severly. In the race to slash and burn to make room for the all-important cloven-hooved animals, not a lot was spared. Wander into the hills around Wellington--mostly steep, unproductive land--and what you find is generally windswept grass, scrub and gorse. Taking the back roads between New Plymouth and Taumarunui, you pass through a huge, desolate area with nothing but grey shrubs, land in the first, ugly stages of regeneration. Here the volcanic soil was too acidic for pasture--but that realization was too late to save the forest.

Well before you get into value judgements about indigenous vs. introduced plants, we're due for rebuilding some of what was destroyed. In their "driving back the healthen hordes" approach to gardening, our forerunners did rather too good a job.

Stacking Your Shelves

Highly recommended - a browse through the comments on this Guardian "culture vulture" blog, which brightened up my Friday afternoon, about the different approaches to ordering your books - do you do it by chronology, subject, size, colour, or some other system?

One the one had were the Nick Hornby types who had some intricate and carefully maintained ordering system. On the other were those who thought that "books are for reading" and that arranging them in a special way is either anal or pretentious. The split of comments was about two-thirds / one third between the two groups.

The best comments made me cry with laughter. An example of the compulsive orderer:

"Initially, by broad subject area: academic books (which tend to be in my office); literature; politics; current events; music; film; biography; and so on.

Now, within those categories they are alphabetically by author and chronologically within that for academic books and literature; and by subject matter for the other categories, though alphabetically by author within that category, and if there is more than one book by an author on a given topic, chronologically of course.

I should also mention that I simply cannot bear for a book to have broken spine -- it makes reading them a careful matter.

Writing this down I realise that I may need help."

And here is the best response from the anti types:

"I organise my books according to how easily I can use them to bludgeon and brain damage people who honestly give a shit about how their books are organised. Too large and the books are too heavy to lift, and the pretentious twats get away. Too light, and insufficient damage is inflicted, and the vacuous morons barely feel it through their dense three-inch thick philistine skulls. The optimum size is a 300 page hardback and for this reason I keep these books nearest to hand. I only wish more writers would consider writing books of this size and shape. Otherwise the nob-ends who think that fiction has ANYTHING to do with how it sits on a shelf will win, and we, the mindlessly violent minority, will lose."

This, however, took the cake:

"I don't shelve books. I eat them. I'm a big book eater. I've been eating books since I was about four. I know it was four because my parents knew about it before I started school and had to warn them. They wrote a letter. In fact they wrote two - I ate the first one. Correspondence is to me what a packet of crisps is to you. I don't like the internet, because you can't eat it. A lot of you people seem to be complaining about a surplus of books. I can help. Seriously I can. Just let me live in your attic or something. Send them up six at a time. I can get through six in an evening. I wouldn't need anything else, just plenty of water and some good toothpicks. You probably don't believe me, but truth is stranger than fiction. Dickens said that. I think a lot of people say it. Dickens doesn't taste so great. Tolstoy said Dickens was a garrulous writer, which means fatty as far as I'm concerned. I wonder if Tolstoy ever ate Dickens? Dickens could have done with eating Tolstoy for sure. I'd better go, I have something on the stove."

Aside from the sore ribs, all this left me with a warm, fuzzy sensation which I think is called fellow feeling. It's nice to know there are this many people out there who are vaguely unhinged in ways you can understand and emapthize with.

For the record, I've long had this fantasy of having a comprehensive library of books, CDs, magazines, backed-up computer files and reference material, all arranged in a rational and integrated manner. But my life so far has been too transient to ever support this, and so I've tended to take the "read and pass on" approach. I own hardly any of the books which I've most enjoyed or which have been most important to me - almost all of these I have either borrowed, got out of the library, or picked up travelling and then passed on.

It's almost like these two tendencies reflect two sides to my personality - on the one hand the introverted, fraidy cat, Cancerian hoarder; on the other, the more reckless, happy-go-lucky, "life is for living" type. I suspect that this second tendency is the weaker, and that at some subconscious level there's a resistance to having a well-stocked, orderly bookshelf, because when this happens, it means the introverted Cancerian has won.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Holy Guitar Solo!

For a rock n' roll afficionado, nothing beats a good guitar solo. Not just the noodling and squealing that is de riguer in the middle of 90 percent of rock songs, but an instrumental break which grabs a song by the scruff of the neck and takes it somewhere new and beautiful. More than the most impassioned vocals, a great guitar solo expresses for the listener who he wants to be and how he wants to feel.

And I say "he" advisedly. Girls, you want to know how a man thinks about sex? Don't watch how he eats; watch how he plays air guitar.

Here, for my money, are the ten best guitar breaks of all time.

10. Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) "Sultans of Swing"

An upbeat song about a jazz band playing in rough Newcastle bars. At song's end Knopfler takes off into a piece of virtuosity which totally gives the lie to the image of the song's "guitar George" who knows all the chords but "doesn't want to make it cry or sing". Knopfler builds it up into a series of rapid-fire hammer-ons as if to say: "take that, punks". He earns himself a beer.

9. Prince - "I Never Could Take the Place of Your Man"

An unusually modest Prince confesses that, while he "may be qualified for a one-night stand". he's no good for the long haul (though that could just be a smart way to get off the hook). To underline the point he then grabs his pink guitar, which is shaped rather more like a rare orchid than a classic axe, and absolutely nails a lead-out with clever call-and-response parts working towards a spiralling climax and some long, pleading string bends to fade.

8. Slash (Guns n' Roses) "November Rain"

The comes close to being the best power ballad of all time, employing all the cliches of scale and bombast with just enough G 'n R gruffness to cut through the cheese. Slash lifts the song into lofty flight with a long guitar break full of precise string bends and thoughtful, melodic passages. The solo gets reprised after the last chorus, until it all breaks down and the band decides that actually they're going to be Wagner.

7. Roger McGuinn "Eight Miles High"

Not my favourite Byrds song, and I'm not even that enamoured with the guitar breaks, but the sheer "what the hell was that" factor gets "Eight Miles High" in here. There seems to be influences from the mid-60s obsession with Indian sitar music, while McGuinn has explained that he was trying to play like Miles Davis. Trumpet riffs on a 12-string Rickenbacker? Well, the 1960s do seem to have been a more free-spirited time.

McQuinn sounds like he's playing all kinds of notes at random, but is actually fully in control. This was well ahead of its time; the way the song gets more and more chaotic and eventually collapses in on itself presages the Violent Femmes and many other acts who tried to do this.

6. Neil Young "Like A Hurricane"

Hugely influential on 80s American alternative heroes like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Junior, Neil Young is often credited with pioneering the use of noise and feedback as expressive elements. The raw--or, as his album titles would suggest, "rusty" sound is certainly original. But for me the key attraction is the casual spontanaeity of his playing. Not cultured, jazz-like spontaneity, but a slacker looseness - as if him and his guitar just turned up in the middle of the song and he's going "yeah, might play this note, yeah, might play this one. It'll turn out alright". And it does.

5. Jimi Hendrix "All Along the Watchtower"

"Purple Haze" and "Foxy Lady" have great riffs, but for me this song has the best solos. It's one of Hendrix's more restrained moments, and to my mind, one of his best. There's colourful, rather than indulgent, use of the wah-wah pedal. And while in some of his other stuff he heads off on a wild tangent with a vague promise to meet the rhythm section sixteen bars hence, here the breaks stay short and to the point.

Like the Byrds with "Mr Tambourine Man", Hendrix totally reinevented the Dylan original. You build up a picture of a desert at sunset, smouldering gypsies, and minarets on the horizon. When Hendrix sings "two riders were approaching", you are on that watchtower, watching the horse's hooves kick up the sand. OK, so maybe I have an overactive imagination.

4. Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson (Big Country) "Where the Rose is Sown"

The first time I heard this song and it exploded into the chorus, every hair on my neck stood on end. Big Country's twin-lead "bagpipe" guitar was pioneered on "In a Big Country" and "Fields of Fire", but for my money it is here that it is used to the most stirring effect.

This is an anti-war song, but the music deliberately provides a soundtrack to the empty jingoism which it is critiquing. The soaring melodies of Adamson and Watson evoke the mythical lone Scots piper leading brave men into glorious battle. Fortunately, the lyrics are strong enough to help you interpret the visceral thrill the music gives you as tragic pathos.

3. Carlos Santana (Santana) "Samba Pa' Ti"

This is actually a whole instrumental song. Nick Hornby reckons that it's the song he planned to lose his virginity to. Things don't necessarily work out how you plan, of course, but I kind of know what he means--this is a smouldering, lyrical piece of guitar playing.

When I worked in a game on the carnival midway in Miami, a lot of beautiful women would walk past. But one time there was this girl who stopped near our game who looked like she'd lost her friends. She was the absolute image of angelic Latin beauty and, looking around herself with concern, caught in a temporary moment of complete unselfconsciousness. I said to Rick, the guy I was working with, "Ah, the young Fermina Daza" (the main female character in Love in the Time of Cholera), and he knew exactly what I meant.

The best thing I can think of to say about "Samba Pa' Ti" is that whenever I hear it I think of that girl on the midway, and whenever I see a girl like her, I think of this song.

2. Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) "Stairway to Heaven"

Absolute cliche of course. But whatever you think of the meandering, psuedo-mystic beginning to this song, pretty much everyone remains in awe of the massive, piledriving conclusion of thumping drums, guitar and a possessed-sounding Robert Plant. Jimmy Page's solo starts as Plant reminds us that "the stairway lies on the whispering wind". Slipping between major and minor scales, it twists and turns, evoking dark winding hedgegrows, lit candles, and ladies shining white light.

Page knows the value of repetition to build tension, before he bursts off into another fluid run. The solo builds to a wailing crescendo before plunging into that thunderous ending. Led Zeppelin were the band who made pretty much everyone who came after them seem a little like Spinal Tap, and only they could really get away with a song like this. You have to admit, it fully rocks.

1. Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) "Tunnel of Love"

Close for No. 1, very close. But in the end Knopfler gets top spot as well as No. 10, and not just because I said in my top 10 songs blog that "Tunnel of Love" had "the best guitar lead-out in the history of rock 'n roll". This is a work of art, where your regular guitar break is a can of paint thrown at the wall. It's fluid, precise playing, relying not a jot on overdriven sustain. Every note counts, and the rest of the band understand this as well as Knopfler.

There's sexiness here. But also romance and poetry, the tumbling-butterflies feeling of fleeting passion. Something you can't recapture--but won't ever lose.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Global Waffling

The wilful doublethink about responses to global warming continues unabated. This Reuters article reports on the meeting of environment ministers in Montreal from November 28 to December 9 to discuss post-2012 plans for tackling climate change.

The article points out that the same old issues will persist--how to get the US and Australia to commit to emissions targets, and how to bring big developing economies like India and China on board.

As an example of the opposition to the whole damn circus, there's a quote from a rabidly anti-Kyoto think tank:

"... "To reduce carbon emissions you have to reduce consumption, and that can only be done by raising prices," Margo Thorning, head of the International Council for Capital Formation, said in an interview in London.

"It is wrong to put a country on an economic starvation diet. A good outcome in Montreal would be a decision to end Kyoto," she said, echoing the White House line that the answer lay in areas like new technology, clean coal, nuclear energy and carbon capture and sequestration...."

To its credit, Reuters does point out that the ICCF is "the European arm of the car and oil industry-funded American Council for Capital Formation". But it misses the blatant contradiction in the their statements. The point of "new technology, clean coal, nuclear energy and carbon capture and sequestration" is that they help reduce carbon emissions. So it is just not true to say that "to reduce carbon emissions you have to reduce consumption".

The real disagreement is not about technological vs. Luddite, "starvation diet" approaches, but between those who are prepared to accept targets and those who are not. So, here's a devils advocate position: It may be that the most promising technologies won't cut in for a few years, and Kyoto targets will be missed, but within a few more years we will see reductions far beyond those envisaged by Kyoto, leading to real, measurable checks on global warming .

In which case the dialogue ought to be about the kind of targets that are set, and how progress is measured, rather than whether to throw out targets completely.

However, Tony Blair is now talking about voluntary targets as being the only way to get the US and others in the room. If so, so be it, but this seems rather like throwing up the hands and saying "Ok lads, everyone do their best".

Whatever happens, it is probable is that as economies transition to using different technologies and releasing less carbon, there will be some losers, including some with a significant stake in the current system. The quicker this happens, the more stands to be lost (and gained, by those entrepreneurs who are ahead of the game) . So you do not have to look far for the vested interests with an incentive to slow the whole process down by spreading disinformation. You just have to be aware that that's what is going on.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Books and Inspiration

If you're looking for an internet portal that helps you tap into the zeitgeist (at least with an American, broadly liberal flavour), Slate is a good place to start. There's scholarly argument, polemic and media commentary. You get both contributions to, and analysis of, the current debates.

Yesterday they began a feature series on "How to Save the American University", getting a range of prominent academics to put forward their views on what students should be learning and how they should learn it. The articles are definitely worth a read if you're at all interested in these questions.

I like Steven Pinker's idea that science teaching should be organized by "content rather than discipline: the physical universe, rather than physics or astronomy or chemistry; living things, rather than biology; the human mind, rather than psychology or neuroscience".

It's only belatedly that I've become interested in scientific topics, as I've come to see their interconnectedness and relationship to things that are meaningful to me. Maths and science were never going to be my strong points, but I think I could have got more engaged at a younger age if they had been made part of a narrative the way Pinker suggests.

As it was, when there was no answer to *why* a parallel circuit behaved differently from a series circuit, or what the implications of radioactive decay were, I just glazed over and tried not to breath too much of the lab's ammonia fumes.

Elsewhere, I agree with K. Anthony Appiah's suggestion it wouldn't be a bad idea for humanities majors to learn some stats, and am intrigued by Alison Gopnik's proposal of a revolution in learning practice.

However, the best thing in this series so far is a piece on "My First Literary Crush", with a raft of noteworthies describing the book which most changed their life in college. Frighteningly worthy, most of them.

Reading this made me wonder what book most inspired me in my university years, and after some thought I'm afraid to say--walking cliche that it makes me--I couldn't go past On the Road. As with about a million other wannabe bohemian college kids, it made me jump out of my seat, punch my fist into my hand and shout "yes!".

I guess that explains why the people featured here followed a sensible, structured, pathway into their current careers as writers, editors and journalists, while I raced off to work in carnivals in Canada and wind up penniless in Guatemala, convinced I just had to Know Time, then write it all down on one 36-foot long piece of paper.

Searching for something less cliched, the book which first made me appreciate journalistic non-fiction as a literary form was Vincent Bugliosi's account of the Manson family murders, investigation and trial. Not by any means a great work, I suppose, but I was gripped by the way that individual facts pieced together to form the narrative, and how the deadpan retelling of the events and characters' back stories created a picture of late-1960s California, paradoxically more vivid for the authorial restraint.

It seems that at university I mostly read the compulsory stuff, drank beer and goofed off. I would do better on the "books that influenced my life" thread if I were allowed to include the times before and after formal study. And perhaps in another post I will.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Music That Comes From an Island

Diana Wichtel is easily one of New Zealand's better journalists. Yes I know I bagged her in relation to the fawning interview with Mike Hosking in the Listener's Woman's Weekly special two weeks ago. But that seems to have an aberration. Her TV column in the Listener is usually smart and punchy. This week she has a nice gag about Judy Bailey saying "And coming up after the break, I'm sacked!".

It's her interview with Bic Runga in this week's Listener, though, which really impressed me. This is the kind of gently probing treatment of an interviewee which you expect to find in the Guardian (NB, in my view that's a compliment). She brings her own perspective, without being overbearing, and throws in a few witticisms. She lets Bic Runga speak, but doesn't merely parrot what she says. Sympathetic without being sycophantic (a balance not struck with Hosking). This is actually the kind of thing I'd like to learn to do.

Actually, the real reason I'm mentioning this comes at the end of the article where Bic Runga is asked if she feels she's "still making New Zealand music" and says yes:

"I was playing a gig in LA. A friend who's a musician came and said 'Oh, your music really sounds like it's from an island' ", says Runga happily. She's American and that's what she thought".

Excuse me taking the liberty of quoting myself here, because I did get a little shiver down my spine when I read that. In my post a while back on my No. 4 song, Crowded House's "Distant Sun", I wrote:

"One night in New Plymouth a couple of years ago during a road trip I saw Wellington band Hobnail Boots at the local pub. In the same set they played "Distant Sun", Dave Dobbyn's "Whaling" and Bic Runga's "Sway", all embellished with their trademark harmonies and Jo Moir's gently persuasive violin. Hearing all these songs together played by the same band made me realise there was something shared by their yearning melodies which made me feel a particularly strong connection with them.

The next morning as I walked along the New Plymouth waterfront and looked out at the Pacific Ocean, I wondered if I hadn't stumbled across an emerging cultural identity...something to do with living in what poet Allen Curnow called "a small room with large windows"...If the New Zealand psyche has inevitably been shaped by the claustrophobia of being stuck in the small room of a frontier society, it is also affected by staring out through the large windows of the sky and sea..."

So, you see, I'm not just making it up. Other people out there are on the same wave length.

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Monday, November 14, 2005

Dreams Are Made of These

According to this web site, the most common dreams fall under the following headings:


I'm quite chuffed to know that, in this respect at least, I'm in tune with the world soul. I have all six on a regular basis. "Teeth" is close to being the most common, a no-brainer since I've actually had issues with my teeth in reality. "Naked" comes along pretty infrequently these days, and "Chase" is also less common than when I was younger.

"Flying" is very occasional, and one that you have to enjoy while it lasts (you sometimes spot that it might be a dream while you're having it, which unfortunately tends to hasten the waking up process). "Falling" is probably the rarest of the top six for me.

"Exam" is the one that most seems to have taken over my unconscious. In my variation on the theme, I suddenly realise I've been enrolled all year in some university courses but haven't attended any lectures and haven't done any course work. The exam is tomorrow and I know nothing about the subject. It's also well past the date when I might have pulled out of the course without academic penalty. Another variation is that the exams have already occurred and I've missed them completely.

I've had this dream so often that every now and again I have a waking moment where it occurs to me that I actually haven't got an academic record filled up with Ds and Es from courses where I didn't do the work, and this comes as a pleasant surprise.

A lot of the "interpretation"on this web site and other dream literature just seems to be made up at random. But what is fascinating is that much of what seems to be an intensely private experience is actually shared--right down to the fine detail. It's both reassuring and puzzling, for example, to find that I'm far from the only one to have had exactly this dream.

Clearly, at some level there are such things as archetypes--unconscious symbols shared between individuals and even across cultures. I'd love to know what evolutionary psychologists make of archetypal dreams. Evolutionary psychology develops theories about the origins of behaviour or mental traits as adaptations to the selection pressures operating during our biological evolution. For example, instinctive human fear of snakes is explained by the fact that snakes were dangerous to our hominid ancestors, and it was adaptive to steer clear of them.

Archetypal dreams seem to present something of a challenge to the causative, literal-minded evolutionary psych mode of explanation. Sure, evolutionary psychology can provide theories to explain why we all share the same fears and desires. But how does it account for what appears to be a common metaphorical language which translates those fears and desires into near-identical narratives?

Maybe all the "symbolic" interpretations are guff, and dreams are all literal. Dreaming about your teeth falling out represents a fear of losing your teeth; those early humans who were subconsciously reminded to take care of their teeth lived longer and had more offspring. Perhaps, but it's starting to look a little far-fetched. It also doesn't explain how modern concepts like exams and phones get locked into *exactly* the same narratives.

In any case, I'm off to bed--and I must be about due for a "Flying" dream.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

It's the Quality, Stupid

It's become received wisdom that the problems at TVNZ--from the ratings dip in its news & current affairs to the ructions over salaries--are an inevitable outcome of the insupportable balancing act required by its "dual remit", to act as a public service broadcaster while still succeeding commerically and returning a dividend.

Every commentator and his dog is suggesting that TVNZ be split up, with TV2 retaining a commercial focus while TV1 is freed from the demands of the market to act as a pure public broadcaster a la the BBC. The neoliberal, "government has no business running a TV station" types are gunning for TV2 to become commercial-only (and eventually be sold), while the likes of Chris Trotter are more enthused about the prospect of a "nation-building" public service-oriented TV1.

This may well be a very good move, and the dual remit may indeed be unsustainable. But I don't believe that it is the real reason for TVNZ's slump in the news & current affairs ratings. In this area, the purely commercial TV3 has won viewers simply though providing a better product.

There's a persistent, and I would have thought outdated, view that the market only demands lowest common denominator trash, while quality and local content will always make a loss. That may be so if you think consumers are all morons, and "nation-building" has to mean documentaries about tuataras. But TV3's CanWest stablemate C4 has done a fantastic amount to expose and promote NZ music, developed local presenting talent, and met the needs of a range of niche markets, all while paying its way through the innovative use of text voting.

Over on TV3, take a look at the way the channel presents its delayed free-to-air rugby coverage. With so many people having Sky, this could easily be a lame duck. But presenters Oscar Kightley and Nathan Rawere provide a preview and highlights package which is funny, irreverent and popular. Would stuffy TV1 have thought of getting a gay Polynesian comedian to front the rugby, celebrating and at the same time gently deflating some of the the pomposity of our mythic national sport? I can't imagine a much more nation-building exercise than that.

The news section offers simple, straight-ahead presentation, thankfully free from the eyebrow-twitching frippery of TV1, plus some striking weather graphics.

TVNZ's real problem is an entrenched sense of entitlement and a lack of imagination, innovation and capacity for renewal. It shares the tendency of ex-state monopolies to combine corporate excess with stifling hierarchies and the inertia of bureaucracy. Unlike a real private company, it's never had to fight for and win its market share.

It's also guilty of believing its own myths. Befuddled by endless womens' magazine covers, its management actually seems to have believed that Paul Holmes was a genius and Judy Bailey was the (rather creepy-sounding) "mother of the nation". Meanwhile, those of us who loathed Holmes' insulting style from the beginning, and didn't want any bloody autocue-reader for a mother, have been gradually joined by more and more people who've weaned themselves off their inherited tendency to go straight to the TVNZ channels.

But some, including the likes of Trotter still don't understand that this is what has happened. In his Independent article, Trotter opines:

"The inerrant democracy of the ratings system also requires TVNZ to assemble a galaxy of TV "stars." The Susan Wood, Kate Hawkesby, Paul Henry, Kay Gregory, Wendy Petrie and Simon Dallow "brands" contribute to building viewer loyalty and play a key role in keeping the most lucrative audiences away from TVNZ's competitors.

For politicians and TVNZ board members to complain about the quantum of these presenters' salaries betrays a woeful ignorance not only of their function but also of their huge commercial value."

Wrong. This was the rationale repeatedly wheeled out to explain why the annoying "personalities" foisted on the country were being paid three times the Prime Minister's salary. But surely, the lie to that was given by the experience of Holmes, who took his "magnetic personality" to Prime, where he won all of 1% of the audience.

As many of us had sworn through gritted teeth all along, it wasn't the personality which brought the audience and the advertisers, it was the timeslot. The TVNZ audience was inherited; for previous generations it was the only thing on, and, given reception issues, for some people still is.

The criticisms of "star" salaries by the public and politicians were less tall poppy-bashing resentment that anyone should get paid that amount, than disbelief that they were really justified on commercial grounds. And in fact, TVNZ hasn't been "keeping the most lucrative audiences away from [its] competitors", but haemorraghing them at an increasing rate.

A real example of a presenter winning an audience is John Campbell on TV3. Though this is the second time I've made complimentary mention of him on this blog, don't mistake me for his No1 cheerleader. Like Holmes, Campbell has his tics and foibles which annoy or attract according to taste. But his outstanding quality is that he generally treats his topics with intelligence, and both his viewers and interviewees with respect.

John Campbell did win permanent admiration from this viewer a few weeks ago when, in a piece on teenage drinking, he took the unprecedented step of actually asking some teenagers what they thought. The devilish cleverness--to hit upon the fact that people who aren't included by the first-person plural pronoun in phrases like "our kids" and "our properties", also watch TV.

I understand that with the funding available for public service objectives over the last several years, TVNZ has been able to commission and broadcast a number of locally-made dramas and documentaries, some of which are suposed to be quite strong. It's hard to say, since the majority have been buried away in odd, inaccessible timeslots.

If TVNZ had been daring enough to put even one or two of these new local programmes in prime time, they might have some genuine grounds for pointing to the stresses of a dual remit and conflicting objectives. As it stands, the real problem is that they are doing both jobs badly.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Quit Work to Write Your Blog

Or perhaps not. Nicholas Duquette has calculated how popular you would need to be to make a living purely out of selling advertising on your blog. It makes kind of chastening reading. On the other hand, it does help you get your focus back on more realistic goals, like starting a magazine, researching a book-length, investigative story, or writing a groundbreaking novel.

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Saturday, November 05, 2005

PC Or Not PC?

The National Party's nomination of Wayne Mapp as its "spokesperson on the Eradication of Political Correctness" has been well and truly lampooned and picked apart thoughout the New Zealand blogosphere and mainstream media. But I still feel the need to say my tuppence worth (or should that be my $0.02 NZD worth).

Some of the hilarity has been directed at Don Brash's stumbling inability in a radio interview to specify any of the the "politically correct" practices that would be eradicated--he fell back on saying "look, I last read (Wayne Mapp's) speech four months ago". Others have pointed out that if "political correctness" is supposed to stand for some kind of totalitarian suppression of dissenting viewpoints, the idea of "eradicating" it sounds even more scarily totalitarian.

Still others have jumped on the the comedic hypocrisy of Brash saying that one of the reasons Mapp is qualified for the job is that he is "married to a Maori person" (not even "has a Maori wife").

"Political correctness" has come to stand for any number of perceived evils, and is now a banner under which to bash pretty much any vaguely progressive cause. Mapp himself admits this tendency, noting that "even global warming has been described as politically correct".

But his attempt to actually define political correctness has also drawn justified criticism from all corners of the political spectrum. Speaking on democracy and liberalism, Mapp says that
"democracy is not just about choice, it is also about majorities. The ideas and values of the majority are able to prevail over other choices". According to Mapp, political correctness is when "a person, an institution or a government..cease[s] to represent the interests of the majority".

Hello? According to my limited understanding, democracy means government by and for the people, not "the majority of the people". What Mapp describes is best called by another name--"mob rule". The protection and empowerment of minorities is absolutely fundamental to democracy; surely, that's part of what the tortuous process to try and put together an Iraqi constitution is about?

And who is "the" majority anyway? Given that most people are in some sense members of both majorities and minorities, the expression is almost meaningless. Unless, that is, there really is some hidden agenda to drive us back to a monolithic, 1950s-esque world where the blokes are back in charge and the sheilas and Maoris do what they're told.

But it's a little too easy to mock the Chaplinesque, self-contradictory efforts by National politicians to get their message across. It's clear that they feel they are picking up on a genuine popular groundswell. And, rather than just deflating the rhetoric, maybe it's worth trying to reconstruct what they might be getting at, to see whether it's worthy of serious consideration.

So, is there a consistent thing called political correctness, and has it "gone too far"? To answer that, we need to peer back into history a bit. The thread which links the many disparate minority rights movements (feminism, ethnic identity movements, gay rights, etc) which have sprung up since World War II, is that they developed in response to the limitations of enlightenment liberalism.

The latter promoted the originally revolutionary idea that all people should be equal under the law. But nominal equality under "one law for all" failed to deliver real equality, since in the cultural arena certain "dominant" perspectives defined what was self-evident, good, normal and natural. These values determined the customs and practices of society and drove its institutions of law, politics, education, science and medicine.

The post-war period saw the first systematic challenges to the cultural order, as women and ethnic minorities demanded equal status on their own terms, the right to define their own identities, and positive steps to end discrimination. Meanwhile, from the 1960s on, postmodernism in sociology and literary theory provided the tools to critique the dominant societal values and assumptions and their inherent cultural, ethnic, gender and sexual biases.

Anybody who thinks that this was tiresome extremism from the beginning might consider that, just to cite a couple of examples, as recently as the 1970s homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder under the DSM classification system, while in Britain a married woman who worked had to pay secondary tax and Inland Revenue would only correspond with her husband. We know that the civil rights movement in the US only succeeded in ending segregation in the 1960s, but to cite that great postmodernist critic, Bruce Hornsby of Bruce Hornsby and the Range:

...the law don't change another's mind / when all he sees at the hiring time
Is a line on the colour bar

As struggles were fought out in the key cultural spheres of education, employment, health and reproductive issues, language was a vital battlefield. Those who supported or sympathised with these movements learned to recognise the ways in which language could reinforce unspoken assumptions and marginalise or degrade other groups. If there is one characteristic which is at the core of what is now considered "political correctness", it is this tendency to use inclusive or neutral language.

The phrase may have originally been coined by supporters of progressive movements; if so, it was a silly move. With its implication of enforced conformity, opponents were already using the expression in a pejorative way by the early 1980s.

But even some of those deeply involved in these struggles think that they became one-dimensional and limited. In her anti-coporate tract No Logo, Naomi Klein describes the obsession with what she calls "identity politics" of herself and fellow student activists during the 80s and 90s. This distracted attention, she says, from critiquing the wider power structures of late capitalism.

It also proved too easy for corporations to co-apt; demands for diversity and "a voice" for marginalised groups were met simply by carving out new market niches and making them the beneficiaries of edgy new advertising campaigns.

I also recall this time well. While understanding and sympathizing with the various movements, I was made uneasy by what seemed to be the practical fetishisation of being "marginalised", and by the systematic disempowerment of the individual, which postmodernism had deliberately deconstructed and cast aside.

There were frequent debates with Simon Doherty. I said I felt cut adrift; as a white, middle-class, heterosexual male, I seemed to be reduced to a vehicle for oppressive discourses and couldn't identify a context for acting ethically. He said I should get over it and support the causes.

I said I thought the various minority rights movements should be seen as fleshing out more fully the universal human rights established by the Enlightenment. He said that the concept of universal human rights had delivered very little until oppressed groups started sticking up for themselves; there had been more advances in the last 50 years than in the previous 200.

The debates have rolled on, and led to some unpredicted outcomes. As Norman Levitt points out in an amusing article on the current state of American academia, the elevation of "diversity" above every other value has backfired somewhat on progressives-- hardline conservatives who share with cultural theory radicals a loathing of John Sutart Mill and Charles Darwin now also demand "representation". Postmodernism's attacks on objectivity have given inintended succour to the reinvention of creationism under the Intelligent Design label--witness President Bush's view that "both sides of the debate should be taught".

We're now also left with a good deal of confusion. Desperate not to be considered sexist or racist, people tiptoe around issues of gender, colour, ethnicity or sexuality until these identities gain disproportionate importance and become an elephant in the room.

While originally the idea was to be open to other cultural perspectives, now "culture" is seen as something static and inherited, and becomes a millstone weighing down individuals. I hear of cases in the health sector where people, who happen to be Maori, find themselves assumed to be "representing Maori", effectively being lumped with an extra job, one that they don't necessarily feel they're at all qualified for.

Elsewhere, an increasingly common comment from individual gay men is that they don't want to be "represented" by any movement, and resent being lumped in with demonstrative types parading along in feathers. The personal might be political, but there is a strong contrary belief that the personal should be allowed to remain personal.

So, does this all add up to some blight on society, which needs to be "eradicated". Hardly. There perhaps needs to be a trend back towards treating people as people (I would have been scoffed at for saying that at Canterbury University in 1992), and a preparedness to argue about the principles behind actions, rather than assuming someone who has reservations about them is a reactionary.

But there are still serious debates to be had about inequality, discrimination, and marginalisation. Those who view particular causes as frivolous, or in fact believe that certain groups *should* be marginalised or not accorded certain rights, should be prepared to defend their views on a case-by-case basis.

Trying to shut down progressive movements by attacking "political correctness" across the board is far more oppressive than the perceived conformity imposed (more like gently suggested) by the movements themselves. The lashing out at PC-ness by the likes of Alan Duff just seems like a desire to head back to a different kind of conformity.

For me the great achievement of Michael King's History of New Zealand was to produce a relatively short, readable book which presents the country's history as quirkier, more happy-go-lucky, and considerably less monolithic and boring than the prevalent cultural myths would have it. And while covering the span of the nation's history, he managed to throw in a few choice incidents and anecdotes which are more illuminating than great screeds of dates and events.

My favourite is his recounting of an incident that occurred on a Wellington tram in the 1950s. Standing in the aisle, a young Hungarian New Zealander was carrying on a conversation with his father, in Hungarian. Suddenly, a man leapt up from one of the seats, punched him to the ground, and shouted "speak English, damn you!".

This is a great story because it exemplifies the strong distrust of difference which has long lurked darkly beneath New Zealand's celebrated egalitarianism. Whether Wayne Mapp is aware of it or not, this remains a strong element in the popular groundswell feels he is picking up on.

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