Dear Greens

So here’s the thing, I voted for you. A fair number of us did. Perhaps not in relative terms, but enough to get you up over the 5%. Enough to make you relevant. And here’s what I hoped for when I voted for you, that you would use your influence in parliament to fight for the things you believe in. I liked your approach to climate change and implementing a carbon tax. I applaud your desire to make polluters pay. And I have a certain taste for your socially left leanings too (although any party that has signed up for NZ’s version of fiscal responsibility is surely centrist at best). Indeed, your determination to raise benefit levels and implement a no penalty policy for beneficiaries is righteous and humane and I would have supported you on that stance alone.

But here’s another thing. I didn’t vote for you because I hoped you would be zealous in your commitment to the tribalism of party politics. I did not vote for you to refuse to use your leverage on the grounds that it might force you to work with a political party you don’t wholly approve of (they don’t wholly approve of you either, grow up). Nor did I vote for you because I hoped you would bow to the whims of your party membership (yes, I know you have a constitution, but your leadership could at least have the courage to put up a fight).

This is a very very good time to be negotiating with National. They need you right now, for they otherwise have no prospect of a long term coalition partner and in this environment that is fatal. And so they will surely be prepared to contemplate some major concessions. The very concessions the people who voted for you wanted. If you are a Green party, dedicated to the principles of justice and sustainability, then please dear God use this gift that has befallen you to pursue exactly that goal. If however, you are more concerned with your own self-importance, and your thinking is yet to mature past the us and them mentality of the school playground, then your inability to make a positive contribution to New Zealand’s political environment will be clear for all to see. And a great many of us who voted for you because we liked your policies, and rather hoped that given the chance you would be inclined to fight to have them implemented, will not, I imagine, make the same mistake again.


Going Green

I must say I’ve found the run of leaders’ debates on television helpful when it comes to how deciding how to vote. Specifically, after watching the leaders of National and Labour go head to head three times, I’m pretty sure I’ll be voting for the Greens, although the Opportunities Party are not yet entirely off the table, and if I thought Labour were sufficiently politically competent to do a quiet deal to ensure The Maori Party remain strong in Parliament (why aren’t Labour standing aside there?) then The Maori Party wouldn’t be out of the picture either. What I’m fairly confident of is that neither National nor Labour are deserving of my vote this time around. Both, to my mind, present flaws that are ultimately rule them out from receiving my vote.

National’s weakness is clear. They are the incumbent Government and if there are things one genuinely cares about, upon which insufficient action is being taken, then there’s precious little credibility to a Government of nine years telling us they’re on to it now.  For me, that includes the environment in general, and climate change in particular. It also has to involve inaction over housing, they were simply far too slow coming around to the idea it was a problem at all, and it certainly includes poverty (which is now being distastefully marketed by all parties as ‘child poverty’, as if the poverty endured by adults is somehow more acceptable). There are other charges we could lay against National, including an opportunistic and unplanned approach to immigration, being happy to use population inflow as a substitute for sustainable drivers for economic growth. And their approach to education has in general been appalling, with National Standards being the perfect metaphor for all that is wrong with their thinking.

In general, they are now paying the price for John Key’s poll-driven approach to policy making. At first, soaring house prices made house owners, National’s key constituents, feel wealthy, and encouraged debt financed consumption, so the government ignored it (as did the government before them). Climate change, as Bill English says, is not the first thing on most people’s mind when they get out of bed in the morning, so the government ignored it. Parents, if left unguided, will tend to get themselves into a paranoid ferment about their children’s educational progress, and so the government pandered to their psychological weakness by offering up comparative progress measures in primary schools. The poor had been there for a while, ignored for the best part of thirty years now, so it felt safe to keep ignoring them. At some point an articulate opponent would come along and call National on their inaction, and that’s exactly what has happened. Probably National will lose this election, and it will be on the back of a complete lack of desire to do anything other than keep a narrow majority of voters sufficiently docile and content to return them to office.

This is not to say all National has done has been bad. In fact they’ve been a steady government, sensible if not inspiring economic managers who negotiated the Global Financial Crisis well. Ironically enough, Bill English is far more committed to the country’s welfare than his predecessor ever was, and his approach to welfare targeting is, I think, well worth a look, and I hope elements of it will be adopted by the incoming government. But he will be judged on track record, and the deficiencies are plain enough to see.

Why then not vote for the party now calling him on this lack of vision? That’s where the three leaders’ debates come into it. That’s been a fair few hours of speaking time for Jacinda Adern to convince voters her party have, during their long years in opposition, developed a set of coherent and imaginative policies to deal with the very problems she’s exposed. And I have to say the results have been underwhelming. Labour have had the very great luxury of setting the agenda in these debates. The media, captivated by the image of a young, fresh new leader defying the odds and effecting a meteoric rise in her party’s fortunes, have made Labours’ issues the election issues. So they’ve talked clean rivers, housing crisis and child poverty, endlessly it seems, all areas where Labour have identified a weakness in National’s performance. And yet, what have we seen offered by this government in waiting? Well, an awful lot of something called vision, and a few policy details, many of which appear either ill focused or contradictory. It’s a mess.

Take housing. Do Labour want to see house prices fall? Apparently not, according to their leader. But she’d like to see them stop rising. Excellent. Only, they sort of have. So what is the crisis they’ve identified? Well, it’s unclear, but it’s got something to do with the desire to have a working party on a capital gains tax, although they’ve already extended the bright line test out to five years, so what else are they after, and why? They can’t say, because they don’t have policy on it yet, but they will have a working party. Then, bit by bit, they rule out certain conclusions from the potential working party. No tax on family homes, then later, no tax on property (but this clarification was a long time coming), and no new income taxes. So, there is a crisis, but there isn’t (no desire to see house prices fall, which I find gob smacking) and there will be potentially new taxes, but we can’t say what, or even why, because that’s over to the experts. After nine years to get this ready, that’s a shambles. There is a plan to build an awful lot of new houses, but the strategy for ensuring we have the resources to do that (builders say) is sketchy at best, and the accusation that this is contradicted by their immigration policy seems to have some merit.

How about child poverty, and the desire to redistribute wealth? Jacinda Adern made the point during the debates that the biggest leap in child poverty came in the nineties when benefits were cut. This was being slightly cute, by the way, for the eighties were the time when inequality really began to cut in, but she is right, the single simplest thing that could be done (and international experts agree on this) to reduce poverty would be to increase benefits. Only, that’s not her party’s policy. Only the Greens have committed to a significant rise in benefits. How dare any politician take the moral high ground on poverty and have no intention of returning benefits to their already meagre pre-cut level? Labour had an awfully long time to do this under Helen Clark, and instead turned their attention to working for families, in order to lure middle class votes and ensure a third term. At the bottom end it reduced poverty, but it was poorly targeted, missing beneficiaries while rewarding others who were by no means poor but who had votes to offer. Nothing to be proud of there.

Here The Opportunities Party are worth a shout out. Both their tax plan, which is a radical re-imagining of taxation and wealth redistribution, and their universal youth payment, would do much to alleviate poverty, and it’s been refreshing to have their ideas in the debate (although unfortunately they’ve rather been drowned out by the media’s excitement with the Adern narrative).

Clean rivers is also a weakness for Labour, in so much as their headline policy, taxing water use, is about rationing supply, rather than preventing waterway pollution. The way to prevent pollution is to make the polluter answerable, putting in place financial incentives to get it right, and financial punishments for getting it wrong. Again, this is Green policy. Labour are talking up the idea of swimmable rivers (which is transparent vote trawling, people respond emotionally to rivers, in fact there are many bigger environmental issues to consider) but again, their policies don’t shout out that they’ve thought this one through. National’s response, of course, that encouraging people to do the right thing is better, is ludicrous. We don’t just encourage people to do better then it comes to drink driving, although that’s clearly part of the solution. We also put in place some pretty large and clear disincentives. Of course polluters should pay, how’s that difficult?

Jacinda Adern called climate change the nuclear weapons issue of her generation (how this generational talks bores me, aren’t we all in this one together?) and yet, where is the front and centre climate change policy? What exactly is being done to move towards a carbon neutral economy? Where is the urgency? Where is the leadership? Nope, thought not, rather it’s been sound bite, move on. And people, apparently, are loving it. Sigh. The Greens could do much better on this too, much much better. They have the policy outlines and commitment, to be sure, but their own message has been far too diverse, and this time around undermined by infighting, and for those not curious enough to dig deep into their policy pronouncements, it’s almost possible to believe Climate Change isn’t their number one priority either. How I would love to see them talk environment, environment, environment at every opportunity. There is hubris at the heart of the Greens’ weakness, they are unable to see themselves as a small, single issue suport party (something the Maori Party have been very good at). Rather the Greens wish to see themselves as a viable ruling party, which they will never be, and so have developed far too wide a focus to be an effective promoter of environmental sustainability. We saw this with their refusal to position themselves as a support party for National (what good things have happened in education under National have been at the urging of the Maori Party, who seek only to serve their constituency and reason for being. The Greens could learn a lot from them).

Nevertheless, Labour at this election remain a disappointment, not yet sufficiently organised nor focused to provide genuine leadership. Under Andrew Little, this was the general narrative, and the polls reflected our disillusionment. Under Jacinda Adern, the narrative has changed completely, but not the policy, it seems. And so, the Greens present as the party whose policies are most closely aligned with my values and aspirations for my country. Although, as I say, The Maori Party are making an important contribution, and in many ways are more politically savvy and hence effective. And it is sad that TOP have been effectively excluded from the debate this time around, and sit languishing in polling oblivion, because they’ve consistently brought the most interesting ideas to the table. Much as I resist the idea of not voting for a party because that vote will be wasted (it is this thinking that makes it so hard for fresh voices to emerge) if TOP stay at 2% or below I can’t imagine I’ll consider them. So, it’s down to two choices. The Maori Party look like they’ll win one or two of their seats. If they win a second, a party vote for them (they’re just over 1%) would be similarly ineffectual. If only Howie Tamati makes it, however, a party vote might make all the difference there. So that’s still tempting.


Vote of Confidence

The election is approaching and I don’t know who to vote for. This is not unusual for me, I find voting difficult. Occasionally there is an election where the implications of one outcome over another are so clear that voting becomes a simple matter, but mostly I find the opposite to be true. It’s tremendously difficult, or so it seems to me, to work out exactly what the impact of one vote or another will be.

One way around this difficulty is to indulge in what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to as problem substitution. When faced with a very difficult decision (which party’s stance to the Reserve Bank Act is most likely to help low income workers in the regions?) it is not uncommon for the human being to substitute a much simpler problem (which of these two leaders’ smiles do I find most engaging?) The remarkable thing about problem substitution is not that we do it, but that we do it without realising. Talk to any of the very great number of voters who have apparently returned to Labour in recent weeks and they will concoct any number of respectable reasons why they have shifted even though, despite Labour’s protestations, very little has changed on the policy front. They’re still substantially the same party, offering the same solutions, to be implemented by the same personnel. The thing that has actually changed is the thing those people who designed the new billboards understand very well. A huge shift in the ‘would I like to be friends with that person?’ instinct. And that’s fairly depressing.

The other way around the difficulty of judging political competence is simply to think tribally, aligning oneself with that group who most feel like your kind of people. This is the ‘shares my values’ test also much exploited by political operatives. It works best if one is prepared to stick doggedly to cheap stereotypes (The Greens hate progress, Act hate the poor, National don’t care for the workers, etc). We then find some easy term of dismissal for the groups we don’t like (neo-liberals, socialists, fascists  eco-freaks etc) and rest secure in the knowlesdge that ours is a vote for  righteousness. The problem is readily apparent to anyone with even a passing interest in New Zealand politics. So-called conservative governments have supported progressive social agenda (yet are never accused of nanny-stateism), so called workers’ parties have been responsible for the greatest rise in inequality and so forth. As a school teacher and union member, it has always been easy to believe that teachers are better supported  by Labour than National governments. However, plot real teaching incomes over the last five decades against flavour of government and the results are challenging to say the least. Tribalism, along with personality politics, are clearly useless guides to pragmatic outcomes, and one can argue that a disaster like Trump is possible only because of the popularity of these two approaches to vote choosing, and yet how else is one to decide?

It is easy to pontificate on the importance of policy, and how we should be having informed policy discussions in the lead up to an election, but as one who has spent the last little while attempting to locate and analyse various political parties’ policies, I must report this is much harder than it looks. In the case of the incumbent government, I have a fair idea what their policies look like, because they’re doing them. I know roughly speaking where their spending priorities lies, what their approach to education and health provision is, the way they want to target welfare spending and so forth. Some of it I like, much of it I don’t, but I know what I’m getting at least.

But wander into the oppositions territory and it’s not hard to discover what their leaders look like (on a good day, in favourable light, with their chin up) or which tribe they seek to engage. Had enough? asks Winston from his billboard. Enough of what, exactly? Let’s do this, urges Jacinda. Okay, do what? The Greens were great together, but now they’re not, and so forth. Finding out what they’d actually do is less simple. I fully understand that not every small party has the resource to flesh out policy on all fronts but if you think of something as basic as fiscal policy, those mechanisms for raising and distributing funds  from which all government policy ultimately flows, then I do actually expect at least a sense of where they stand, and what they’d do. The Greens are clear on some things they’d like to spend more on (the bulk of which is social rather than environmental spending, fair enough, I support that, but it does suggest why they find it hard to solidify their support base.) What I can’t find, beyond a pledge to fiscal responsibility, is exactly where the money  for the initiatives come from. I’m prepared to accept theymay  have worked out the nuts and bolts of a wealth tax, or capital gains tax, or transaction tax, or they’re interested in relaxing monetary policy or whatever. They may have a plan. But I don’t know what it is, and if it’s on their website, they’ve made the detail hard to find. So is it okay to vote for them because I agree with their priorities, when I don’t know how they’d achieve them? I’m not sure it is.

Labour have had nine well-funded years in opposition to come up with an approach to fiscal management. So, where do they stand on capital gains tax? We don’t know, because they say they don’t know. Seriously, their idea is to have a working party on it after the election. They can’t say what its recommendations will be, nor whether they’d follow them anyway. Is it okay to vote for that plan? I’m not sure it is. It seems to me, if you can’t get policy together during a nine year stint, it’s reasonable to worry about your ability to  function on a day to day basis. This isn’t a one-off. Their policy on National Standards in primary schools is similarly vague. Yes, standards will go (or least won’t be compulsory) but may be replaced by something, not sure what.

Gareth Morgan got in trouble for making this policy point about Labour (and indeed he was being typically and unhelpfully belligerent in his choice of metaphor) yet his point is a good one. Voters do want a sense of what might happen under a particular party. And, for all the things there are to grumble about with TOP, I must say their website was the most informative. There’s plenty to criticise there, for sure, but that’s because there’s plenty there. The broader point is this. It’s all very well to lambaste the media for not focusing on policy, but in many cases it’s because the policy simply isn’t there.

Just as frustrating as the difficulty with discovering policy, is the fact that even with the best of intentions, parties still need to choose their headline policy acts. That means that the things an individual voter might care most about might simply never appear on any policy statements. As a teacher I have grave misgivings about a number of social directions we’re taking. Our cultural endorsement of alcohol addiction is a blight, the rise in anxiety illnesses in adolescence speaks to an complete inversion of values within our education system, the casual and widespread acceptance of the pornification of society to my mind threatens our capacity for intimacy (and so social stability), the enthusiastic embrace of all things digital in education strikes me as dangerously misguided, and so it goes on. But, because none of the political parties have a policy on education or youth that even vaguely reflects my values or aspirations, no matter how interested in policy I am, it won’t help me in the election in this regard.

The other element to consider is that policy isn’t the only game in town. If government is likened to a sport, then policy is essentially the team tactics. And one can have the best tactics in the world, but without the skills to implement it, it’s worth nothing. Politics occurs against an ever-moving backdrop of social and economic circumstance, and a great deal of what politicians actually do in power will be about reacting, and inventing solutions on the hoof. A government with excellent policies but bumbling practitioners is a disaster. So, while it is true that personality is overrated in politics, it is not necessarily fair to say the same of character. Calm, smart, hard working, fair minded folk with control of their egos are exactly the people we want in government, and it’s entirely irrational to care about that just as much as policy detail. Again, as is the case in almost all arguments in 2017, Trump stands as the perfect warning against paying too little attention to character.

So, who to vote for? I really have no idea.


Just to note a new script is up on the page of plays. It’s for a play called Home, which I wrote earlier this year, and is a strong candidate for the piece I’m most  pleased with. It was first performed last term by one of the finest classes I’ve had the pleasure of teaching. Is there anything in the arts to match the raw immediacy of small-space theatre? By far my favourite form of writing, and performance.

Also a couple of older plays just added, Rush from three years ago, a romantic comedy of sorts, and Lockdown  from last year, a senior play based around a school, well, lockdown.

For God’s Sake

One of the ways we are taught to develop ideas in the modern world is through a process that is at heart combative. The concept is that of putting up an argument and inviting others to critique it, by way of peer review, criticism or counter-case. There is much to commend this approach: poor ideas are identified and weeded out, and strong ideas are made stronger through the identification of their flaws. At its best the process is fair-minded and dispassionate.

There are however, obvious weaknesses with the approach. By pushing people in opposing camps, each intent on belittling the other, differences are amplified whilst similarities are often overlooked. The opportunity for a community of minds to collectively construct the best case they can is missed. Speed of reaction is also favoured over depth of reflection. By the time a deeper, slower answer is developed, the faster dismissal has already taken hold and the damage has been done. What’s more, the testing ground for an idea ultimately becomes its wider reception, and in a competitive model the quality of rhetoric becomes favoured over the quality of ideas. Perhaps most important of all, in the name of speed the task of carefully establishing and agreeing upon definitions is frequently overlooked. So we end up with two sides passionately engaged and implacably opposed, nevertheless making what is essentially the same case. Pseudo-disagreements abound.

This might be nowhere more apparent than in the field of religion, and its relationship to science. I write this in part prompted by the recent release of Richard Dawkins’ latest collection of essays, Science of the Soul. Dawkins has become something of the poster boy for the modern atheist movement, and at the risk of trivialising his case, it amounts to something close to the idea that the success of the sciences in explaining the physical world, or at least providing a model by which such explanations can be advanced, has done away with the need for religion, whose descriptions of the world are now out of date and/or demonstrably wrong.

In his latest work, he describes those who argue that we construct our own truth as being guilty of ‘fashionable prattlings’ and continues to depict religion in general as the preserve of those who haven’t got their thoughts straight. Not being a part of any religion myself, my disquiet is not so much a personal response to the unnecessarily combative tone, as it is a sense of disappointment that someone of such intellectual standing now persists with what is in many ways a form of anti-intellectualism. Because it seems to me the only way you can properly sustain a Dawkins style attack is by dismissing the great bulk of current academic philosophy, and I wonder what is wrong with instead engaging with it? My guess is that a serious attempt to engage would find far less disagreement than the headlines suggest.

Here are just two examples of the sorts of thinkers we need to at the very least consider, before getting too self-satisfied in our own fashionable prattlings. Roger Scruton, the English philosopher, says this about the danger of overenthusiastically applying science’s capacity for explanation:

The scientific attempt to explore the “depth” of human things is accompanied by a singular danger. For it threatens to destroy our response to the surface. Yet it is on the surface that we live and act: it is there that we are created, as complex appearances sustained by the social interaction which we, as appearances, also create. It is in this thin top-soil that the seeds of human happiness are sown, and the reckless desire to scrape it away – a desire which has inspired all those “sciences of man,” from Marx and Freud to sociobiology – deprives us of our consolation. Philosophy is important, therefore, as an exercise in conceptual ecology. It is a last ditch attempt to ‘save the appearances’.

The last memorable phrase here is Plato’s, for philosophers have long understood that we are forced to deal not just with reality, but with the way reality appears to us, and that we live not just in a world of physical reality, but also one of constructed reality. Reduce our view of the world merely to that aspect best described by science and we yield far too much, and unnecessarily so.

Take, for example, the picture of children in summer, playing in a river, splashing and laughing and squealing with delight. What are to make of the scene? There are a great many illuminating and useful scientific models which can partially describe and explain what we see. Why is the water cooler than the air, and why is being cooled by water so particularly refreshing? Science can help with this. So too it can help with the fluid dynamics in play as the churning water compresses into a narrow channel beneath the swimming hole. We can discover how the light and heat from the sun has travelled here, to an extent, and even how far it has travelled to warm us, or for how long the sun has shone. At a stretch evolutionary theory might even have a little to say about the nature of the children’s play, although here we are in more dubious territory. But none of this touches the heart of the scene for you, the onlooker. The sheer delight of the children, the vibrancy of the colours, the melting away of worries under the simplicity of play, even for the adults looking on, the social significance of the moment in which the shy child asserts herself, the proud joy of the child whose joke got them all laughing, the feel of that laughter in the stomach, the reason one child has moved to the side, to silently throw stones at his own reflection. And the deep resonance of the wholesome and the proper in this moment of an impromptu summer time community. All of this can be understood only within the context of the narratives we spin about our lives, within the context of agency, consciousness and purpose. There is nothing about being human that makes proper sense without this framework, and it would seem, there is nothing science can tell us about it. This is Scruton’s thin topsoil – call is spirit, call it soul, scrape together a secular equivalent if you must, but there is no escaping the fact that for those not suffering from severe social deficits, this is the stuff of living, of being human.

A second thinker worth dwelling upon is the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, who in the 1950s coined the term ‘manifest image’ to make the same sort of point. Sellars was a naturalist, who was not attempting to defend any sort of religious world view. He was simply, like Scruton, trying to warn us of the dangers of ignoring that which can not be quantified, or dismissing it as an illusion. Sellars used the term manifest image to describe the world seen through the eyes of the conscious agent, the constructer of meaning, the maker of decisions, the arbiter of values. That is to say, we the human beings, who through living strive to make not just logical, but also emotional sense of our worlds. To do this we see ourselves and others as masters of our own fate, and as possessors of the potential to live not just long but well. In the world of the manifest, the term to live well is a meaningful one. Indeed, it is only in the world of the manifest that the concept of meaningful resides.

The manifest image is contrasted with the scientific image, and this is the world viewed through the lens of the physical model. Here people are described in terms of their physicality, their medical realities, their genetic make-up, their interactions with the physical world, their evolutionary pasts, the constraints of physics and so forth. There is no sense in which Sellars is criticizing this image, and nor should we. Such explanations give us modern medicine and much of the technology upon which we rely, and are also wonderful purely as satisfiers of our collective curiosity. Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene remains a masterwork, so too The Ancestor’s Tale. Neuroscience has fascinating and important things to tell us about our nature, so too evolutionary science, medical science and so forth. Sellars’ point was just to make clear (and in understanding this was necessary he showed some prescience) that when we see the world only through the scientific filter, we lose the ability to speak of things which exist at the manifest level. For these two frameworks are speaking of quite different things, and there is no sense in which they can be translated. The danger of the scientific excess is that it at times gets far too enthusiastic for this type of reduction. Yes, you can attempt to describe love in terms of hormones, of evolutionary urges, or neural pathways, but at this point it is no longer love you are describing. It is a set of observable physical behaviours untethered from their greater narrative and so cast adrift, a different thing altogether.

We see often this in the use of the word ‘really’. It feels like you’re making decisions, but ‘really’ you are just experiencing the inevitable physical processing of your biological history up until this point in time. It looks like he is composing a song, but ‘really’ he is driven by his biological urge to establish his reproductive fitness. That looks like an act of pure generosity, but ‘really’ this is a conditioned response designed to ensure social cohesion. You think there is a detective show on your computer screen, but ‘really’ it’s just pixels. The implication that either one of these things is true, or the other, when Sellars reminded us it can be both. Neither the manifest or the scientific has any sort of ontological priority. They both describe their aspect of reality, whatever the hell you take that to mean (I tend towards pragmatism in my philosophical interpretation) as best they can, and as such do not contradict one another. To see only one is to miss the bigger picture completely. It is an act of willful ignorance.

Which brings me back to the so-often tortuous religion debate. Some, although not all, of the gleeful atheists appear to be putting an awful lot of store in the scientific, and assuming that this does away with the need for the manifest. And yet none of them, none of us, live as if this is true. We all live in the world of the manifest, making decisions, cleaving to value systems, acting with purpose and decoding the world according to our constructed network of meaning. We treat others as having inherent value, and we take seriously our subjective, conscious experience of the world. Which makes me think the arguments between the nominally spiritual and non-spiritual is a pseudo-argument, for we all act as if our meta-beliefs are largely consistent. So rather than a genuine schism of belief, there seems to be rather a difference in the way we use language to describe our beliefs. We’re talking about the same thing, but in rather different ways. If only our culture had allowed us the time, grace and attentiveness to come to our definitions peacefully before rushing off to take up arms. Then, instead of wasting so much time on the trivial exercise of ego driven competition, we could join together to spend far more of our precious resources on consolidating and enacting our shared values and visions.




Rape culture

In a week where boys from a local college made online comments that publicly endorsed rape culture and where opportunities to offer moral leadership were largely missed by those in the best position to respond, I find my thoughts turning to my own boys, still only children, but who in time will grow into the hyper-sexualised world of adolescence. Perhaps they will be heterosexual, and as such their movement through the world of uncertain young men and women will become part of the solution, or part of the problem. My job as a father will surely be to offer advice and guidance, and so below a letter for the future, a letter to my sons.

Dear boys

Sex is wonderful. Ahead of you lie some of the most tender, beautiful, exciting and intimate moments of your life. To arrive at this point of your life healthy and happy, confident and safe from clear and present dangers makes you deliciously lucky. I am delighted for you. There are just a few things I would like you to keep in mind, things that will make your life ahead even better.

  1. Remember that women are human beings. I know that seems so obvious that it doesn’t need saying, but trust me it will be easy to forget this. Remember that they are frightened, like you are frightened. Remember they are not always certain of the deep beauty that lies within them. Remember that they live in a world that would judge them for the way they look, and that this corrodes them. Remember that they have been raised to please people, and bring peace at all costs, and that those who lose sight of their humanity will find it easy to exploit this. Remember that they, like all of us, crave a person who will pay them attention. Never pretend to pay them attention. Treat them as you yourself wish to be treated. They are human beings, just like you are.
  2. Never have sex with a women who doesn’t want to have sex with you. There is a word for this. It is rape. There are two very useful methods for discovering whether a women wants to have sex with you. First, wait for her to tell you she wants to have sex with you. Mostly this will mean that she does. Or second, ask her if she wants to have sex with you, and pay close attention to the answer. If she says she doesn’t, do not treat this as the opening stance in a negotiation. Stop asking. Having sex with somebody who wants to have sex with you is awesome, no matter how frightening it might seem at first. Other kinds of sex are illegal.
  3. Sometimes it will seem clear to you that a women wants to have sex with you, even though she doesn’t say it. Check. You may well think, ‘but talking about that right now will ruin the mood.’ Here’s the thing. If that’s all it takes to ruin the mood, she doesn’t really want to have sex with you.
  4. Women who are drunk or under the influence of drugs are unable to tell you what they want. So you can’t know they want to have sex with you. Refer to rule number 2.
  5. Never manipulate a woman into saying she wants to have sex with you. (See rule number 2.) Don’t lead her to believe that this is the only way she can win your approval. Don’t allow her to believe that her reluctance or uncertainty speaks to some flaw in her. Don’t lead her to believe that  her having sex with you is a condition of continuing the relationship.
  6. Remember that rules 2 through 5 don’t just apply to women you have not yet had sex with. They apply throughout your relationships. Being an arsehole is being an arsehole, no matter what the context.
  7. Speaking of being an arsehole, don’t brag about having had sex. Don’t use your own sexual experiences as a way of raising your status amongst your peers. If this is what impresses your friends, get yourself some new friends. Maybe make friends with some women. Women are awesome.
  8. Try having sex with people you really really like. It’s much scarier, but also much much better.
  9. Don’t judge women by the way they look. Don’t do it publicly, and don’t do it privately either. It seems like a little thing, I know, and it seems like everybody is doing it, not least of all the women themselves. But you can not even begin to imagine the damage this is doing, to all women, everywhere. It will be a long long time before you properly understand the misery you are inflicting upon the world with this casually dismissive reduction of their humanity, and it is tremendously easy to avoid.
  10. Never think of sex as a goal. Sometimes it will feel like it is, sometimes your body will allow you to believe that right now, in this instance, the only thing that matters is whether or not you have sex. We have masturbation for moments like these. You’ll be surprised how quickly your head will clear. Women are not masturbationary aids. They are human beings. Seriously, get a grip.
  11. And finally, on the topic, pornography seems to be everywhere now. But then so are smog, angry drivers and polluted water ways. Never mistake ubiquity for acceptability. Lay off the pornography. It will do nothing to enhance your sex life. In fact the opposite is true. Slavering over a small screen, equating stimulation with an abstracted, dehumanised form, is a dismal habit. Raise your sights. Aspire to actual intimacy with actual human beings. This distant viewing of strangers strips women not only of their clothing but also of their humanity. What you are doing is getting off on the image of a body without a life force. Basically, you have a thing for corpses. Maybe think about that.

All of this seems very negative, but in fact you will find these rules easy enough to follow, for I can already see in you the kindness and attentiveness to others that gives me hope for the future. So get out there. Meet women, attend to their humanity, draw close and breathe in time. Celebrate all that is good in them, and in you. The very best of life awaits you. Go well my boys. Give men something to be proud of.


Eyes on the Prize

s 2016 draws to a close, so too does my 27th year in teaching. Term four is in many ways my favourite of the terms, containing as it does all the very best and worst education has to offer. To start with the positive, this is a term of school camps, and for our drama department, junior productions. Two weeks ago I spent my days at a local bush reserve, orchestrating teams of thirteen and fourteen year olds in a Survivor style competition. They worked together, struggled together, cheered on their rivals, celebrated their victories and comforted the defeated. They held one another, climbed over each other, argued about the solutions to devilish puzzles, shared jokes and collectively took a small step towards becoming caring and well adjusted adults.

This week will finish with three nights of drama productions, just under ninety teens performing three plays in a festival of expression. Again these young people will face their fears, this time in front of a paying audience, and at the end of it will have experienced the special thrill of theatre. They will be proud of all they have achieved, and crucially they will have achieved it as a collective. Their efforts will be in the name of the show, and the privileged act of communicating with strangers, not personal glory. And, because they have not entered the sausage machine of formal assessment, we will not be called upon to rank them from best to worst, as if such a thing is ever meaningful in the arts. No wonder I love my job.

First though, a small cloud hovers overhead, as it does each year, for this is also the season of the school prizegiving. As long as I have taught, I have loathed the event. I remember in my first years of teaching volunteering for car park duty, so as to avoid the inevitable gloom that comes over me on such occasions. Prizegivings represent, for me, all that is wrong with our education system. It is not just that the event is designed such that the last message our students receive from us is ‘most of you weren’t very good’, although God knows that’s problem enough. It’s also the strutting display of our inverted priorities.

Prizegivings are built upon two deeply flawed premises. The first, that the measurables are more important and worthy of celebration than the immeasurables, and second, that to be excellent is to be exceptional. Schools, when they are functioning well, teach a lot of things. They teach young people how to be kind, how to read social situations, how to exhibit self control in times of high stress, how to find intrinsic value in the small moments and activities of everyday life, how to laugh at the absurdities, embrace the complexities, take responsibility for our own failings and face the world with optimism and curiosity. The students who begin to learn these things are lucky, and frankly wonderful. We also teach algebra, and literary analysis. The students who learn these things are, well, good at algebra and literary analysis, and while the former is at least of some practical importance for a small number of our graduates, neither are the sorts of human skills one instinctively feels are worth celebrating. But celebrate them we do, for the simple reason that they’re easier to measure than empathy or humility, and so winners can be chosen.

The second error is even more egregious, for it proposes that so long as you are better at something than anybody else, that something must be a remarkable thing. So we deify Usain Bolt for example, on the grounds that he is marginally faster than the next fastest human being, and significantly faster than most of us (although a touch slower than my pet cat, as it happens). Now I am as wowed as the next man by the magnificent sight of the man in full flow, and was glued to a screen come the Rio Olympics in the hope of watching history be made. But the glory of sport in the end is its triviality. It’s a circus distraction, and a rather wonderful one at that, but surely we all understand, deep down, that the world would not be a better place if we were all just that tiny bit faster when we fully extended.

Compare that to the truly magnificent skills, like parenting. There is something worth celebrating, because when we get that right, almost everything else follows. And it’s hard, ridiculously hard, and those who do master it, which in fact is the vast majority of parents, are truly excellent. Yet, we do not celebrate this form of excellence at all, because we have fallen for the trap of thinking that only the exceptional can be excellent, and so we have failed to attribute value to that which matters most. And of course parenting is one of a hundred examples. Think of the loyal partner, the true friend, the attentive sibling, the dedicated nurse… The people our prize givings tell us not to care about. Better to raise up the anxious, the externally motivated, the socially insecure and the compliant, and cheer them on into their fragile futures.

But happily, it is only one night, and sanity will return soon enough. One school I taught at didn’t even have prizegivings. Perhaps one day far more will have the courage to follow.

Various Positions

And so, in a year of musical losses, another mighty Totara has fallen. For me Leonard Cohen is the pinnacle, not by any measure of quality or greatness, although such an argument could be made, but by the more simple and important measure of what his work has meant to me. Only two weeks ago I used Anthem as the introductory music to my latest play, in doing so running the obvious risk of everything that followed being something of a disappointment (I once heard Lloyd Cole cover Famous Blue Raincoat in a Wellington bar and at it’s conclusion he offered, rather mournfully ‘the problem of covering a Cohen song in concert is you have to follow it with one of your own’).

My relationship with the music of Cohen dates back to 1985, which makes me something of a newcomer, I know. In an interview some years back Nick Cave spoke of first hearing Cohen’s music in his small Australian town, and thinking, I’m not alone. My first encounter, whilst less grand and fecund, had elements of the same, and I’m sure explains part of my obsession with the man’s work. Growing up in a house some 6kms south of Featherston counts as cultural isolation of sorts, and in the world before the internet it was only a Sunday evening fix of Karen Hay that gave any hint of a world more sophisticated than The Eagles or a secondary school reading list (when you’re a seventeen year old boy literary novels appear to have been written almost exclusively by self-absorbed malcontents who have trouble connecting – actually… ).

So, when it comes to Cohen, I really do remember my first time. Karen Hay introduced him as another artist making a comeback that year (the others on the list have faded – Graham Parker?) and so it was me, the television and Dance me to the End of Love. My response, I must admit, was a very adolescent one. Here was a beautiful song: musically simple, with lyrics not just crafted in their own right, but so perfectly matched to the demands of the song and the voice. And yet it was nothing like any of the music I listened to, and I was struck by that most ridiculous yet common of impulses – am I allowed to listen to this kind of music (enjoy this type of drink, wear these clothes, express this opinion, go out with this woman)? Happy to say, the pull of pack was weak on that evening, and the next week I scoured the bins of one of Masterton’s two record stores and Various Positions was mine.

I never knew the album was initially a flop, or that it would be many years before Jeff Buckley’s cover would take Hallelujah to the world. I just knew that a middle aged Canadian Poet in a suit was rocking my world in the way a hundred sneering punks in Docs had never quite managed to do. At some point I took the album to school and played in on the beaten turntable in our Seventh Form Common room. A teacher, perhaps the only original mind on the staff, paused outside and poked her head in the door. ‘What are you listening to?’ ‘Leonard Cohen’. She smiled, as if there was some hope left in the world after all, and left. This was my first glimpse of an underground network of ‘those who love Cohen’, a marker of so many predictable qualities that, along with an appreciation of The West Wing or a fascination with David Hume, is a reliable indicator of the quality of the conversation that might follow. (This particular teacher, how memories come up in a tangle, left us on the last day in her class with the memorable phrase ‘all I’ve ever wanted to do was unsettle every safe thought you’ve ever had.’) Twenty five years later, when Cohen undertook his famous tour(s), part of the magic was, I’m sure, the knowledge that we were most certainly not alone.

Seven years later, holed up in the small room we had claimed in a Tokyo Gaijin house, with only a cassette player rescued from a sidewalk throwout for entertainment, I was rescued by a chap who provided me with a copy of The Future, for me the one album that can challenge Various Positions for top spot (Yes, I know, people love I’m Your Man, but I’m assuming they skip Jazz Police every time, right?) So much did I love the man’s music that I even tried to enjoy Dear Heather. That, at eighty, he would produce another of his truly fine albums in Popular Problems offers hope to all who dare believe dreams need never die.

I’m something of a philistine when it comes to poetry, too much of it comes across as a confidence trick, but that is a flaw of mine, not of the poets. For Leonard though, I make an exception.

Viewing Trump through Loach’s Lens.

Timely perhaps that on the day following the US election I should see Ken Loach’s remarkable film, “I, Daniel Blake”. I won’t pretend to understand American politics at all (although could I have done any worse than the pundits?) Nevertheless it’s very hard, after walking out of Daniel Blake, to see the world in the easy terms of smart people voting one way, and the deplorably ignorant another. A huge economic experiment has taken place over the last thirty or so years, and for all its upsides (a massive reduction in poverty levels in India and China, for example) there is now more than a generation  of entrenched deprivation where for three decades before sustained improvement in living standards had been the norm, and a far smaller number had suffered the hurt and humiliation of economic exclusion. And just as Ken Loach has once again captured the humanity of that accumulating loss, surely the rise internationally of anti-establishment sentiment speaks in part to the political face of the same slow-unfolding tragedy. Yes, there is much to be dismayed by yesterday’s result, and perhaps much to fear, but so too there is plenty of blame to share around. We’ve had an awfully long time to fix this, and yet somehow have contrived to look the other way.

Is Bono a feminist?

Aristotle suggested that virtue is located at the mid-point of two damaging extremes. This is, I think, a most profound and beautiful idea. Rather than thinking of selfishness as an unadulterated evil, with kindness the attendant good, isn’t it much more interesting to think of kindness being a virtue properly moderated by self-interest? At the most basic level, an act of kindness has more value when it is freely given, when the self interested and confident individual chooses to offer their time, support or attention to the needs of another. Kindness without any such element of self-interested choice becomes an act instead of obligation, where the individual serves because they must, where the motivator is not an eagerness to please, but rather a great fear of not pleasing. The giver disappears, and at some point kindness morphs into something much more like exploitation.

This idea can be applied to almost any of our easy dichotomies, and it came to mind recently when reading a vigorous and witty feminist response to the rather surprising news that Bono had been named one of Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year, and then again when a good friend suggested we need new words to replace masculine and feminine. And indeed I think of it every day watching my boys growing up, and noticing the virtues I instinctively cherish in them.

I don’t know much about feminism, certainly not in terms of its current scholarship, but as a teacher and a parent it’s impossible not to form opinions about the ways boys and girls are both enabled and constrained by the gender narratives we weave about them. I’ve been teaching for twenty six years now, and its clear that in this regard some things have changed for the better. In the seventies my older sister was told bluntly by her teacher that girls can’t do physics. At the time it wasn’t considered a controversial statement. Luckily she was a stubborn soul, and persevered anyway in order to fight her way into vet school. That doesn’t happen now. In fact, girls on average outperform boys academically at school level. I teach drama and it’s okay now for boys to want to sing and dance or play real emotions on stage without any of the self-referential irony that was compulsory for male performers when I was a youngster. We’re slightly less hideous towards the non-dominant sexualities, and this gives me some hope. And yet it’s hard not to think that in some ways we’ve slipped backwards.

The internet, which was meant to liberate us by exposing us to the widest possible range of ideas and perspectives, seems to have created instead an echo chamber in which points of view have hardened. The sad and fearful hatred of the anonymous troll has created a level of anxiety that encourages the young not to explore, but rather to conform, to keep their head down. Sexuality has been pornofied, and the curated online self has made a cultural lighthouse of the bragging of the insecure. There’s an awful lot still to do, and I do wonder what it is exactly that most keeps us from doing it.

Here’s two ideas, the first being a return to Aristotle. It seems to me that the zero sum narrative of privilege, that women could only begin to catch up at the expense of men, was at the very least bad marketing. The truth, I think, had we men been able to grasp it, is that there’s an awful lot for everybody to gain if we choose not to view the world through a feminine/masculine filter. That we (by which I mean men) didn’t see that was I imagine due in a large part to the normal resistance to change. We became fixated on what we might lose, and so missed the gains available, if not for us, then at least for our sons.

Given how huge those gains are, that’s a testimony to human stupidity, and reveals the great flaw in our tendency to think only in terms of oppositions. I speak of the lucky young men I see now who are physically comfortable in their world, who will drape themselves over the body of a male friend as they sit listening in class, who are not so terrified of their own sexuality that they will visit it upon their future partners in the form of aggression. I speak of the last seven years of my life devoted primarily to the role of fatherhood (and tears well in my eyes as I write this), of the beautiful connection to one’s children available to any parent with the time to offer. I speak of the immeasurable value of a relationship with one’s partner built first on a friendship of equals. Who wouldn’t want all that? Why exactly aren’t men demanding it?

And here, I suspect, my friend was right. We need new words. Men instinctively resist the virtues of their feminine selves because they fear this might somehow dilute their manhood. But what other words could we use? The best I can come up with, and their inadequacy is immediately apparent, is the assertive and immersive in all of us. We have both the capacity to compete, to be noticed, to demand that we be listened to, and the ability to empathise, placate, share and nurture, to lose ourselves in the world of the other. Aristotle might say the virtue is to be found in the middle ground.

The second idea stems from another field of philosophy, that of free will. Our western Christian tradition likes to think very much in terms of individual responsibility and choice, indeed our entire economic system relies upon the ongoing mythologising of this value system. There is much to be admired in the notion of personal responsibility, of course, but notice how quickly it transforms into blame. If people are free to do as they please, and they do things that are stupid and harmful, then that is their fault. And if it’s their fault, then the way to fix it is to tell them to stop being so stupid and harmful – loudly and repetitively. Until they get it. And as any school teacher will tell you, blaming and ranting doesn’t work (although it makes us feel better sometimes). If you want to change behaviours, you also have to alter the environment that causes those behaviours. Too much of the rhetoric surrounding gender is the rhetoric of blame, of identifying perpetrator and victim, and I’m not sure that leads easily to solutions.

If we don’t like the way men behave, and there are a bunch of good reasons not to much of the time, then the most productive thing to do is to think about how we might change this. If our society remains committed to an almost Victorian level of embarrassed secrecy when it comes to our sexuality, then the pornography industry will rush in to fill the void. And that’s our own stupid fault. All of ours. If we dress our boys in military camouflage and our girls as fairies then yes, they will come to think of themselves as profoundly different from one another. If the world our children grow up in is one where men mow lawns and women cook dinner, then the assertive and immersive will remain forever detached. Perhaps feminism, like charity, starts at home.

And now I hear my one year old son stirring in his slumber, and I must get ready to take him to school with me, for his mother is in Australia, and I rather hope she’s having a party.