A brief scold




The last thing I want to be is a scolding wowser who agitates for the banning of things.  I'm pretty much a free speech absolutist, drawing the line just under shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre.  

But this morning, I was sitting in the Porirua Bakery and Cafe and heard, for the first time this season, the 1984 dirge, "Do They Know it's Christmas?" and it triggered a reaction strong enough to even surprise me.  

I tweeted to the effect that the song, while not banned of course, should be retired.  It is one of the worst examples of white man's burden ideology applied to Africa you could ever imagine.  Some smart-alecs retorted by pointing out that other Christmas songs ought not to be taken literally either. Specifically, Snoopy's Christmas and The Little Drummer Boy were named as examples where the lyrics should not be taken seriously; the suggestion being, I gather, that nor should Band Aid's execrable effort. 

But the thing there is no song on planet earth, in all its history, across all its myriad civilisations, that takes itself as literally, or as seriously, as Do They Know it's Christmas.  

If you read this blog, you probably know, I lived for three years in Rwanda.  I did not live in Africa then anymore than I live in Oceania now.  Africa comprises 54 countries, each with their unique cultures, languages, religions and customs.  And yet the not uncommon treatment of the continent as a monolith is possibly the least problematic element of this almost alarmingly racist song.  

Try this on for size: 

And the Christmas bells that ring there

Are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you
And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime

The greatest gift they'll get this year is life
Oh, where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow

Do they know it's Christmastime at all?

Where to start? 

 The clanging chimes of doom

Try as I might, in an overwhelmingly Catholic country over three years, I heard plenty of church bells on Sunday mornings in Kigali, but none of them sounded anything like I imagine clanging chimes of doom sound like.  

 Well tonight thank god it's them instead of you.  

This is a remarkable lyric in a song designed to appear altruistic.  As Hitchens used to point out, the Christian canard "there but for the grace of God" is actually a profoundly misanthropic sentiment -- and it's no more obnoxiously expressed than here.  

There won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime.   

Well, no. There won't be.  It rarely snows in Africa, which has a generally warm climate. 

The greatest gift they'll get this year is life.   

Oh, sod off.  At one level, the greatest gift we all get at any given time is the luxury of not being dead, and I guess the same goes for the citizens of the 54 countries that comprise the African continent.  But, believe me, my experience of Rwandans was that most of them live congenial, well-populated lives, bound by strong family and community connections and a deep appreciation for the many wonderful aspects of the country in which they live, especially in light of what happened there 20 years ago.  Also, I'm guessing a lot of them -- the Christians at least -- will be getting mobile phones for Christmas.   

Oh, where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow

This may be true of famine-ravaged parts of the continent from time to time, but rain and rivers flow quite adequately as a rule.  In fact, hydroelectric power is a key source of an historically energy-deprived continent.  Rwanda alone has 333 hydropower stations.  

Sure, Band Aid was attempting to "raise awareness" of a particularly hideous drought and famine in Ethiopia at the time, but that brings me back to my central beef with he song: it paints the entire continent with the same brush.  

 Do they know it's Christmastime at all?

I can answer definitively: yes.  Even the Muslims.  They're not morons.  

Overall, the song feeds the pernicious narrative that Africa writ large is a basket case; that it is a problem continent requiring the intervention of well-meaning white saviours to rescue them from their ignorance and despair. It is designed not to address the deep structural causes of extreme poverty and deprivation in parts of Africa (the international community only got serious about that in 2000 with the Millenium Development Goals), but for middle class white people, and overpaid pop stars, to broadcast their low-stakes compassion for people whom they consider completely absent of agency, incapable of finding joy in their lives, and unable to take care of themselves without the head-tilting charity of doctor's wives in Melbourne.   

Did Band Aid raise money for Africa?  Yes.  Between that and Live Aid, it amounted to about $150 million.  But the evidence is that barely any of it got to people in need.  While Bob Geldof was parading himself as the Great White Hope, virtually none of the food got to where it was intended to go.  In fact, their efforts became entangled in a  conflict between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan.  Most of the food was traded by the Ethiopian government at the time for Russian arms.  

So, yeah. A shit song with an even more antiquated worldview than The Little Drummer Boy -- and not nearly as cute as Snoopy's Christmas.  


Astray memory


My memory is patchy at best but unless I'm mistaken my life had been going pretty well until the age of seventeen. It was then I spent a year in Japan as an AFS exchange student based in the rural Shiga Prefecture, adjacent to Kyoto in the Kansai region.

During the eleven months, I had three host families but there were only supposed to be two. As it turns out, or at least as I was told, it is difficult to find families in Japan willing to host exchange student since having complete strangers take up residence in one's tiny home is, unsurprisingly, unappealing to most people. In big cities, you can find more Westernised Japanese families with enough money and space to host a foreigner as a kind of status symbol, but Shiga had no such luck. Instead, the local chapter had to beg volunteers to open their homes to incoming students like me in return for having their own kids housed in various corners of the world. I was especially hard to place, apparently because I was a male and spoke non-American English. Despite AFS preferring a single host family for the duration of the exchange, there was a compromise in my case: the Umeda family would agree to take me in for six month, and the Kubos would take me for the final five.

The Umeda family comprised a kindly father, whom I knew mostly to be drunk; a strict and perpetually stressed out English teacher mother; and two younger "host brothers", fifteen and thirteen respectively. The two boys resented my presence from the outset, and aggressively ignored me for the duration.

The school that agreed to accommodate me was Hieizan Senior High School, a senior high school run by monks of Buddhism's Tendai sect. Many students were the oldest sons of monks who were in line to inherit the family temple. The school is best known for having once either won or competed in the final of the national high school baseball competition, and it had the vibe of a super sporty, all-boy's school even though girls comprised about a quarter of the roll. I was the first foreign student Hieizan had ever hosted, and it showed. Apart from one English teacher who was kind enough, teachers and students alike had no idea what to make of me. Given the impending university entrance exams that will more or less determine the trajectory of the students' remaining lives, Senior High School in Japan is a serious business, and exchange students are a frivolity that does not fit easily with the prevailing ethos. I felt, and almost certainly was, profoundly unwelcome.

My awkward six months at the Umedas eventually came to an end, at which point I moved in with Mr and Mrs Kubo, a couple without children who lived in a modern, well appointed apartment a few train stops away. Mr Kubo worked for IBM in Osaka, and came back only for the weekends. Mrs. Kubo was a keen hobbyist who filled her days with frenetic activity – French language classes, Yoga, book clubs, that kind of thing. It became evident early on that she had agreed to host a seventeen-year old exchange student because she presumed having me around would help with her conversational English. I comprehensively let her down on that front, since my Japanese had easily surpassed her English by this stage, and I had no interest in providing free tuition. I was utterly miserable in Japan, but my knack for the language was the only thing that kept me going, notwithstanding Mrs Kubo's insistent desire to speak to me in painfully garbled English.

Long story short, I got sick over Christmas that year and ended up in hospital overnight. After returning to the Kubo's apartment, and sleeping two days straight, I was called into the living room whereupon Mr Kubo informed me that the couple had decided I was no longer welcome. I still had three months before my scheduled return to New Zealand, but they wanted me out immediately.

Still reeling from fever, and mortally offended by this rejection, I made a run for a Kiwi family I happened to know in Osaka. The AFS coordinator for Shiga Prefecture, whose name I cannot recall, was a gruff but fiercely intelligent woman with no appetite for bullshit or self-pity – a shame, given they were my prevailing modes of communication at the time.

If I were to leave the programme prematurely, this would be considered mildly scandalous within AFS and so the coordinator wasted no time in taking a train to Osaka to prevent such an eventuality. Ultimately, having somehow found an elderly couple agreeable to hosting me for the final stretch, she dissuaded me from bolting for New Zealand, saving face for everyone concerned.

During our conversation in Osaka that day, the coordinator tried to explain why the Kubos had decided to ask me to leave. Mr. Kubo didn't care either way, she explained, but Mrs. Kubo had become actively offended by my presence. She had expected a bubbly teenager who would offer her enjoyable company while helping her with English. Instead, she got me. "What does that mean?" I asked. "Phil," she told me, bluntly, "you're not cute".

Of course, this all took place in Japanese and the translation doesn't do it justice. The exact phrase I have bluntly translated as "not cute" is かわいくない or kawaikunai.

"Not cute" is literally accurate, but "unlovable" better captures the essence of kawaikunai, at least in this context. Unworthy of affection.

Among all the forgetting, this fragment –– that phrase –– is seared in my memory, ineradicable, I've come to believe, because kawaikunai was the first ever public enunciation of a truth I had hitherto thought myself adept at concealing; and in the process, validating and compounding the self-loathing that's bedevilled my life before and since.

Tamati Coffey should stop claiming gay rights as a Labour accomplishment

During Auckland's Pride celebrations, Labour Party up-and-comer and former TV weatherman, Tamati Coffey, surprised many by quoting from a 30 year old diatribe from Norm Jones, a former Invercargill MP and incorrigible homophobic racist misogynist. Coffey cited Jones, presumably, as a way to diminish the presence of National Party MPs at the March; to apply a kind of retroactive culpability to politicians like Nikki Kaye, who was 6 years old when Jones gave the speech in question. 

Homosexual Law Reform passed in 1986, a time when attitudes towards men like me and Coffey were vastly different than they are now. The advances we have made have been the result of the passionate activism of thousands of gay men and women — along with the support and love of countless straight allies who refused to accept our criminalisation at the hands of the state and vilification throughout society at large.

When Jones made his AIDS remarks, such fear and loathing directed towards gay people was sadly commonplace among men of his generation and background. And, yes, there were a large number of National Party members of parliament who voted against Fran Wilde's Bill in 1986. But it was a conscience vote, and several Labour members voted nay, including senior Ministers Peter Tapsell and Stan Rodger, along with God-botherers like John Terris, Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan and Fraser Coleman and the impious but straightforwardly bigoted Geoff Braybrooke. My own local MP at the time, Gerry Wall (Porirua), a staunch old-school Catholic, was another firm opponent but was not in the chamber at the time. Rewinding a dozen years, Labour icon Norm Kirk himself opposed a liberalisation proposal offered up by National's Venn Young. Bigotry against gays and lesbians was a bipartisan pursuit for most of our nation's history. Support for our community also came from both sides. 

In 1986, Labour tended to hold electorates in urban areas where support for law reform was strong; National MPs more often came from rural and provincial areas where hostility towards LGBT people was considerably more pronounced, amplified by the HIV-AIDS crisis. (It would be another nine years before ARV cocktails began to contain the epidemic). 

Homophobia, like racism and xenophobia, have been welcome on all sides of politics at various times in history. The Chinese surname saga, all Labour's doing, happened only last year. 

Coffey is not helping his LGBT brothers and sisters by trying to reopen a wedge on gay rights between New Zealand's major parties. We should treasure and do whatever we can to preserve the broadest possible coalition of support.  Digging up the dusty speeches of a vile old backbench bigot doesn't help anyone, least of all Coffey himself, since this will surely (and rightly) call into question his political judgment. 


New Zealand Herald Articles

Little looking ready to take bullet meant for Key

March 10, 2015

Labour's electoral problems are not especially complex or mysterious: the party's appeal has shrunk to a handful of urban and suburban pockets; it has failed to rejuvenate in policy, personnel or organisation since its repeated drubbings; it operates under a set of self-serving delusions, foremost among them the unshakeable belief that the tide will go out on National eventually.

Inept Labour Needs to Aim Higher 

July 30, 2014

It is not shocking in the context of New Zealand electoral history for John Key to win a third term; what is untenable is that he looks set to do so with a higher vote than either of the past two outings.

Jump to the Left Put Labour on a Rocky Road

June 4, 2014

This theory of September's election relies on the fantastical notion that a million-strong army of erstwhile non-voters (and, presumably, opinion poll non-responders) are set to storm the nation's polling booths once Labour has lurched exactly far enough left.

The Anatomy of a Failed Labour Coup 

April 2, 2011

These events, from which she emerged with newfound authority, confirm that Helen Clark is a politician of exceptional toughness and guile. She astutely decided against purging her frontbench of coup plotters, even promoting a reluctant Mike Moore to the front bench.

Would the Labour Party have been better off if Helen Clark had fallen in May 1996? Would New Zealand?

The answer is probably no.

Pundit (NZ) Columns


Grant Robertson is not as much like Joseph Stalin as some would have you think

October 23, 2014

Chris Trotter wants a Labour purge. Again.

It’s not often you see a New Zealand political figure compared favourably to Stalin, but this is what Chris Trotter has  to that decidedly non-genocidal non-lunatic Grant Robertson.

Robertson's 'safety-first' leadership pitch fraught with risk

October 19, 2014

It's impossible to disagree with anything Grant Robertson says. That's a problem.

When Grant Robertson tweets that he wants the government to "get alongside communities", I am not at all sure what he means.

Andrew Little's New Plymouth problem

October 15, 2014

There's a lot of smart money going on Andrew Little's bid to lead the Labour Party, but the numbers in New Plymouth don't lie. So what are they saying?

There's a lot of talk about "listening" in Labour circles these days. Announcing his bid for the party leadership, list MP Andrew Little named as his top priority "getting the process underway to listen to the voters who have abandoned us". Grant Robertson agrees, telling reporters last week "as we emerge from our heavy election defeat, we must now take the opportunity to listen".

Labour's dilemma: The unelectable leader

October 13, 2014

The trouble with not being troubled by the mood of New Zealand as a whole, is that the party hands Labour a political dog

Labour has done a fine job of selling the democratic virtues of their new way electing a leader; it rolls off the tongue to say that 40 percent of the outcome is determined by rank and file members. But whose democratic interests does it really serve?

Ditch the fan ban

October 03, 2014

Rather than trying to rein in dissent, the Labour Party should be encouraging a full and frank debate on not just its leadership, but its deep-seated structural problems. Attempts to chill open criticism are misguided

Morgan Godfrey, one of the New Zealand internet scene's most prolific opinion generators, derided my use of the term 'Orwellian' to describe Labour's new anti-sledging rules. He was right to do so.

I've made fun of people on exactly the same grounds, pointing out that, as Gordfrey did, that most people who invoke Orwell haven't read him.

Reclaiming the Third Way & why it's not a sell-out

Sept 02, 2014

The Left views Third Way politics as a sell-out these days and Josie Pagani is damned as an adherent – but what's wrong with compromise and wanting to win elections?

During a visit he made to Melbourne in 2000, I joined some colleagues to sit down for a chat with Dick Morris, the self-proclaimed strategic mastermind who claimed to have single-handedly rescued Bill Clinton's flailing presidency and coined the term "triangulation" along the way.

The trouble with Kelvin Davis

August 07, 2014

Reports of Labour's Kelvin Davis 'going rogue' have been exaggerated

Leaked revelations of a dispute between Labour’s Te Tai Tokerau candidate Kelvin Davis and the party’s Head Office over a proposed negative campaign against Hone Harawira and Kim Dotcom have been used as evidence of Davis going rogue. In truth, the documents show a candidate engaged in nothing more sinister than garden variety electioneering; of trying to win a tough political fight.

Labour can't keep rewarding failure

July 31, 2014

Chris Trotter has missed my point. It's not a factional coup d'etat Labour needs but a coup d'élan to jolt the party onto success

Mike Hosking & the benefit of low expectations

July 25, 2014

Labour's public upset over the TVNZ debate moderator is a sign of more ill-discipline and prompts the question if it's time for a rejig in David Cunliffe's office

Labour has been bleating about Mike Hosking being used as moderator in a TVNZ election debate. There is even the unconvincing talk that Labour may boycott the debate if Hosking takes that role.

How Internet Mana could help National reach 50%

Internet Mana gives National a cast of villians to parade before voters

The Internet Mana party does not, in any real sense, exist. Nor, while we're at it, does United Future; ACT once existed as a neo-liberal nostalgia project, but no more.

Yet whereas the latter pair are struggling to evade their past, it's possible that the Internet Mana party may still be willed into existence.

Read More »

Business Spectator Columns (Australia)

America's game of fiscal Russian roulette

10 Oct 2013

Both sides seem willing to talk, neither side is willing to compromise. America’s budget crisis is still very much in stand-off mode.

Boehner's tough talk will save his hide

8 Oct 2013

Speaker John Boehner is trapped between doing the right thing and saying the things the Right wants to hear. His bravado might be enough to keep the Tea Party wolves at bay.

The safety restraint in Washington's shutdown

7 Oct 2013

The US House easily has enough votes to end the shutdown immediately, but may need to hobble on for another two weeks to avoid an even more reckless stunt.

Why Obama's hope didn't translate

30 Sep 2013

President Obama is now less popular with the voters than George W. Bush was. Is he a victim of his era, or it could be that he isn't a particularly good politician?

The GOP's filibuster folly on Obamacare

23 Sep 2013

Obamacare remains deeply unpopular with voters, but the GOP’s attempt to derail it by engineering a temporary government shutdown will likely backfire.

Who will carry on Bloomberg's legacy?

20 Aug 2013

With his promise to put Main Street ahead of Wall Street, Bill de Blasio has emerged as an unlikely frontrunner in the New York mayoralty race.

Border skirmishes: The gerrymandering game pulling Republicans apart

7 Aug 2013

As House Republicans deftly redrawn congressional electoral borders to their individual advantage, the gerrymandering masters have, nationally, shot their party in the foot.

Clinton's primary problem in the race to the top

18 Jun 2013

New tweeter and retired Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is shaping as a lock for the Democratic nomination in 2016. Less known is that the Republicans could have an unassailable candidate soon too.

Obama's power grip is broken

13 Jul 2011

Slugged by a flailing economy and unlimited corporate Republican donations, Barack Obama has never looked less likely to win the 2012 presidential election.

Cutting through the Huntsmania

17 Jun 2011

US presidential candidate Jon Huntsman is running a courageous election strategy – but it makes better sense as a play for the White House in 2016.

The Key to keeping Kiwis happy

13 Jun 2011

John Key's 'smile and wave' persona is seemingly impossible to shake, making him the most popular NZ prime minister ever and almost a shoe-in at this year's election.

Toxic Newt no Republican trump card

17 May 2011

As the US crashes through another debt ceiling, the Republican's presidential candidate race is heating up. But as contenders quickly turn to pretenders, perhaps the best strategy is to sit on the sidelines.

Dirty donations are now open secrets

19 Apr 2011

A powerful website is lifting the lid on the increasingly murky world of US political donations, allowing users to track how giant companies are influencing parties and candidates.

Method in Trump's madness

6 Apr 2011

While Donald Trump's tilt at the White House will almost certainly fizzle, Republicans could learn a thing or two from his campaign built on straightforward economic nationalism.

Meet Palin Lite

29 Mar 2011

As Sarah Palin's electoral prospects wane, an even more formidable arch-conservative force has emerged – and she seems to have her eyes set on the presidency.

Unknown unknowns of American terror

17 Mar 2011

As General Petraeus attempts to sell a deeply unpopular war to sceptical Americans, Republicans are creating a political circus over perceived terror closer to home.

Little hope for gloomy Republicans

9 Mar 2011

US Republicans' growing pessimism about the future of the country is at odds with the American people's firm self-belief, presenting an opportunity for a more hopeful President Obama.

Why Wisconsin matters

1 Mar 2011

If a Republican union-busting plan is successful in Wisconsin, expect a flurry of copycat measures across the US that will unleash a wave of industrial unrest with uncertain but profound consequences.

Lashing Obama with a tighter belt

21 Feb 2011

Any deal bold enough to meet America's daunting fiscal challenges will require firm bipartisan support. But for either side to take this high-risk leap, both will insist on strapping themselves to the other guy first.

Obama's hands are tied

27 Jan 2011

A major omission in President Obama's State of the Union speech – climate change – reveals how gridlocked US politics is at the present time.

Why Turnbull won't oust Abbott

26 Jan 2011

The attractiveness of Malcolm Turnbull's centrism and his perceived suitability to high office are overstated. It is Tony Abbott who is best placed to make Julia Gillard a one-term PM.

A flood levy would not break Labor

19 Jan 2011

The cost of repairing flood damage will scupper Labor's promised budget surpluses. But there is a way out for the government – a dedicated flood rebuilding levy may be the best of a bad bunch of options.

Obama-care's reprieve won't last

17 Jan 2011

The attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords has put a temporary hold on attempts to reverse Obama's health reforms. But when debate resumes the Republicans face an explosive internal battle.

Behind Palin's 'blood libel' claim

13 Jan 2011

Sarah Palin's refusal to adopt a conciliatory tone following the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords shouldn't surprise anyone – there is strategy behind her belligerence.

Political violence brewed by Palin?

10 Jan 2011

If Sarah Palin can't find a way to extricate herself from the perception that she has actively promoted a culture of extremism that led to the shooting of Democrat Gabrielle Giffords her political prospects are dire.

Obama must rewrite the playbook

3 Jan 2011

Obama's unexpected recent legislative wins are the first steps towards his re-election. However, a Republican congress will make progress more difficult and Bill Clinton's famed political playbook mightn't be as effective nowadays.

Bringing Obama back to earth

29 Dec 2010

Barack Obama has the upper hand going into the 2012 US Presidential election, but there are five key reasons why the Republicans have significant grounds for optimism.

Inside the Republicans' race to the right

22 Dec 2010

The steady rise of the Tea Party will create tensions for Republicans in the lead-up to the US presidential election – their choice of candidate is by no means clear cut.

Obama, capitulator-in-chief

10 Dec 2010

To many, Obama's tax deal with Republicans neatly symbolises his leadership woes – too eager to deal with his enemies, but not canny or hard-nosed enough to prevail.

Right, said Ted

29 Nov 2010

Following the outcome of the Victorian election, Labor now faces the task of catering to the growing conservative voting bloc in Melbourne's outer suburbs without being pulled too far to the right.

Brumby's five lives

25 Nov 2010

Ted Baillieu is breathing down John Brumby's neck ahead of this weekend's Victorian state election, but there are five key factors that are likely to deliver a Brumby government victory.

Baillieu has only himself to blame

17 Nov 2010

While the Victorian Liberals' surprise preference decision will play a role in their likely defeat at the polls, the party's woes are etched far deeper into Ted Baillieu's leadership style

Where US fighting will be fiercest

5 Nov 2010

The outcome of the US mid-term elections will trigger a series of policy fights with profound political consequences for 2012 and beyond.

No time for Obama tears

27 Oct 2010

The Democrats will spend little time mourning their losses at the mid-term elections because as Bill Clinton learned, ceding control of Congress is much worse in theory than in practice.