Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A weekend of Pride

When I lived in Chicago, I never missed a Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade, from 1982 right up to 1995. Nigel and I also saw two while on visits to Chicago.

Here in New Zealand, there really are no GLBT Pride celebrations as such, though this year there was at least one commemoration of the Stonewall Riots, in Dunedin. The absence kind of makes sense, both because it’s basically a US-based event, but especially because it’s winter here. New Zealand used to have a nighttime parade in February, the week before Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney. The parade’s gone, but the festival continues.

So participating in Pride 48, as Nigel and I did this past weekend, was a way to be part of the Pride celebrations. It turned out to be a really great weekend, and as Nigel put it in my favourite quip of the weekend, “How modern! We get to celebrate Pride and stay home!”

The weekend was successful: First, people who took part enjoyed themselves. But people also clicked on the Google ads and donated to the PayPal account—enough that the host for the livecasts is secured for the year, which means that many of who took part in Pride 48 will be doing live shows in the months ahead. Also, we’re planning another extravaganza, probably in January, which my American Pride 48 colleagues have already dubbed “Winter Pride”, in acknowledgement of their seasons (maybe we can just turn up the cooling in our house at the time…).

I learned a lot from the experience, stuff I expect to put to good use. More importantly, Nigel and I had a great time. That’s reason enough to do it again.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Podcasting live this weekend

This weekend I’ll be podcasting live as part of Pride 48, a weekend-long podcasting extravaganza lasting until Sunday evening (US time). It’s being held as part of the celebrations of Gay and Lesbian Pride, which is this weekend.

My shows will be at 7pm tonight, Saturday, NZ time, and the second one will be tomorrow, Sunday, at 8pm NZ time. I’ll be recording to tonight’s and will post it as a podcast episode, and may do the same with Sunday’s.

There's a complete schedule on the site (which can be adjusted to local time), as well as a chatroom function.

The recording of the Saturday night show is now posted.

The recording of the Sunday night show is now posted.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson

There’s probably no more contentious name in all of pop culture than Michael Jackson. His sudden death doesn’t change that. This post isn’t a rehashing of the news stories we all know already, nor is it a defence or attack on his well-known odd personal life. This is just a personal reflection.

I’m probably not someone who could be called a “fan”; in fact, I disliked much of his music in the 1970s. One of my first 45s was the Jackson Five’s “Little Bitty Pretty One”, given to me when I was quite sick, and I played it even though I didn’t exactly like it (oddly, with age, much of that music I now like).

The first and only Michael Jackson album I bought was “Thriller”, at a time when everyone I knew owned a copy. It was the soundtrack for my early years out of university because the songs were, quite literally, everywhere. There were albums I liked more, songs I was more likely to hum to myself, but that album alone was present unlike any other. And, yes, I liked it.

It wasn’t long after that that Michael became, well, weird. We all could see that, and there’s no sense pretending we didn’t. We now know that most or all of Michael’s weird behaviour can be directly traced to a seriously fucked-up childhood and an abusive father. That was Michael’s tragedy.

But his gift to us was genuine feel-good music that permeated our lives, whether we wanted it to or not. Michael Jackson provided the American score for the 80s, a decade that was hugely overshadowed by others, Europeans and Britons especially.

So, Michael is gone, and his own, personal struggles are ended. As a non-fan, I recognise the wealth of what he left behind, music that will endure when most of today’s "hot hits" are long forgotten. We are, whether we admit it or not, whether we like it or not, the richer for it.

Goodbye, Michael. I wish you’d found happiness in this life, but I thank you for the happiness you brought to mine.

Les mensonges d'un enfant

A child lies, causing an international incident and providing a cautionary tale about suspending scepticism in this interconnected age.

This past weekend, the French national rugby team played a second test match against the New Zealand All Blacks in Wellington. In the early hours of the following morning, Mathieu Bastareaud, a 20-year-old centre for the French team, was attacked from behind by five men as he headed back to the team hotel. Only one small problem: Bastareaud was lying.

The Rugby World Cup will be held in New Zealand in only a couple of years, and the suggestion of danger could be incredibly damaging as people decide whether to come to New Zealand or not. More broadly, the incident damaged New Zealand’s international reputation as a safe destination, and slandered Wellington specifically.

Bastareaud only admitted he lied after persistence from the New Zealand Police who found that there was no evidence to back his claim. In fact, hotel security camera footage showed him entering the hotel uninjured. The NZ Police threatened to release the footage, and then—finally— Bastareaud confessed, after wasting countless hours of police time investigating a crime that never happened.

Bastareaud admitted that he was drunk, fell down and hit his head. That much we know for certain. However, the French team whisked him out of the country immediately and refused to push for prosecution, which seemed awfully suspicious. Now we know why they did it: The most likely reason is that they were covering up Bastareaud’s lie.

French rugby and Bastareaud have sort of apologised, but I suspect that the attitude of Max Guazzini, the president of Stade Francais, is more typical of French attitudes: "It was a youthful error."

Bastareaud’s lie smeared New Zealand’s reputation, and potentially damaged the country's tourism potential. To excuse it as a “youthful error” is not good enough. Bastareaud should be punished by French rugby, but French rugby itself should be punished for what seems like pretty obvious collusion, and they should reimburse New Zealand taxpayers for the money wasted investigating a non-existent crime. We won’t see any of that.

So, in the end, we’re left with the caution: No matter what the news story is, doubt it, be suspicious and—most important of all—don’t be quick to repeat a story as true until there’s some time to verify it. As the old journalism saying I’m too lazy to identify puts it, “if your mother says she loves you, check it out”. If only the media had followed that advice before reporting Bastareaud’s attack as if it was real, this sorry mess may never have happened.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Auckland world’s 15th gayest city

I often post about rankings for Auckland or New Zealand, especially when they’re good ones. The new Spartacus International Gay Guide has Auckland ranked as the 15th best city in the world to be gay in, according to a story on GayNZ.com.

The ranking was based on the number of gay businesses per million inhabitants. Auckland was the only New Zealand city on the list, and ahead of both Sydney and Melbourne (which kind of figures, since they’re much larger cities, but always nice to beat the Aussies…). The guide says Auckland is "a clean, modern city with excellent restaurant, hotel and tourist services. The inner city suburbs of Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Mt. Eden and Parnell have significant gay populations."

That’s certainly true, but it leaves out many of the things that make Auckland a gay-friendly city—and New Zealand a gay-friendly country. For starters, New Zealand’s immigration laws are much more sane than, say, the US. Then, there’s the fact that the civil and human rights of gay people are protected throughout the country. And, should the gay tourist find love, civil unions provide full legal recognition to same-sex couples (and did I mention how the immigration laws don’t discriminate against gay couples?).

I honestly don’t know—or even really care—how accurate or realistic the ranking is. The point, for me, is that Auckland and New Zealand are still far better places to be gay than the place I left behind. And that’s a story that can’t be told too often, or in too many places.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A matter of faith

Far-right christianists spread all sorts of pathological nonsense about gay people. For example, they declare us all to be “anti-Christian” or “anti-religion” or “godless”. It suits their political, fundraising and recruitment tactics to make these absurd pronouncements, but what’s the truth?

The short answer is that the best research to date indicates that GLBT people generally are religious, spiritual or not in roughly the same proportion as the general population, especially when matched for race, class, location, etc. GLBT people may be somewhat less likely to follow an organised religion, especially those churches that are openly hostile to GLBT people (which explains why there are few openly gay Christian fundamentalists), but even this can’t be proven conclusively.

The problem with research into the attitudes and beliefs of GLBT people is that there’s a kind of reverse sampling bias: GLBT people select themselves out of surveys. The reason should be obvious: Faced with the real threat of discrimination, harassment and even violence everywhere in America, including major cities, many GLBT people will refuse to self-identify as such when a researcher rings them; there aren’t that many people who will take a risk with an anonymous voice on the phone.

Which doesn’t mean that such research is impossible or without merit, it just means that the results must be viewed with a healthy dose of scepticism. Research that combines a variety of techniques is probably more valid than those that rely on only one (and telephone-only research is likely to be the least valid).

I was thinking about this today because I read about a recent study on the religious attitudes of gay people. The link was sent to me by my "e-friend" LordByron who thought it was interesting. It was, but that’s all I can say about it because the study contains this footnote:

Copyright Disclaimer: All the information contained on [this] website is copyrighted by [the folks who did the research]. No portion of this website (articles, graphs, charts, reviews, pictures, video clips, quotes, statistics, etc.) may be reproduced, retransmitted, disseminated, sold, distributed, published, edited, altered, changed, broadcast, circulated, or commercially exploited without the prior written permission from [the folks who did the research].

Got that? The folks post their results online, complete with snappy quotes from the head of the company, but no one is allowed to quote anything from it. Why bother posting anything at all? Copyright in the digital age is evolving, but this seems like dramatic overkill to me.

So, I won’t discuss that study or link to it, since the company wants it to be online but secret, nor will I even comment directly on it, lest I inadvertently shed light into their hidey-hole. That’s why I removed all identifiers in the quote above. Instead, I’ll just say that any comments I might have on the validity of the study can be inferred from what I said earlier in this post. Too bad: This topic desperately needs more rational discussion, not more lights under bushels.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Neverending story

One thing is certain: People just won’t stop trying to ban books and, more often than not, their efforts are wrongheaded at best. Sometimes it seems as if the United States is particularly active in book-banning struggles. Today I have another example.

There’s a town called Antioch in my home county in Illinois, Lake County. The summer reading program for Antioch High School included a book called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, a coming-of-age tale of a 14-year-old Native American boy who leaves his reservation for an all-white school.

The Chicago Tribune reported that Jennifer Andersen, one of seven parents who attended a school board meeting to ask that the book be banned from the curriculum, said, "I can't imagine anyone finding this book appropriate for a 13- or 14-year-old. I have not met a single parent who is not shocked by this. This is not appropriate for our community."

The problem for Andersen was language: “I would love them to say, 'We don't condone this language in the schools and we feel this book … does not meet our standard.'” She said that despite obvious virtues, the book had language that "would not be allowed in school hallways… How can we look past the vulgarity?"

John Whitehurst, chairman of the school’s English department, said, "While there is graphic language, keep in mind that Arnold [the main character] uses this language to express his own feelings to himself or to exchange taunts with his best friend. He never uses this language in front of girls, to his family or to other adults, and he doesn't act on such thoughts. He is consistently polite."

Noting that the book has positive, life-affirming messages and an especially strong anti-alcohol message, Whitehurst said that it wasn’t true that assigning the book was condoning bad language. "That is like saying that because Romeo and Juliet committed teen suicide, we condone teen suicide. Kids know the difference. Like it or not, that is the way 14-year-old boys talk to each other."

The book-banning campaign seems especially idiotic when there was an alternative book available. So, it wasn’t just that prudish parents didn’t want their children to read the book—they didn’t want anyone’s children to read the book. What on earth makes them think they have the right to impose their morality on everyone else?

The school district refused to ban the book, but decided to set up a committee including parents to preview all books on the summer reading list. Sounds like a censorship board to me. If they don’t outright ban books, they may at least require “warning labels” as the parents had also demanded.

The “vulgar” book they wanted to ban won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature and was named one of the Los Angeles Times' Favorite Children's Books of 2007 and New York Times' Notable Children's Books of 2007.

Monday, June 22, 2009

In search of media balance

There’s no such thing as totally free expression anywhere—one can’t shout “fire!” in a crowded theatre, for example. But where are the boundaries when a broadcaster discusses controversial issues of public importance? Do they have a duty to be balanced?

Legally, they do, and New Zealand’s Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) serves as a sort of mediator between often conflicting interests. Last week, the BSA released a bunch of decisions. Many complaints were silly, but among them was one against TVNZ’s Breakfast programme that I think illustrates the struggle between protecting free expression—and freedom of the press—and ensuring balance in controversial debates.

In an interview broadcast on December 18, 2008, the Breakfast host asked Garth McVicar from the Sensible Sentencing Trust to comment on a 21-month sentence imposed on a man who sold a large firearms collection on the black market. McVicar said the judge “got it wrong”, and went on to discuss sentences in New Zealand, repeating his claims that sentences handed down are too lenient. There was no alternative opinion presented, and the TVNZ presenter implicitly agreed with McVicar.

So, Roger Brooking made a formal complaint to TVNZ, alleging the interview let McVicar “repeatedly air his right wing populist views about law and order, generally criticise judges for being lenient on criminals and expound his belief that this fails to send a message of deterrence to other criminals in the community”. He went on, “no attempt was made to present the other side of the argument on sentencing and law and order issues”. And, he also argued it was inappropriate to air unchallenged “the reactionary views of an unqualified right wing individual as if he was the oracle on sentencing law”. TVNZ disagreed, and Brooking took the matter to the BSA.

The Authority had to consider whether there was, in fact, a breach of Standard 4 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which deals with balance. The Decision (No: 2009-012) found that TVNZ did breach Standard 4 because of the one-sided interview, and noted that TVNZ could have avoided the problem if the interviewer had simply played “devil’s advocate”, or if an alternative viewpoint had been presented “within the period of current interest”.

However, the Authority declined to impose any sanctions, arguing “the Authority is satisfied that its decision will serve as a reminder to TVNZ to ensure that when interviewees coming from a particular perspective discuss controversial issues of public importance in news, current affairs or factual programmes, efforts are made to challenge those views or to provide alternative viewpoints during other programmes within the period of current interest.”

I think the BSA struck precisely the correct balance. But it kind of surprised me that anyone complained; I’ve seen plenty of one-sided interviews on New Zealand TV news, and reporting that was shallow enough to be one-sided, too. So I kind of mentally tune out when a right-winger is on TV, knowing that they’ll be spouting rubbish; I have better things to occupy my mind.

But maybe we should all take more interest in what’s being reported, challenging not just inaccuracy but also balance when the lack of either can influence public thought on controversial issues. Democracy requires that we police the media’s boundaries, too.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Weekend Diversion: Auto-Tune the news

Unless you’ve been living under an Internet rock (iRock?), you’ve probably run across Auto-Tune the News somewhere, either on a blog or maybe through mainstream news shows, like Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. However, if you haven’t, the premise is simple: The take real TV news and set it to music, using an Auto-Tune to both transform spoken word into song, and to distort that “singing”.

The first hit song I’m aware of to use Auto-Tune was Cher’s “Believe”, but since then it’s been used by a lot of artists. Used without the distortion, it can also help make bad singers sound better. But using it in comedy was an obvious advancement.

This particular video is “Auto-Tune the News #5: lettuce regulation. American blessings.” Personally, I think it’s the best yet, but maybe it’s seeing Joe Biden “singing” and certain lines, like “Exceptional fast food and exceptional dance moves.” And people smoking lettuce.

Now, well you might wonder how on earth these folks come up with these videos. “It’s the smo-o-o-o-oke…” (you saw that one coming, didn’t you?)

Anyway, this video makes me laugh every time I watch it, so it’s the Weekend Diversion for this week.

Tip o’ the hat to Tim Corrimal who Tweeted about this video yesterday.

A fine day with sun

The weather has been absolutely brilliant lately. I’ve often said that some of Auckland’s most brilliant days are in winter, and lately there’s been ample proof of that. Today was just the latest example.

Today was also the winter solstice, which is a good thing because it means the days will be getting longer again. I like that.

We went up to the Whangaparaoa Peninsula north of Auckland to have lunch at our friend’s house. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the view from our friend’s deck (above) was far better than the photo suggests (I think the camera doesn’t like bright sunshine).

The peninsula juts east about 11km into the Hauraki Gulf, meaning there are great views from many parts of the area. In 2006, I posted a couple photos looking south, in the general direction of the peninsula; the left side of the photo above is looking in the general direction of where those earlier photos were taken.

Whenever we go up there, I always laugh when we get to Manly—with the signs pointing to Big Manly Beach and a little further along to Little Manly Beach. But I always think it’s funniest when I see Big Manly Methodist Church; I always imagine what their parishioners look like. Yeah, I’m easily amused.

A few weeks after I arrived in New Zealand, the company I was working for had its Christmas do at Shakespear Regional Park at the end of the peninsula. I barely knew my co-workers, and still couldn’t fully understand the Kiwi accent or customs, but I went anyway. I don’t know if I was brave or too naive to realise what I was doing. In any case, it was a nice day in a very pretty spot. Someday I should go up there and take some photos.

Anyway, we had a lovely time at our friend’s house—great meal, great company, great location. Getting together with friends for Sunday lunch is a great idea—still leaves time in the late afternoon to get a few things done before it’s Sunday evening cocoon time.

So, today was a good day. That’s always a welcome thing.

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The title of today's post is a bit of a play on words: In New Zealand a "fine day" is one with good weather, probably sunny. But to me it also means a nice day.

Friday, June 19, 2009

NZ is number one among (some) expats

New Zealand is the best destination in the world for expats—well, for British expats, at least, according to a new survey: “New Zealand came ahead of Canada, Australia, France, the United Arab Emirates, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, the US and China in the poll of more than 2,000 Britons living in 12 countries.”

Well, then. Apparently, Britons found that “the combination of low property prices, a favourable taxation system, a healthy lifestyle and the natural environment” made New Zealand the best place to live. Which is kind of ironic since some Kiwis don’t seem to notice those same things.

Seriously, as an expat from a different country, I have to say I fully agree with the results of the survey: New Zealand really is a great country to move to. Being an expat isn’t for everyone, but for those who are set on the idea, New Zealand is a pretty good choice.

However, I want people to make the move for the right reasons. The survey found that among all respondents, “a feeling of dissatisfaction in Britain was the main reason given for moving abroad.” That’s a shame; I think it’s always better to move to something rather than from something.

Still, I’m pleased that New Zealand is so well regarded among expats. It deserves to be.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Horsing around with chocolate

Did you know that horses "fornicate"? One person thought they do, found the image in a TV commercial shocking and complained. New Zealand’s Advertising Standards Authority considered that and similar complaints about the television ad for Cadbury Moro featuring a brief clip of two horses mating.

The ad was part of Cadbury’s “fourth” campaign, which is based around Moro, which Cadbury calls “New Zealand’s fourth favourite [chocolate] bar”. A little into the ad, the voiceover says: “In the Melbourne Cup, Wonderfoot came fourth. He won’t race again, he has better things to do.” As the voiceover plays, viewers saw the horse mating with a mare. The horse section represented eight out of the ad’s sixty seconds, and the visual was only three seconds long.

T Prins and others complained about this. T Prins said it “was offensive to watch an advert in which 2 horses were fornicating. I am the parent of an 8 year old and a 2 year old and work hard at preserving their innocence. Is this type of advertising appropriate????”

The Commercial Approvals Bureau, which had approved the ad and rated it PGR (which can be broadcast only after 7pm), was asked to comment on the ad. They said:
When we approved this commercial we expected that some people would find this scene offensive but, on balance, decided that it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.

The humour is admittedly rather juvenile and of dubious taste but the footage is not gratuitous and does not depict anything that is not seen daily on farms up and down the country. To take offense seems rather prudish and curiously anthropomorphic (it is not technically possible for animals to "fornicate").
The Authority did not uphold the complaint (their decision, 09/150, is available on the Authority's website). The horses weren’t available for comment.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Smacking the taxpayer

Far right christianists are about to stick New Zealand taxpayers with a $9 million bill for a referendum that will change absolutely nothing—which they knew all along. They don’t care about that—or about soaking taxpayers—they want to grandstand on the issue and have someone else pay for it.

Sound like a harsh assessment? Then consider this: They tried to get their referendum on the ballot for the last general election because they knew it would draw more anti-Labour voters. The Chief Electoral Officer, who knows how much referenda screw up vote counting in general elections, wanted a postal ballot instead, which is what we’re getting.

In New Zealand, these “citizen-initiated referenda” are advisory only and Parliament is free to ignore it, as they almost always do. The far right know that, but huff and puff about “the will of the majority of New Zealanders” and about “criminalising good parents”.

Utter nonsense.

Far right christianists deliberately wrote the question to get the result they wanted: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?" As Opposition Leader Phil Goff and Prime Minister John Key have both noted, the wording is ambiguous, at best. NO ONE is for criminalising good parents—and the law doesn’t do that—but that doesn’t mean they’re opposed to the law altogether as a no vote would imply.

Labour Leader Phil Goff plans to boycott the referendum altogether, and I kind of think he’s right: Voting in the far right’s vanity vote would give legitimacy to what’s an entirely illegitimate question. If they were serious, they could’ve asked if the law, or parts of it, should be repealed. But that wouldn’t give them the opportunities for PR, marketing or the self-centred, arrogant self-righteousness that this meaningless referendum will.

New Zealand has shocking rates of violence against children, and obviously too many people clearly don’t know the difference between “good parental correction” and violence against children. New Zealand would be well-served by moving away from the christianist encouragement of violence against children, and—in part thanks to the law—it seems it may be doing so. The Prime Minister has said he has no plans to revisit the law, which he helped draft and pass, when it clearly seems to be working just fine.

And that, ultimately, is the real verdict—for free.

Update August 22, 2009: The results are in.

DOMA deux

The New York Times published an excellent editorial, “A Bad Call on Gay Rights”, making many of the same points on the DOMA brief that I did on Monday:
If the administration does feel compelled to defend the act, it should do so in a less hurtful way. It could have crafted its legal arguments in general terms, as a simple description of where it believes the law now stands. There was no need to resort to specious arguments and inflammatory language to impugn same-sex marriage as an institution.
Then they continue in a way I completely agree with:
The best approach of all would have been to make clear, even as it defends the law in court, that it is fighting for gay rights. It should work to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the law that bans gay men and lesbians in the military from being open about their sexuality. It should push hard for a federal law banning employment discrimination. It should also work to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act in Congress.
The lack of action on any of these things has led some GLBT activists to claim that they’re being “thrown under the bus”. Others counter that President Obama has a lot on his plate, as indeed he does. But the editorial concludes with a great point:
The administration has had its hands full with the financial crisis, health care, Guantánamo Bay and other pressing matters. In times like these, issues like repealing the marriage act can seem like a distraction — or a political liability. But busy calendars and political expediency are no excuse for making one group of Americans wait any longer for equal rights.
I couldn't agree more, and I think this is the core of the centrist position: The administration must add its promises to GLBT Americans as part of its priorities, not leave it on the “someday, hopefully” list. However, fulfilling these promises immediately isn’t the demand—there are many more pressing problems to be dealt with. The administration must simply start making an effort.

One aspect that’s troubled me about this mess is that some GLBT folks are basically making an excuse for it because the brief was written by “a Bush/Cheney holdover who’s also a Mormon”. This defence is offensive because, first, it assumes someone being a Mormon automatically explains the anti-gay rhetoric of the brief. Without any evidence to support that, it’s guilt by association because of the Mormons’ well-known—and well-funded—opposition to any legal recognition of same-sex relationships.

But even if that was proven to be the core of the issue, so what? These briefs aren’t written by one person, labouring alone, then filing it single-handedly. Instead, there’s a whole team that has input and reviews it before, ultimately, it’s approved to be filed. That means that there were plenty of opportunities to object, but no one did (allegedly, staffers did soften the language a little and, if true, one can only imagine how horrible the original must’ve been).

So, blaming one staffer lets the others off the hook: They’re just as responsible. However, now that this has become such a big issue for us, it’s unlikely that the Department of Justice will make the same sort of mistake again, so that’s one good thing that will likely come out of this.

President Obama did not “betray” us, but one could say that his Department of Justice betrayed him by filing a brief that’s so clearly counter to administration policies and that alienates part of the president’s coalition. And that alienation is why President Obama must do better.

Update: The AP is reporting that on Wednesday the President will announce plans to "extend health care and other benefits to the gay and lesbian partners of federal employees". It's a start.

Update 2 (18/06/09): Turns out to be a teeny-tiny step: "Domestic partners of federal employees can be added to the long-term care insurance program; supervisors can also be required to allow employees to use their sick leave to take care of domestic partners and non-biological, non-adopted children. For foreign service employees… the use of medical facilities at posts abroad, medical evacuation from posts abroad, and inclusion in family size for housing allocations."

No routine healthcare or survivor benefits (like pensions). The reason is—ironically—DOMA: The very law that the administration is defending prevents them from granting full rights and recognition to same-sex couples that it does to opposite-sex married couples. This is also a memorandum, not an executive order, which carries the weight of law. A presidential memorandum expires at the end of a president's term, whereas an executive order has to be specifically cancelled by a new president. (NB: The administration disputes that distinction; I defer unless I hear a reliable dissenting interpretation).

If you use the metaphor of a long march to equality, this is the equivalent of deciding to lift the foot for a step—progress of a sort, but very slight.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Wanna buy a vowel?

TVNZ apparently needed to.

TVNZ (Television New Zealand) recently ran an ad campaign on TV2 for their programmes on the channel using the abbreviated language of “txt” messages, like “TON” for 'tonight' and “TMW” for tomorrow. People were not amused.

According to Stuff, the broadcaster was forced to change course after a groundswell of opposition: Some 6,000 people joined Facebook group “I hate TV2's new abbreviations”, and online articles or blog posts on the subject have attracted hundreds of negative comments (including the story linked to above).

In perhaps the funniest thing I’ve heard a corporate spokesperson say, TVNZ’s Megan Richards said: "We have learned… that vowels are extremely important to New Zealanders."

Even after all these years, I still learn something new about my adopted country.

A Tip o’ the Hat to fellow American-expat-in-Auckland, Nik, who provided a link to this story on his blog.

Monday, June 15, 2009

When disappointment becomes more

I’m profoundly disappointed in President Obama.

For several days, I’ve been trying to write this post to explain. The first version was basically outraged anger. The next attempted to be more neutral. Now? I’m beyond disappointed.

This all started Friday (US time) when the Department of Justice (DoJ) filed a brief opposing a challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), filed by two gay men. The Administration defended their action, claiming that they were required to defend all laws against legal challenge, and to use all plausible arguments in doing so.

There are two huge problems with this: First, the DoJ absolutely does not always defend all laws, especially when they’re indefensible or clearly in conflict with presidential policy (Obama called DOMA “abhorrent”). But even accepting their claim, they didn’t have to use anti-gay arguments to do so, and that’s my focus here.

The challenge was flawed for many reasons, and legal experts say the argument against this case could simply have been, for example, that the plaintiffs lacked legal standing. As Richard Socarides, former Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton, put it, “There was no need to invoke legal theories that were not only offensive on their face, but which could put at risk future legal efforts on behalf of our civil rights.”

The Department of Justice brief argues that DOMA doesn’t deny gay and lesbian people any rights (though that was kind of the point of passing it), and says it’s a good law because denying gay and lesbian people their rights saves the federal government money, but, of course, we’re not denied any rights in the first place because we can always marry someone of the opposite sex to get those rights and benefits that we’re not being denied. Most offensive of all, the brief argues same-sex marriage is the legal equivalent of incestuous marriage or marriage to a child.

Worst legally, it declares DOMA a legitimate, constitutional law that doesn’t violate the equal protection or due process provisions of the US Constitution (even though it does). If this argument is accepted by the court, it will cut off all future constitutional challenges to the law, particularly because it argues gay people don’t have the same constitutional right to marry that heterosexuals have.

Similarly, the DoJ denies that Loving v Virginia is relevant. That landmark decision struck down laws banning interracial marriage—like President Obama’s own parents’. The DoJ brief, by the way, was filed on the 42nd anniversary of the Loving decision.

So, what happened? Is President Obama homophobic? Of course not. The problem seems to be that it never occurred to administration officials that this brief was homophobic, perfectly in-tune with the Bush/Cheney regime, and that it could easily make things worse for gay and lesbian Americans.

It’s profoundly disappointing that the administration of this president, of all people, couldn’t see that. Despite promising to be a “fierce advocate” for gay and lesbian Americans, so far President Obama has delivered nothing apart from a proclamation for Gay and Lesbian Pride. Filing this brief put the administration across a line—moving from doing nothing for us to arguably making things at least more hostile, if not potentially much worse.

And that’s the tragedy in this: While I still hope and expect that President Obama may yet accomplish many great things for the country, I’m far less optimistic that any of that “fierce advocacy” will actually happen. Up until now, I’ve argued that even with the lack of action on his promises to gay and lesbian Americans, on his worst day Obama was better than Bush/Cheney on their best. The DoJ brief challenges that assertion. It’s not the lack of action, it’s taking negative action.

One of the plaintiffs in the Loving case, Mildred Loving, said on the 40th anniversary of the ruling that validated her marriage:

Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the "wrong kind of person" for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people's religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people's civil rights.

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about.

I wish the morons who wrote that brief would reflect on Mrs. Loving’s words. And I deeply hope that the entire administration will keep in mind the president’s words: "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." We’re still waiting, Mr President.

Another gratuitous Jake photo

Here’s another Gratuitous Jake photo of the day.

“I need a brushing,” Jake says. “But if you come anywhere near me with a brush, I’m outta here!” Instead, he sits and poses for me.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Weekend Diversion: Monique Rhodes

Kiwi singer-songwriter Monique Rhodes has her first video on YouTube, and I thought I’d share that as a Weekend Diversion. Monique was a guest on AmeriNZ Podcast Episode 91, and she was charming and great fun to talk with. This song, “Lay Down”, is from her debut album, Awakening, available on iTunes, among other places.

Note: I meant to set this to auto-post, but saved it as a draft instead. You’d think I’d have that mastered by now, eh?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Day in 100 Seconds: Conflicting Reports

Talking Points Memo produces a series of these “Day in 100 Seconds” videos, along with plenty of others on their YouTube Channel. Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re kind of frightening. Other times, like today, they reveal a kind of truth about the way television news media work. I thought this would a good example to share.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Seeing the truth

As if to prove my point yesterday, the exact same wingnut website used by the racist/white-supremacist Holocaust-denier terrorist who attacked the Holocaust Museum yesterday, today attacked conservative commentator Shepard Smith of Faux News. The charge was called by the leading wingnut site, which made attacking Smith its mission. Reason? He dared to call them out when they’re crazy. They’re trying to get him fired, but what else are they up to? I hope Fox has good security, because militants who think that site is real and legitimate may very well decide to go after Smith.

It strikes me as notable when a conservative Faux News host, albeit one more normal than most, can see the reality of right wing extremism in America. Great! Now, what are they going to do about it?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

To the extreme

Some argue that the United States encourages extremes. Born in revolution, nearly destroyed in a bloody civil war, the country has long been associated with violence and the passions that lead to it. That lets us off too easily.

Recent incidents of domestic terrorism—the assassination of Dr. George Tiller, today’s attack at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum—aren’t directly related, however, they’re the logical outcome of a society that tolerates violent dissent and ever-escalating rhetoric in political debates.

The radical anti-abortion movement has tried to distance itself from the assassination of Dr. Tiller, even though some of their leaders say he “had it coming”. They call the murderer a “lone nut job”, which is how, no doubt, the white supremacist murderer today also will be portrayed.

“Lone wolf”: Does that sound familiar?

“…lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent rightwing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States. Information from law enforcement and nongovernmental organizations indicates lone wolves and small terrorist cells have shown intent—and, in some cases, the capability—to commit violent acts.”

The Department of Homeland Security made that assessment as part of its look at rightwing terrorism in the US (PDF available here). That’s the same report that supposedly mainstream conservatives attacked so fiercely that the department had to back away from it. Their attacks were so fierce, in fact, that one wonders why, exactly, they believed the report applied to them: To what extent did they see themselves as violent extremists?

That the report was correct isn’t surprising. Nor is the vitriol the right heaped on it, nor their hypocrisy in ignoring an earlier report warning of left wing extremists’ attacks. What’s surprising is the extent to which the mainstream media—and ordinary people—ignore the underlying factors that lead to this sort of violence.

First and foremost: The rhetoric that encourages and inspires these lone wolves. Faux News performer Bill O’Reilly mentioned Dr. Tiller more than two-dozen times, including referring to him as a “baby killer”. Another performer on the network made a list of 100 people who were “threats” to America. The murderer who attacked the church in Tennessee was inspired by that list, and by Faux News performers generally.

The murderer at the museum today used the Internet to promote his racist and white supremacist beliefs, and participated on a leading wingnut website that spends a lot of time promoting truly bizarre conspiracy theories. That site encourages and promotes extremist views as part of its daily fare.

We have no trouble seeing how islamist extremists can be encouraged toward violence (like the American Muslim in Arkansas—another lone wolf) by the hectoring and demands of a largely hidden few. Why can we not see how the loud, easily available and even acceptable extreme rhetoric on American television or even more so on the internet might not lead right wing lone wolves to carry out acts of violence?

We have to be honest about the effect the right wing media has on these lone wolves. It’s baldly dishonest to claim they don’t encourage and embolden these violent extremists. If the media didn’t influence people’s behaviour, there would be no advertising. Of course Faux News, along with wingnut media, encourages lone wolves to act. Should right wing media be censored? It’s not that simple and—without a specific incitement—no censorship is even possible in the US, so the question’s moot.

Hate speech will happen and will be distributed no matter what we do or say, but we ought to call it what it is and we must take it seriously, especially when, as in the cases of Dr. Tiller’s murderer and the killer today, they have a history of violent extremism. In such cases their speech indicates a propensity toward violent extremism. We also must never pretend that such extremist views are legitimate political opinion. And, of course, we need to make sure that deranged people get the mental health help they need.

Everyone—both ends of the political spectrum and their media—must remember that words matter, that they can have huge unforeseen consequences. And really, is it necessary to use extremist language to “prove” one’s point?

America isn’t doomed to endure extremist violence because of the nation’s history. What recent events have shown is that the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves. We can change this, and we must.

President Obama on Organizing for Health Care Reform

This time, let’s help make healthcare reform happen, whether the special interests like it or not. I'll have plenty more to say about this soon.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Bad blogger

I know, I’ve been really bad about posting lately. The thing is, I’ve had a cold for a few days and just haven’t felt like blogging (I really have been sick!). Hopefully that’s fading now and I’ll be able to get back to my regular routines. I’ll be back soon!

Monday, June 08, 2009

Who pooped?

There’s a lot of serious stuff going on, including some I want to comment on. But it’s been a hectic time lately, and I need a break. So, here it is.

The site whopooped.org is run by the Minnesota Zoo and gives visitors the chance to identify the poo of the ostrich, the giraffe and the zebra. It’s not as easy as you might think, and you learn about the animals and their digestion in addition to their poo.

Once you master your poo education, you get a certificate, like above. Okay, so the thing is blank and you can fill it in with any name—what’s your point? I know my poo!

Some of the stuff I’ll be talking about this week is poo of another kind. This one is much more fun.

I learned about this site from the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. Who says the liberal media is full of poo? They share it!

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Language and understanding

I don’t remember acquiring language. I remember first being taught American English with an experimental phonetic system called the Initial Teaching Alphabet (also known by it’s lower-case initials, i.t.a.), but language skills themselves arrived before I had any awareness.

However, I do remember trying to learn a new language later in life. Like many Americans, I studied a foreign language in high school. I took German for the entire time, and near my last day of high school, our German teacher said to a small group of us that she felt we were fluent in German. I thought she was crazy.

Nevertheless, I took her at her word and when I got to university I took a proficiency exam to try and get credit for the first year of German. Let’s just say that I was right: In saying I was fluent, my German teacher really was verrückt.

About ten years later, I was planning a week’s trip to Berlin. I bought cassette-based German language instruction and spent hours cramming, trying to fan whatever language spark failed to ignite in high school. It was, I knew, a fairly hopeless task.

Once in Berlin, armed with that “refresher”, and far more useful phrase book and dictionary, I muddled through my first night’s dinner—only just, apparently: the Kellnerin questioned my choice.

I was staying at a hotel in Alexanderplatz, in the heart of the former East Berlin. In 1994, the Wall hadn’t been down long enough for English to make inroads, I was told. That advice seemed correct: I couldn’t find people who spoke any English, even at the hotel. But the museums on Museum Island in the old East Berlin had many signs in both English and German, while in the former West Berlin, the signs were usually German-only.

One of my main goals was a sort of pilgrimage. I went to the Nollendorfplatz train station in the Schöneberg district of West Berlin. The area had been major gay area in pre-Nazi Berlin (much of the musical Cabaret is set there; apparently it’s still is a major gay area). The train station has a memorial to the thousands of gay men who were sent from it to concentration camps, primarily Sachsenhausen, wearing the rosa winkel, or pink triangle.

I couldn’t read the memorial plaques (de.wikipedia.org has a picture of one of them), which frustrated me. I would’ve pulled out my dictionary and taken my time if it hadn’t been for two leather jacket wearing young men trying to sell newspapers to passersby. I was alone in a foreign city where I clearly couldn’t really speak the language, and there were two guys who could've been thugs, for all I knew (turned out they were selling leftist papers, but I couldn’t tell that).

One of them watched me taking photos of the memorial plaques. He came up to me, we stumbled through greetings (well, I stumbled). He must’ve sensed my apprehension because he took his index finger and pointed forcefully at a patch on the sleeve of his jacket: A “backwards” swastika in the middle of the international “no” red circle with a slash. “Anti-fascist! Anti-fascist!” he declared. That much I got. But it was just too hard to communicate, so I bought one of his papers and left.

Toward the end of the week, I went to the hotel concierge for help in ringing the airline to reconfirm my reservation. I stumbled and struggled with the words, until she said to me, in a thick German accent, “We can speak English if you want”. I could’ve kissed her.

That trip gave me a personal understanding, as nothing else ever had, how difficult it is to get by in a country with a different language. It made me begin to appreciate how difficult it is for immigrants, but I could only barely imagine how hard it really is. In a way, this helped me when I became an immigrant myself, but that’s another story.

For some of us—and I’m apparently one of them—acquiring a second language is incredibly difficult. I managed to visit everything I wanted to while I was in Berlin, but my experience would have been so much richer if I’d been able to communicate, to talk with the people I met. Also, while I know a lot about Berlin and German history generally, I could’ve learned so much more with a little more understanding of German.

I was just a tourist. Nations don’t have any excuse. But their people? I think that maybe international understanding ultimately comes down to language. So, I still try and learn other languages, even if I’m not very good at it. Despite all the barriers, I still want to understand.

More random shots

This has been one of those double-whammy weeks: The busiest work-week of the month and the start of a cold that Nigel so graciously shared with me. All of that was intensified because the week was shortened by the holiday.

So, here are some things that I didn’t have time to post about this week.

National Party’s stumble

This week the National-led government lost its first minister to scandal-driven resignation. I never liked Richard Worth—he always struck me as an arrogant “I’ll do whatever I want” kind of guy—so I’m not sorry to see him go. Even so, I certainly didn’t pick him to be the first to go or, based solely on performance as a minister, was he necessarily the one who ought to have gone first. Still, good riddance.

The Republican Party is crazy

The US Republican Party, apparently without a clue or plan, and without a reason to legitimately criticise President Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, has decided to attack her by, well, being crazy. Republicans call her “racist”, say she’d be the most “activist” judge ever, and even declaring that the summa cum laude graduate of Princeton is “stupid”. Worse yet, leaders of the party that once demanded a “straight up or down vote” on Bush/Cheney nominees, the party that demanded an end to filibusters in the US Senate, are now urging a filibuster of Sotomayor’s nomination! Incredible.

But not as incredible as the Dark Lord himself, ex-“Vice” President Dick Cheney. In the midst of his “Reinventing the Past” tour, Cheney now says there was never any evidence of a connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks—despite having spent years declaring there was. Then, when only an idiot would still claim that, he fudged the issue, trying to imply there may have been a link. Only now, as he tries to create a new past for himself, does he finally admit the truth. That’s one crazy Republican—crazy like a fox.

Peaceful New Zealand

An Australian research group has ranked New Zealand as the most peaceful nation in the world, out of 144 evaluated. The Global Peace Index is based on things such as political stability, homicide rate, prospect of violent protests and military spending, among other things.

The top ten most peaceful nations are: 1 New Zealand; 2 (equal) Denmark and Norway; 4 Iceland; 5 Austria; 6 Sweden; 7 Japan, 8. Canada; 9 (equal) Finland and Slovenia. Australia was at 19 and the United States was 83. The ten least peaceful: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Israel, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Pakistan, Russia and Zimbabwe. The complete list is here.

Friday, June 05, 2009

We’re havin’ a cold wave…

It’s been bloody cold in Auckland lately. The photo above is of the park nearest our house around 8am this morning. It may not look like much, but it’s actually among the heaviest frosts I’ve seen in New Zealand. I don’t mind, with a nice warm house. Oh, and would it mind killing the obnoxious weeds? That’d be magic.

The photo below is of the sun poking through the frozen foggy morning. I just like the pic.

Home pride

I don’t often mention members of the Illinois Congressional Delegation (and for some, that’s for the best—for a variety of reasons), but I think it’s important to praise my representatives in the US Congress when they do the right thing.

US Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), pictured at left, has signed-on as a co-sponsor of S 424, the Uniting American Families Act, which, if passed, will allow US citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their non-American same-gender partner for immigration to the US. Under current law, heterosexual Americans can sponsor their non-American spouses, but gay and lesbian Americans cannot. This law will make US immigration law in this respect the same as for many other countries, including New Zealand, which has had such provisions for well over a decade.

As a US citizen living permanently overseas, I can vote for the US Senators and the US Representative representing the last place I was registered to vote—in my case, the north side of Chicago. So, this past November I was able to vote to re-elect Senator Durbin, and his recent action demonstrates the typical sorts of things he does that made me glad to do so.

Senator Durbin joins my representative in Congress, US Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois-9), pictured at right, who is co-sponsor of the House version, HR 1024. To be honest, I’m a bit prouder of Rep. Schakowsky because she was one of the original 80 House co-sponsors. I’ve also long admired her for her willingness to take on the Republican-connected mercenary firm Blackwater, and for her commitment to fairness and social justice. I was extremely proud to vote for her re-election, too.

I never contacted either Senator Durbin or Rep. Schakowsky about this bill (do as I say, not as I do…), but I’ll send them a note of thanks. Like most members of Congress, both their online contact forms assume the sender lives in the US (Schakowsky’s assumes Illinois, even), and they don’t provide email addresses. Google helped me find them (I think). I suppose there’s always old-fashioned air mail—wait, how do you do that again?

Seriously, thanks and congratulations to two members of the US Congress who I’m proud to say represent me.

For more on this bill, including a complete and regularly updated list of sponsors, check out this post.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Betty Bowers Explains Traditional Marriage

Betty Bowers, America’s Best Christian, explains the Lord’s concept of marriage to everyone else. You know the real joke here? It’s all Biblical—the stuff the fundamentalists don’t talk about (or want you to know about) when they talk about “traditional” marriage.

Found via Joe.My.God.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Titanic opportunities

The last survivor of the sinking of the Titanic, Millvina Dean, died May 31, ending the world’s last living link with that long-ago tragedy that’s captured people’s imaginations for 97 years.

For some reason, this reminded me of something I’d forgotten about. It also made be think about how much the tragedy was used over the years to support one view or another.

When I was a kid, we were told that the ship carried a plaque declaring, “Not even God can sink this ship.” That was a total fabrication, based on an alleged incident in which a deckhand supposedly told a nervous boarding passenger, “God himself could not sink this ship.” Although even this account is doubted by many scholars, that doubt didn’t stop religious people from repeating it as a cautionary tale about the “sin of pride”, or about the folly of challenging their god.

Similarly, and less blatantly religious, some said that the ship was claimed to be “unsinkable”, and here the truth is murkier. But to the extent that anyone did think that, they were apparently only reflecting the common opinions of the time.

Where the use of the Titanic disaster as object lesson is closest to truth is probably in the suggestion that money—or, if you prefer, greed—led to the great loss of life. A double hull from the water line to the keel, which had been used in ship design for decades, wasn’t used, and neither were water-tight compartments and bulkheads, all of which may have saved Titanic. They were omitted to make the ship more open and less expensive to build.

Similarly, the number of lifeboats was the minimum required by regulation, again because this was the cheapest option. This is where the alleged assumption of unsinkability meets the charge of greed, and none of us can know for sure what was really behind it.

However, we do know that out of 2,223 people on board that ship, only 706 survived: 68.2% died. More startling to me is the class bias: 75.5% of third class passengers died, 58.3% of second class passengers died, but only 39.5% of first class passengers died (76.2% of the crew died, too). These totals probably say a lot about those times.

The Titanic disaster has captured people’s imagination ever since it happened. That’s not likely to change, even with the death of the last survivor. Sadly, I doubt that the use of the disaster to prove some point will end, either. Some things, some human behaviours, don’t change.