Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Zeitgeist 2013: Year In Review

Above is Google’s Zeitgeist video for 2013. I think it’s as good as last year’s. This video is based on what people searched for in 2013, which makes it interesting, I think, because it reflects what caught people’s interest, imagination and curiosity. It makes it more human than many other annual reviews.

However, the rankings of searches in various countries isn’t aligned very well, so it’s extremely difficult to make meaningful comparisons of the searches of different countries. So, I won’t even attempt it. Instead, I’d suggest checking out this year’s Zeitgeist for yourself, which is available from Google http://www.google.com/trends/topcharts?zg=full (and you can skip seeing the video again).

Monday, December 30, 2013

Mom’s birthday

I’ve been trying for the past couple days to come up with something to say to mark today, what would have been my mother’s 97th birthday. As is often the case, the words just wouldn’t arrange themselves, no matter how much I begged them to. I kept at it.

I've mentioned my mother in several different posts, and if they were all pieced together, they'd make a reasonably complete picture. But her birthday is not about mere biography.

She was one of the earliest, most important influences in my life. My dad was important, too, but more so later on. Besides, he's not the subject of his post.

When I was a kid, my mother was a stay-at-home mother. Most of my friends’ mothers were the same, and I assumed that was the normal way of things. That wasn’t the only thing I thought was universal.

She was very creative, as I've mentioned several times before. But because she was so creative, I grew up thinking everyone was, or could be, creative, and trying creative things was just what people did. Of all the things I got from her, this is probably the one thing for which I'm most grateful. It led to this blog, my podcasts and all the other stuff I do.

Among other creative things, my mother was a poet. Originally, I wrote short stories because I didn't want to "compete" with her. I eventually moved on to writing non-fiction, something my dad influenced, actually (I'll talk about that another day).

Even so, over the years I've actually written a fair bit of poetry, but I don't share it with anyone, anywhere. I don't care if people don't like one of my blog posts, but poetry is so much more personal. And yet, every once in awhile I think about publishing some here. That's my mother's influence again.

That's a little more about my mother, her influence on me, and even a little bit about me. It seemed like a good way to observe her birthday.

This is also my 365th post this year, which means I’ve now hit my goal of an average of one post per day. So, I get the present, really.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

The photo above is of my mother and father on their wedding day in 1942.

Tears of a clown
– one of my favourite posts about my mother

Previous years’ birthday posts:
Mom’s treasure (2012)
Remembering birthdays (2011)
That time of year (2009)
Memories and words (2008)

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Viral Videos of 2013

The DailyMotion video above is a compilation of some of the biggest viral videos of 2013. But unlike many others (like the YouTube one I posted two weeks ago), it tells you how many views the videos have received and isn’t a mash-up. I think that makes it more interesting.

I’ve seen many of the videos included, but not all. That’s true pretty much every year, actually. Still, I’ve posted some of them here, too because if I like a video, I’ll share it.

I almost posted the video below when it was new back in September. While the fact a video is an ad doesn’t normally stop me, I passed. It turns out it was one of the most viewed Kiwi viral video of 2013.

The reason I didn’t post the ad is that I thought it was fake—I have say I don’t know that it was faked, it’s just that it seemed too convenient. I watched the longer version, and nothing in it made it any more believable to me. So, because it struck me as an ad pretending to be real by pretending to be genuine social media, I didn’t post it.

What do I know? The video has now had over 4.4 million views, making it, according to YouTube, the third most-watched Kiwi viral video (the top two were not from New Zealand). Fake or not, people clearly like it.

And by posting this with my negative commentary, I think I’ve established, first, that sometimes I get the public mood wrong, and second, that even I have my limits and fakery and pretending to be genuine social media push beyond them. That’s not so much about his video as it is a forewarning for marketers in 2014—unless your video is really, really good, of course.

Duck smells

The thing about ducks is that they crap everywhere and make a big, smelly mess that responsible people have to clean up when the ducks are in human society. The responsible humans are missing.

I wasn’t going to say anything about the current froth-du-jour among the rightwing in America (and all over social media), the one about stupid things said by some guy I’ve never heard of who’s on some reality TV show I’ve never seen on a cable channel we don’t get. When the story first broke, I understandably couldn’t possibly have cared less. But then the hordes of stupidity began their march.

The issue was never about “free speech” and even less about freedom of religion. The thing is, if you say bigoted things, claiming it’s religious belief doesn’t make it any less bigoted. That annoying fact was entirely lost on the Stupidity Brigade. Maybe they just ignored it because it was an inconvenient contradiction of their imaginary persecution.

The duck guy is a raging bigot, not some nice guy who happens to have bigoted views. Because, as Josh Barro pointed out Business Insider, when people defend duck guy, “Here's What You're Really Defending”: Racism, bizarre xenophobia and vicious anti-gay bigotry. And Jeremy Hooper has posted even more bigoted statements by duck guy. It’s certain that more will be found.

I don’t know any true Christians who believe the crap spouted by duck guy, so I don’t know why any would try and justify his bigotry by claiming it’s a religious viewpoint. What he said was nuts, not religious doctrine.

But there’s something about this whole thing that smells fishy to me. A&E hired a guy whose whole shtick is to perform as a bigoted redneck, then the network is supposedly surprised when he says bigoted redneck things. They made him sign a contract to not bring the network—or the merchandise tied to it—into disrepute. When duck guy said milder versions of the anti-gay and racist bigotry he’s said before, they “suspended” him for violating the contract he’d signed.

A&E got to look concerned, got to be seen as upholding their supposedly inclusive values and standing up to bigotry. The far right in the US was, as they so easily are, in full spittle-flecked rage at “homofascists” and “the gaystapo” that, they screamed, were “trampling the First Amendment” (which was never at issue, though they don’t understand that fact) and “attempting to silence Christians” (by which they meant only the narrowest possible definition of “Christian”).

A&E knew that the Stupidity Brigade would stampede to Wal-Mart to buy branded merchandise to “support” duck guy, making even more money for A&E. So, they got to have it both ways: They gambled that when they inevitably reinstated their duck performer—as I believe they always intended to do—LGBT people would be angry but move on. Notice that the suspension had no specified time limit and, more tellingly, they never fired duck guy—the frothing Stupidity Brigade never moves on from any of their imaginary insults. A&E knows all that. They decided they’re quite happy to make millions by promoting racist and anti-LGBT bigotry and to pretend to to abhor both. Clearly, they don’t—not when there's money to be made!

Writing on Huffington Post’s “Gay Voices”, Michelangelo Signorile said:
“Challenging homophobia and racism is not just about ‘rights’ and ‘winning’ in courtrooms and legislatures. It's about what culture promotes and what's acceptable to make money on—what bigotry is clearly able to be marketed and sold to the masses who've been fed this crap for decades.”
The whole media circus riled-up the anti-LGBT bigots in the USA as nothing has since their eat-in at that chicken joint last year to “support” the anti-gay political positions of the company’s CEO. Not coincidentally, an anti-gay teabagger group announced another day at the chicken joint to somehow show “support” for duck guy. Clearly giving money to a notoriously anti-gay company is all it takes to show support.

The fact is, this whole thing was never really about free speech or religious freedom, but instead it was only ever about publicly hating LGBT people and feeling proud and justified in doing so. I don’t give a duck’s crap about duck guy, whether he’s really a redneck or what his religious views really are. What I care about is that a company makes millions by trading on bigotry and hatred and thinks that’s okay, and that so many Americans—who may be otherwise good and decent people—think that justifying bigotry by saying it’s religious belief is okay. Neither of them are okay. Ever.

This time, there were no responsible people to clean up the duck crap. How many young LGBT kids will hear all the duck crap splattered around by the frothing rightwing and think there's no hope for them to ever find happiness in a world filled with so much hatred? How many LGBT kids will kill themselves because of the extremist bigotry this circus unleashed? How many gay kids will be thrown out of their homes by parents newly emboldened and feeling not only free, but downright justified in using their supposed religious beliefs as a good excuse for sending their children out onto the streets to fend for themselves? Duck guy, A&E and their fellow bigots in the Stupidity Brigade will have blood on their hands because of this. Again. And that, too, is never okay and it is NEVER about "religious freedom".

The bottom line for me is simple: When it becomes legal to fire someone in more than half of the US states for being Christian, as it’s legal to fire someone for being gay, or when Christians are allowed to marry in only one-third of states, when Christians are routinely beaten in the streets or murdered simply for being Christian, when Christians are always called all sorts of vile names by people on television and radio and when TV news shows always ask paid anti-Christian activists to comment on whether Christians should be allowed any civil or human rights, THEN I’ll listen to the folks who claim Christians are being “oppressed” in America. THEN we can talk about how Christians need to be given more “tolerance” and how their “freedom” is being “denied” to them. But unless that ever happens—and it can’t when they’re in the majority!—then what I say to all the folks in the Stupidity Brigade—and A&E, too—is simple: Duck off!

And now you know why I really didn’t want to say anything about this whole stupid story.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

My assistant, Bella

My mother-in-law is coming to Auckland for a visit, so this morning I put fresh sheets on the guest bed. I turned around to grab the duvet, which slid off a chair and onto the floor, and there was Bella, in her little tent (photo above).

I worked out that she was trying to help me. The old sheets were on a different part of the floor and Bella moved over to them to keep them from flying away. Very thoughtful of her.

Later, I went to change the sheets on our bed, too, and Bella again kept the old sheets from flying away. I’m sure if I’d had any empty boxes she’d have been happy to sit in them to keep them from moving.

Bella has changed a lot since she first chose to live with us. Back then, she was prone to sudden and unprovoked attacks with teeth and claws. Not now. Instead, she’s become very affectionate and wants to spend her time with us wherever we are. She seems to adore us as much as we do her.

And, clearly, she’s also very helpful, too.

Driving around home

In a post yesterday, I mentioned how the USA has changed so much in the 18 years I’ve been gone. So, I decided to drive around my hometown to have a look—from my computer in Auckland, of course.

When I moved to New Zealand in 1995, the Internet was still just catching on. Only a few friends and none of my family had email, and there certainly was nothing like Skype or instant messaging. So, staying in touch took a long time (a week or so for a posted letter to get from there to here, a little less from here to there) or expensive (international long distance phone calls—interestingly, it was cheaper for me to call the USA than for them to call me).

This meant that the only way I could keep up with what was going on where I’d grown up or lived later in life was for people to tell me or to see for myself on my rare trips back to the US. The only way to see people was if they sent me photos or, again, if I visited. The Internet changed everything.

By the 2000s, I was able to email all my friends and family and I stopped sending posted letters. As the years progressed, it became easier and easier to communicate with folks in the USA—face to face, even. But there was one more tool that I hadn’t really thought of using before: Google Maps Street View.

Street View lets you “travel” down streets in many places in the world—including the town I grew up in. But it never occurred to me until this week that I could use it to “drive” around my town and see the changes for myself. Sometimes the most obvious things take the longest to realise.

My sister rang on Boxing Day (Christmas Day in the USA) and among other things, she told me about some development going on in the town I grew up in. I couldn’t picture where she was talking about. Then yesterday my friend Lynne left a comment on Facebook about some other changes and—again—I couldn’t picture where she was talking about.

Now, I should say here that my faulty memory wasn’t just because I haven’t lived in the US for 18 years, but also that I permanently moved from the town 31 years ago, and only visited a couple times a year (and only three times in the past 18 years). I think it’s understandable that my mental map of that town would be a bit hazy.

Yesterday, I decided to look on the Village’s website to see the projects that my sister and friend were talking about. I read about the one Lynne mentioned, and dug around to find out what my sister was talking about. It took me so long that I kind of forgot about the project Lynne mentioned (and that memory lapse is, sadly, age), but I saw a map of the project my sister mentioned—I still couldn’t quite work out where it was.

So, I entered the street on Google Maps and found it—it was sort of familiar, but not quite. I switched to Street View and then I recognised it (I’m pretty visual, actually). Then, I just kept clicking: I “drove” down one street, up the other side, then past one house my family lived in, then my friend Jason’s old house, then through the heart of town and on south out of town, past my dad’s church, and on to an area that was developed after I moved away (30 years IS a long time…).

I stopped only when my mousing hand started to get a bit sore. One day soon I’ll “drive around” some more (I still have to go back and look at what Lynne was talking about!), and other areas, too. It won’t be too much longer before we’ll be able to “drive” down streets as a continuous, natural movie-like thing, rather than clicking down the street, and that’ll be good, too.

Things have changed so much since I moved to New Zealand—not just in the town I grew up in, but also my ability to stay connected to it. I had two thoughts related to that. First, if this technology had existed back when I first moved here, I might never have developed the sense of detachment I’ve mentioned several times. Also, I saw all the empty shop fronts and imagined what it would be like to move back and run a business from one of them. If the first thing had been true, the second might have been, too.

But things are as they are. I grew away from my hometown—heck, my home country—precisely because I had no way to stay closely connected. Technology now makes it possible for me to be connected as I never was before. That’s good, but it really came a little too late for me.

Still, at least when I visit things won’t seem quite as foreign as they might have otherwise. And all because I was able to drive around the town I grew up in while still at my computer here in Auckland.

Friday, December 27, 2013

JibJab says goodbye to 2013

Only days left to finish farewelling 2013, so here’s another video, this one more humorous. The video above from JibJab looks back at 2013 as only they can. The YouTube description says:
How will Obamacare affect our nation? Did the NSA Scandal reveal a gross violation of our rights? And what exactly DOES the Fox say? A lot of twerk went into making 2013 a year we'll never forget, so enjoy Miley, Pope Francis, and even Carlos Danger in #WhatAYear: JibJab's 2013 Year in Review!
The lyrics to their ditty are at the link.

Arthur Answers Again, The Final Part

This is the final post with my answers to my latest “Ask Arthur” post. While this post concludes this particular series, I always welcome questions—but more about that later.

The first of today’s questions from Roger Green is about me and the future. He asked:

“Now that Illinois has marriage equality, what life situations would have you thinking about moving back into the US?”

The short answer is none—which isn’t that far from the long answer, actually: Career opportunity. For example, we might consider it if Nigel was offered a short-term work contract (I’m unlikely to get such an offer). However, in that case, marriage equality and my ability to sponsor him for a green card would be unimportant (because he’d get a sponsored work visa; this is similar to how I was able to move to New Zealand). If we wanted to live in the US for longer, or without being limited to one employer, then the whole green card thing would matter.

More important, I think, is that I’ve lived in New Zealand for more than 18 years now, so the country I left doesn’t exist anymore—not really—because it’s changed so much in the nearly two decades since I last lived there. So, it would be like moving to a foreign country for me, too. While I’m not too keen on the idea of starting all over again at my age, I’m even less keen when in so many ways it would be like moving to a foreign country again.

I don’t see that we’d gain anything by moving to the USA. Whichever country we lived in, we’d still have to travel to the other country to visit family, and with the same travel times and costs associated with that. If we were to move to the USA just to live there, we’d be giving up a stable and settled life to start over in foreign country and the only real difference is which family we’d have travel two days to visit.

So, marriage equality or no, the only thing I can see that might make us move to the USA would be if there was a career opportunity, which seems unlikely.

Next, Roger asked about my distant past:

“What is your ancestry? Have you, or a family member, ever done your genealogy, and if so, how far back can you go?”

My most immediate ancestry is mostly German, with some English thrown in the mix. Going further back there are hints of Swiss, more German, maybe even some other European ethnicities thrown in. Some of this is supposed rather than verified.

I did genealogy work starting during the Roots-inspired craze back in the 1970s. I began by writing down what we knew, then asking older relatives for information. And then I pretty much stopped because I didn’t have the time or resources to go to a research site—which in those days meant a building—to pour over microfilm.

An aunt had done extensive genealogical research and I had the chance to ask her about it. Unfortunately, she’d abandoned it many years earlier and forgotten most of the details. Still, I was able to ask her questions about her father and grandfather to kind of expand on what I knew.

Years later, I was living in New Zealand and bought genealogy software, entered all my data and in the process found information from others that meshed with my own (which is why some of my information is supposed rather than verified—I don’t have copies of their source data). I also began using the Internet to do research I’d been unable to decades earlier.

I’ve been able to document ancestors, at least partly, back to the early 19th Century for sure, some branches back into the mid-to-late 18th Century, and some possibly to the late 17th Century. Some of the earliest stuff isn’t fully verified yet, well, not to my satisfaction, anyway. But does anyone who’s not a professional researcher ever actually finish their genealogical research?

And that’s it for this “Ask Arthur” round. I may do another round in six months or so, but in the meantime, I always welcome questions in comments or by email. Sometimes I can answer in the comments, too, or else I’ll do a post about it if the topic is longer. In any case, don’t be afraid to ask.

Special thanks to Roger Green for playing along!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Boxing Day quiet

Today is Boxing Day, traditionally one of the busiest shopping days in New Zealand, if not the busiest. We didn’t go shopping—we went home.

As I said yesterday morning, we went to Hamilton for Christmas this year, and only overnight. We came home today and arrived about 28 hours after we left, giving us the rest of the day as a nice, relaxing afternoon at home.

There are, of course, good deals to be had in the Boxing Day Sales, but there’s nothing we particularly need or want at the moment, certainly not badly enough to brave the crowds and traffic. There’s already been a massive result for NZ retailers this Christmas season, with early reports today of clogged roads leading to malls. As we headed home, we saw an electronic sign warning us of massive delays at Mt. Wellington Highway, where the Sylvia Park shopping centre is. Fortunately, we weren’t getting off there, so that wasn’t a problem for us.

We had a good, if short, trip. We had good fun catching up with family, plus lots (too much) good food and drink. And, with an early start to the day and the festivities, Nigel and I were in bed by around 10pm.

Aside from all that, there were some other things that caught my attention this year. They were:
  • The newly opened stretch of the Waikato Expressway bypassing Ngaruawahia is fantastic. In fact, it’s one of the best stretches of motorway I’ve been on in New Zealand. There are two lanes in both directions, and they’re widely separated. The road is reasonably flat with great visibility. Mind you, it’s possible my positive impression may be because there wasn’t much traffic (I don’t think most people going to or from Auckland knew it opened on December 16).
  • I noticed that in Hamilton my mobile was connected to Vodafone’s 4G network (I recently signed up for a new plan that includes 4G, which my iPhone supports). I’ve never yet been connected to 4G here in Auckland. What’s that again about Hamilton being “behind”?
  • On the whole, drivers were pretty well behaved this year. We were in our local shopping centre on Christmas Eve and I noticed that the people there seemed to have taken leave of their senses—apparently unable to even make their way around a grocery store. Fortunately, they seemed to have regained some of their senses when they got back in their cars.
  • The weather outside was frightful yesterday, including some drenching downpours and also some strong winds—as well as some hot, sunny periods. But when you’re having a good time with family, it just doesn’t seem to matter.
  • Our dogs are the best in the world. They’re no trouble to travel with, and they even seem to enjoy it as much as people enjoy having them around. Can’t ask for better than that!
So, it was a good Christmas this year, the first in five years that we weren’t at home (I had to look that up—thank goodness I have a blog to record these things…). Now, it’s on to New Year’s Eve!

2013 Christmas Broadcasts

This year, I'm posting two Christmas Broadcasts. First (above) is the annual Christmas Broadcast from Her Majesty, the Queen of New Zealand (and other countries), which I've also posted in previous years. She speaks about “striking a balance between action and reflection.”

I know plenty of Kiwis who couldn’t care less about these annual messages, but they fascinate me. Maybe it’s because I’m foreign-born or something.

I wonder, though, how many Americans know that US Presidents do an annual message, too, as part of their weekly radio broadcasts that US Presidents have been doing for decades and decades. Nowadays, they’re also released as videos, so I thought I'd include this year's message in this post.

Below is this week’s Presidential Weekly Address, also released today (December 25 in the USA), and featuring both President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in a more casual message than is often the case for these messages.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas

It’s Christmas Day in this part of the world, and just like last year, it’s a rainy day. Oh, well. We’ll have a good day, anyway.

This year we’re going to Hamilton for the day to spend it with family there. Jake and Sunny get to come with us, which is good for everyone (they like their seeing their human cousins in particular).

Have a great day wherever you are and whatever you’re doing!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas from Apple

The video above is an ad from Apple called “Misunderstood”. It’s about, basically, a kid who is misunderstood, but who creates holiday magic. I think it’s a good ad. The fact that similar things can be done on other companies’ equipment is beside the point. Sometimes, ads can just be enjoyed.

Speaking of which, three years ago today I posted some of my favourite Christmas TV commercials. Pure coincidence, of course.

Arthur Answers Again, Part Two – Religion questions

Don’t ever talk about religion or politics! If I followed that advice, I’d never say much of anything. This time, it’s about me, though, so that ought to be reasonably safe, right?

This is the second part of my answers to my latest “Ask Arthur” post, which I posted last week. There’s still time to ask questions if you want: Just leave a comment on this post or on the original linked above (or my shares on Facebook or Google+).

So, today’s questions from Roger Green are about me and religion. First, he asked:

“Back in the day when you were a PK (preacher's kid, for your readers), was that a drag or a benefit or both, and how so?”

It was both. When I was particularly young, it was a benefit in that I got a sort of respect from other kids. This was particularly true at church, but in school as well. Later, when me moved to another town (I was 9, just about to turn 10), it was different. The town was pretty heavily Catholic, and they couldn’t care less that I was the son of a Protestant minister.

For some people at my dad’s churches, I could theoretically get away with a lot more than other kids, but there were also some who were all too eager to tell my dad about some minor infraction or other. Again, good and bad.

My mother used to say that kids would say to my brother, “my mittens are holey—oh! I mustn’t say that in front of you!” I always kind of doubted that story primarily because it’s not the sort of thing a kid would say, and no one ever said anything like that to me. Maybe she was just translating it.

Many years later, in my first couple years of high school, the kids (mostly Catholic, but some of other Protestant churches or nothing in particular) used to try and make fun of me by asking innuendo-laced questions, like, “Do you play the organ in your dad’s church?” I pretended I didn’t get what they were trying to imply and would answer with things like, “No, they pay someone” or “no, I can’t read music”. I had many different answers because they asked it several times.

Then suddenly, in my third year of high school—age 16 and 17—it just stopped: All the teasing, all the attempts to embarrass me, all of it just stopped. In fact, I left high school on reasonably good terms with some of my former tormenters.

Aside from that, there was no benefit or drawback to being a preacher’s kid. When I became an adult, people might be a bit curious about it, but only in the way they’d be curious about someone who had a dad with an unusual occupation.

Related to all this, way back in 2007 I got together with some of my fellow gay podcasters who were also preachers’ kids to talk about our experiences. That episode is still available.

Next, Roger asked:

“What is your take on religions? Is there one out there that says to you, ‘If I invested the energy into investigating that faith tradition, maybe I could be THAT?’ Do you see religions more as quite different, or variations on the same tenets?”

I’ve always thought that even religions that are seemingly very similar can actually be quite different, and in religion, even subtle differences can be deal-breakers for people.

As I was drifting away from organised religion, I “tried on” a few alternative belief structures. First it was Deism, primarily because of its rejection of supernatural hocus pocus. But it’s still theist and promotes the belief in divine creation of the universe, something I didn’t believe in even when I was a practising Christian.

For a brief time after that, I looked into Unitarianism, and for two reasons. First, like Deists, they reject most of the supernatural stuff of traditional Christianity. But, unlike Deism, they have churches and for a time I missed the fellowship of belonging to a church. As a bonus, they don’t usually insist members adhere to any doctrine.

Both of these were more of a way to deal with leaving organised religion behind than they were serious explorations of alternative religions. At the time, I thought that it would be easier to say I was something than that I was nothing. You could say that I was a closet sceptic.

The problem with these alternatives was their assumption that there is, in fact, a god, something I became increasingly sceptical about. A couple years ago, I wrote about my move away from religion (“The road from Damascus”). I rejected organised religion generally, and that means that no alternate belief system or religion had any appeal. On the other hand, I don’t say categorically that there is no god or gods—how would I know?—so I don’t look down on people who have religious beliefs or are members of a particular religion. That’s their business—as long as they don’t try to force their beliefs on me, of course.

So, I don’t personally have any use for organised religion, and I’m no longer reluctant to say so, and all of that means there’s no other faith tradition that could be of any use to me. But for other people, as comedian Dave Allen used to say, “May your god go with you.”

Repairing reality

History is what is—basically a bunch of facts. The problem comes with interpretation. Journalism, it’s often said, is the first draft of history. But what about when journalists mislead us?

The video above, part of The New York Times’ “Retro Report” series, tells the story of the lady who was burned by a McDonald’s coffee, sued and was awarded “millions”. I believed—because the new media told me—that the lady put the hot coffee between her legs and drove away. That wasn’t what happened. I believed—because the news media and politicians implied it—that she was merely inconvenienced by the incident and/or she saw it as a chance to make money. They were all completely wrong and deceived us.

The facts shown in the video above are very different from the news and political narrative we were fed at the time. She was not driving and, in fact, did what any number of us might have done. She was severely burned because McDonald’s insisted on keeping their coffee at dangerously high temperatures. And, all she originally asked McDonald’s for was for them to pay for her medical bills and some small recompense. The rest happened because McDonald’s refused.

Most of us also never knew that the amount she actually received was about 1/6th of what the jury awarded her, AND she was forbidden to talk to the media about it. Everyone else got to attack her in public and in the media, to assassinate her character, but the truth was lost.

This sort of thing happens all the time, with the news media getting stories wrong, politicians deliberately misleading people in order to score political points, and the rest of us being manipulated into believing things that aren’t true and supporting actions that aren’t warranted by the real, actual facts.

Here's another example: Slate recently ran “The Welfare Queen”, a long story about “Linda Taylor”, the Chicago woman that Ronald Reagan demonised as part of his campaign for the US presidency. The story Reagan told was embellished, as his usually were, but the real story was far, far worse: The welfare cheating was exaggerated, and nothing compared to the allegations of kidnapping and murder. Also, the demagoguery and implicit racism of Reagan’s version was all the more ironic because “Linda Taylor” was probably actually white.

What both these stories—the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit and the tale of the “Welfare Queen”—have in common is that the truth was lost along the way, partly through bad or lazy journalism, and partly through the propaganda spin of ambitious politicians. As a result, most of us ended up thinking things that weren’t true, and making assumptions that weren’t warranted by the real facts.

Sometimes, it’s possible to fix our perceptions when modern journalists start digging to uncover the truth. But with the constant cutbacks in newsrooms, how more likely is it that in the future there will be far more stories to correct?

When these stories were still new, it was impossible for people to investigate the truth themselves, and we didn’t know we needed to. Now, we have the Internet, and we know how under-resourced the news media are. We should question the news we read, especially stories that fit too easily into political or commercial narratives. Somehow, though, I think that’s unlikely to happen, and in the future we’ll still need to repair reality.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Arthur Answers Again, Part One

Last week, I posted my latest “Ask Arthur”, and now it’s time to start answering. As I’ve done before, I’m going to split the answers among several posts so they don’t get TOO long. This also means you still have time to ask questions of your own: Just leave a comment on this post or on the original linked above (or my shares on Facebook or Google+).

So, first question comes from Roger Green, who asked:

“OK – a possibly complicated one. How does the structure of New Zealand government assure Māori representation in national government? How does that work?”

The reality isn’t as complicated as the history, actually, but both take some explaining. First, how it works.

All Māori voters can choose which electoral roll they want to be on: The General Roll, which is open to all New Zealand citizens and permanent residents, or the Māori Roll, which is open to Māori only. Those on the Māori Roll can vote for MPs in their Māori Electorate (there are currently 7 of those, the number determined by the number of Māori enrolled on the Māori Roll). These Māori Electorates sit on top of, as it were, the General Electorates. Those on the General Roll can only vote for the candidates in General Electorates.

To understand how this all works in practice, it’s first necessary to understand our electoral system, MMP. The make up of Parliament is determined by what’s called the “Party Vote”. Each person votes for the party they want to form government: When seats in Parliament are allocated, it’s according to each party’s share of the Party Vote. All voters cast this vote, regardless of which roll they’re on.

Next, voters vote for the candidate they want to represent them in their electorate: General Electorate voters for their candidate, and Māori Electorate voters vote for theirs. The number of electorates a party wins—the total of both General Electorate and Māori Electorate—is then subtracted from the percentage of seats they should have based on the Party Vote.

If a party hasn’t won enough electorates, they “top up” with MPs from their Party List. If they’ve won too many, then Parliament has an overhang—extra MPs.

So, to recap, ALL voters vote for the Party they want, and this determines the make-up of Parliament (and who forms government). Voters also vote for a local candidate in their electorate, but which electorate that is depends on which roll they’re registered on, Māori or General.

The Māori Seats were established in 1867 by the Māori Representation Act as a way of ensuring Māori were elected to Parliament. At the time, only males who were 21 and owned property could vote, and since most Māori owned land communally one way or another, very few Māori men qualified to vote. For example, in New Zealand’s first general election in 1853, only about 100 Māori voted out of a total potential electorate of 5849.

The Māori seats were supposed to fix this by assuring Māori representation in Parliament, something many European politicians of the day thought was vital after the New Zealand Wars of the early 1860s. However, they only established four seats—three in the North Island and one for the entire South Island—when by proportion of population Māori should have had 14-16 seats.

The four seats lasted 128 years—from 1868 to 1996, when the MMP era began and the number of Māori seats was increased to five (it became six in 1999 and seven in 2002). The South Island still has only one Māori Electorate, but it’s also much lower in population generally, so has fewer General Electorate seats, too.

MMP was the result of the Royal Commission on the Electoral System, which believed that a proportional electoral system would make Māori Electorates unnecessary. However, being used to historical under-representation, Māori were sceptical and demanded—and got—the retention of Māori Electorates.

Since then, there’s been a steady increase in the number of Māori selected to the Party List for the main parties, and Labour (in particular) has several Māori MPs. The current party of government, the conservative NZ National Party, has pledged to abolish the Māori Electorates once all claims under the Treaty of Waitangi are settled, which they’d originally planned for 2014 (that date will not be met). Several other major and minor parties back abolition of the seats, but Labour and the Greens have tended to back retaining them until Māori themselves call for the abolition of the seats. The Māori Seats have never been “entrenched”, that is, they can be abolished by a simple majority vote in Parliament.

While the existence of the Māori Seats may look like a sort of political apartheid, their history shows that they were created and maintained as a way to ensure that Māori were represented in Parliament (and, more than a century later, on some local government boards, too). The move may originally have been motivated by condescension based on 19th Century prejudices and assumptions, but the seats did what they were designed to do.

The reality is that the two main parties—Labour and National—could have made the seats unnecessary decades ago if they’d made sure that Māori had proportional representation in Parliament though General Electorate selection of Māori candidates (and, later, high Party List placements for Māori candidates).

My opinion—and it is only that—is that the seats will inevitably be abolished, but only when the two main parties have higher percentages of Māori as MPs and in leadership positions (there has never been a Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition who was Māori, for example). Concluding the Waitangi Tribunal claims process also has to happen first, I think.

The current system was set up to address a problem, and succeeded up to a point. I think it’s worth noting that this representational system, for all its faults, was debated at a time when the USA was debating whether people who were of non-European ancestry were equal to citizens who were, and established when the USA was bedding-in Jim Crow laws. Very different countries, indeed.

I’ll have more answers tomorrow—and that’s not something I can say every day…

For further reading:
Setting up the Māori seats – Māori and the vote – NZ History Online
Change in the 20th century – Māori and the vote – NZ History Online
The Origins of the Māori Seats – Research papers from Parliamentary support, New Zealand Parliament
Māori electorates – Wikipedia (a pretty good overview)

What solstice?

The reason we have any seasons at all is axial tilt, so it is, quite literally, the reason for this season we are now in—the one with the holiday appropriated from pagan religion by early Christians. Yeah, that one. One marker of the seasons is the solstice—except downunder.

I should explain: Obviously the solstices (and equinoxes) happen in both hemispheres—they’re astronomical events, after all. However, I have never met anyone in the Southern Hemisphere who takes any notice of them.

I’ve talked about this many times before in the context of seasonal change, most recently on December 1 of this year in my post “Summertime”. That was the date our summer began, and that’s also when the weather was definitely summery. The same is true of other seasons, which also begin on the first of the month in which the other solstice or equinoxes occur.

For what it’s worth, the December Solstice was at 17:11 UTC on December 21, which was 5:11am today, December 22, our time. Clearly I didn’t acknowledge it, since I was asleep at the time.

As an expat from the Northern Hemisphere, getting used to upside down seasons was difficult, but adjusting to them beginning on the first of their respective months wasn’t. In fact, I remember a Chicago TV weatherman years ago used to talk about how the solstices and equinoxes weren’t good indicators of seasons since weather doesn’t necessarily correspond with them. After all, it’s not like the weather in Chicago, say, is mild then suddenly on December 21-ish BOOM! it’s winter.

Having said all that, the solstice does matter for one important reason: The days will now start getting shorter until six months from now when they start getting longer again. I like long days, so this ebb and flow is not one of my favourite things. That ol’ axial tilt at work again.

So, even though people here don’t pay much attention to a solstice like today’s, we’re still bound by it. As always, axial tilt is the reason for the season.

I created the graphic above for a post last year. I used an image in the public domain and claim no ownership over that image, however, the composition is licensed under my usual Creative Commons license.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Historic Year for Marriage Equality

Above is a celebratory video from the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER)—the people who got California’s anti-gay Proposition 8 struck down, enabling marriage equality to return to the USA’s most populous state. It reviews the good news AFER was part of in 2013—and 2013 was full of good news.

The ruling on Prop 8 was announced the same day that Section 3 of the infamous Defense [sic] of Marriage Act (DOMA) was struck down, but AFER wasn’t part of that suit, so it’s not mentioned in this video. What is in this video, though is a clear promise: AFER will keep at it until all 50 US states have marriage equality.

When I wrote about the end of Prop 8 and Section 3 of DOMA back in June, I said that I thought that full, nationwide marriage equality “could be decades from now.” Now, I’m not so sure.

Yesterday, the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favour of marriage equality. Today, a federal judge struck down Utah’s marriage equality banUtah! The fast pace is continuing, and even though the dust in those two states is far from settled, they’re hardly the last states where full freedom and justice will be won. In fact, the evidence is that if anything the pace of change will remain fast.

So, it may not take decades for full marriage equality throughout the USA. Maybe just one—or less.

Here in New Zealand, Parliament approved marriage equality on April 17. The new law took effect on Monday, August 19. I talked a lot about the fight for marriage equality in New Zealand; those posts are tagged “NZ Marriage Equality”.

Of course, 2013 was the year that Nigel and I got married, and naturally I blogged about that, too. My native Illinois finally passed marriage equality this year, too, and the Governor, Pat Quinn, signed the bill into law in November. Now, when we go to visit family and friends in Illinois, Nigel and I will still be married when we get there. That’s the sort of thing that heterosexuals never have to think about, but it’s important.

So, all around, this was an outstanding year for marriage equality—even better than last year, which was a great year. The future is even brighter.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Wonderful Christmastime

Christmas can be a wonderful season, whether one is Christian or religious or not. In most Western countries, Christmas is mostly a secular, commercialised extravaganza, and no religious belief is needed. Oddly, most of my memories are non-religious.

Our Christmas season began on Thanksgiving Day when my parents held what they called an “open house” for the members of the church council and their spouses. This was the closest I came to religion on Thanksgiving Day, because I wasn’t required to go to church (which was right next door when I was a little kid). Instead, I got to watch the Thanksgiving Day parades on TV.

The “open house” ran from just after the end of the service on Thanksgiving morning until early afternoon. My mother served coffee/tea, cookies, dips, crackers, that sort of thing.

Once the guests left, I was allowed to put our Christmas albums on the record player in our console stereo. We’d have our Thanksgiving dinner mid to late afternoon.

From that point on, I’d start bugging my parents about putting up our tree, and they always resisted because we had a real tree in those days and they knew it would dry out if it was up too long. Eventually, we’d drag everything out and decorate the tree—with those same Christmas albums playing.

When I was a little kid, I got to help a little with decorating the Church, too. There was a nativity display outside the church with fibreglass (or something) figures that were child-sized. They fascinated me. The manger was always empty until Christmas (my dad was big on detail). One of my sister’s baby dolls was the baby Jesus for a time, and I seem to recall she sat on one of the animals and broke it; well, that’s what was told to me, because I was too young to know about it at the time.

From as far back as I can remember, we went to church on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day (when I got older, we went to the late night service, which I really liked). My mother was adamant that us kids should be allowed to be home on Christmas Day to play with our new toys. So, I’ve never been to church services on Christmas Day, and it’s highly improbable that I ever will.

I don’t really remember much about Christmas Dinner, but I do recall having roast beef with Yorkshire Pudding, though I don’t remember if that was every year or just sometimes. Growing up, I didn’t know that it was unusual for Americans to have Yorkshire Pudding, and it wasn’t until I moved to New Zealand that I learned how to make it properly—and that my mother had made it all wrong (it was the cooking that was wrong, not the mixture).

Christmastime ended at our house on January 6th. My parents called it Epiphany, and it wasn’t a day I looked forward to. While I was away at school, my mother took down our Christmas tree by herself. She said she felt none of us should have to see the tree come down, I suppose because it would destroy some of the magic, or something. But between this, and insisting we stay at home on Christmas Day, she was clearly focused on making Christmas special for us kids.

As an adult, I kept some of the traditions. I started playing Christmas music on Thanksgiving Day. In fact, I still do that, though these days the music is all digital. But these days, that’s about it. We haven’t put up a decorated Christmas tree in years; instead, we have a stylised tree, but some years we don’t even put that up.

Over the years, some of the magic has worn off for me—particularly because I came to realise how much work is involved in decorating and un-decorating. Moving to the Southern Hemisphere also affected me: It took quite some time to adjust to a summertime Christmas, because it just didn’t “feel” like Christmas.

Christmas now is basically a family get-together. We don’t buy presents for the family (apart from Nigel’s Mum) or even each other, really, apart from a small gift.

All of this means that Christmas is really relaxed and easy-going for us. We don’t have the all the frenzied rush that so many others seem to, or the pressure, or the expense. We focus instead on what for us is most important—our own family and our extended family. And that’s pretty wonderful.

The video at the top of this post is “Wonderful Christmastime” by Wings from 1979. Quite frankly, it was never one of my favourites, but it was—and still is—catchy. The video—with its 1970s special effects—is pretty trippy, really.

This post was inspired, in part, by Roger Green’s “My iconoclastic Christmas”.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ask Arthur – again

This is my third “Ask Arthur” post, in which I invite questions that I’ll answer as honestly as I’m able to do. To paraphrase myself, questions might be about something I’ve said, something I haven’t said, or something you wish I’d said something about. Maybe you want to know more about being an expat, or even something about me or my life. Whatever—it’s up to you.

To ask me a question, simply leave a comment to this post, or send an email to the link on the righthand sidebar. While I try to answer questions in the order in which they’re received, I may group some thematically.

I first did this in December of last year, and then again in July of this year (and those two posts were the ones I was paraphrasing above). I guess this is a semi-annual thing. At any rate, this is inspired by Roger Green, who does “Ask Roger Anything” (“ARA”) posts.

I’ve always thought that Roger’s ARA posts are really interesting, so I thought I might try it as well. I’ve had some really good questions—including several from Roger, actually—and it’s been fun answering them. The truth is, there’s no such thing as a “bad” question, nor any that’s too basic or whatever, so no rules.

There are far more people who read this blog than ever leave a comment, so there may be some readers who prefer at least some anonymity. The Disqus commenting system I use is supposed to be set to permit anonymous comments (though I may have to approve them—which may cause a delay in some being posted due to time zone differences). If you prefer, email me your question and tell me to keep your name secret (although, why not pick a nom de question?)

Anyway, this is all a bit of fun, really, and given the busy time of year we’re in, I may not get any questions at all. That’s fine. It really is just a bit of fun.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013: What Brought Us Together

Time for another year-in-review video! This one includes some more recent things than some of the others I’ve posted. That’s particularly good, since annual review videos at this point of the year are often premature. So, this video is arguably a little less premature. We hope.

I think this video is well-made, with good editing and sound in support of the film’s narrative, described best in in the YouTube description:
“A six-minute tribute to some of the moments, people and stories that 'brought us together' this year, from tragic to triumphant, challenging or inspiring. Here's to 2013.”
I kind of doubt I’ll run across any more videos like this or, if I do, that I’ll want to post them, though if I find a year-end video that’s especially good, I’ll have to (actually, that sort of rational is behind a lot of what I post). We’ll see—so to speak.

Tip o’ the Hat to Joe.My.God.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

G’day mate

Being a long-term expat means inevitably adopting the ways of the new country. That means food, customs, manners and language, including—maybe especially—slang. There’s one word used in NZ that I just cannot use: Mate.

A mate is a friend, an acquaintance or a complete stranger. In my personal experience, women may use the word sometimes, but it’s more likely to be used by men and usually to other men. It’s a casual form of address, a generic term of casual acknowledgement or one of sincere friendship. All that may sound confusing, but it’s actually not, and it’s not why I won’t use it: It’s the sound.

The word mate trips easily off the tongue for Kiwis and Aussies, but I think it sounds downright weird in my accent (such as it is…). So, I only say it when I’m goofing around, usually in an affected accent, a broad fake Australian accent or one of the more pronounced Kiwi dialects. Even if I say “gidday, mate” it’s in a light-hearted way.

You could say that I’m being overly self-conscious, and if you do, you’re not wrong (to use another Kiwi slang phrase). But why that particular word is so singularly adept ad making me uncomfortable when so many others don’t is beyond me. Maybe it’s the long A vowel sounding particularly American to me—no, that seems unlikely, since I still pronounce most of my Rs.

Young Kiwis often use the word bro instead of mate. I don’t use that one, either, but in that case it’s more an age thing than anything else.

I know other American expats who use the word mate freely: “Cheers, mate”, “good to see you, mate!” and so on. Not me. It seems no matter how assimilated I become, that’s one word too far.

And that’s it for this post. Mate.

Mockery well-earned

The comedy video above is called “Colin Craig Says Words - The Opera”, and I think it’s funny—particularly because it quotes Colin’s loopier statements verbatim. So, thin-skinned, humour-challenged Colin will probably threaten to sue. He’s threatened to do that before, after all.

The video is on the YouTube Channel of Robbie Ellis who is on piano (the tenor is Andrew Grenon). Ellis has done several videos, some humour, like this one, with Grenon. Since New Zealand television has no political comedy shows, I think people doing videos like this is a great thing.

But, of course, Colin kind of lends himself to mockery. Just today itw as announced that TVNZ is being forced to apologise to Colin because the Broadcast Standards Authority ruled that back in April the “Seven Sharp” TV show was mean to poor little Colin—sniff, sniff! It was, in my genuinely held opinion, one of the most boneheaded decisions the BSA has ever issued. The BSA doesn’t seem to understand humour and satire any more than Colin does.

Colin is a public personality because he leads a party and is still being seriously talked about as a potential prop—sorry, “coalition partner”—to keep John Key in power. As a political figure, Colin has to expect harsh criticism, satire, mockery and belittling. It goes with the territory. If he can’t take that, then perhaps he should reconsider whether he wants to even be in politics. It’s his choice, after all.

A few weeks ago, I said about Colin, “Dude’s not crazy”. I stand by that, despite Colin’s best efforts to prove me wrong, as evidenced by his nuttier statements (some of which are in the video). The thing is, even his nutty statements are similar to things said by radical right politicians and activists in the USA, though they usually don’t put things in quite the way Colin has.

The upside of all this mocking of Colin is that it makes it less and less likely that he can ever be taken seriously. And, all the better, Colin himself is providing the comedy material.

Dancing on the bench

The radical right has contempt for the legal system—unless they win a court ruling, in which case they dance a happy jig and exploit if for full propaganda value. Then, they reveal more than they intend.

Two rulings in two different countries have filled the stony hearts of America’s anti-gay industry with utter happiness—especially coming after a relentless string of defeats. But as they dance their happy rhetorical dances, they’ve shown us how dangerous and bigoted they really are.

The first ruling was from India, which inexplicably reinstated a British Empire colonial-era law that criminalised gay sex, something that had been struck down years ago. That law was enacted in the 1860s—in the USA at that time, people of African descent weren’t even humans in the United States, but mere property. To normal people, such antique laws are relics of the past best left behind—but that’s not the way the radicals in the anti-gay industry see it, of course.

The leader of one extremist anti-gay group, who is reportedly an attorney, and who has the appropriate last name of “Bull”, declared, “India chose to protect society at large rather than give in to a vocal minority of homosexual advocates… America needs to take note that a country of 1.2 billion people has rejected the road towards same-sex marriage, and understood that these kinds of bad decisions in the long run will harm society" [NB: The link goes to Joe.My.God., where the original source can be accessed; I never link to wingnut sites]. It’s not obvious to normal people, but what he’s actually arguing for is the re-criminalisation of homosexuality in the USA. That is, in fact, a common argument among far right “Christians” who see that as the magic answer to stopping marriage equality. Somehow.

A bigger happy dance was done with a ruling in Utah that struck down part of that state’s law against polygamy. They’re crowing about how this somehow “proves” they were right about their imaginary “slippery slope”. I honestly don’t know if they know they’re lying or are too stupid to know how utterly wrong they are.

The Utah ruling was based on the right to privacy, NOT the right to marry. States have no right to regulate the private behaviour of consenting adults, and this ruling merely affirmed that. In essence, Utah became the 50th state to legalise unmarried cohabitation— as Joe.My.God. put in several posts—and that’s it. The parts of the law that prevent people from claiming more than one legal spouse were NOT struck down, so polygamy is still illegal in Utah—not that you’d know that from the propaganda put out by the radical right.

One prominent wingnut website founded by a now-dead far right crackpot headlined their piece on the ruling, “Judge cites same-sex marriage in declaring polygamy ban unconstitutional”. Those are utter, complete and total lies: Same-sex marriage was NEVER mentioned in the ruling, and the ban on polygamy was NOT “declared unconstitutional”. Ah, those pesky facts again!

I’ve talked about this in several posts, so rather than linking to them all, here’s the real truth the radicals don’t want anyone to know: Since the first legal recognition of same-gender relationships became law in 1989, no country has legalised polygamy—NOT ONE. Also, none of the increasing number of places with marriage equality have legalised polygamy—NOT ONE.

Among the 50 countries that do have legalised polygamy, none have any legal recognition of same-gender relationships—NOT ONE. Moreover, 37 of those 50 countries criminalise homosexuality, including some with life in prison or even death sentences. If there’s a link between homosexuality and polygamy it’s actually that to support it, you must also be really anti-gay.

So, one has to be either a wanton liar or a complete idiot to argue that marriage equality “must” lead to legalised polygamy because it never has anywhere, and the countries with it are very anti-gay.

The fight for marriage equality has always been about equal access to the rights and responsibilities that marriage gives to couples. Because polygamous relationships are complex compared to marriage, legalised polygamy would require and an entirely new institution. This is because issues like taxation, guardianship, inheritance, next of kin status, etc., would be different for multiple spouses than for a couple. The radical right bloody well knows this, too.

Nothing the radical right claims is ever quite what it seems. When they dance their happy jig over a court ruling, it’s mostly about the propaganda spin they can put on it and how much money they can hoodwink otherwise decent people into giving them. But it does at least let us see how filled with prejudice, bigotry and hatred they truly are.

The anti-gay bigots on the far right can dance on the court bench all they want, but that can never turn their lies into truth. At least it’s easy enough to see what the truth really is, and how much the radical right hates that, too.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Flashback: New Zealand in 1949

The video above is the most recent uploaded by Archives New Zealand, “Weekly Review No. 384 (1949)”. It’s been a long time since I’ve shared one of these archival films, and this one caught my eye for a personal connection.

The third segment, “H.M.N.Z.S. 'TAMAKI'.... YOUNG SAILORS” is about training for the New Zealand Navy. I’ve had many relatives in my New Zealand family who have been through that training, though the most recent had more modern training methods and technologies, of course. Still, it’s interesting to see how it used to be done.

I also noticed that these films are being released under a “Creative Commons Attribution licence (reuse allowed)” license, a change I'd missed, and at the very end the video says, “Please Comment on, Share and Remix this film.” When Archives NZ first started posting videos to their YouTube Channel, the films carried a “Standard YouTube Licence” which doesn’t expressly permit reuse. There was also no request to remix their films. They began releasing under the Creative Commons license about a year ago, the invitation to remix began sometime after that.

Two and a half years ago, Google announced that it was allowing Creative Commons licensing as an option, but no one was required to do so, of course. The licensing allows more creativity as people make videos using CC-licensed footage (some of it simply stock footage).

I think this is a great thing. I abandoned a video project that used free stock footage because of the increasing amount of false copyright claims being made. Having ready access to Creative Commons film—especially when shared within YouTube itself—will make it easier to defend against false claims, and that’s a really great thing.

Australia needs grownups in power

Australia has a conservative government, but its problem is its childish prime minister, Tony Abbott, who insists on imposing his conservative religious beliefs on the entire country. Australia needs the grown-ups to take over.

This past week, the high court in Australia ruled that the marriage equality law in the Australian Capital Territory (the A.C.T. is like the District of Columbia in the USA) was invalid because the federal parliament alone has the constitutional power to allow same-sex couples to marry. That’s the result of ex-Prime Minister John Howard, who in 2004 used marriage equality as a scare tactic to win support for his conservative government, just as Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman did in the USA to help George Bush and the Republicans.

The video above is from Get Up! Australia (the same people who did the stunning “It’s Time” video) and shows some of the couples who married in the brief time it was legal in the A.C.T., before the court ruled that the marriages were all invalid. I don’t know why the court allowed the marriages to proceed when Abbott’s government filed its court challenge, which everyone expected to succeed; I hope that there was simply no provision in Australian law for the court to issue an injunction, because otherwise it was deliberate and gratuitous cruelty on the part of Australia.

Since the court ruling, there have been renewed calls to push for marriage equality in the Australian Parliament, but there remains one huge obstacle: Tony Abbott. Abbott, who once studied to be a Roman Catholic priest, is adamantly opposed to marriage equality, which puts him at odds with a majority of Australians—including his own sister, who is lesbian. He doesn’t care.

In 2012, the Australian Parliament rejected a marriage equality law when Abbott’s rightwing Liberal/National Coalition voted as a bloc against the legislation, even though that sort of legislation is usually a conscience vote (as it was for the then-ruling Australian Labor Party).

Malcolm Turnbull, communications minister in Abbott’s government, has suggested that there might be a conscience vote and, if there is, marriage equality will pass Parliament. Naturally, Abbott had to discourage any suggestion that he might tolerate freedom of conscience in his caucus. Instead, he reiterated that he supports “the traditional position”.

Abbott sometimes goes out of his way to give LGBT Australians the finger. This past weekend, Abbott sent a note to far right “Christian” politician Fred Nile (appropriately enough, his name rhymes with “vile”) on the 79-year-old old bigot’s re-marriage. Nile’s long been among the most disgusting anti-gay bigots in Australia, prone to spewing all sorts of hatred. His first wife died less than two years ago, and Nile was taking a new wife who is 23 years younger than him (Nile's children are "hurt and upset" at the marriage so soon after their mother's death). So, Abbott saluted the bigot Nile and his much younger wife for "publicly acknowledging your love for each other". But he won’t allow a conscience vote that might make it possible for same-gender Australian couples to similarly be able to "publicly [acknowledge their] love for each other.”

Tony Abbot has a special kind of prejudice and bigotry, one in which he insists on forcing his own rightwing religious beliefs onto all Australians, while at the same time giving a good ol’ Aussie “get stuffed” to those who disagree with him.

Australia is increasingly isolated on this issue: Canada, New Zealand and England have all have adopted marriage equality, as have a third of US states and the US federal government for federal purposes. Australia is looking increasingly old-fashioned at best, and downright silly at worst.

So, Australia needs the grown-ups to take over to move the country forward, not just on this issue, of course, but the childish stubbornness of its prime minister is most evident on this issue. Sadly, I think Australia will have to wait for a change of government, or, at least, a more sensible prime minister. Only when the grown-ups are in power will we see any advance of Australian fairness.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

YouTube Rewind: What Does 2013 Say?

The video above is a pretty over-the-top revisiting of this year on YouTube—the videos that were hot and the people who made them. While I posted some of them on this blog, or at least, other videos by the same people, others I haven’t even seen.

Still, it’s kind of a fascinating glimpse into what was popular in 2013.

Food adventures

Today I had some food adventures, a Kiwi classic reborn and the return of a specific kind of cuisine. The results were mixed.

McDonald’s is bringing back the beloved Georgie Pie pies to New Zealand, slowly rolling them out across the country. As it happens, one of the locations with the pies was near to where we were today with Nigel’s brother and his two daughters. So, we stopped there for lunch so I could have a pie.

I mentioned Georgie Pie way back when this blog was still new, but the gist of it is that McDonald’s bought the Georgie Pie chain so it could get the good locations for its own fast food outlets, then it closes the rest and kept the intellectual property under lock and key. Every time there was a serious talk about bringing back Georgie Pie, and someone suggested that McDonald’s had abandoned the brand since they’d done nothing with it in the many years since buying it, McDonald’s would claim to be working on something.

At the moment, they only have the Georgie Pie’s Steak Mince ‘N’ Cheese (this mince is what we Americans would call “ground beef”; you can also get lamb mince, pork mince and chicken mince in supermarkets). The pastry was really nice, baked well and flaky, and while the filling tasted good, the pie was only about half full, which was a real disappointment—especially because the pies cost many times what they did when the brand disappeared. While I might try one again sometime, I certainly won’t be in any hurry. Ones from petrol stations are often at least as good (and cheaper), and the reincarnated pies are certainly not as good as the original Georgie Pie was.

Tonight we all went out for dinner to Abruzzo Italian Ristorante in Birkenhead, which only opened a few weeks back. It’s right next door to a Greek-influenced Mediterranean restaurant that also serves many Italian dishes.

I had their Margherita Pizza, as I often do at such restaurants, and while the cheese was great, the base and sauce were good, it was no better than any other I’ve had; in fact, others are every bit as good or better. However, one of us had the Fegatini Marsala, “Sauteed chicken livers with mushroom, onion, sundried tomato in a garlic marsala sauce,” which was said to be awesome. I think everyone else was underwhelmed by their meals. Still, we’ll try it again, though I think I’ll try something else next time.

The service was good and attentive, and, it must be noted, there were attractive young men on staff there. That never hurts.

For many years after I moved to New Zealand, there was an Italian restaurant in Birkenhead. Before I got a chance to go there, they closed and a Japanese restaurant opened in the location (I did try the Japanese restaurant and didn’t think it was very good—and I like Japanese food a lot!). While I like Italian food, I seldom think of going out for it (which is why I never got to the former Italian restaurant).

Birkenhead has a growing selection of restautants and cafes serving all sorts of different kinds of food from all sorts of ethnicities (there’s even a nice tapas restaurant with food that defies easy categorisation). This is a good thing, in my opinion.

So, today’s food adventures were of mixed success. Since we’re both on summer holiday now, I think we’ll be able to try a few more that we’ve never been to, and that’ll be fun—I hope!

Religious privilege

The thing about privilege is that those who have it can seldom see it, but those who are victimised can see little beyond their oppressor’s privilege. We very often see people with privilege demanding ever more from society precisely because their privilege leads them to expect it.

The cartoon above depicts the benefits that a white man has received for being white. He’s blithely unaware of his privilege, thinking he’s “never benefited from racism”, even though he has. It’s a simple and clear way to see how privilege works, and why people can’t even see how they benefit from it.

As it’s used in discussions of politics and society, privilege is a special right, advantage or immunity available only to a particular group. In that cartoon, we see non-white people consistently being treated differently—the white people enjoy rights and advantages that non-white people do not.

When we come to expect those special rights, advantages or immunities, then we are said to be entitled. This expression comes from the fact that when one deserves something—like, say, a tax refund—one is entitled to it. In the same way, when people expect that the goodies they receive because of their privilege ought to be given to them, then they have a sense of entitlement.

We talk of privilege and entitlement most commonly in discussions of race and gender, but increasingly rightwing religionists are acting on their particular sense of entitlement. In the USA, far right “Christians” are demanding special exemptions to human rights laws so they can discriminate against LGBT people (although, based on their logic, there’s no reason they shouldn’t also be able to discriminate based on race, gender, religion and so on). The rigthwing religionists insist that if they’re not free to discriminate against LGBT people, it somehow takes away their “religious freedom”.

What the rightwing doesn’t want anyone to think about are the numerous ways in which religious people currently operate from a position of privilege. Overt public expressions of religious belief are not only acceptable, they’re often expected—and sometimes even required.

For example, a US president—or politician who wants to be president—must end every speech with, “God Bless You,” even if no one's sneezed. Anchors and reporters on mainstream American TV news shows think nothing of talking about “keeping them in our thoughts and prayers” when reporting on victims of tragedy. Professional sports people often point skyward as a religious homage. Recipients of entertainment awards thank their god. All of that is expected and approved of in society; even if we sometimes roll our eyes at the over the top religiosity of the sports or entertainment performers’ fawning, we nevertheless accept and expect it.

In some places in the US, religious groups place overtly Judeo-Christian displays on public property and become angry if it’s suggested that, just maybe, religious liberty requires that monuments from other religious traditions and non-belief must be presented, too, or none should be. Their outrage is based on their sense of entitlement born of their privilege.

Imagine if a music award recipient said, “I’d like to thank hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, without which life would be impossible.” Suppose a politician ended a speech with, “bless yourselves”. We can’t imagine that being done seriously, and we know the apoplexy that would result if it was done seriously. This demonstrates the extent to which rightwing religionists already control our thinking and attitudes.

This sense of religious entitlement is so pervasive in the USA that if someone openly bucks overt religiosity (regardless of their personal beliefs), they become a pariah, and the rightwing brands them as “intolerant”. So, without a hint of irony, rightwing “Christians” demand that their privilege be enshrined in law so that they alone are free to do as they please. That’s entitlement based on privilege, and has nothing whatsoever to do with “religious freedom”.

The vast majority of religious people in the USA are somewhere between secularists and theocrats. Like the white guy in the cartoon above, they may be unaware of their own privilege, or their acceptance of others’ privilege, but, in either case, they’re unlikely to advocate active oppression of others. Still, lack of awareness doesn’t mean they don’t have privilege, nor does it mean they don’t have a sense of entitlement to try to force their beliefs on others, even if only subtly, and even if only on some specific points.

Where does this leave us? Well, for one thing, it leaves secularists—religious and not—unwilling to say anything, nor to object at being subjected to others’ religiosity. That creates a sense of validation among the entitled religionists who assume that lack of objection means universal agreement, and it emboldens them to demand ever more special rights based on their religious beliefs.

Obviously, no one can do anything about being born with privilege, so the fault is not in having privilege; rather, the problem comes from embracing it and acting from a position of entitlement. True equality can never happen when some of us demand to be more equal than others, and that’s true regardless of the origin of their privilege.

We must find a way to embrace diversity or we don’t have a prayer, so to speak, of eliminating prejudice and bigotry. No one should get special treatment based on their privilege, no matter how entitled they think they are.

“The Story Of Bob And Race” and the comic “Ampersand” are by Barry Deutsch and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Evening walk

Tonight family members and I went for an evening walk on Milford Beach on Auckland's North Shore. I'd never been there before.

The Island in the background is Rangitoto, and the black rock on the beach in the foreground was lava from the eruption that created Rangitoto centuries ago. I think it's a nice spot.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Auckland views: From Birkenhead Wharf

Yesterday was a beautiful, sunny and hot summer day in Auckland, and I had to runs some errands. So, I decided to swing down to the harbour to take a couple photos. These are two of them.

The photo above is the Auckland CBD (and Auckland Harbour Bridge) as seen from Birkenehad Wharf. Well, technically, it’s next to the park which is next to the wharf, but still. I visit the spot several times a year, because the view of the city is pretty good.

The photo below is of Chelsea Sugar Works, a place I posted about several years ago. This was also taken near the wharf. A guy who I used to work with went wind surfing there and said there were often sharks because of the sugar in the water. Well, that’s what he told me, anyway.

I’m planning on sharing more photos more often to better show some of my Auckland and my New Zealand. I haven’t done enough of that so far, I don’t think, and yesterday was too nice a day not to share.

Is NZ still ‘Godzone’?

One result of the recent NZ Census that was most eagerly awaited was on religious affiliation. Would New Zealand become majority non-religious? Or would believers of all sorts still make up the biggest grouping?

People who (like me) said they have “No religion” was up 26% from the previous census in 2006. Now, 1,635,348 New Zealanders said they have “No religion”, which is just under 39% of the total.

The number of people identifying as Christian of one sort or another declined about 8% since 2006, but with more than 1.8 million people, they make up about 44% of the population. Collectively, Christians make up the largest segment of NZ society, even though in real life many of the sub-groups can’t stand one another and share nothing more than the self-identification as “Christian”.

Christians of all sorts have a plurality in New Zealand, but the next largest group—and closing fast—are those with no religion. However, as I always caution when discussing this topic, “no religion” is NOT the same thing as atheist, agnostic, etc. In fact, many of these people may have religious beliefs (Christian, for example), but they don’t adhere to any organised religion. The census doesn’t ask people to self-identify as atheist, agnostic, etc., so we don’t know what the true extent of non-belief is in New Zealand.

Nevertheless, the appeal of organised religion—the traditional ones, anyway—is clearly fading. The biggest Christian denominations—Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian—all decreased, while the number of Pentacostals increased, as did the adherents of Hinduism and Islam, these two because of immigration. Interestingly, for the first time in New Zealand history, there are now more Catholics than Anglicans (Presbyterians were the third largest grouping among traditional churches, with Methodists a distant fourth; Lutherans, the church of my childhood and youth, make up just under one tenth of one percent).

What all of this tells us is that when it comes to religious belief, there’s no one dominant group in New Zealand. For now, Christians of all sorts make up the biggest single grouping, but those with no religion will likely pass them up within the decade.

This does not tell us about people’s religiosity, however. Instead, we have to look at their behaviour, like, for example, that Kiwis routinely reject expressly or implicitly religious political parties, and that regular attendance at church services is declining, leading denominations to sell off even historic church buildings that no longer have a viable congregation. Taking all of this evidence together with the census results, it’s clear that New Zealand is a very secular country, even if a majority of its people still self-identify with one religion or another. This will not last forever: NZ will eventually be majority non-religious—just, not yet.

The nickname “Godzone” is a corruption of the phrase, “God’s Own Country”, which was frequently used by Richard “King Dick” Seddon, NZ Prime Minister 1893-1906. It’s still used, but infrequently, and never with religious connotations.

Update 19 December 2013: Eric Crampton posted on Twitter that "There are 19,089 self-declared Jedi in New Zealand," according to an email to him from Statistics New Zealand. The option of choosing "Jedi" was promoted by diverse groups of people including not only atheists/agnostics, but also those who reject organised religion (whatever their personal beliefs), those who oppose even asking about religion and those who simply like to mess with the system. This grouping is far larger than many established religions, but Statistics NZ doesn't take the declaration seriously. Frankly, I don't think that's their call and they ought to be more transparent in their reporting of data rather than making it necessary for people to ask for it.