In The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett allows Queen Elizabeth to discover reading (“it was the corgi’s fault”) which eventually leads to her abdication so that she can devote herself to writing. Well, that didn’t happen. We are celebrating the Queen’s platinum jubilee this weekend after her 70 years of dedicated service to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. But the written word can lead to (or herald) change, which may have been Bennett’s point. Examples include both the Old and New Testaments and, many centuries later, the Qur’an. To effect change, however, the written word needs a fertile ground - an environment ready to receive the words - as well as a way of bringing that word to the masses.
In the late 15th century, a priest called Heinrich Kramer was urged by the Vatican to write a book about witches. The (religious and political) establishment of the time was keen to divert the attention of the masses away from itself. The preference of the establishment was to focus on its own privilege, wealth, and power - this could always be improved by lying and being brutal to everyone else. People were kept uneducated which allowed false information to be accepted as truth.
And there was a means to enable Kramer’s false words to ricochet around the known world - the printing press had just been invented. Kramer’s book Malleus Maleficarum ‘described’ witches’ secret night-time rituals that allegedly included witches eating children, their sex with the devil, and the deadly mayhem they caused to the wider community. The torture and execution of witches was described and authorised. For 200 years the book was the second best-seller after the Bible. The church manipulated a craze for controlling, hurting, and killing women at a time when the plague was reducing the nobility's control over the lower classes and feudalism was breaking up.
Here we are in the 21st century with great change happening as the information revolution explodes. People are again divided into the very rich, powerful, and privileged (the establishment) and everyone else (including those who feel stripped of agency, who are dissatisfied with people in power). And we have another global pandemic.
In their book The Sovereign Individual published in 1997, William Rees-Mogg and James Davidson prophesised the birth of a new stage of Western civilisation off the back of the information society.
Having been around the establishment for most of my working life, I can almost understand how this type of backlash might have come about (albeit in a bizarrely twisted form). The officials in central and local governments, some politicians, and even the people who lead NGOs, are generally averse to change and are often unresponsive to need. They benefit from the status quo just the way it is.
Establishments also feel more in control when they can keep uppity women in their perceived place by either ignoring them or making up rubbish about them - hence the total rubbish about Mrs Clinton designed to discredit her and take away her power. The establishment players can then feel big even if they are operating in very small ponds. Who wouldn’t want to keep hold of that once they’ve found it?
I recently tried to read Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel The Power of the Dog (made into an award-winning film which is readily available to the masses) but gave it up as a bad job even though I, like the Queen, believe that we should finish a book once we start it if we can. To me, this novel describes people behaving badly, especially towards women, and hanging onto a sense of power by any horrid means possible. Its hard to stomach.
While I was writing my latest novel Becoming Just: Book Two of the Becoming Chronicles, I wondered if it was too cynical, too 'days gone by', too fanciful. Because we live in a kind world now, don't we? A world founded on tolerance and mature reflection. A world that applauds diversity and inclusion; one that aims to redistribute wealth and power, because we are only ever as advanced as our least well-off.
And there I was writing about intolerance and greed; the military industrial complex and power wielded badly by men (and I include some women in the use of that term).
But, just as I was finishing the novel, Russia invaded the Ukraine, Afghanistan imposed new restrictions on women, and all the signs indicate that America is about to emulate Afghanistan and tell women what they can do with their bodies. No mature reflection or tolerance in sight. Many significant displays of power wielded badly by men.
About the same time, I was reading Laurie Frankel's novel, based on fact, called One, Two, Three which is all about men in business and in politics joining their forces of greed to ruin towns, people and their future children.
Turns out, Becoming Just is not nearly cynical enough.
Have you come across the podcast series called Pod Save America?
One of their pods, alarmingly called Attack of the Racist Babies, centres on the ordeal of Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as she was interrogated by nasty white Republican senators. Judge Jackson is the first black woman to ever be nominated to the Supreme Court. An institution with the power to improve the lives of the population it serves.
During the interrogation, it became clear that the senators want to ban interracial marriage, access to birth control, transgender transitioning, and gay marriage. One of the podcasters succinctly said that if the Republicans got back into power “they will fuck with your life if they win. They will fuck with who you are, who you marry, what you look like, what you do with your own body, what kind of health care you can get, how easy it is for you to vote and whether your vote will even count”.
Non-Republicans were held up in this podcast as people more likely to be tolerant of different cultures and ways of living and being.
I thought of a recent conversation with a friend over mugs of tea and the demands of Michael, a small black and white cat, about how to define the term cultural competency. There is a lot written in New Zealand about how we can be culturally competent in our work lives by understanding the ethnic cultures of clients and co-workers, pronouncing names correctly, speaking a little of their languages, and being respectful of their social mores.
Cultural competency could also be broadened in scope from ethnicity to include sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, disability, and other types of culture.
At this personal level, cultural competency seems to reflect those age-old principles of tolerance and understanding. And at an organisational level? Cultural competency could incorporate a lot more.
Staff hiring practices could reflect back to the country our ethnic, gender, disability and other composition: 17% Māori, 8% Pasifika, 15% Asian, 24% disabled and so on. Check out some statistics.
And remuneration could be fair. You wouldn’t want to see, for example, a disabled transgender employee being paid about half the salary of an able-bodied heterosexual employee who was doing the same job.
And power could be shared. Facilitating a diverse workforce is one thing. Allowing diversity to be reflected around the senior management table is another. Cultural competency may never be more than lip service if decisions cannot be made in true partnership with other cultures in our community.
Some protests define nations
Protests and civil unrest were a feature of my youth. Most notably, I marched the streets of Wellington in the 1981 Springbok Tour riots wearing the all-important accessory of a motorcycle helmet. Near Parliament grounds in Molesworth Street, we were beaten and bloodied while our Prime Minister was in London attending the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.
At a test match held at Wellington’s Athletic Park a couple of months later, for one night, we blocked the motorway exits into the city as well as road and pedestrian access to the park.
Nearly 1% of our adult population marched in protest of apartheid and racism between July and September 1981. It stimulated debate about New Zealand’s own racism and the place of Māori. It was a ‘coming of age’ moment in time.
Others achieve little but help us let off steam in a peaceful way about something that scares us
Another notable protest in my youth was at the women’s peace camp at the Greenham Common base in Britain, housing American nuclear weapons. In December 1982, 30,000 women joined hands around the base at the Embrace the Base event.
My favourite media memory from that time is an article dismissing our message because we were, apparently, “lentil-eating lesbians”.
The last missiles left Greenham Common in 1991 because of a Treaty signed between the Soviet Union and American, designed to facilitate de-escalation. The peace camp remained at the base all that time but is unlikely to have had any influence on the achievement of the international Treaty.
The women who stayed at Greenham Common all that time, however, were peaceful. They were passionate about having a voice that promoted a positive future for their children and grandchildren, like climate change activists today.
Other protests are counter-intuitive and counter-productive
In the Middle Ages, it is estimated that up to 200 million people were killed by the plague. That disease is thought to have originated in East Asia, then carried across Western Asia, Europe, and Africa by fleas on the backs of rats. Once humans were infected, it spread person-to-person as a type of pneumonia and, in some cases, a type of blood poisoning.
Protests were common. Many people - probably most people in those unscientific times - lashed out at powers they could not understand.
Wellington’s Molesworth Street is once again the site of protests.
As in the Middle Ages, this so-called anti-vaccine mandate protest is merely a mingling of conspiracy theorists, thugs, and people who lack the power of rational reasoning and comprehension.
But there aren’t many of them. New Zealand has an adult population of 4 million now, which means that we’d need to see 40,000 people protesting (whether in Wellington or across the country) to achieve a 1% turnout.
There are not that many people protesting: there is only a small handful of the most disenfranchised and anti-social that can be found in all societies.
Some are sad and some are scary thugs who say and do horrible things. Many are unlikely to be able to earn an income, so the vaccine mandate is probably irrelevant. Most will have difficulties with comprehension, reading, and analysis.
They have nowhere else to be, nothing else to do, and no one to do it with. But they are having their day in the sun holding the rest of New Zealand to ransom.
Let’s not be held to ransom. Let the media not bother to cover their protests on the news anymore - they are not news! Let’s shut down the social media accounts they use to spread messages of misinformation, hatred, violence, and abuse. Let’s shut off their welfare benefits because, clearly, they are not looking for work if they are sitting in a tent in the grounds of Parliament – and looking for work is a requirement for receiving some benefits.
Let’s turn our faces away from them and refuse to engage with people who remain in the Middle Ages.
So, a young New Zealand woman goes to Afghanistan in the middle of a global pandemic affecting eight billion people, gets pregnant, and then gets shirty when New Zealand’s border rules (which had been in place for nearly two years) make it hard for her to get back into the country when she decides she is ready to come. She makes a fuss very publicly, while millions of other people around the world are quietly coping with the separations, difficulties, and pain created by the pandemic. She slams the government. And then slams them again when they advise us that they’ve offered her flights (but they didn’t suit her) and offered her consular assistance (which she didn’t take it up). How dare they talk about her publicly, she protests!
Wow, the self-entitlement of brainless people is astounding. And no sign of any sense of self-responsibility. The idea of self-responsibility is one that is much espoused by right-leaning folk - but only when it refers to other people, not themselves.
Around the same time this arrogant display of self-interest was made much of on New Zealand’s television news (it must have been a slow news day), another story popped up to slam the government. A more-than-middle-aged rich farming couple (one of them wearing an enormous string of pearls) faced the camera to bang on about how they can’t get people to drive their harvesters because of our border controls and how it will lead to food shortages. Oh pe-lease.
First (I’m ticking these off on my fingers) all right-wing business people worth their salt believe in self-responsibility. I feel certain that they would’ve worked out a couple of years ago that labour might be short during a pandemic and thought up inventive ways to entice people to train up and work for them. They could pay them good wages, for example, and provide free accommodation. They could even have capitalised on the government’s free training schemes for people who want to learn to drive heavy machinery, by shoulder tapping recruits.
Second, this well-padded (in more than one way) couple is clearly concerned about their bottom line which (see point one) they could have done something about anyway.
But to blame the government? What utter rubbish.
What really interests me is the way these stories were told on national TV as if they were fact. There was no attempt to take an even-handed look at the stories. Rita Skeeter would say “is all as it seems”? Another step on the slippery slope of New Zealand journalism’s slide into misinformation – the sort that all dictatorships and fascist regimes love. We have so much to look forward to.