Thursday, 22 December 2016

The false meaning of Christmas

’Tis the season to be sappy. Twee cartoon reindeer and Santas, pointy trees and beribboned boxes, tinsel wreaths and spray-painted snow, and above all, inescapably, in every shop, that dreary treacly music that is the aural equivalent of sitting in a bath as it goes lukewarm. The fact that late December is midsummer in New Zealand gives all the doggedly wintry imagery an extra edge of falseness. You can tell that people are feeling it, because the other thing you get this time of year is movies and TV specials offering to reveal the true meaning of Christmas, which evidently is hard to find otherwise.

Well, if it’s hard to find, then the true meaning can’t be money worries and time pressure. Which is pretty much what Christmas is nowadays, if you’re an adult: a time to lavish gifts and food and hospitality on your friends and family or they’ll think you don’t love them. Even that wouldn’t be so bad, if only the gifts were things that were useful, beautiful, thought-provoking or informative. But no. As George Monbiot recently noted, businesses ravage the environment and sweat poor workers half to death so that we can present each other with

a solar-powered waving queen; a belly button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub holder; a “hilarious” inflatable zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle... a Scratch Off World wall map... An electronic drum-machine t-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped iPhone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog...

Monbiot’s right. These things amuse us for a day or two and then we compound the damage done in their manufacture by adding them to the world’s overflowing landfills. They end up in the ocean. Plastic doesn’t rot. Tools exist that we can use to clean it up, but not at the rate it keeps arriving. And once we’ve cleaned it up, what do we do with it? Burn it, and release the carbon to the atmosphere? Another bad idea. The best I can think of is to recycle it as building materials – say, underfloor insulation – since that’s at least something we would like to have last forever.

It’s become a kind of society-level addiction: better to buy cheap plastic crap than be that one guy who doesn’t give Christmas presents. And of course, the more people who behave like this, the more of a Scrooge you’ll look like if you don’t join in as well – ironically, considering Dickens’ original Scrooge was motivated by profit maximization just like the businesses foisting the cheap plastic crap on us. I don’t know how long the cycle of guilt and cheap plastic crap would go on if it weren’t regularly given a kick along by all the advertising.

This commercialism has even managed to infect the “true meaning” stories. Back in 1956, Ted Geisel (aka Dr Seuss) could write How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, in which the townsfolk of Whoville wake to find all their presents and decorations gone and still sing for joy that it’s Christmas. Contrast that with the 2011 movie Arthur Christmas, whose plot-driving problem is that a single present has fallen off the sleigh, destined for a child who already has lots of presents from her family but will apparently nevertheless be absolutely devastated if she doesn’t get something from Santa as well. Hear that, parents? Better nip out and buy one more just in case.

Monday, 5 December 2016

A big news day

Whoa. I should write to world leaders more often!

Yesterday there were two big, startling pieces of news, and for a change both of them were good news – if you happen to share my political views. The Dakota Access Pipeline has been stopped at Standing Rock. And John Key has resigned as Prime Minister of New Zealand.

I don’t imagine, of course, that the e-mail I sent to President Obama and posted on this blog last week had anything to do with the first piece of news. (Well, that’s not technically true. I do imagine it, because it’s a nice little ego boost, but I don’t seriously imagine it.) The people who won this fight are the Water Protectors who stood their ground so long and so bravely. If you asked me to guess what changed the state’s mind, my best guess is the army veterans who pledged to stand with the protesters. Armies are held together by honouring loyalty and bravery, and you can’t honour loyalty and bravery and also point weapons at veterans from your own side.

The Standing Rock news is cause for celebration – for now. It’s not the end of the war. The Pipeline will be put somewhere else, not scrapped altogether, which is good news for the Lakota people and their water supply but not great for stopping climate change. And there will be more pipelines to come. This time, Donald Trump didn’t get his hands on the situation. Next time will be on his watch. It will be worse than this one. But for now, we can celebrate.

John Key’s resignation I’m not so positive about. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good news for my side. Not that Key is an unpleasant person as National leaders go; he’s always presented himself as a cheerful, friendly, down-to-earth Kiwi bloke. That’s why his resignation is good news, because that persona – I’m not committing myself to any hypothesis about how genuine it was – has been the cornerstone of the National Party’s election strategy for over a decade, and now they’re going to have to come up with a new one. One lecturer a couple of years ago pointed out that whenever the Government was getting criticized in the news it was always some other minister facing the cameras, but whenever they were getting praised it would be John Key we saw. The lecture in question was on Machiavelli. I’m just putting that out there.

No, what concerns me about John Key resigning is the why. All indications up till now, including Key’s own public statements, were that he intended to run for a fourth National term in Government and, if he got it, to lead it through. The only reason he gave yesterday was that he wanted to spend more time with his family, which if you’ve watched any political dramas you will recognise as Politician Blackmail Avoidance 101. But what kind of pending scandal would spook the man who, in 2014, won an election with a book about him titled Dirty Politics fresh off the press?

It surely can’t be coincidence that National just lost a by-election to Labour in Mt Roskill, by a landslide comparable to those we recently had in Canterbury – and that National apparently had no plan for winning it. But that just compounds the mystery. What happened in Mt Roskill? Why has the National Party suddenly lost its will to fight? There is something going on here that we haven’t seen yet. And, much as I want National out next year, it bugs me that my country’s government can be thrown off balance by things that the public don’t get to see.