Thursday, November 25, 2010

Disasters are God's way of telling us we're not the centre of the universe

My respect for John Key just went up another notch. I knew he was a canny politician, from his performance over The Hobbit. But now I'm also inclined to respect him as a manager.

Throughout the Pike River disaster, Our Leader has kept a conspicuously low profile. (It helps that he's been out of the country most of the time.) Not for him the theatrics of Chile's President Pinera, who practically ran his administration from the site for the duration, or even President Obama during the Deepwater Horizon fiasco. No, Key was happy to let others take the heat. When the media wanted a politician, what they got was Gerry Brownlee, the charisma-less minister for energy. But most of the time, the face on our screens was a haggard-looking Peter Whittall, CEO of the company.

And Whittall did an outstanding job. His stress and distress were obvious, but his control was even more so. He fed the facts clearly and promptly and accurately to the insatiable media. He answered the obvious, frustrating questions ("What are you waiting for?") calmly and with infinite patience, and consistently refused to be drawn into the stupid questions ("Whose fault is all this?").

But after the news broke, yesterday, of a second explosion, and the story turned from drama to disaster - then Key took the limelight. He was grave, he was direct, and best of all, he continued not to discuss blame. There would be inquiries, he said - several of them - but until they had some answers, he wasn't going to start speculating.

It's probably Whittall we have to thank that the only casualties were the people trapped. There are any number of ways he could have killed more people. He could have rushed rescuers in earlier; he could have failed to explain his reasons for not doing that, which might well have prompted someone to act behind his back. Or he could have looked too calm and detached while explaining, which could have had the same effect. But he did none of these things. And the politicians let him.

Compare with President "I want to know whose ass to kick" Obama during Deepwater Horizon - he took the opportunity to stir up anti-British xenophobia, lambasted Tony Hayward for Being Unsympathetically Foreign, and prompting the company to replace him with an American. Neither helpful nor constructive.

I'm thankful, at this point, to be living in a country where politicians don't feel they have to be seen to run everydamn'thing personally. There's a time to kick arse, and a time to let people get on with it. Key has shown that he can stay out of the way when it counts. That means the Peter Whittalls of this world can do their jobs.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The population density school of lit crit

One of my favourite writers is Kazuo Ishiguro.

For a while after I read The Remains of the Day, I wondered what it was that gave a Japanese-born writer such a deep, sympathetic insight into the character of his all-too-English narrator. Okay, so Ishiguro is English by naturalisation, but still - his understanding of Stevens' mentality is infinitely more insightful than that of almost anyone I know. In just two generations, it seems, the "servant" mindset has been, pretty much, completely erased from British culture.

When I read An Artist of the Floating World - one of my favourite books - the mystery began to clear. Because that story is almost exactly the same, but for the teensy details that it's set in postwar Japan, rather than postwar England, and deals with a distinguished artist and patriarch, rather than a never-married butler. Those differences don't really amount to the proverbial hill of beans, compared with the similarities.

Why, I mused, did English society have so much in common with Japanese? On the face of it, it would be hard to identify two cultures that have had less opportunity to influence one another.

The answer I came up with can be boiled down to one word: population. Both Japan and England are densely populated, and they're both islands (well, technically England shares its island with a couple of other small nations, but let's gloss over that for the moment). That fact means that in both countries, it's very hard to forget that land (room, space) is a very limited commodity.

And that, I hypothesised, gave rise to two cultures in which "manners" play a very important role. You know that you're always going to be living very closely with other people. Therefore, it makes sense to follow fairly rigid social rules, even if those rules are not enforced.

Compare and contrast with grossly underpopulated countries such as the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. Wide open spaces foster the illusion of personal independence and autonomy, the belief that the individual is somehow sovereign and has the "right" (whatever the heck that means) to ignore what others think.

My theory is that if you could come up with a way of quantifying the degree to which "manners" and "formality" are valued in a society, you could then plot that value on a graph against population density, and it would show that the more people are crammed into a limited space, the more likely they are to understand the need to get along with each other.

Granted, there's plenty of counter-examples. Big-city-dwellers, from Paris to Los Angeles, are proverbially rude and unsympathetic. But they are rude, principally, to outsiders - that is, to people who are not familiar with the city's protocols. People born and raised in the city seldom make that complaint, because they understand the reasons for city manners and values.

Values such as "keeping a stiff upper lip". When you live in a community of a thousand people, and you know by sight just about everyone you meet from day to day, it makes sense to share your feelings and support one another. When you live in a city of a million, it's a different story. No-one wants to go through every day, getting drawn into the lives of another random selection of strangers who happen to be going through rough times today. Hence it's important that people learn not to show their feelings in public, out of consideration for others.

And these are the sorts of values that Ishiguro's protagonists cling to, failing to realise that the societies around them no longer understand this need. The war has mixed everything up, and now they find themselves surrounded by people from different backgrounds who no longer understand how the old ways came about, and consequently have no respect for them.

It's a haunting and tragic story, both times. Ishiguro conveys sadness and regret like no other writer I know.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

At least it's not a tabloid...

If you're not in New Zealand, chances are slim that you've heard anything about the Wellington Declaration.

But here in the middle of the sea, we're pathetically grateful when the Great and Good, in this case in the shape of Hillary Clinton, deign not merely to notice us, but to pretend for a few minutes that they give a damn' what we think about anything. (If that were true, the Fed wouldn't have announced yesterday that it was deliberately devaluing the US dollar - sorry, I mean "reinvigorating the economy" - by printing an extra $600 billion.)

The press release celebrating the Wellington Declaration is thin on detail, and the Herald's coverage does nothing to improve matters. We're treated to a description of Mrs Clinton's dress and a blow-by-blow account of her reception (which leaves me thinking someone must have mistaken her for the president); then we get to the political insights of Steven Beban - an 18 year old 'Wellington local' who has never been to the US, but he has an Obama poster.

Seriously. If you've read the above paragraph, you now know as much about 'Steven Beban' as I do. There's no suggestion of why anyone should believe a word he says.

It's nice of the Herald not to overburden our poor provincial little brains with any actual facts or analysis. Discussion of what 'co-operation' might mean, how it reconciles with our oft-reaffirmed 'nuclear free' policy, how the new relationship will differ from the existing one, what exactly New Zealand is likely to get out of so lopsided a deal - well, who knows? Not the Herald, that's for damn' sure. As far as I can tell, they haven't even tried to find anyone who might have so much as thought of these questions. They've reprinted the press release (and the text of the "declaration" itself), and called it a story.

Welcome to small-country journalism.