‘You say that you hate Max Key, but I think you mean you hate most 20 year olds’
I can’t help but think that Max Key would be far less despised if he was gay. At least we’d see him as an unthreatening, liberated party boy rather than the son of a popular, skilful, trickster Prime Minister. Twitter becomes angry any time he does anything public, so his recent Remix Magazine photo shoot justifies our Freudian hatecrush, whose exposure of exposed muscular chest has ruined our libidos.
This is desperation and helplessness under a popular National Government in action: unable to influence politics, we target our frustration at political leaders and their children’s appearances, bodies and accents in a way we would normally scream body/ fat/ slut/ class shaming.
I’ve always found it ironic in how my political and generational contemporaries react to Max Key’s vanity. There’s arguably little difference between Max Key’s Instagram account and photoshoot with our exotic holidayed, bikini bod and sunbathed leg shot, locally-sourced prosecco potluck, LP-playing, cycling weekend-infested Instagram and Twitter accounts. The digital generation and anyone digitally savvy enough readily indulges in promoting their political, musical, fashion, cooking, sport and sexual tastes, but at the same time are equally motivated to simply share and live publicly, even if they’re occasionally overbearing.
Yet, perhaps we too easily rely on promoting our personal political brand values in direct opposition to those we despise, like the Ya Ya Club or Max Key. They have become lightning rods for everything we despise – privilege, wealth, inequality and even lung cancer. There’s a degree to where I can understand why progressive values often fail to gain public traction. Often the loudest supporters appear to be just as shallow and mean as those they claim to oppose. If Max Key is truly an awful garbage person, then we all are; we just do it with less money and promote different political and consumer lifestyle choices.
His faults can far more easily be blamed on media culture. A social media personality with dreams of stardom is behaving just like we would expect him to and his name is viral on social media and news outlets thanks to politically-motivated rage, while Remix Magazine and George FM are commercial media outlets motivated to increase their audience share and profits. If the arts and media are driven by infotainment and networking, then find solace in the Radio NZ/ Guardian bubble or learn to live with all forms of media. Oppose the system that gave X Factor NZ on Air funding and keep this in mind when the inevitable Max Key reality TV series gets commissioned. The heart of this matter is that fanatical fury and condescension against a socialite son of a Prime Minister will not defeat the National Government and usher in a new age of equality and justice, nor would any of us appreciate being in the position where we are an extension of our parents’ actions.
My greatest fear about Red Peak was that it was less a popular movement and more of a brand logo for the Grey Lynn Farmers Market. A middle class gang-patch for expats residing in London flats and New York lofts. Despite a media-savvy social media campaign to get it on the referendum ballot, it only achieved 8.7% in the first round. Red Peak appealed to people like myself, my friend group, and social media connections. Inner-city suburbanites living in restored villas or bungalows who tend towards organic and/ or vegetarian diets, cycle to work, and profess cosmopolitan social values and centre-left to radical and green politics. The downside of this is a bubble mentality. Too often, we naturally assume the superiority of our lifestyle choices and superior thinking and tastes as opposed to the poor choices and tastes of others. We frequently mock ‘their’ cul-de-sac outer suburban, ‘meat and two-vege’ eating, Holden-V8 driving, Dan Brown-reading, privilege unchecking, Lockwood flag-voting lifestyles. Though our interaction with them only truly extends to family, snark, or appropriation of ironic cultural or fashion trends, we demand that, in order for things to improve, that they change their tastes, beliefs, and flag aesthetics.It’s the equivalent of gentrification but applied to whole swathes of the population.
Surely, our greatest delusion was the failure of the Red Peak social media campaign to translate into a popular movement. We overestimated the contribution that Facebook, Twitter, and the online petition made to the public discourse. We Facebook posted the latest Guardian, John Oliver clip, or Pencilsword piece on the flag debate to great applause from our social bubble but not beyond it. Likewise, Twitter merely served the debate equivalent of sniper showdowns between Twitter personalities that the public by and large weren’t following. Most people don’t generally use Facebook or Twitter to debate politics but to reinforce their online identity – something we ‘politically engaged’ do with left-wing Red Peakism. This is not new, as last year’s Green voter ‘ballot selfies’ was part of a long line of examples of reinforcement rather than outreach. If we seek to change hearts and minds, talking about ourselves isn’t the place to start.
Red Peak has come to represent a symbolic divide between an upper-middle class social bubble and the public at large. Though our passion for Red Peak is genuine, we misread the situation because we can be insular and sometimes condescending about towards those who don’t share our tastes. Red Peak is probably not going to become the NZ flag in the future if the next referendum fails. Any new designs that are truly agreeable must not only be shortlisted by a more open panel of qualified designers and historians, we must also confront the reality of where New Zealanders’ aesthetic sensibilities lie. If we are genuine about our social media promotion of Red Peak for the greater good, we cannot assume that our ideas are superior. If we merely engage with those inside our bubble, ideas like Red Peak are merely middle class gang patches for our own social media brands rather than visual symbols that represent everyone.
A sweeping change is occurring in NZ politics and John Key and his staff have failed to see it coming. Normally, the timeline would go: Key accuses Labour’s advocacy for New Zealanders resident in Australia imprisoned on Christmas Island as siding of rapists, murders, and paedophiles, the left and media challenges his figures and ethics, our political lizard brains choose a side, then it disappears from the news. The public don’t like criminals and, like with the working poor and welfare recipients, ‘criminals’ tend to lack the money, organisation, well-financed think tanks, and media influence to fight back. This time, Key and his staff indirectly picked a fight with women, resulting in a parliamentary protest by female MPs who took issue with this claim, some of whom had experienced sexual assault, some of whom were removed followed by a walkout from the chamber by female and male MPs. Key and his staff misread the situation and were blindsided by the changing role of women in politics and society.
Women’s political and economic clout is becoming much stronger. Now comprising 31% of Parliament, women have a greater voice from a powerful platform. This is especially focused on advocacy for legislative, judicial, and societal action against gender violence. Studies estimate up to 1 in 3 women and girls have experienced sexual violence. Yet, the link between violence and gender is still taken far less seriously by politicians, judicial system, and the media. The lack of action over Roastbusters, closure of a Christchurch’s only rape crisis centre, and the continued popularity of Tony Veitch can attest to this. However, where mainstream politics are failing, new media and social media are are transcending traditional power structures, with the power to make normally unseen videos and quotes go viral. Most notably, satirical coverage by Last Week Tonight is transforming Key from a lesser known world leader to a gaff-prone buffoon not merely on copyright infringement and embarrassing flags, but also sexism. Expect to see John Oliver tearing apart Key again next week as well as more astute political tactics like last night.
While it’s easy to sneer at the stereotype of the hypersensitive, privilege-scorning feminist, opponents are on the wrong side of history. Politically-speaking, Key and National have no choice but to adapt conservatism to incorporate modern feminism. Minister for Women’s Affairs Louise Upston’s notion of meritocracy and hard work are no longer acceptable to a growing number of women who have experienced and realised a great undercurrent of discrimination and are rightly offended when the Prime Minister indirectly accuses victims of sexual assault of supporting rapists and paedophiles. National has proven willing to similarly discard Don Brash’s ideas on racial equality to work with the Maori Party out of sheer necessity, so can and must inevitably make overtures to feminism.
Part of this transformation begins with the tone of parliamentary debate. The withering put-downs that we political obsessives love are ultimately ‘boy politics.’ The spectacle of parliamentary debates that we prize – the shouting, grunting, cat-calls, and insults – have all the civility of a single-sex grammar school. A culture descended from traditionally male-dominated politics may be growing increasingly out of touch with public attitudes. The Crosby-Textor-style of conservative political communication – an approach whose strength of black and white logic ultimately appeals to public fear – has failed to comprehend human acknowledgement of harrowing experiences. The emotionally-charged scene of MPs standing up to the Speaker, revealing their own experiences of sexual violence, and then being denied a voice is a sign of things to come and Key would be wise to acknowledge this – even at the expense of pleasure and praise for well-crafted, parliamentary pantomime.
The seven year old me would be relishing the NZ flag debate. I was a flag nerd who owned several flag books who could draw the Bhutanese dragon flag from memory and collected all the flag stickers from Chiquita bananas for their world flag map competition. But as an adult I’m seized with ambivalent shrugs. Looking at the official longlist of 40 designs, they symbolise some uncomfortable truths about how we creatively and personally limit our imaginations as a country.
Firstly, half the designs are by seven people including five each from two people. Most of the multiple submissions are variations on the same idea. I’ve observed a common problem with many creative arts decisions in New Zealand: a predilection for a few favourite go-to people at the expense of a greater spread of diverse, original ideas. Secondly, there appears to be very few female designers involved. Perhaps flag nerdery is more the mainstay of boys like myself, but this is hardly representative for a national symbol. Thirdly, the overwhelming reliance on Kiwiana motifs – waves, koru, Southern Cross, Silver Fern, even a DOC logo stretched out like a Pierre Cardin belt buckle – lacks imagination and resorts to John Key’s ‘brand NZ’ ideal. This, I believe, reflects a deep national insecurity towards the arts and creativity where we undervalue the inspirations unique to the New Zealand experience that have found success worldwide in favour of bland variations on formulas adopted from overseas – hence why 90% of local TV and radio content is merely Mediaworks reality TV shows and their cross-promotion through Mediaworks radio synergy. It is apt that this week Jemaine Clement criticised New Zealand TV as terrible and companies of having no interest in making good comedy. Perhaps we want an idea that we think the rest of the world approve of. This could have been a unique opportunity for real designers to showcase artistic, accessible ideas rather than a public flag-sourcing exercise that has made us a bit of an international joke. Strangely, most of us are probably proud that John Oliver simply mentioned us rather than be embarrassed that we were the target of a mocking takedown in two Last Week Tonight segments on the flag debate.
That being said, there is one flag that visually and culturally stands out for me: Wākāinga/Home. Created by design agency Studio Alexander, the blue triangle symbolises the settlers, the red triangle and white shape as Maori heritage and the latter a stylised Maori meeting house, and black for strength and optimism and is shaped to resemble our mountainous landscape. This design is truly unique; the visual equivalent of a Flying Nun song on a soundtrack to an adaptation of an Eleanor Catton novel starring Jemaine. To be in the shortlisted four would give real creativity a fighting chance and anyone wanting to reclaim the debate from aesthetic choices that collectively equate to a Kiwiana knicknack shop exploding onto canvas would be well served rallying behind Wākāinga/Home. The seven year old me would have been proud to felt-tip pen sketch this flag.
“Fortunately, I discovered that taste and style were commodities that people desired”.
–Lawrence Jamieson, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
The Northland by-election win is arguably Winston Peters’ greatest political triumph to date. Winston has outlasted governments since Muldoon and though repeatedly pronounced politically dead has always defied expectations. Even Labour and Green supporters – who can remember his anti-immigration rhetoric towards Asians and Muslims – have forgiven him and enthusiastically cheered for a Winston victory as a political necessity. Winston’s opponents have repeatedly underestimated him as as a populist, racist demagogue, which defies the complexity of who he is.
Winston is the heir to the Muldoonist mantle of paternalist conservativism. A self-confessed admirer of late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, Winston’s conservatism espouses state as a key driver of the free market, state ownership of key assets, hardline law and order policies, and strong restrictions on immigration. This style conservatism appeals to the remnants of ‘Rob’s Mob’ – people who don’t belong in either the neoliberal National Party and socially liberal Labour Party.
Winston’s strategic skill is also evident in his ability to channel populist outrage – often appealing to our worst nature. This is similar to Silvio Berlusconi and Benjamin Netanyahu, with elements of John Howard and namesake Winston Churchill. All have had tumultuous careers of early rapid rises to political power, embarrassing downfalls, being written off, and eventually achieving political redemption – all amid accusations of varying degrees of corruption, racism, vanity, and/ or dictatorial tendencies. Each has had excellent perception of how to appeal to and/ or incite popular outrage. Howard won the Australian Federal Election win in 2001 through demonising asylum seekers. Netanyahu won the recent Israeli election against the odds by uniting the right wing vote through invoking fears of the Arab voter turnout and suggesting an ISIS move into Israel if the opposition won. Winston is the Berlusconi without the money or sexual excess. Netanyahu without the extremism. Howard without the dorkiness. Winston would probably prefer to see himself like Churchill: a man of destiny, perpetual gadfly, with a whiskey in one hand, a cigarette or cigar in the other, and a mental rolodex of apt quips for any occasion.
Yet sensing the growing acceptance of immigration, Winston has channeled ongoing suspicion of foreigners into land ownership and partial privatisation of state assets. This makes him palatable enough for those on the left to vote for him in Northland or NZ First party vote strategically without feeling guilty.
Equally important is his charismatic, caddish charm that the public loves. Winston reminds me of Michael Caine’s Lawrence Jamieson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – the con artist who would comb the French Riviera for wealthy heiresses to charm out of their money under his alias of an exiled Eastern European prince. Something appears amiss, we instinctively and rightly distrust him, we’re inevitably upset when we realise the ruse but, like Fanny Eubanks of Omaha, we can’t deny that he oozes charm, taste and style and that the romance was thrilling. In that regard, the NZ general election in 1996 and the subsequent National-NZ First coalition was a Winston long con. All his subsequent comebacks confirm that not only has he has not stopped being ideologically and publicly relevant, but we’re still captured by his charm and the adventure he provides, despite the chance that he’ll take us for another ride.
I’ve refrained from saying anything about Auckland’s infamous Ya Ya Club – the high society banquet club – because it wasn’t worth an evening at the pub typing over several pints. However, this week social media crusade has flared up, this time over the ‘Bal Du Monde’ event featuring ethnic world-influenced fashion costumes which many have denounced as racism and cultural appropriation. Far from me to defend this group, I find some of our broader motivations in our sneer and dislike somewhat misguided.
Our existing hatred towards the Ya Ya Club reflects a common problem among modern leftists in imbuing individuals and groups with a power and mythology they lack, and this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve complained. John Cleese, in an excellent 1980’s political party broadcast, suggests we often justify our righteous anger at individuals and groups because they are the source of evil. In this case, the Ya Ya Club is treated as the cause of socioeconomic inequality rather than a symptom. They provide a proxy through which to express our hatred towards John Key and the ‘rich pricks’, like similar social media snark towards son Max and daughter Stephanie. Rather than focusing our time and energy on the complex task of how to reduce inequality, it’s easier and more instantly gratifying to play a perpetual game of political whack-a-mole. Ironically, Ya Ya Club members behaviour is more simply explained as the predictably behavior of many children who were raised wealthy. They have more access to money and spend it on luxury items in which they flaunt. As I have written in the past, a common affliction among the modern left is, living in a free market democracy, we treat all decisions – whether fashion tastes or political opinions as consumer ones and a matter of personal choice rather than the result of class and/ or cultural upbringing. We treat Ya Ya Club members as making the wrong political and luxury consumer choices compared with our superior ones without a consideration of class culture.
Us politically engaged left leaners are hardly immune to the flaunting of our exquisite tastes either. Politically, our Facebook posts and tweets against the Ya Ya Club too often contain an underlying narrative of “I am against bigotry and I need as many people to know this as possible.” – itself a branding exercise. There’s also a hypocrisy from many critics’ anger at Ya Ya’s glamourising consumer wealth. Consider how many of us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook celebrate our consumer choices: the bottles of Bollinger, the food selfie from an expensive restaurant, and the exotic beach holiday. To an extent, Ya Ya Club is not dissimilar to one of our Instagrammed potlucks, but with more money and therefore a better venue, more famous guests, and more likes.
The claims of racism and cultural appropriation also run a huge risk that potentially ensnares ourselves – something I’ve been concerned about social media calling out for some time. High fashion photo shoots and runway fashion commonly feature exotic influenced designs and costumes, which themselves only become a problem when public sensibilities deem individual instances cultural appropriation, like in this case and with Stephanie Key’s Native American headdress before it. However, the difference between what is acceptable and what is bigoted can change overnight. I recall friends wearing Native American headdresses a few years ago when it was considered perfectly acceptable, with most of them likely embarrassed about it now. Changing cultural mores are unpredictable. Soon it may be Asian peasant hats from the Auckland Lantern Festival, yoga pants, or dressing as a cholo/ chola for a costume party. The well meaning among us may be caught out by shifting social mores.
If anything, those who oppose the Ya Ya Club would be better served considering it as satirical fodder. A youthful version of the silver-haired Toorak Liberal Ladies who lunch and fundraise for charity. An removed experience but mostly harmless, earnest, and at worst needlessly provocative. The Ya Ya Club are not the cause of inequality or racism and make poor substitutes for John Key, the National Party, and the ‘rich pricks’ and cannot heal our wounds of seven years of political disappointment. Unless the Ya Ya Club sends out a press release inciting a race war or merges with the Taxpayers Union, then it means little to me beyond an amusing curiosity.
Upon my move back home from Melbourne to Auckland two days ago, I was confronted with the Eleanor Catton kerfuffle. Rather than simply a battle between Catton and right wing politicians, it reveals far more about ourselves as New Zealanders. The more recent successes of Catton, Lorde, and the Hobbit/ Lord of the Rings and the public and media responses indicate our dependence on individuals for our national and international identity, like a child beauty pageant mother might live through her daughter.
Yet regardless of any international praise New Zealand authors, filmmakers, actors, musicians, or movies filmed here receive, we are a small country fairly isolated from the rest of the world. We overly rely on notions of “punching above our weight” or “number 8 wire” innovation that often seems like a defensive shell to protect us from our insecurities.
As a result, we overemphasise New Zealand artists’ success defined as doing well internationally. This irks me because it doesn’t acknowledge the importance of the cultural benefits of artistic pursuits to the New Zealand public. It reflects a lack of confidence in our own ideas. Catton herself stated “I, for example, grew up just having a strange belief that New Zealand writers were automatically less great than writers from Britain and America, for example. Because we were some colonial backwater, we weren’t discovered…” In this regard, arts and entertainment bodies seem rather risk-adverse. Domestically, ambitious and original ideas – think Flight of the Conchords or Julian and Camilla’s World Odyssey – are often rejected by domestic funding outlets in favour of safer ideas. Consider television and the focus on reality franchises based on international successes such as The Block, My Kitchen Rules, and Masterchef compared to the potential of more original local content.
Where individual New Zealanders have found success, they have been more experimental and unique to New Zealand. Flying Nun sensibilities owe to the freezing student flats and gothic and oceanic influences unique to Dunedin. Rocky Horror Picture Show was inspired by the traditional double feature shows at the Embassy Theatre in Hamilton, and probably as well as 1950’s sexual conformity of New Zealand. Taika Waititi’s ‘Boy’ could only be developed by the experiences of being young and Maori on the East Coast in the 1980’s. Not only must arts and creative funding bodies be aware of this, it is the government duty to provide far more funding – in spite of what political views the artist holds.
Catton’s real crime in our eyes was that she questioned our collective pageant mother-like attachment to her success. Catton expressed discomfort, arguing “It betrays an attitude towards individual achievement which is very, uncomfortable. It has to belong to everybody or the country really doesn’t want to know about it.” In doing this, Catton severed us from her success. As a result, we were exposed as the small country people we deny we are and became angry. Sean Plunket represented the extreme version of this, expressed with the gusto of a spouse being asked for divorce after 20 years of marriage, something like “After all I (we) did for you, you ungrateful bitch.” If anything, ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ is about either complete subservience of individual’s international success to us akin to a child beauty pageant contestant working the world stage for Mother NZ, or they’re rejected as an ungrateful snob.
New Zealand at times strikes me as a country not very comfortable in it’s own skin, often aspiring to be ‘international’ when it could better see it’s strengths as a small country. Catton’s words challenge the public, politicians, and arts and media bodies to be more confident. We can be more supportive of artists to tell both individual and unique New Zealand experiences. It’s artists who meld together ideas of what New Zealand is, not only internationally but – more importantly – for us.