• Is There No Limit to Trump’s Awfulness?

    Is there no limit to the awfulness of Donald Trump?  It is hard now to imagine that there is anything further he could do or say that would truly shock us, in the sense of taking us by surprise.  He seems surely to have exhausted his repertoire of shortcomings, his playlist of buffoonery, narcissism, and readiness to offend his fellow citizens.

    Whether it be his all-too-evident racism, his propensity to demean and bad-mouth those whom he does not understand or who are outside his usual social circle, his disregard for the truth, his truly monumental ignorance about what his job entails, his readiness to defy the normal conventions concerning nepotism, the continuing priority he continues to give to the promotion of his own business interests, the threat he poses to a free press, his recklessness in foreign affairs, his boasting about the nuclear weaponry at his disposal – to say nothing of the manifest failings in his personal life – he has surely done everything possible to convince us of his uniqueness.  He is, of all those who have held the office of President, unique in his embodiment of a complete lack of personal or professional fitness for the role.

    The debate about what has caused his shortcomings is largely beside the point.  It may be that he is mentally ill, suffering from an inherited personality defect or from the onset of dementia.  It may be that his defiance of the normal standards of decency is the product of his upbringing as the son of a wealthy and domineering father or of the limitations of a billionaire’s lifestyle.  It may be that he is simply what we see – an embryonic fascist, a self-absorbed bully and narcissist, persuaded of his own “genius”, and harbouring a range of really unpleasant views about race, women and the plight of those in society who need help.

    But whatever the explanation, we are lumbered with him.  The only question now is what can be done about that.  Sadly, the only people with the power to take action show no sign of willingness to do so.

    The Republican majority in Congress could impeach him – a number of grounds offer themselves and the Mueller inquiry into Russian involvement in Trump’s election might add to that number – or  simply remove him on account of his inability to fulfil the role.  But the Republicans are in hock to billionaire donors who are the ones who really pull the strings.

    The one ground for optimism is that Trump has already delivered to those billionaires the benefit they were willing to pay for – massive tax cuts for the wealthy, achieved at the cost of cutting the help and health care available to the poor and sick.

    It may be that, with the tax cuts in their pockets, those wealthy Republican donors will see Trump as disposable, and will therefore drop their threat to Republican Congressmen of reduced funding if they don’t support Trump.

    There is one further possibility which I hope is not too fanciful.  Trump himself may decide to review the question of whether the game is worth the candle.  By all accounts, he is not enjoying the role and gets away from the White House whenever he can.

    It may be starting to dawn on him that being President may deliver the fame and recognition he craves, but that the spotlight on him also means that his every misstep and failing is magnified.  There is no escape for him – the longer he stays in the White House, the more certain it is that his public image and reputation will be trashed; his plight is rather like that of an actor in a leading role who, having forgotten his lines, is nevertheless compelled to make his entrance on the stage.

    He may now realise that he is destined to go down in history as a disaster, as the worst ever President, as an embarrassment to his country and to America’s allies.  Why, he might ask himself, prolong the agony?  Why run the risk of being impeached, or removed for incompetence, or (if the polls are accurate) being voted out of office?  Why not choose the moment, and the pretext, for stepping down?  We can but hope.

    Bryan Gould

    13 January 2018

     

  • Mind Your Language

    A couple of weeks ago, I was watching TV One’s 6 o’clock news when I was stopped in my tracks.  Simon Dallow, the newsreader, was reading an item about a worrying decline in kea numbers and concluded by saying that there are now “less than 7000”, whereupon he stopped briefly and said, by way of correction, “fewer than 7000.”  I was both amazed and delighted that he had baulked at reading the text he had been given and had corrected an all-too-common error.

    The incident is worth remarking on because so many supposedly professional broadcasters repeat such solecisms, either because they know no better or are content to accept such injuries to our language on the ground that they have been legitimised because “everyone says that.”

    It is of course true that our language is a living thing and is constantly changing, and that changes are most often brought about by popular usage.  It is also argued that, as long as the meaning is clear, we need not concern ourselves with grammar or the true meaning of a particular word.

    But what are we to say of a change in usage which positively obscures the meaning we wish to convey?  Take, for example, another error repeatedly committed by leading broadcasters; in a recent instance, in an item on the re-opening of State Highway One north of Kaikoura, a broadcaster referred to an “alternate” route.  She presumably meant an “alternative “ route – that is, a route that offers another option, rather than one that should be taken on every second occasion that the journey is undertaken.

    Making the same error, Sky Sport insisted for some months on offering viewers an “alternate” commentary on rugby matches, instead of what was presumably an alternative commentary in Maori. And I was depressed to see a road sign over Christmas offering me and other drivers an “alternate route”.

    The confusion between “alternate” and “alternative”, and the use of one when the other is meant, are now well-entrenched in American English – and, sadly, the mere fact that the two words are now so often misused means that we have now, through sheer laziness and ignorance, ruined two perfectly good and useful words.

    Nor is this the only instance of such a corruption of our language.  What I take to be another Americanism – the use of “substantive” (referring to the substance of an issue or process, as opposed to the procedure or detail) as an up-to-date alternative to “substantial” (meaning of substance as opposed to slight or minimal) – is rapidly gaining ground.

    The Americans, of course, have, as they say, “form” in such matters.  They have for some time refused to use “lie” to mean recline, and use instead the transitive verb “lay” which means to place something (like an egg) down.

    The Americans are not of course responsible for every misuse of the language.  Take, for instance, a home-grown usage that is now constantly heard, particularly but no longer exclusively, in the mouths of young people.  People of whatever age who would never dream of saying “me went to town”, rather than “I went to town”, are apparently persuaded that by adding another subject to the sentence, the usual rule is supplanted, so that we constantly hear formulations such as “me and Tom went to town”.

    Does any of this matter?  I would argue that it does.  Those demonstrating a lack of regard for our language and careless as to its correct use tell everyone forced to listen that they are people who don’t care about getting it (or anything else) right.

    We enjoy the immense privilege of using our language, with all its richness and complexity, as our native tongue.  The rest of the world increasingly uses English as their preferred medium of communication, but we native speakers can enjoy not only its utility but its beauty as well.

    We should not only be aware of our good fortune but also understand the responsibility we have to the language.  To speak it carelessly or ignorantly, so as to confuse meanings and corrupt its functioning, is the equivalent of hitting bum notes when playing a great piece of music.  We all have the opportunity of striving to use it as well as we can – but those whose business is language, in that they speak it or write for a living, have a special responsibility – and congratulations to Simon Dallow for reminding us of that.

    Bryan Gould

    21  December 2017

     

     

  • Emergency Services and The Storm

    As we listened anxiously to the weather warnings on Thursday evening, my wife and I went through a familiar routine.  Living as we do on the Eastern Bay of Plenty coast, just above the beach, we are used to the dangers that attend those “exposed” areas that are especially vulnerable to high winds and heavy rain – both of which were promised us in spades by the weather forecasters.

    So, we moved all our outdoor furniture to positions that would ensure, we hoped, that even if they were picked up by the gale-force winds they would not be hurled through a window.  I cleared the drains in the hope that they would be adequate to divert the waterfall that would surge down our drive so that it would not flood our garage.  And I checked that my chainsaw was in working order and would be up to removing from our drive the tree trunks and branches brought down by the wind and threatening to block access to our property.

    Most importantly, we checked that we had matches, candles, torches and batteries in the event of a power cut – almost an inevitability in rough weather – and that we had enough bottled gas to fire up the barbecue so that we could cook – or at least make a cup of tea.

    But as we went through our check list, I remarked to my wife that the people I felt sorry for, as we and they waited for the storm to hit, were those emergency workers who would know for a certainty that their evening and night were going to be disrupted by call-outs, and that they would have to leave the comfort of the family hearth and go out into the foul weather.

    I was thinking of course of the firefighters who, by virtue of their expertise in using long ladders, seem to be the first port of call to resolve almost any problem – from a roof blowing off to a pet getting stranded.

    And then there are the electricity line workers, struggling to identify and then to rectify the problem that might have left thousands without light or heat or the ability to cook.  And spare a thought for the hard-pressed call staff, having to be polite as stressed callers insist on an explanation and a prediction as to when power will be restored, even when the technicians themselves are still searching for answers.

    And never forget the ambulance staff and the police whose normal workload is usually trebled by the manifold accidents that inevitably attend severe weather.  We, the public, are a demanding and often ungrateful lot (as will be certified by anyone who has ever had occasion to deal with “the public” at first hand) and most of those who undertake these difficult tasks get precious little by way of thanks in return.

    So, as I spend Friday morning clearing up the mess, looking in wonder at the mountainous seas that – driven by the super moon’s king tide – are obliterating our beach, and wondering what worse is yet to come, I am grateful that I, like many others, can rely on being able to call for help when it is needed.  It is good to live in a society that is sufficiently well-organised and caring to make provision for coming to our aid when our own efforts alone are not enough.

    These services cost money, of course, and probably more than is actually made available – and they are only the tip of the iceberg, since they have a higher profile and visibility than other services, by virtue of their importance in emergency situations.  Behind them, though, are many other public services that have a less high profile, but are equally important over a longer period of time, in helping us to overcome life’s problems.

    The resources needed to maintain these services have to come from somewhere.  A moment’s thought will tell us from where – from the bills and taxes we pay.  The next time we grumble about paying our taxes or our bills to public utilities, let us reflect that some of our fellow citizens are ready to go out on a cold, wet, miserable and dangerous night and will use the resources that we help to fund so as to help us through our difficulties.  Well done them!

    Bryan Gould

    5 January 2018

     

  • We Didn’t Do Badly in 2017

    The New Year should be, and no doubt was again this year, an opportunity to celebrate as we look forward, but we also have cause for congratulation as we review the year just ended.  2017 has left us in good shape, and having successfully surmounted one of the great challenges of a democratic society – a general election.

    Not everyone will applaud the outcome of that election, but it is worth reminding ourselves that it was conducted peacefully and in orderly fashion, that there were no allegations of corruption, that there was a substantial turnout, and that we were able to effect a transfer of government from one group of parties to another without violence or threats.

    These are all the hallmarks of a mature and well-functioning democracy. The list of significant pluses can be lengthened.  Our new Prime Minister is a woman – our second elected woman Prime Minister – no glass ceiling here!  And, with her relative youth, she has taken her place in a new generation of younger leaders worldwide.

    Nor should we under-estimate the civic discipline required to remove a well-established government from office and to replace it peaceably with another.  This is a trick that many other countries have found it difficult to pull, but we managed it without any great dissension.

    We managed it, despite an electoral system that made a “hung” parliament virtually inevitable (in itself no bad thing and producing a more representative parliament).  The negotiations needed to form a government were conducted with good faith and decorum and (by international standards), in remarkably quick time.

    Whatever view we take of these matters, we should acknowledge that a change of government is healthy for our democracy.  A government that has been in power for nearly a decade and that has won three elections in a row inevitably becomes accustomed to manipulating the levers of power.  A certain arrogance creeps in, an assumption that government by that party is the norm, and that only exceptional circumstances will disturb the status quo.

    It is, in other words, good for the country that there should be a recognition that democracy always implies the possibility that power will change hands – and the big gain from that change is that a fresh approach may produce new solutions to old problems and identify new problems we didn’t even know we had.

    But the cause for self-congratulation can really be made when we compare our experience with what has happened elsewhere, and particularly in that self-appointed exemplar of how democracy should work – the United States.

    They, too, have recently had a change of government – they have a new President and a new Republican majority in Congress.  The process by which that change was effected, however, was far from straightforward, with threats, charges and counter-charges made during the campaign from all quarters – and the outcome was one that prompted marches and demonstrations by those who were appalled at what the democratic process had produced.

    The “glass ceiling” was well and truly in operation, so that one of the candidates seems to have suffered some loss of support on account of her gender – and the electorate revealed itself to be deeply divided as to the merits or otherwise of the new administration’s proposals as to racial and religious discrimination, and the priority to be given to the interests of the “haves” and the willingness to inflict further pain on the “have-nots”.

    And that is to say nothing of the growing evidence, now impossible to ignore, that the successful candidate is totally unfitted, in terms of both personal and professional qualities, to undertake his onerous new responsibilities.  That realisation is not matched, however, by any will to remedy the situation – the Republican congressional majority prefers to maintain its own ascendancy, even if it means taking major risks with the country’s future.

    Our 2017 exercise in democracy looks, by contrast, to have been pretty successful.  We have no reason to question our processes or to doubt the democratic commitment and good faith of the government we have elected.  The coming year is one we can welcome, secure in the knowledge that our new government, like its predecessor, will have to satisfy the voters – in a properly functioning democracy – that it merits their support.

    Bryan Gould

    31 December 2017

     

  • The Season of Goodwill

    “Nice” is an odd word – one of our most widely used adjectives but of imprecise, not to say amorphous, meaning and often pressed into service just to signify anything that is vaguely pleasing.

    So, when I say that, living as we do on the outskirts of Opotiki in the eastern Bay of Plenty, we are privileged to rub shoulders every day with “nice “ people, I had better spell out what I mean.

    When I say that the people we have dealings with are “nice”, I have in mind our neighbours who, following one of the winter’s most damaging cyclones, drove down our drive to check that we – their septuagenarian neighbours – were all right.

    I think of our neighbour who, realising that my wife was about to come home from hospital following surgery for breast cancer, and that, following a couple of accidents, our rainwater tanks were empty, rigged up a connection that enabled him to pump water from his own tank into ours.

    And then there are our friends who – on an almost daily basis – delivered to us freshly baked cakes and fish caught off our beach, filleted ready for eating, and others who brought us hot meals, at a time when neither my wife nor I was able to focus much on cooking or shopping.

    But even these acts of thoughtfulness and generosity do not quite capture the “niceness” I have in mind when I think of those with whom we interact on a daily basis.  I think of the local retailers and tradesmen, and the receptionists and check-out girls, and the unfailing good humour and courtesy with which we and they are able to conduct our transactions.  It is hard to overstate what a pleasure it is to do business with “nice people”.  The business has to be done, whether or not the people involved are “nice”, but how much easier and less stressful it is when one can count on the good faith and desire to please of those with whom it is done.

    I think I am now getting close to what I mean when I refer to “nice’ people.  I mean people with good hearts – people who take it for granted that we share the same life and that we ’re all in it together, and that things will go better for us all if we try to help each other.  I mean people with a generosity of spirit, who are ready to ease any situation with a smile or a cheery greeting or a kind word.

    These are people whose “niceness” comes naturally to them, without thought or design or ulterior motive.  They are the strangers one meets in the street or walking on the beach and who are happy to catch one’s eye and to say “Good morning” or “nice day”.  I know it is easy to idealise these behaviours and to read more into them than they merit.  But they are also simple expressions of a community spirit that enriches the lives of all of us.

    We know that New Zealand is a popular destination for overseas tourists, and that the scenic beauty and sense of space we can offer are among the major attractions.  But I also think that the natural friendliness and good manners of New Zealanders also play a part – and, judging by my own experience, they are more likely to be found in small rural communities than in the big cities where the pressures on time and space take their toll.

    The season of goodwill is of course the ideal time to pause and reflect on such matters.  Nothing encompasses the Christmas spirit better than the readiness to think and take account of, and give time to, others.  Christmas is after all the time for families – and families are like communities, in that we don’t choose our family members, any more than we choose those in our community – they just are.  And, as the time for New Year resolutions approaches, what better than to resolve that the season of goodwill should be extended well into 2018?  The lives of all of us would be immeasurably better – in all sorts of immeasurable ways.

    Bryan Gould

    24 December 2017