• What Role Should Celebrities Play in Our Lives?

    We live, like it or not, in the age of the celebrity. High achievers in entertainment or sport have always commanded attention and headlines, but the reach, in today’s society, of film and television, and particularly of the social media, has meant that the impact of the “rich and famous” is greater today than it has ever been.

    It is increasingly clear that this kind of celebrity can be used to exert great influence over the young in particular, but also to make a great deal of money through endorsements and the marketing of products bearing famous names. Millions of young women around the world choose clothes, make-up, social activities and other purchases, following the recommendations of those whose lifestyles are regarded as wonderfully glamorous and therefore to be emulated.

    There is a further curiosity about the modern concept of the “celebrity”. The actual achievements or talents of the modern celebrity may sometimes be rather difficult to identify. The Kardashians, for example, seem not to be particularly talented as individuals – but they are, as a family or “brand”, famous for being famous. What is undeniable is that they are very successful at promoting themselves, and providing models that many young women and girls try to copy.

    The Kardashians exemplify another common aspect of the celebrity cult – the tendency of one celebrity to team up with another. Kim Kardashian is the partner of the US rapper, Kanye West – and David and Victoria Beckham’s marriage brought together a top British footballer and a singer from the Spice Girls. In instances such as these, the celebrity impact seems to be more than doubled but is multiplied several times over – and children of the union themselves become celebrities and add to the overall impact.

    Recently, however, there seems to have been something of a backlash against the cult of the celebrity. A week or so ago, it was reported that the use of celebrities on websites in the UK to encourage gambling online for young people was coming under fire and that the big internet companies and websites had been persuaded to desist from that practice.

    I might add my own two cents’ worth. As a regular watcher of TVNZ’s quiz programme, The Chase, I politely observe that the weekend version, when so-called celebrities make up the team challenging the “chaser”, succeeds in reducing what is an excellent quiz show to a rather embarrassing parade of egos and self-promotion.

    That, however, is a minor point. The real case against the undue deference shown to “celebrities”
    Is that it can lead not only to young people being misdirected in their private lives as to what real happiness and success might look like, but also to the abandonment of normal standards and processes in the public domain.

    An early instance of this latter phenomenon was the treatment accorded in the US to Martha Stewart, a television star whose Martha Stewart Show presented her as a “domestic goddess” to an adoring viewership. She was, after several years of enjoying her celebrity, convicted of insider trading and obstructing justice, and served a prison sentence. She was then restored to her television show and resumed her place in the affections of the American public; it seemed that her celebrity protected her against any longer-term downside.

    More seriously, the same phenomenon of celebrity seems to have been a major factor in the election of – and continued support for – Donald Trump as President. The voters, despite the evidence before their own eyes and ears of his complete unfitness to exercise such responsibilities, seem to have been unwilling to trust their own judgment and to have been dazzled instead by the “star power” of a television celebrity. The price that the US – and the world – have had to pay is virtually incalculable.

    There is no obvious or immediate antidote to this phenomenon. We can but hope that those who are happy to reap the rewards – earned or otherwise – of their celebrity might increasingly recognise the responsibilities they have to ensure that people, especially the young and vulnerable, are not misled to their disadvantage by following them in directions that lead at best nowhere, but at worst to shattered dreams, disappointment and unhappiness.

    Bryan Gould
    19 February 2019

  • Intimations of Mortality

    The last week has been a momentous one for my wife and me. I had a birthday at the beginning of the week; my reaction to turning 80 is one of restrained enthusiasm – it is at least better than the alternative.

    But, after decades of birthdays which I had successively characterised as meaning that I had, first, reached “late” middle age, and then joined the ranks of the “elderly”, I must now accept that I have become undeniably “old”. It is not an unwelcome conclusion – and everyone congratulates me on reaching a “milestone” – but no one is impolite enough to question the ultimate destination of the journey on which this milestone has been reached.

    Inevitably, however, thoughts of my – and our – inescapable mortality must arise. And I am sorry to say ( and, I really mean, truly sorry) that I had another reason to confront the inevitability of life’s conclusion. Our dear little friend, Lachie – our little Westie – “shuffled off this mortal coil” on my birthday.

    Thank you to all those of you who enquired as to how he was faring. He put up a good fight but it was one that he could not win. The cancer was too tough for even our brave little chap to overcome. In the end, he seemed puzzled as to why he was down on energy and confidence and was struggling for breath. We were not even sure that he could still see and all of his usual appetites had diminished. In his last days, he became bewildered and disoriented – and the heat did not help.

    It was a mercy that he had to say goodbye. We buried him on my birthday and we have mourned him every minute since. He has left us with a sense of loss – an absence, a void, a hole in our lives. We constantly sense that we can hear him or see him in our midst. His was a life that was inextricably entwined with ours.

    His passing, the ending of his life, has reinforced for my wife and me our sense of the worth of his life. It confirms to me that the point of living is what you bring to it and what you can bring to others. Our lives are for sharing. There would be no point in a life that was led in lonely isolation – concerned only with is own destination or salvation – with no bonds with or links to family and friends or pets. It is our interaction with others, with other lives – human or otherwise – that gives definition and purpose to our own lives.

    Our lives are hugely enriched by that interaction. And we have the opportunity to recognise the pleasure and reward we gain by investing some part of our own lives in those of others.

    The only real question is as to how far afield we should look to establish that interaction. Most of us will easily identify those closest to us as deserving of that kind of relationship – and, of course, we do not feel the same kind of involvement and dependence for all others as we feel in respect of our nearest and dearest.

    But, if we can at least see that even strangers have the same experience of what it means to be alive as we do, then we take a giant step towards a living experience for everyone in which love and kindness are the supreme virtues – and what a wonderful world that would be!

    It may seem to be reaching too far to ascribe to little Lachie the inspiration for such a utopian train of thought. But, among the many gifts he brought us was an understanding of what it means to love and be loved – and how important that is to the human condition.

    Bryan Gould
    12 February 2019

     

  • The Meaning of Inequality

    When I stepped down as Vice-Chancellor of Waikato University in 2004, I was fortunate enough to spend a few months in Oxford as a Visiting Fellow of Nuffield College. The Warden of the College at that time was Professor A.B. (later Sir Tony) Atkinson, who was a renowned economist and the world’s leading authority on inequality, its causes and consequences.

    The Nuffield College magazine has, in its latest issue, carried a range of articles in his memory and as a tribute to the work he did. The issue is entitled “Inequality Is A Choice”, reflecting one of his principal conclusions – that inequality doesn’t just happen but is the consequence of deliberate choices made by policy-makers, choices either to act or not to act.

    Sir Tony was able to show that levels of inequality vary from country to country and from time to time. Those countries with governments that put in place measures to counteract inequality exhibit, not surprisingly, a smaller degree of inequality than those where the interests of the wealthy and privileged prevail without restriction.

    He demonstrated that (as the French economist, Thomas Piketty, also pointed out) a market economy will show a natural tendency for the rich to get richer and for the poor to get (comparatively) poorer. This because the return on capital is almost always faster than the growth of the economy as a whole, so that an increasing proportion of any new wealth created goes to those who already have money. We can see this exemplified in the increasing share taken by profits and the decreasing share of wages in our economy.

    It is only when a government (as in the case of the post-war Labour government in Britain) sets out to change this trend that inequality ceases to increase. If governments are relaxed about, or perhaps even welcome, this trend, (as they have recently in New Zealand) then inequality grows.

    Sir Tony was of course talking about economic inequality and accordingly focused on matters of comparative wealth and income and the shares of both going to different parts of society. But there has been a growing recognition over recent times that inequality is not to be defined only in economic terms, but is equally important in other senses as well. Someone who is homeless or who has limited educational opportunities or access to health care or whose working day is organised to suit his employer without regard for his own interests can also be regarded as less than equal with his more fortunate fellow-citizens.

    And there is increasing interest in topics that are seen to be related to inequality – topics such as the value (other than the monetary value) we give to certain kinds of contributions to society as opposed to others. How, for example, do we rate the contributions of successful business leaders against those of top sportspeople, or brilliant musicians or painters, or of caring parents or solid citizens and volunteers? And that leads us to recognise that there is a range of policies, not just economic policies, policies such as the rights of workers in the workplace, that will directly influence the level of inequality.

    Equality (and inequality) have often been seen as inevitably linked to issues of individual freedom in the sense that greater equality, it is argued, can be achieved only by limiting the freedom of those who are doing better than others – it is a topic on which I have myself written. Current approaches to this issue show a greater recognition of the truth that someone whose value to society is not properly understood or rewarded is not only less equal but also less free than he would otherwise be. Freedom, in other words, is not just an abstract concept but has a real practical meaning; it means the power and ability to do things, to realise potential and to make choices.

    A society in which only a privileged few have choices while everyone else has to “like it or lump it” is not only unequal but also less free. The best way to test the level of freedom in a society is to assess the degree of freedom available to those who might be regarded as the least free. We have a long way to go – and may even be heading in the wrong direction – if we are to claim on that basis that we are free and equal.

    Bryan Gould

    15 January 2019

     

  • Lachie

    The turn of the year is usually a joyous time for my wife and me. We celebrate our wedding anniversary at that time – this year was our 51st – and there is the New Year and its promise to look forward to. This year, however, has been a little different. We have just learned that our ten year-old West Highland White terrier, Lachie, has an incurable cancer and has only a few weeks to live.

    Having pets always, of course, brings its sadness. Lachie is our sixth Westie – they have been with us for almost all of our married life. His five predecessors – Dougal, Angus, Fergus, Bridie and Jock – are all buried on the hillside behind our house – and the passing of each of them has brought its particular heartache.

    In their cases, however, their deaths occurred suddenly and unexpectedly – causing grief and shock – but Lachie’s case is different. We are steeling ourselves to watching our little friend decline over the next weeks; I am not looking forward to seeing his bright eyes dim.

    We will of course provide him with all the love and comfort we can muster. He is for the time being in good spirits. He continues to monitor and conform to the daily routine that is so important to dogs. He knows to the minute when his meal-times are, and when it is time for his regular walks on the beach. He gets excited, for reasons known only to him, when I dive into our swimming pool and he watches me carefully until I re-surface.

    And he continues to discharge his self-appointed task of patrolling the boundaries of our property, repelling all invaders by land and air. Small birds are tolerated but anything larger, and especially hang gliders and planes, must be chased away, with much barking and springing into the air.

    He is constantly teased by the wekas that peck their way across our front lawn. The wekas are very relaxed about being chased by Lachie; they know precisely where their escape routes are and they are confident that they can out-run him. Lachie knows this as well; it is the fun of the chase that he enjoys. He has no intention or realistic prospect of catching them and wouldn’t know what to do with them if he did.

    His most important role, though, is as our constant companion. He is never more than a step or two away. He always joins us for morning coffee or afternoon tea or a pre-dinner aperitif and is always ready to accept a titbit – a fragment of a home-cooked cheese biscuit is his favourite . We enjoy spoiling him, now more than ever.

    He is not a great conversationalist but he has an uncanny ability to interpret what we say to him and to respond appropriately. We greatly enjoy our “conversations” with him.

    My wife and I are both cancer survivors. We have some idea of the trials and tribulations he now faces. The one great comfort to us is that he has no idea that he is ill and that his days are numbered. For him, life is still good; when that is no longer the case, we will not let him suffer and we will know what to do.

    When that time comes, we will reflect that the years of pleasure, of loyalty, affection and companionship he gave us far outweigh the grief we will then feel. Until then, we will show him the love that he so richly deserves. Only when he goes, no doubt, will we fully understand the gap in our lives that he has left behind.

    Bryan Gould
    5January 2019

     

  • Making Charitable Gifts and Paying Taxes

    The Christmas festive session is traditionally the time for charitable giving, when many of us recognise the need to ensure that the hungry can enjoy a Christmas dinner and that Father Christmas can bring presents on Christmas morning for kiddies who would otherwise go without.

    We should all give thanks for the efforts of those – like the Salvation Army and the City Missions – who think of others in this season of goodwill and who depend on donations from the public for the excellent work they do. The charitable impulse should never be under-valued; we are all better off as a society for the generosity of caring people.

    But we should also recognise the limitations of private charity. Giving and receiving is of value to both donors and recipients and has its own special and irreplaceable part to play; and there are of course those major benefactions from very wealthy people which fund valuable undertakings that would not otherwise get off the ground.

    Charitable giving, though, is not – as is sometimes suggested – an alternative to funding from the public purse; it cannot possibly meet the funding needs of major services like health care, education, income support and public housing. The sums raised are just too small and are too uncertain and unfocused to enable the planning and organisation that are required to guarantee basic standards in essential services – not just for the needy but for all of us – across such a wide front and over such a long period.

    If the public services on which so many in a civilised society now depend are to be properly funded, that funding has to be raised by a means that is much more systematic than that offered by sausage sizzles or rattling a collection box or random cold calling. The voluntary sector does much valuable work and needs constant support but cannot be expected to bear the whole burden.

    If we are truly concerned for the welfare of our fellow-citizens, and not just at Christmas time, we need to be sure that the funds are there to provide for the necessities of life; and we need to recognise that there is only one completely reliable source of those essential funds, and that is us – each one of us – and there is only way for us to be sure that those funds are systematically made available, and that is through paying our taxes.

    It simply does not make sense on the one hand to object to or resent paying taxes, and to seek to avoid doing so, and on the other, to try to salve our consciences by making occasional charitable donations. We may succeed in fooling ourselves that we are doing our bit through such attitudes, but those responsible for delivering public services and investing in our economic infrastructure know better.

    The good and kind heart that is evidenced as we donate to good causes should also manifest itself as we pay our taxes. A charitable impulse is of course highly commendable, but even more commendable is that sense of social responsibility and solidarity that leads us to pay our taxes willingly and supportively.

    This simple message is of course not directed just to individuals. It is even more pointed and pertinent when addressed to major (and often international) corporations, many of whom seem to spend a great deal of time and energy in avoiding their obligations to pay taxes on the huge profits they make. We should never forget that, behind the facade, the veil of incorporation, of each of these corporations, stand individuals, often very wealthy individual shareholders, who become even wealthier by avoiding the tax that they and their companies should be paying.

    The Christmas message should be clear. Many of us will make generous gifts to help those less well-off than ourselves and to allow small children to enjoy to the full a valuable part of their childhood. But if we are serious and genuine about wishing to help those in need to enjoy Christmas, we should recognise our responsibility tp ensure that our society as a whole makes proper provision to meet the needs of all of our fellow citizens – not just at Christmas but throughout the year.

    Bryan Gould
    4 December 2018