• Sharing With Our Feathered Friends

    My wife grew up in suburban London – not an environment that was conducive, one might think, to developing an interest in wild life. But her father was a bird lover and he helped her, too, to develop a love for the birds that inhabited their garden.

    When we moved (in my case, back) to New Zealand, it took her a little time to adjust to the absence of the robins and blue tits and other birds that were familiar inhabitants of an English garden. But, over time, she developed an equal interest in New Zealand bird life – and she taught me, too, to appreciate those wonderful creatures.

    I was led into this train of thought as, sitting on our deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean one morning, we watched the welcome swallows wheeling and dipping and soaring as they criss-crossed the sky in front of us – and I began to think about the important part that our birds play in our enjoyment of life in the natural world.

    We are truly fortunate in the variety of native birds which share our garden with us. We have come to know the majestic kereru as they strip the kowhai trees of their young leaves, and the ever-active tuis as they splash in our bird bath. And a walk around our property would not be complete without the accompaniment of the fantails, joining us – not for the pleasure of our company – but in the hope that we will disturb some of the insects on which they feed. And what a pleasure it is to catch a flash of iridescent blue as a kingfisher takes off from our ngaio tree.

    That is not to say that we are bereft of English imports. We enjoy the songs of the thrushes and blackbirds and chaffinches, and we are never far from a cheeky sparrow – though we are not impressed by one of the unlovelier of the sparrow’s habits – the way in which, having chased down a cicada and taken it to ground, their first move is to rip off its wings so that they can eat it at leisure.

    There are other foreigners – like the quails and pheasants and peacocks – that offer us the assurance that, in an emergency, we would not go hungry. Yet other imports, like magpies and mynahs, are less welcome; they seem to see it as their duty to challenge the tuis for pre-eminence – but, thankfully, the tuis seem able to hold their own – and then there are the harrier hawks, constantly wheeling high above us in the hope of detecting an unprotected quail chick.

    We love the smaller birds too – the wax-eyes who see it as a challenge to beat us to the ripening figs on our fig tree, and the little grey warblers whose cheerful trilling lifts our hearts, and the yellowhammers who search our lawn for insects, but who are often outnumbered by twenty or thirty goldfinches engaged in a similar pursuit.

    We have sometimes been blessed with the visits of less common birds. We enjoyed, for a time, nightly visits from a morepork (ruru) that would park itself, as dusk gathered, in the lower branches of our ngaio and venture out on little sorties in search of unwary insects.

    And we have even had a solitary visit from a falcon, resting no doubt from its supersonic exertions. Sadly, we were also favoured with a visit from a shining cuckoo which managed to knock itself out by flying into one of our windows, but which then was able to come to, and fly off, having allowed us to inspect the intricate patterns of its plumage and its elegant long tail.

    And all the time, the ancient pohutukawa tree behind us is alive with twittering and bird movement; it is like a village, complete in itself. It reminds us that there is another world beyond our own – that we are privileged to share our habitat with other creatures who have an equal claim to its riches.

    And, as we celebrated this month International DawnChorus Day, we reflected that this is a pleasure that is not delivered to us via a screen but is a slice of real life. Little wonder that British scientists have found that listening to birdsong brings us great psychological benefits.

    Bryan Gould
    4 May 2019

  • Folau’s Folly

    The strife that Israel Folau has found himself in, following his statement that homosexuals and others are destined for hell, and calling on them to “repent”, has many consequences and ramifications – and not just for him and those whom he has condemned.

    For rugby fans, the issue is whether the fullback – about to be disowned by Rugby Australia – will play for the Wallabies at the Rugby World Cup. His absence would be a major blow to Australian hopes.

    And for English rugby, the question will be whether other players, like Billy Vunipola, will suffer any consequences for their online endorsement of Folau’s sentiments.

    For students of human rights, there will be issues of free speech. Shouldn’t, they might argue, Folau be allowed to think what he likes and say what he thinks without the “thought police” coming down on him?

    But this, of course, is where it gets complicated. Folau has, repeatedly, used the platform provided to him by his fame as a rugby player to give currency to his views in such a way as to compromise the sport to which he owes that fame. He cannot claim that he was unaware that his employers (and many of his rugby colleagues) were repelled by his views. And, having used rugby to extend the reach and impact of those views, he surely cannot now complain if rugby makes it clear that they do not share them – and, indeed, finds them objectionable – and that they wish to dissociate themselves from them.

    There is also a difference between just holding views and deciding to launch them into the public domain. Folau can think what he likes; it is only when he posts his private views in the social media that they have a wider and social impact – one that is not accidental, but intended – and they become a legitimate target for criticism and comment.

    It is not unusual to find that views like these will attract censure in a number of ways. The law, for example, provides that the public expression of certain kinds of views can attract legal consequences – either because they are seen to be harmful to the cohesion of our society, or because they treat unfairly and denigrate particular groups or individuals, so that their standing in the eyes of others will suffer or they will themselves suffer a loss of self-esteem.

    At this point, Folau’s case introduces a further complication. No one doubts that Folau’s online statements denigrated and traduced certain groups of people, and were intended to do so. But, his supporters argue, his statements reflect his religious beliefs. To preserve his own freedom of religious belief, they say, he must be free to broadcast, even to preach and seek support for, the message that he believes he has received from his God, whatever its detrimental effect on others.

    It is just too bad, they say, if those who do not share his religious beliefs feel offended or threatened by, or are harmed by, what he says. His freedom to proselytise on behalf of his religion should not be limited.

    But a blanket “free pass” for offensive and harmful views on the ground that they emanate from sincerely held religious beliefs could be exploited by almost anyone. A claim that a certain view is an expression of a particular religious belief rests, in any case, on nothing more than the claim of the person making it that his religion requires it of him. Whatever its provenance, it is still a statement made by that individual – and one for which personal responsibility must be accepted.

    It should still be judged by the same standards as are applied by our society to all statements and claims; investing a contentious view with some supposed divine authority on the say-so of the person making it should not render it immune to the judgment that would ordinarily be applied.

    Israel Folau was literally careless about the harm and distress he caused to many (sometimes vulnerable) people – the very antithesis, one might have thought, of a Christian attitude – and is apparently ready to pay the price for expounding his beliefs. We should take him at his word.

    Bryan Gould
    15 April 2019

  • 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