• Television Turn-Offs

    Most television viewers will recognise that the advertisements that punctuate the programmes we watch are a “necessary evil”; they are the price we pay for the service we receive. Without television commercials, it is said, there would be little to watch.

    But viewers might also conclude that, unavoidable as TV commercials are, there are techniques that can be used to reduce their impact – and it is a safe bet that many viewers will have grown accustomed to using the “mute” button on their remote so as to cut out the sound of the incessant voices urging us to buy this or that.

    The imperative to resort to this tactic is of course much strengthened if the advertisers continue to bombard us with commercials that irritate or annoy us. One might have thought that advertisers would be constantly alert to the possibility that their advertising, rather than inducing us to want and therefore to buy their product, might actually dissuade us from doing so.

    Yet we don’t have to think very hard to come up with television commercials that, in one way or another, lead us not only to suppress the sound but also to turn off the product that is being touted.

    And it is relatively easy to identify those advertising techniques that are off-putting in this way. There is, for instance, those ads that seem to appear at every commercial break – the opening scene of such repetitive selling efforts is enough to make one scream every time they appear. In our family, “not again!” is the usual response to this kind of blitzkrieg. Who would have thought that two women paying hotel bills would warrant so much attention?

    And then there are the ads that are selling products offered by different providers but that are all selling essentially the same product. This kind of advertising, for some strange reason, seems particularly prevalent when it comes to products thought to be of special interest to elderly viewers.

    So, we have endless advertisements from different advertisers for what is called funeral expense insurance (which is, in reality, merely a small-scale form of life insurance); and there are similarly repetitive ads for stair lifts, hearing aids, retirement villages, and “sitting down” exercise machines, repeated examples of each of which can be found on television programmes scheduled for around lunchtime.

    This is to say nothing of the advertising frenzy that we all had to endure late last year and that was apparently engendered by something called “Black Friday”, a date which seemingly had no recognisable significance for us other than to produce an excuse for an advertising blitz.

    Then there are the ads that go out of their way to irritate and annoy – those that employ super-excited voices or -“wait, there is more”! – voices that are deliberately (and insultingly) made to sound unpleasant in the misguided belief that people will identify with them more readily and therefore take heir custom to one particular supermarket. And there are some advertisers who apparently believe that their product can be made saleable only if supported by an American accent.

    And there are the commercials whose pitch assumes that the viewers are cretins and will believe, for example, that adding caffein (what next?) to shampoo is an example of “German engineering for your hair”.

    And I haven’t even mentioned the constant attempt to persuade us that various forms of fast food are super-alluring and are essential to “having a good time” at any social or family or sporting gathering.

    Advertising on television is not, one assumes, inexpensive. How long before advertisers wake up to the fact that much of it is actually off-putting. What is the pojnt of producing and screening tv commercials at considerable cost if their effect is to associate the product being advertised, in the minds of viewers, with feelings of irritation and annoyance.

    If we must have television commercials, let them at least be worth watching and listening to. Advertisers! Wake up, and try harder, and – if you expect advertising to work for you – learn to treat your viewers with more respect.

    Bryan Gould
    4 February 2020

  • Holding Their Noses

    Politicians, as we know, are not the most popular people in our society and most people, by extension, would no doubt rate political parties as of little value to us. But they would be wrong – political parties are vitally important aspects of our parliamentary democracy.

    Without political parties, a parliament would comprise no more than a collection of disorganised individuals, lacking any ability to work together in an agreed and organised fashion. Without political parties, we would have no idea of who might form a government or of how to recognise an alternative, that is, a government in waiting.

    Political parties enable people of like mind to come together and to identify the elements of a programme to put before the voting public. Political parties have, beyond anything that individuals alone could muster, the organisation and resources to engage expert help, to understand the latest research, to engage with special interest groups, to take a wider view and to devise new solutions to old problems.

    It is no exaggeration to say that parliamentary government as we know it could not operate without political parties – a truth that is an important part of the case for the public funding of political parties.

    But this is not to say that a political system that depends on political parties is free of fault or defect. The basis on which individuals join a political party and on which some of them seek to enter parliament as representatives of that party is that they are prepared – in most cases, at any rate – to subordinate their individual interests and views to those of the party. They will be content to do so because they are satisfied that they have a better chance of getting their views accepted and passed into law by operating as part of their party rather than as a single individual – and they will calculate that, since they can enthusiastically support the bulk of their party’s programme, it is on balance worth doing, even if it means forgoing their own position on a particular issue.

    There will be very few parliamentarians, however, who have never struggled with the conflict between what they think as an individual and what is the decided policy of their party. Most MPs, and this is certainly true in my own case, will have, at some point or another, found it necessary to “defy the whip” on an issue on which their view differs from that of their party and is one on which they feel strongly or that involves what is, for them, a matter of principle.

    The party whips will, in most such cases, be forgiving of such lapses in party discipline and, in truth, the cohesion and continued functioning of the party system would be at risk if discipline were imposed too severely.

    Indeed, it could be argued that the system as a whole depends on the occasional willingness of individual MPs to break ranks and stay true to what they believe, irrespective of what their party demands of them.

    We can see such a situation unfolding before our eyes as the impeachment of Donald Trump proceeds. The American system is not a parliamentary one, but in the case of an impeachment trial, senators – like MPs – have to choose whether to cast their votes in accordance with the requirements of their party or whether to follow their own individual consciences.

    The signs are that the President will be able to avoid removal from office because his fellow members and supporters of the Republican Party will hold their noses, grit their teeth and close their eyes, and serve the interests (as they see them) of their party rather than of the country as a whole.

    The evidence for the President’s unfitness for office surely becomes more overwhelming by the day. Those of us who are citizens of the world and who are privileged to live in a democratic country are, one would hope, entitled to expect that Republican senators will recognise not only their responsibilities to their own country but also to world peace, and will place them ahead of any duty they owe to their political party. Sadly, it seems likely that they will get their priorities wrong.

    Bryan Gould
    27 January 2020

  • The Road Toll

    New Zealand’s road toll has long been a perennial reproach to a country that likes to regard itself as being at the leading edge of advanced countries. But constant efforts by government to bring the toll down to be more in line with with other countries have been ineffectual.

    So, the toll, measured in terms of loss of life and injury, and the grief and suffering that attend them, continues as a blot and a blight on our national life. Why is our record in this respect proportionately worse than that of other comparable countries?

    It is relatively easy to build a catalogue of possible reasons. There is, first, the difficult terrain that our road-builders found when they undertook the task of cutting roads through our hills and valleys and forests. I have often marvelled at the huge efforts made by our forefathers – in an era before earth-moving equipment – when picks and shovels were all that was available.

    But the fact remains that our road network exhibits a higher proportion of tight bends, narrow stretches, cliffside edges and difficult surfaces than would be found elsewhere. And, it has to be acknowledged, that while Kiwis all regard themselves as good drivers, we are on the whole regrettably aggressive, lacking in skill and discipline, and prone to taking risks.

    Our drivers’ skills, or lack of them, reflect several aspects of New Zealand culture. A largely rural economy has bred a commendable spirit of self-reliance but also an impatience with rules and restrictions. A large number of New Zealand drivers are family taught and have learnt to drive on the farm and at a relatively early age, and have become used to light volumes of traffic on country roads.

    Add to that a drinking culture and the fact that you need a vehicle to get anywhere and the ingredients are there for a high incidence of drink-driving which remains one of the banes of our lives – and our current struggle with the spread of meth and other drugs adds to the problem.

    Then there is the modern blight of the mobile phone. My wife and I have lost count of the number of drivers we have seen engrossed in a telephone conversation – or, much worse, texting – while driving; if you find yourself following a vehicle whose speed varies unpredictably or that wanders across the white line, you can be pretty sure that the driver ’s attention is elsewhere.

    In any discussion of road accidents, the conversation will inevitably turn to foreign drivers, and it is certainly true that we have a higher proportion of drivers who are unfamiliar with our roads and traffic conditions than is the case in most countries – and, sadly, many reported accidents seem to involve foreign tourists.

    Whenever this topic is raised, my mind goes back to when I was, as a young man, on a motoring holiday in Spain. I had become accustomed, as I thought, to driving on the right-hand side of the road, but it so happened that on one morning, my companion and I had crossed to the left-hand side to stop for a cup of coffee. When we resumed our journey, I pulled out, on to the nearer left side which naturally felt very familiar to me, and it was only when I saw the oncoming traffic approaching me on that side, that I realised my mistake.

    So, we have to accept that accidents involving foreign drivers are all too likely and are part of the price we pay for our tourist earnings. The only remedy available to each of us is constant vigilance – vigilance we have to exercise anyway in respect of Kiwi drivers who may not know the road, or who are on the phone, or who are speeding, or who have been drinking or taking drugs.

    Improving our roads and increasing the policing are clearly part of the solution. But we also need to change our mindset. Driving is not the carefree spin on the open road that we believe we are all equipped to undertake, but is inherently dangerous. It requires all the skill, care, concentration and social responsibility we can muster.

    Bryan Gould
    20 January 2020

  • A Reckless Decision

    Donald Trump faces impeachment because he is accused of using the power of his office – that is, the power granted to him as President to be exercised on behalf of the country and the general interest – to further his own political interests, and, in particular, his wish to be re-elected.

    The evidence for this is a telephone call he made to the President of Ukraine, during which he was overheard “asking a favour” of President Zelensky; the favour requested was that a Ukrainian inquiry should be made into allegations of corruption involving the son of Joe Biden, who is leading the race for nomination as the Democratic candidate and who is, as shown by the polls, likely to beat Trump in the presidential election.

    The “favour” was linked to the American provision of large-scale military aid to Ukraine – aid that was, when the inquiry did not materialise, withheld on Trump’s orders.

    The recent assassination by American drone of a leading Iranian general, Qassem Suleimani, when he was visiting Iraq, shows that Trump has learned nothing from his impeachment. He has been quick to claim credit for the assassination, which has certainly had the presumably desired effect of taking his impeachment out of the headlines – a classic example of a “wag the dog” foreign intervention designed to divert attention from domestic issues.

    But it again raises the question of whether the President has used the power of his office to further his campaign to be re-elected, rather than to serve the interests of the country. The assassination was almost certainly an illegal act – it was, after all, on one level, simply an act of murder.

    If Trump’s justification for it – that Sulameini was intending to launch an attack on American targets – is to be believed, the murder was an “act of war”, but one of which he failed to give prior notice to Congress, as he is obliged to do under American law.

    Whatever the constitutional and legal niceties, what is clearly beyond dispute is that the assassination has dangerously increased tensions in an already dangerous Middle East. The Iranians have vowed retaliation, and the Iraqis have asked American troops to leave their country, leaving the way clear for a revival of Isis.

    The world itself is now at risk, with nuclear-armed countries threatening each other. The tragedy is that, quite apart from the Trump-ordered assassination, the whole tinder-box is a Trump creation.

    In the years preceding Trump’s election victory in 2016, concern had been mounting, not least in Israel, at the possibility that Iran might be in process of acquiring nuclear weapons. Trump’s predecessor, President Obama, had recognised the danger and had negotiated an agreement under which the Iranians would halt their nuclear weapons programme, and would accept international inspection to verify that they had done so, in return for which the Americans and other Western countries would lift the trade sanctions they had imposed on Iran.

    Trump was so determined to reject and disown anything that Obama had achieved that, without consulting his European allies who were also parties to the agreement, he tore it up and again subjected to trade sanctions an Iran that was no longer under any obligation to terminate its nuclear weapons programme.

    Trump has now, as Joe Biden has said, thrown into the tinder box the “dynamite stick” of Sulameini’s assassination. It is hard to believe that any sane person, let alone world leader, could have acted so irresponsibly.

    His threat to respond to any Iranian retaliation by attacking Iranian cultural heritage sites reveals a complete abandonment of civilised behaviour and a disregard of international law.

    If Trump’s threatened withdrawal of American military aid as a means of extracting “a favour” from Ukraine was an impeachable offence, then his reckless pursuit of a favourable headline by murdering a foreign leader is even more so.

    This time, however, the world has more than an onlooker’s interest. An outbreak of nuclear war in the Middle East would be disastrous for us all. We must hope that American voters (and Republican senators) will recognise that neither we nor they we can any longer tolerate or afford a President who is prepared to jeopardise world peace so as to advance his own political interests.

  • What Caused the Bushfires

    The world has been quick to sympathise with the Australians over their bushfire catastrophe. But the world has also been quick to criticise their lack of response to the problems created by global warming and the consequent record high temperatures on the Australian continent.

    Before we rush to judgment, however, we should bear in mind that we call them “Australians” because of where they are, not who they are. “Who they are” is “us”.

    They are “us” because they are, as we are, part of a much wider entity. Today’s Australians display attitudes and behaviours that are shared by a large proportion of the world’s population. They represent all of us in grappling, or failing to grapple, with the issues that face them.

    The one thing we can all agree on when considering the scale of today’s Australian bushfires is that they are the consequence of human activity. The continent has experienced summer bushfires since time immemorial; it is the advent of humans in large numbers that seems to have made the difference and that has set the continent ablaze.

    And not just any old humans, but humans representing the epitome of western civilisation. The Australians have, on the whole, made a pretty good job of representing the rest of us; they have created what is widely recognised as a “good life” in their new home.

    But their failings have been real, too, and have been exposed by the bushfire disaster. We, and they, need to identify the factors and characteristics that have produced those failings, since we are very likely to share them.

    Australia, and New Zealand, and many other countries who would claim to be part of what we like to think of as the “advanced” or “developed” world, is a society, an economy and a culture built on the twin foundations of a market economy and political democracy.

    The driving force of a market economy, however, (and, most would say, its great strength) is the incessant pursuit of profit. Profit depends on demand and demand means consumption. Production is a response to demand and consumption, and without ever-increasing demand, a market economy falters; if sales, and therefore consumption and eventually production, fall, there is immediate talk of recession, business failures, unemployment and falling asset values.

    We can see how important demand and consumption are to the performance of the economy when we see how much is spent on advertising with the aim of creating ever higher demand – or a demand that never falters – for what is produced.

    But a literally insatiable demand for new production imposes a huge strain on the economy and eventually on society as a whole. It is not just that, in a world with finite resources, a continued growth in consumption will necessarily reduce the stock of resources; it is also that the processes required to meet that growth in consumption – the exploitation of fossil fuels, for example – will upset the natural balance on which life depends.

    The market economy is, as our history shows, a tyrannical master. Everything – other forms of life, pure air and water – is grist to the mill, not least the labour of working people which becomes just another factor of production.

    Our civilisation has attempted to restrain these aspects of a market economy by establishing a system of government based on political democracy. But the attempt has failed. Democratic elections have become nothing more than bidding wars in which the rival parties try to outdo each other in promising the voters ever greater levels of consumption.

    A responsible politician, offering stable or reduced consumption in the common interest, will be soundly rebuffed. Democracy, in other words, has become a means of reinforcing the very aspects of a modern economy that it is meant to restrain.

    If we, and the Australians, are to avoid further environmental catastrophes, we have to be ready to reconsider some of our most fundamental beliefs about how to create a successful and sustainable society. In seeking an explanation for the bushfires and other similar crises, we need look no further than ourselves. Ask not who tolled the bell; we did.

    Bryan Gould
    9 January 2020