Dusty Roads

A Kiwi living in the new Zimbabwe

Keep an eye out for some changes…

March 5, 2018

For those of you who follow my blog, this will be old news. I have officially finished up with Stuff.co.nz as a columnist and that means something new is on the horizon.

There’ll be a few changes to this blog…a new name, adventure to follow, and perhaps one day, a little more about that Heavenly Father I wrote about in my last column for Stuff.co.nz.

But, initially, things will be a little hectic, so just getting updates and pictures through will be my main objective!

So stay tuned to find out what is around the corner!

 

A little farewell

March 5, 2018

Dear reader, it is time to say goodbye. Family adventures call, as does the feeling that this season of life is done. I’ll get to my final words soon, but first, let me thank you for the interest, the letters of support, the Facebook messages and personal emails (how did you find me?!).

I also want to thank the team at the Waikato Times for supporting me these last five years, especially Deborah Sloan, who defended me with fervor from the letter writers whether she agreed with me or not. Editor Jonathan MacKenzie needs a rather large nod for agreeing to take me on in the first place.

Now for those final words: the deeper I dig into different issues, the more I find they all run, like rivers to the ocean, into the very same subject.

You see, every issue that we as New Zealanders debate is done on the basis of certain assumptions. Whether we argue about euthanasia, same-sex marriage, sexism, the New Zealand flag or anything else, we are arguing about values.

We assume that those values, like individual freedom or the social good, actually exist.

But the more you stare at these issues, week in and week out, the more you find yourself asking one simple question; “says who?” (I’m not the only one asking. The faithless philosopher Jurgen Habermas is now earnestly asking the same question, and he is joined by a host of other secular thinkers).

It is a simple question, but it really, really matters.

After all, if we can’t point to some solid reason why all human beings have inherent rights, for example, then we are in rather a vulnerable position when someone comes along and disagrees.

It’s no good trying to say the most popular values of the day should win. Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela and a host of other big names from history are enough evidence to show that what is popular is not always the same thing as what is good or right for a society. Sometimes what is unpopular is the very thing worth fighting for.

Those who think what’s best for a society can be determined through survival of the fittest must first explain why the survival of our species even matters.

Surely, I hear you say, the best values for a society can be determined by research and evidence? Unfortunately we come unstuck there too. After all, finding a “solution” to a social problem depends on the solution that we think good, fair and right… so we end up back at values before we have even started.

The very simple fact of the matter is that our arguments all boil down to yelling “I’m right” very loudly at each other and hoping we will win, without ever being able to say exactly why we deserve to win.

Unless, as Habermas points out, we turn our minds to seeking whether those values are based in something or someone more permanent, more powerful, more persuasive than puny old us. Something or someone ultimately true, at the bottom of everything, or beginning of everything, depending on your viewpoint. Someone worthy of answering the question “says who?” with the words “I do”.

Someone like God.

So it is that week after week I have found myself with surprise at the feet of a familiar and beloved Heavenly Father, encountering not some ultimate truth or final argument, but rather a person. A person too big to fit into any one side of an argument, and quite determined not to most of the time.

Because, in the end, it’s not about which side of the argument we start on. It’s about whether we dig deep enough to find Him.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

Remembering well

November 11, 2017

I remember the sound of gunfire going off as we stood huddled under the doorway for protection from stray bullets. The roofs were tin, which couldn’t save us. I officially had my first introduction to war – a memory which would shape forever what I remember on Armistice Day.

It was Ivory Coast, and the exact moment at which this memory was forged is carved indelibly into my mind. It was midnight, the start of the new millennium. I know because the television was on, showing the celebrations occurring around the world at the exact moment we stood huddled against those bullets. I can still see the fireworks going off over the Sydney Harbour Bridge in my mind’s eye.

The sound of celebration, I remember thinking, was remarkably like the sound of gunfire. Even if it is the gunfire of drunken soldiers letting off steam in yet another dusty African civil war.

We came home to the peaceful green of New Zealand soon after that, and for a brief while I became a pacifist, reading up on the 800 conscientious objectors sent to prison during World War 2 in New Zealand. They were my heroes, until I started reading up on World War 2 and Adolf Hitler. Suddenly, saying the enemy was “fear and ignorance” or other such platitudes seemed too insubstantial to stand up to reality.

Reluctantly, I decided war is sometimes necessary, because man is sometimes evil. Like most of us, my ideas and ideals about war were then formed by movies, history lessons, and visits to old war sites around New Zealand or Europe. Like some of us, my thoughts about war were shaped by stories from a grandfather who survived it. Like a few of us, my opinions about war were molded by living in a country collapsing under the weight of a civil war.

We are 99 years from the first ever Armistice Day celebrations, and 72 years from the end of World War Two, and how I remember today is still changing.

Now, I have a son and a husband. The shape of war is no longer impersonal, the idea of good or evil no longer a generation removed. Those shapeless words, “sacrifice” and “service”, have been filled in, given flesh and blood, faces. What it took, the kind of people it took, to gain us the peace we enjoy, becomes more real every year.

In his best-selling book “Man’s search for meaning”, psychiatrist and neurologist Dr Viktor Frankl writes “there are two races of men in this world, but only these two – the race of the decent man and the race of the indecent”. He wrote as a Jew who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz. But he was not comparing Nazis to their prison-camp victims. Those words came after he wrote about the Nazi soldiers who tried, in whatever way possible, to show mercy in Auschwitz, and about the fellow-prisoners who out-competed the guards for cruelty in their own desperation to survive.

Decent people, and indecent people, can be found standing on every side of every battle in life, said Frankl. The only difference between them, he observed, was choice.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

This Armistice Day, I am remembering the race of decent men who made the choice to earn us the priceless gift of peace, and the parents who raised them.

What, and who, will you remember?

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

Ghosts of the past

November 7, 2017

If the demographers are to be believed, 500 years on from the reformation New Zealand still has not felt all of its effects onshore or off.

Those of us with even the slightest hint of European heritage can probably speak of an ancestor caught up in the wars between Catholics and a group that would come to be called Protestants, after Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door.

Protestants made up the bulk of Europeans to roll into New Zealand throughout the 1800s, with 90 per cent of the European population identifying as Christian.

Today, according to the last census, just under half of all Kiwis call themselves “Christian”. Split those numbers out into denominations, and Catholics now top the list, followed by the Protestant denominations like Anglican, Presbyterian or Methodist.

Virtually all are on a decline so dramatic it was the inspiration behind a story earlier this year called “Losing our religion“.

But here’s the interesting thing. A group called simply “Protestants” by Statistics New Zealand grew by 26.4 per cent from the previous census in 2006.

A group called “Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamental” grew by 11.2 per cent.

This abnormal growth was the feature of another article in September, and has caught the eye of experts around the world because it bucks the secularisation theory made popular in the 1950s, which predicted that in modern, educated societies devout belief would not survive.

As appears to be happening in America, according to the Pew Research Centre, traditional religion is in sharp decline. Chosen religion (based on conversion) seems to be growing, in countries both modern and modernising.

At the same time secularism’s growth is flattening out.

Why? Well, academics point out that it is largely thanks to birth rates. Those who attend church  more than once a week have on average 2.5 children. Those who attend once a month have on average 2.01 children. Those who do not attend at all have on average 1.67 children.

This holds true across all education levels and economic groups, and the more devout a person is, the less likely their children are to leave the faith. Aside from retention, Pew points out that pentecostal Protestants in America gain 1.2 members through conversion for every convert they lose – while traditional denominations have a net loss.

By the end of the century, according to award winning academic, and University of London Professor Eric Kaufmann, we in the West will face a “crisis of secularism”.

But the change beyond the borders of Western nations like New Zealand will be even more dramatic. In 2015 Pew made headlines around the globe with a study that showed the world is becoming more religious, not less, as we move towards 2050. Muslims and Christians will make up the lion’s share of global community in 30 years’ time.

China and Sub-Saharan Africa are the centres for substantial growth in Christianity. If “one of the world’s leading specialists on religion in China, Purdue University sociologist Fenggang Yang” is to be believed, current conversion rates in China would see two thirds of the population identifying as Christian by 2050.

Between the devoutly religious in modernised countries, and the newly Christianised in modernising countries, Pew predicts atheists, agnostics and religiously unaffiliated people will shrink from 16 percent to 13 percent of the world’s population by 2050.

International trends, as Kaufmann points out, will likely only accelerate the rate of religious growth and social transformation in the West. After all, many secular societies are already maintaining their populations thanks to immigrants, who tend to be religious. “The ‘browning’ of the West,” he writes “is injecting a fresh infusion of religious blood into secular society”.

So it is that the hammer blows which nailed a piece of paper into a door in Germany 500 years ago have not yet finished echoing in New Zealand or the wider world.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

#Mentoo

October 24, 2017

I can still remember the shivers that went up my spine as the story was told. A senior manager asking a junior staff member to pack items at a department store on the top shelf. The hands closing about the waist to “support” that junior staff member as they stacked. The notes verging on love letters left behind to say thanks for the help.

It was creepy. It was disgusting. It was sexual harassment.

But the manager was a woman and that staff member was male, someone I happen to know very well.

It wasn’t the first time I had heard a bloke talk about being sexually harassed at work. Far from it. In fact, I’ve heard enough stories to convince me that the sexual harassment of men is one of the great, untold stories of our time.

But it was the #Metoo social media campaign, in which “all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted” were encouraged to share their experiences, that I began to realise why we hardly ever hear these stories.

We don’t ask. And I suspect we don’t ask, because we don’t believe they exist.

According to the Human Rights Commission, an average of 72 sexual harassment allegation have been lodged per year over the past five years. One in five of those have come from males, although giving your gender isn’t required. Still, by the numbers, far fewer males make allegations of sexual harassment that do women – a pattern repeated in other countries.

Why?

Well, I couldn’t find studies in New Zealand addressing that question, but I did find an awful lot of assumptions. Far too many boiled down to the idea that the word “man” is synonymous with “perpetrator” while the word “woman” is synonymous with “victim”.

We seem to believe, in essence, that men cannot be victims.

Perhaps. But then again, if men under report on mental health issues (according to the United Kingdom’s Mental Health Foundation), and under report on physical health issues (according to American studies), why wouldn’t they also under report on sexual harassment?

And if both men and women are capable of feeling sexual desire, and of acting wrongly, then why shouldn’t sexual harassment by both sexes be much more equal?

We know it is in the case of sexual assault.  A recent study of tens of thousands of cases of sexual vicitimsation in America revealed what the authors called “a surprising prevalence” of female sexual perpetrators. Males were the victims in one out of three cases.

“Gender stereotypes interfere with complex understandings of sexual perpetration,” claimed the authors. In other words, we miss these stories because we don’t believe they exist.

New Zealand is guilty of engaging in exactly this kind of harmful storytelling.

After all, it was only in 2005 that legislation was enacted making sexual abuse of minors gender neutral, so that women could be charged with abusing boys (and a raft of other sexual crimes).

Left unchanged was section 128 of the Crimes Act, which means to this day only men can be charged with rape. Women cannot.

It seems that as a nation we have bought into a story about “toxic masculinity” instead of a more accurate story about “toxic sexuality”. So, it is no surprise to find that we struggle with the idea of men ever being victims.

But that script needs to change. Sexual harassment is serious, it is damaging and it is wrong, whether the victim is a women or a man.

Outdated stereotypes won’t help us solve the problem.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

The human cost

October 17, 2017

I first set foot in a brothel during my university years. It was an interesting experience for a number of reasons, but mostly for one unavoidable fact it shoved into the limelight.

That fact came to mind when I read of Auckland residents and prostitutes battling over street space a few years ago, heard the same in Hamilton later, and saw an update on the same war being waged in Christchurch this week.

The rooms I entered all those years ago were temples to the dissatisfaction of a nation, filled with priestesses and priests promising reprieve – for a fee.

That’s where the lesson came in. The fee. I realised the sexual liberation campaigner, who fought hard to legalise prostitution as a choice, had in fact achieved the opposite of sexual freedom. They had made sex less free.

That fee tells another story too. It tells us that no matter how we regulate and advocate and necessitate health checks for workers, we’ll never be able to bring this industry out of the shadowlands and into the light.

Why? Because it is an industry built on desires found in shadowy corners of the human heart.

I’m not being a moral prude. I’m merely being practical. If a man feels desperate enough to pay for that which should to be free, think what must be going on in his heart. His appetite is either desperately underfed or desperate to be overfed, whether it be for company, love or sex. Whatever the case, his life can only be very tragic to have to pay to find friendship, a feeling or physical intimacy.

I won’t pretend, along with the faux feminists or sexperts, that the women involved aren’t very often victims.  While it is nice of them to feed endless stories to our media about high-end, educated, “I have a way out” women-of-the-night, we ought first here to listen to the voice of the poor and the oppressed, the voice of the vulnerable.

Surely, they deserve a say too?

They do speak, by the way. In few and far-between reviews that show prostitutes are disproportionately women, less educated, and lack qualifications for other work. Reviews that tells us these women seem often to have been sexually abused as children, and are often under financial pressure.

The women speak silently, too, in stories like the ones in Christchurch, or Hamilton or Auckland. They speak in tiny details like the defecation done in public, the syringes left on lawns, and the hard words hurled into the black night.

Sometimes, silent stories speak the loudest.

That brings me back to sexual freedom, and its cost. As soon as we pay for any product in society we create a cost – but not just a financial cost. There are environmental costs, social costs, relational costs and all sorts of other costs we are only just discovering in every business on earth.

We are kidding ourselves to pretend there aren’t costs in this industry too. But in this case the product we consume is a person. The costs, then, must be personal.

And that is what the stories from Auckland, Hamilton and Christchurch remind us.

Are we proud to pass over such public pleas for help in favour of the well-heeled corporate madam saying in soothing tones that all is well? Are we pleased to pretend laws more than a decade old are producing the right effect?

I’m not. When you count in people, the cost of our current system is too high.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz 

Middle-class mobsters

October 17, 2017

Dairy, it turns out, is not nearly as dirty as the middle-class women.

I mean that in a purely environmental and ethical sense, by the way. I know it seems shocking, but when you crunch the numbers, test the rivers, and start interviewing people, it is difficult to avoid.

All 60 kilograms of me does more harm to the environment, and other humans, than a 450 kilogram cow.

I think the supermarkets know the secret dangers of middle-class women, and it is why they are phasing out plastic bags (hallelujah). It turns out people like me were going on turtle killing-sprees with those bags.

But I discovered the true depth of the middle-class horror story when I became an accidental member of a sort-of protest movement. One moment I was having a play date with another mum and child, the next I was elbow-deep in Tearfund’s Ethical Fashion Guide.

It was a horrendous document. It glossed over critical details and failed to explain core cultural contradictions. The problem was it still had a point.

No matter which way I looked at it, there were some things going on with my shoes, and jeans and tops that just weren’t right.

Now, do not be deceived as I was, into thinking ethical fashion is only relevant if you are fashionable. Do not think the word “ethical” is another meaningless modern phrase, it merely means moral.

In other words, ethical fashion could be called the “moral clothing movement”. You can no doubt see why the branding experts went the other way.

What it all boils down to is that the textile industry is the second biggest polluter on the planet, according to Forbes.

It’s right up there with petrochemicals, mining, recycling lead batteries and other toxic, dangerous things. You have to keep reading the list to eventually get to agriculture.

That means you and I are better off buying another latte than that lingerie if the environment is what we are worried about.

But it gets worse.  Never, ever has a cow trapped another cow in a factory the light of day forgot and forced her to work like a slave.

But we have done that with our own sort. We women, whom Harvard claims make most of the purchasing decisions in a home, have turned a blind eye when base and horrid human beings have stolen vital documents from vulnerable people and so kept them contained like animals in airless, artless rooms to stitch up a skirt. Or a blouse.

All the while, of course, they’re docking pay for any breaks until the debt incurred outweighs the money earned for working.

Cows don’t do that sort of thing.

How they keep coming out of all this looking relatively clean, while we seem soiled, is a mystery to me. It ought to be the other way around. Dairy gets called dirty, middle-class women don’t (for environmental and ethical reasons anyway).

But the slogans don’t tell the full story. The simple fact is that average women just like me are literally littering the world with waste every time we whip out our wallets in a clothing store.

Well, not quite every clothing store. That’s what the Ethical Fashion Guide is about. It turns out some stores won’t buy things unless the people involved in production are cared for, as well as the places things are made in.

That’s the sort-of protest movement I joined. It doesn’t have marches, or placards, or any semblance of organisation at all. It’s full of ordinary, every-day people trying to do things a little differently where they can.

It’s as simple as swapping a plastic bag for a better one, or checking our own behaviour before we chuck all the blame on the bovine.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz