Saturday, April 29, 2017

Immigrant bashing - it must be election year.

New Zealand has a population of 4596 million (2015, a few thousand more now), less than one suburb of Shanghai, Karachi, Beijing, Dhaka, about the population of Sydney, slightly more than that of Melbourne. Yet our senior geriatric politician who is way past retirement age trots out his xenophobic concern about the large number of immigrants, particularly those coming from Asia. They push up house prices, overcrowd hospitals and schools, clutter up roads. The other main political parties, instead of ridiculing his concerns, which should be the right response, try to finesse their immigration policies to make them look like they are doing something about keeping immigrants out. The reality is that much of the increase in the number of arrivals in New Zealand are New Zealanders returning home because the grass is greener here than in Australia, England or wherever they went in search of greener pastures. Others come here because New Zealand is a good and peaceful place to live in. That is not a bad thing and politicians should be proud of it. What's more, industries that underpin New Zealand's prosperity are dependent on immigrant labour. The vast farming conglomerates would come to a standstill without Philippine labourers, orchards, kiwifruit farmers depend on Pacific Islanders for seasonal workers, our hospital would not be able to cope without Philippine nurses and Indian doctors. All this is out there for everybody to see, yet politicians think that there is something to be gained from immigrant bashing. True, immigrants need housing and there are not enough houses built. There is tax free money to be made from the housing shortage. The housing shortage could easily be alleviated, as the Labour government did in the late 1940s and early 50s, by building more houses, but this goes against entrenched interests of property speculation on which New Zealand fortunes were built right from the beginning of Europeans settlement in the 1840s. Investors in the New Zealand Company in 1840 expected huge profits from the enhanced value of their land due to controlled settlement. Auckland was built on land expropriation, exploitation of native greed, and monopoly of land. The last thing speculators want is a mass housing project on land ripe for development. This is not new, but the housing shortage has little to do with immigration. Talking about immigration is a distraction from real issues that face New Zealand. What happens if the Chinese cut back on their consumption of milk powder or get these from other sources? This would bankrupt the New Zealand economy. What would happen if poverty and inequality reaches a point where there is large scale of dissatisfaction tat leads to social unrest? How long can the country subsidise the wages workers whose values has been undermined by cheap labour in other parts of the world. Our education is undermined by emphasis on trade or technical skills for the present while downplaying the liberal arts, which are at the heart of future creative thinking. Instead of debating such issues that really matter for the future of the country, politicians on all side jump on the immigration bandwagon, whihc is a distraction.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Universal Basic Income, what to do with your spare time.

An opinion piece in today's Dominion Post by Gwynne Dyer about Universal Basic Income raised some challenging questions. Paying a wage to people who are not in paid employment goes against the deeply ingrained Protestant culture and values. There is no problem with people making money from land speculation without working for it, see the opinion piece about High Country land tenure, there is no problem with people making a mint out of speculating in shares or property, but to pay everybody a living wage so that they could live in dignity, whether in employment or unemployed goes against the grain. Yet unemployment is a feature of the global capitalist economy. It is also a product of technology, automation. No matter what Trump says, the jobs he wants to bring back to America no longer exist, and both he and the people who voted for him know this. There is a permanent divide between those who are fortunate to have a job and those who are thrown on the job scrap heap. However paying everyone enough to live on raises the question of what would people do who have no paid job. How would they use their leisure. The wealthy, who have spare disposable income, learned how to enjoy their leisure, but the working man, not used to leisure, whose whole life centred around his work, would have to learn what to do with spare time. The elderly, the retired, who live on their pension, have a lot to teach them. Those over 60 or may be 65, have the remaining possibly as much as the third of their lives to fill in. They take up hobbies, interests, and feel no guilt for not working, or at least not working for money. Society would also have to address the role of money and such institutions as continuing education, fitness programmes, broadcasting, television, the internet and libraries. In our present state of libertarian capitalist thinking we lose sight of these, that the air waves are not there to be exploited for advertising and money, but for public education and enjoyment, that Facebook and other similar programmes are there to bring people together, to communicate with others, not to generate profit for those who gained a monopoly over these facilities. These are big challenges for the future, yet curiously, none of the political parties are interesting in confronting them.

Holocaust denial - do I care

With the film Denial on, a discussion of Holocaust denial next Sunday, and incidents of Holocaust denial, and a very interesting, well attended talk by the MP, Chris Bishop on his Honours paper on the legal aspect of Holocaust denial last night, Holocaust denial is the topic of the day. I found my letter to the Editor of the New Zealand Herald about David Irving's proposed visit to New Zealand in 2004, and David Irving's comments on it. I still stand by my letter, and I am proud to be associated by Irving with my much more famous namesake, Stephen Sedley. But now I wonder whether we should care about Holocaust denial. In the age of Trump, fake news is all around us, and spreading it through Facebook and Twitter is so easy and unstoppable. So what does it matter if some people believe that Elvis is still alive, the moon landing was faked, the destruction of the two towers on 9/11 was an inside job. David Irving said in his comments on my letter that he gave a talk to a small audience in Lower Hutt on his previous visit and no one was hurt, no one was killed. He didn't say what the purpose of his visit was, or who financed it, but clearly not many people noticed it and no harm was done. But then David Irving is just a shoddy historian with an oversized ego. Only his followers take him seriously. He doesn't matter, because he has no power. Joseph Goebbels on the other hand, an even greater liar, had great power, and his lies caused unspeakable harm. I am happy to completely ignore the Holocaust deniers of the lunatic fringe as long as they exercise no power. I would not argue or debate with them, I would treat them as complete meshugas and would lose no sleep over their utterances. It is so easy to ring up the radio station and say that the world's ills are caused by the Jews, put it on the Internet and swamp your lies with lots of 'likes' to advanced them on the search engine. As long as they do no harm, don't hurt people, I treat them as they deserve, put them on the box marked 'crazies'.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Is Jewish an adjective like Spanish?

If you describe someone as 'Spanish',' Danish' 'Polish' you imply a historical link to a land, a piece of real estate. This does not apply to Jews. Describing Jews always presented a problem. I am described on my birth certificate as Israelite, though there was no Israel in existence till many years later. The term 'Zsido' Jew, just as the term 'Yid' had many negative connotations, exclusiveness, poverty, lack of genteel good manners. As an acculturated, assimilated Hungarian, 'Israelite' was a description akin to Catholic (in fact, Roman Catholic to distinguish it from other forms of Catholicism) Protestant (with its different variants, Reformatus, i.e. Presbyterian, Lutheran, Sabbatarian). It implied that I was part of a happy family of different ethnicities. The price my grandparents, or more like great grandparents had to pay for it this was that they had to give up their language, in the case of my grandparents, German, their Jewish culture, and their religion was viewed through Christian eyes and norms. The notion that we were all part of a happy, civilized, liberal family whatever our religion and ethnicity was blown out of the water by the deeply ingrained anti-Semitism of European Christian society and ultimately the Holocaust. We have to face that we are Jews, with all that the term implied. 
The Zionists also faced these issues. They were not happy to transfer their European Jewish culture and traditions to a new land. They deliberately abandoned Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jews, they abandoned the religious practices, they abandoned, or tried to abandon the high culture of Western European Jews, Herzl wanted the language of Israel to be German, Weizmann had difficulty persuading the Zionist leadership to set up a world class university in Jerusalem, they wanted peasants with socialist leanings,  Hubermann faced great obstacles getting visas for Jewish musicians to set up a symphony orchestra. The last thing the Zionist vision needed is more Jewish fiddlers. The term Israeli doesn't conjure up an image of a Talmudic scholar, a shop keeper, a cobbler, a wine merchant (as were members of my family) a violinist, a professor, or for that matter a ganev, a thief, a crooked operator, yet the term 'Jew' has all these associations. A Jew is, to a greater or lesser extent, and outsider, with no attachment to the land, and the less he is an outsider the less he is a Jew. His value to society at large is exactly this outsider's perspective.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Jewish Jew

Mark Oppenheimer, host of the podcast 'Unorthodox', wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times. In this he questions why commentators, politicians, and people in general talk about the 'Jewish' people, 'Jewish' neighbours, 'Jewish' writers, 'Jewish' artists, and not simply about 'Jews'. 'Jew' is a term that is used in many instances as 'something bad', not something to be proud of. This is the price Jews paid for acculturation and assimilation. They think of themselves as Jewish New Zealanders, Jewish Hungarians, Jewish Englishmen, Jewish Americans. It is a steep price. It enables antisemites to pick on Jews, to imply that there is something phoney about them, neither quite one thing, nor quite another. I much prefer to think of myself as a Jew, who happens to live in New Zealand. Being a Jew defines me not only in my own eyes but also in the eyes of my fellow citizens, the Scottish, Irish, English, Maori, Polynesian, Chinese and Indian New Zealanders. It makes me impervious to antisemitism. I am who I am and don't want to join someone else's exclusive club. There is a lot I can take pride in as a Jew. If there are some idiots in the world who take exception to Jews, so be it, I am not going to lose sleep over that. If antisemitism is on the rise in the world it is not a problem for Jews, it is a problem for those who subscribe to it.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Story telling

Many years ago I went to Hamilton for a weekend of Jewish learning. This was before we started Devarim in Wellington, a long time before Limmud in Auckland and Kia Torah in Wellington. It was organized by Norman Simms, an eccentric, challenging scholar ( I hope that he won't mind being described as such) I don't recall the topic of the talks apart from Norman talking about Mendel Beilis, the victim of the last Blood Libel in Kiev in 1913. I don't think that there was much Talmudic or any other rabbinic discussion, but it was a very pleasant weekend of talkfest. One of the guest speakers was Morris Lurie, Australian writer of 27th Annual Hippopotamus Race fame. His talk on writing must have clashed with something more topical or controversial, because I was the only one who turned up for it. Thus Morris and I had a one on one conversation about writing. The one thing that I remember form this conversation is that he said that a story, a work of fiction, must be true. I can't say in what sense it has to be true, because after all, fiction is made up. But Morris Lurie quoted the work of William Trevor, a fine stylist and good story teller, who had just published a new collection of short stories as an example of a story that was patently not true. I suppose that what he meant was that an event, an incident that caused a disruption, deflected from the natural flow of the story was artificial imposed on the story line. 
I think of this because I am struggling to explore a very short story I wrote a while ago. It came to me in the middle of the night almost as I wrote it down. It is about the experience of an old man who can no longer orient himself, who is suffering from a degree of dementia. To unpack this story I need to know more about his circumstances, his relationship with his son, perhaps also with his absent daughter, his life with his late wife, his sense of both loneliness and self-sufficiency. All this must seem true and not contrived. 
Why I bother working on this story I don't know. I gave up writing fiction some time ago. I have a folder of unpublished stories, none of them good enough, though some are better than others. They could be revised, I could look for a publisher or publish it myself on the Internet, but who cares. It is all vanity. Yet here I am, back to writing. It has no purpose. It will not bring me fame. It is like my violin playing. I just do it because I am still alive and for better or worse I can do it.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Wisdom of the people

I have been playing Bartok's Violin Duos with a friend, and this made me want to know more about Bartok. I borrowed David Cooper's detailed biography of Bartok. It is a portrait of an era, not only a very detailed account of Bartok's life and music. It also raises questions about Hungarian and generally European liberal history. Hungarians were a minority in lands that were inhabited by many different ethnic groups, Serbs, Croats, Slovaks, Wallahs,  Germans, Gypsies and Jews. Whatever their ethnic roots, people were defined by the language they spoke. Those who spoke Hungarian were deemed Hungarian. Language defined people's station in society. The aristocracy spoke German, French, even English, the gentry mainly German. The people of the land, the peasantry spoke by and large, Hungarian. Thus Hungarian nationalism was rooted in this class structure.  So Bartok, whose mother was German, developed an interest in Hungarian, and ultimately other ethnic music of the Balkans and North Africa, thus siding with the peoples of the land. This was also a rebellion against urban bourgeois and aristocratic culture, which relished ornamented, decorated, virtuoso gypsy music, the music of banquets at country estates and the music of the city coffee houses. Searching for real Hungarian, and real ethnic music, rejecting the prevailing romantic idiom made a statement about cultural values. 
Listening to Bartok music, some of it still sounds 'barbaric', 'primitive', but some of it is exquisitely beautiful and haunting. I have listened to the First Violin Concerto that he dedicated to Stefi Geyer and the First String Quartet. These are just sheer beautiful music. But embracing nationalism and national music, Bartok was treading on dangerous ground. Bartok's music embraced the music of many different people, without asserting the superiority or inferiority of any. But once nationalism glorifies a mythical past that impies the superiority of one people over another, it becomes poison.