When I think of Otago, I’m inclined to think of it as a place of solid, practical people – people like Henry Shacklock, who made cast-iron coal ranges, the original Sir James Fletcher, founder of the construction company that bears his name, and Bendix Hallenstein, a 19th century businessman whose name lives on in a national menswear chain.Dunedin today still has an aura of Presbyterian sturdiness and self-reliance (although Hallenstein, of course, was Jewish). The Otago Daily Times is the last of the traditional New Zealand daily newspapers, still family-owned, still concentrating on what it does best – which is local news, delivered on paper – and faring pretty well compared with digitally focused papers elsewhere.
But I have to accept that my romantic view of Otago is hopelessly outdated. Because far from being a place associated with useful, functional things like stoves, houses and trousers, Otago has ironically become a name synonymous with the 21st century phenomenon of academic busybody-ism.
Unlike the business enterprises of those early entrepreneurs, this is not a field of activity intended to ease people’s lives or make a raw young country more liveable.
On the contrary, it sets out to frighten and discomfort New Zealanders with an almost constant campaign of shrill hectoring and haranguing. Its only point in common with Dunedin’s Presbyterian founders is its unshakeable moral sanctimony.
I refer specifically to Otago University’s once admired medical school, which gives the public impression of having become a nest of tiresome academics whose lecturing, sadly, isn’t directed only at their students.
No doubt there are many in the university’s medical faculty who continue to work quietly and inconspicuously with the noble aim of training others to cure the sick, the lame and the mentally afflicted.
But the most publicly visible Otago University academics are those on a self-appointed mission to save us all from our own folly – people like professors Doug Sellman and Jennie Connor, neither of whom misses any opportunity to whip up alarm over our alcohol consumption (which, by international standards, is actually quite moderate).
The odd thing about their highly emotive rhetoric is that most of the people at whom it’s directed have nothing wrong with them.
Most New Zealanders are sensible enough not to binge on things that they know are bad for them if indulged in to excess, but the New Puritans in the universities don’t trust ordinary people to make their own decisions. They think the state – guided of course by learned experts – should determine how we live.
Alcohol isn’t the only supposed scourge that gets these moral crusaders fired up. Fatty foods, sugar and salt are all on the list of addictions that we’re apparently powerless to resist.
Neither is Otago the only university that employs them. But it’s unquestionably the go-to institution if you want to be badgered about your eating and drinking habits. The Dunedin campus produces self-righteous finger-waggers the way Ethiopia produces marathon runners.
A previously unfamiliar one popped up a few days ago on Radio New Zealand. Dr Lisa Te Morenga of Otago’s Department of Human Nutrition said an improvement in Maori health required a reduction in the socio-economic gap between them and non-Maori. More specifically, she said the government needed to intervene more to help Maori make healthy food choices.
Introducing class politics into the health debate is nothing new, but it was what she said next that particularly interested me. According to Te Morenga, it’s difficult to make healthy choices when constrained by poverty, "especially when there's a plethora of cheap, high-calorie food out there".
This is nonsense. It recycles the tired old mantra that people are trapped into eating unhealthy food because it’s cheap; that they are at the mercy of slick marketing campaigns.
Plenty of nutritious food – potatoes, rice, pasta – is much cheaper than the Big Macs and KFC that a lot of Maori people eat.
If some Maori don’t know how to cook healthy food, then let’s address that. If people are miraculously still unaware that fatty food causes obesity, heart disease and diabetes, then perhaps we need to find a new way of reaching them through education campaigns.
But to suggest that people don’t eat the right food because they can’t afford it strikes me as lazy and simplistic, although of course it aligns with the prevailing ideology in academia.
It also absolves people of personal responsibility for their choices. They can excuse their bad eating habits on the grounds that they are the victims of heartless, manipulative capitalists.
I’m no apologist for the fast food industry. I curse it every time I pick up discarded McDonald’s bags or KFC cartons in the street. But no one is forced to eat burgers or deep-fried chicken, any more than they are forced to smoke.
Karl du Fresne blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz. First published in the Dominion Post.