Monday, May 13, 2013

Karl du Fresne: Confessions of a dinosaur

My wife reckons that if I had been alive in 1893, I probably would have opposed women getting the vote. Ouch. That’s a bit harsh. I would, of course, prefer to think it’s not true – but how can I be sure? It’s unknowable. I have never thought of myself as sexist; quite the reverse. The people I most admire and respect have been strong women. I have never identified with the Kiwi bloke culture that thinks women should be kept in their place, whether it be the kitchen or the bedroom.
But as I say, who knows? My thinking has been conditioned by a century of liberal democracy. Attitudes were different in the 1890s and had I lived then, I might intuitively have been against such a radical change in the established order as votes for women.

My wife’s accusation arose in the context of Louisa Wall’s same-sex marriage bill. She supported it; I didn’t.
I didn’t exactly lie awake at night burning with rage over the bill, but it would be fair to say I was uncomfortable about it. I’m cautious by nature. I believe there are often good reasons why society has evolved the way it has over thousands of years and that we need to think very carefully before giving way to the fashionable impulse of the moment.

So, had I been an MP, I would almost certainly have lined up with those voting against the bill. But at the same time I could see that the arguments from the other side were hard to counter.
I realise too that human civilisation can’t always be relied upon to evolve in desirable ways, and that sometimes the status quo has to be overturned for society to progress.

There was a time when slavery was accepted as part of the natural order, and the brave minority who challenged it were seen as dangerous radicals. But who would now question the moral correctness of William Wilberforce and his followers?
The same could be said of any number of issues that once polarised conservatives and liberals, but which have now been settled.

To conservative white American southerners in the 1950s and 60s, civil rights for black people were unthinkable. Even more recently, white supremacists tried to justify the subjugation and oppression of the majority black population in South Africa. Anyone proclaiming such views today would rightly be regarded as some sort of Neanderthal.
Does same-sex marriage fall into the same category? We don’t know.  To use a cliché, the jury is out. Either we have made an awful mistake, or future generations will look back in bemusement and wonder what all the fuss was about.

In his inaugural address in 2009, President Barack Obama – a man who, because of his skin colour, would have been able to enter the White House only as a cleaner or butler if society had stood still – used the phrase “the wrong side of history” to describe those who are left behind by the currents of change.
Will people who opposed same-sex marriage be regarded in future as having been on the wrong side of history? It’s possible.

My wife’s accusation (it was a joke, but she was making a serious point) caused me to reflect on whether I’d stood on the wrong or the right side of history on other causes.
The first issue that came to mind was the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1986. Although I didn’t march in the streets or attend rallies opposing it, I admit I was uncomfortable with that change too, which may seem extraordinary now.

Was I on the wrong side of history? Undoubtedly. I suspect hardly anyone now would seriously argue that homosexual acts should be treated as criminal. But at the time, it seemed a very big leap and the country was torn. The legislation eventually passed by only 49 votes to 44.
It would be unfair to characterise all opponents of Fran Wilde’s ground-breaking bill in 1986 as knuckle-dragging troglodytes, just as it was wildly inaccurate to portray those opposed to same-sex marriage (as National MP Maurice Williamson did) as bigots and religious fundamentalists.

On other issues, my record is mixed. I opposed the Vietnam War and the 1981 Springbok tour, which probably puts me on the right side of history.
I broadly supported the radical economic reforms of the 1980s, although I recall being apprehensive about the sheer scale and speed of the changes. Like many New Zealanders, I was probably so accustomed to living in an over-regulated society that the prospect of being liberated from all those suffocating state controls seemed almost scary. East Germans must have experienced a similar sensation when they were reunited with the West.

Here again I believe I was on the right side of history. What was then considered radical policy is now accepted as mainstream, although the Left continues to fight a dogged campaign of resistance. (Helen Clark pandered to the Left by referring to the failed reforms of the 1980s, but strangely left them intact.)
Nuclear weapons were the other great defining issue of that era, and while some anti-nuclear rhetoric verged on hysterical, I believed New Zealand was entitled to take the stand it did. In the end, it became a matter of asserting our right to chart our own course and resist bullying by bigger powers. That’s another tick for the “right side of history” box.

On some current issues we just don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong. The climate change debate, for instance, is so ideologically charged that it’s virtually impossible to distinguish propaganda from reliable science. 
Treaty settlements? Those who support them may yet turn out to be on the right side of history, provided settlement money is wisely used to raise Maori achievement levels, lift Maori out of poverty and contribute to economic growth. Ngai Tahu seems to be on the right track. But scepticism will persist if settlement proceeds are used to promote separatism and enhance the standing and power of tribal elites, as too often seems to be the case.

On the current issue of paid parental leave, it strikes me as contradictory that when so much has been done in the past 30 years to roll back the state’s intrusion into people’s lives, there is mounting pressure for it to assume the role of a super-parent.
On that issue too I’m sure to be seen as a social dinosaur, stubbornly resistant to progress. But at least my wife agrees with me.

First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 8. Karl blogs at 


Anonymous said...

Not a dinosaur maybe just someone who prefers to think things through. At least you're willing to admit you got some worng. The fundamentalists never do.
Totally with you on the super parent one. I can't understand how we can decide that the state and employers are fiscally responsible for people deciding to have kids. If you can't afford them don't have them. They don't get any cheaper as they get older.

Anonymous said...

I have been fairly liberal most of my life and amongst other events accepted homosexuality as a fact not to be criminalised. I was and still am unhappy with their absconding with the word gay but accept that it was a fait accompli. I am and will be until the day I die, hurt and angry over their stealing the word marriage. Homosexuals were given equal rights to heterosexuals with the Civil Union Act but this obviously was not what they wanted; they wanted the word marriage. By their misuse of the word marriage in their same-sex unions, they have disparaged and besmirched that which I and my wife held sacred. Sickened.