Friday, 23 December 2016

A View of 2016

I just had to share this absolutely fantastic effort from Steve Braunias, it is long but it tells it as it is... and over the holidays you should make time to read and consider the irony of our age. Have a happy Christmas and New Year.


Steve Braunias: 2016 - the way we were

New Zealand Herald
Every single time I shop at my local dairy, the owner asks, "Busy day?" Sometimes it's a statement, rather than a question: "Busy day." Now and then there's an exciting variation, and he repeats himself: "Busy day, busy day."
He says it on Mondays with the same conviction as when he says it Sundays, when you'd think he'd give it a rest. Some days I'm busy and sometimes I'm not but he doesn't allow any choice on the matter. It's a stressful encounter. I stand there with my milk and biscuits and flyspray, and his statement makes me feel anxious, harried, under pressure - I should get a move on, put my shoulder to the wheel as soon as possible, because my life, apparently, is so constantly and remarkably busy.

The thing is that he says it to all his customers. "Busy day." His message is indiscriminate and unchanging. "Busy day." Any repeated chant takes on the appearance of a profound truth. "Busy day."
That's the other thing about this convenience store prophet: he's right. It's true. We're all busy. We're all flat-out.

We're all go, go, go, and it's not just the usual petty demands on our time - work, family, household chores, the internet god. He's talking about our lives as private citizens in the second decade of our online, post-GFC century. We're busy coping with it, dealing with it, maybe profiting from it, or just navigating our way through it, clinging to the various wreckages of capitalism - mostly, or most profoundly, we're busy worrying.

We're worrying 24/7. We're worrying busy day and busy night, our heads aching with the central anxiety of what the world's coming to and how soon it's going to tear itself off its hinges.
Yes, alright, when doesn't it feel like that? The world's long been going to hell in a hat. But there is a new threat in town. Right now, this minute, this very second, this Christmas and New Year, as 2016 creaks towards 2017, that reliable old condition of human existence - fear - has its pulse ratcheted up high as we approach the Age of Trump.

Trump, on his way; Trump, saddling up. We're on the verge of it. We're waiting to see what's the worst that can happen. We're about to enter a grave new world. We're on the edge of something that may or may not be an abyss.
You look to literature or some kind of art to find an expression of these times and maybe the best example is something written with such a level of fear and foreboding that the title of it is the date it was composed: September 1, 1939. WH Auden wrote his famous poem at the outbreak of World War II. "Defenceless under the night," he writes, "Our world in stupor lies." Quite.

The poem begins with Auden contemplating the near and terrible future as he sits in one of the dives on Fifty-Second Street. He meant a Manhattan bar called Dizzy's Club on West Fifty-Second. You could walk from that location now up Eighth Avenue, turn right into West Fifty-Seventh, go past Carnegie Hall, keep walking, and all up it would only take 15 minutes on foot to reach the stupefying command post of the President-Elect, Trump Tower.

You can mark the spot with the same words that Auden wrote about another crisis at hand: Waves of anger and fear / Circulate over the bright / And darkened lands of the earth, / Obsessing our private lives.
Donald in charge. What's he gonna do? What's gonna happen? The fear of barbarians at the gate has passed: there is no gate. Trump trashed it, and his billionaire cabinet o' barbarians are working on the terms and conditions of 2017. All that's left in this last week of 2016 is to worry, and maybe there's some kind of value or wan satisfaction to be had in looking back on the year to inspect the trail of breadcrumbs that led to Trump's election win.

I interviewed British writer Andrew O'Hagan in March. He was in Wellington as a guest of the international arts festival. Everywhere he went, people mistook him for John Key - they have the same beak sticking out of the same floppy, happy face. But the illusion was shattered as soon as O'Hagan opened his mouth, because he spoke English, and had interesting things to say.
Trump, back then, was merely a contender for the Republican nomination. Already his rallies were cause, as they say, for concern.

I said to O'Hagan that I thought of them as a "lifting up of nastiness". He said, "Oh God. I fear that you're right. What we're witnessing is a supernatural communal turn towards something deeply sinister. He summons everything that's worst about the American character and sells it back to them as virtue."

Then I said, "I was reprimanding writers over drinks last night about them being too sanguine about Trump, and finding him 'amusing'. I told them off to a standstill. I said that Trump was a juggernaut, a train gathering momentum, and that assuming he would gain the nomination, and goes up against Clinton, he has a very real chance of winning and that they ought not be so complacent or so 'amused'."
He said, "I'm with you on that. I think it is a juggernaut. Nobody ever went poor underestimating the taste of the American public. They could really go for this guy. He appeals directly to something vengeful and self-loathing in the American character. They look at that guy and see a reflection of something very essential to themselves. That is a frightening energy. And it could get out of control. It already is out of control."
What we're witnessing is a supernatural communal turn towards something deeply sinister. He summons everything that's worst about the American character and sells it back to them as virtue.
Out of control; and now, in control. How bad is it going to be? What are we about to live through? Time magazine's Person of the Year invokes the living subject of Auden's great poem - Hitler - but surely his madness is not so epic, not so ... mad.

Maybe the worst of it is going to be contained, as much as his reckless contribution to super-sized global heating can be contained, likewise his apparent determination to accelerate the capitalist impulse in America and further widen the canyon between rich and poor. As Gore Vidal once put it, in an essay on tax, "We [America] do not waste our billions weakening the moral fibre of the American yeoman by building him roads and schools or by giving him medical care and decent housing. We [prefer] that public money not to go to the people but to big business. The result is a unique society in which we have free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich."
Bad enough, but if Trump is preoccupied with rewarding American winners and punishing American losers ("You're fired!") then that's America's problem. Not our problem. None of our business, as Alan Duff wrote in the Herald about the tragedy at Aleppo.

The problem that makes it our business is Trump's relationship with the wider world. Foreign policy, Pax Americana, the empire strikes back, all that sort of thing. Even there maybe his danger is limited. Tempting to see Trump as Putin's bitch, his sheer incompetence haplessly conspiring to Make Russia Great Again.
It seems more likely, though, that Trump will do the world harm. "I'm gonna blow the hell out of Isis!" Cool, all good, please do. But how? Where? At what cost, at what consequence? I was talking with a senior National MP recently about Trump. He said watching the election result in Parliament was like attending a funeral. And then he buried his head in his hands, and said: "God help us all."
Rogue One, starring Trump. Run for your lives. This is not a drill. This is, potentially, a state of emergency. I watched Trump's election win on TV and felt afraid, felt that these were the beginning of end times. My thoughts were for my family's safety. Panic in the streets of Te Atatu: I rushed up to the dairy to replenish the household survival kit. I bought a 20-roll packet of toilet paper and a dozen bottles of drinking water. Pale, shaky, fear ringing in my ears like a bell, I approached the counter, and was told: "Busy day."
"Yes," I said. "Busy day. Very, very busy day! Exceptionally busy day."
Busy year: a week later I was cowering under a hotel table in Wellington at midnight during the earthquake. Strange to experience something that actually really is earth-shattering.
I was on the eighth floor and the hotel swayed and banged and it was terrifying and I assumed it would result in death, a great crashing from above, everything falling loose in a downward stampede. Certainly it made it difficult to sleep.

Strange, too, to feel a connection with a hermit who lives in the bush; Tess McClure at Radio New Zealand conducted an amazing interview with an honest to God hermit, Pete of Kaikoura, who described what the earthquake felt like in his hut in the ferns: "Can you imagine the noise? It was like being inside the Big Bang. It was like the universe was exploding, almost like there was nobody there to hear it - it was so enormous and chaotic it was like there was nobody left to be afraid. It was just totally consuming. And the smell of the earth, that was extraordinary. The earth splitting."

The earth splitting. He was somewhat closer to the seismic revolt than I was in my room on Cuba St in downtown Wellington. But there it was, a connection; what he went through and I went through, what everyone who felt it went through, was an intimation of world's end. And the urge, too, to be with others was the same.
Continued below.

Pete the hermit has lived in the bush above the Kaikoura coast for over 30 years, but the earthquake had him hoof it into town: "I found it difficult in the first three or four days just to be on my own ... I normally love being up here and it has to be a serious excuse to go down to the village. But it was really necessary that I be around people."

Maybe about 100 guests at my hotel spent the night in the lobby. Aftershocks had them gasping and trembling, and unwilling to face it alone. It was touching and actually kind of beautiful to witness. One of New Zealand's foundation myths is the belief that we rally around our neighbours in times of trouble, that we lend a hand, and here it was in action, the kindness of strangers, people offering comfort and practical help to those in need. A lot of people were freaked out. Some ran for it, literally, into the streets; some got in their car and got out of Dodge; most stayed put, and a truth was revealed - people want to be looked after.

Two old ducks in matching nighties were among those too afraid to go back to their rooms. Heroically, with determined jaw and steady nerve, I offered to walk upstairs despite the aftershocks and get things from their room that they might need - medication, clothes, toothpaste. But some other hero had acted quicker. I was quite annoyed about that.
Can you imagine the noise? It was like being inside the Big Bang. It was like the universe was exploding, almost like there was nobody there to hear it - it was so enormous and chaotic it was like there was nobody left to be afraid.
Pete, the hermit of Kaikoura
The earthquake was the most shocking event in New Zealand life in 2016 and the scenes in that hotel played out like a kind of dress rehearsal or vision of how things might be in the event of an even more serious crisis. People will panic. People will act fast to save their own skins. People will be on hand to restore order and provide support.

I look to football for moral guidance and have long been stirred by the story of the Manchester United air disaster in 1958, when 23 passengers including eight players were killed in a failed take-off at Munich airport; one of the survivors, goalkeeper Harry Gregg, emerged from the smoking wreckage and called out for help: "C'mon lads, where are you?" They came running. Many passengers were rescued.
I am describing natural disasters and instances of trauma because of the Age of Trump. The theme is crisis. There is already the sense of things falling apart in the decent society of New Zealand - child poverty, homelessness.

When the earthquake tipped Wellington and the top of the South Island out of bed, and into the streets - from my hotel room I watched the headlights of cars shining on top of Mt Victoria, heading for higher ground - another strange connection was made. To be evacuated is to be made, or at least feel, homeless. Who knew when they'd be able to return, and if there was anything left standing to return to? The immediate hours after the earthquake were dominated by that one ugly little word with its vowels sticking out everywhere: tsunami.

It was an interesting night. The aftershocks swayed the hotel from side to side like a palm tree in a breeze. Now and then I returned under the table in my room to cower. I looked at the convoy headed for Mt Victoria, I said no to an interview request from an Israeli TV news channel, I imagined the sea being sucked out and then returning, tsunamically. I stepped out on to Cuba St and wondered about the fate of the homeless guy I'd seen earlier that night trying to earn a few coins in the doorway of a shop by playing drums on a couple of cardboard boxes.

An earthquake might be the worst time to be homeless but there is no best time to be homeless. We were taught this lesson throughout the year. Homelessness, and child poverty, became the central ills of New Zealand life in 2016, although the Government will not allow talk of a housing "crisis".
John Key and broadcaster Mike Hosking acted out a comedy masterpiece in a Newstalk ZB interview this year when they got stuck into the big subjects.
Hosking: "Now this child poverty report today, do you believe that there is anything in there? Do you think there are 41,000 homeless people living in this country?"
Key: "No."
Hosking: "Right, neither do I. [Metiria] Turei was on the programme this morning saying that people who are sleeping on their cousin's couch are homeless."
Key: "But they are not homeless."
Hosking: "I agree."
Key: " They are not homeless."
Hosking: "What we have here as a country is 3.5 per cent growth maybe heading towards four, and one of the most prosperous successful economies on God's earth at the moment."
Key: "And some of these issues [of homelessness] are driven by the fact that kids are living in very poor family conditions where there might be drugs in the household."

Back in the real world, I remember an afternoon this year on the lower slopes of the Seddon Memorial. I was interviewing a man about a guy who had chosen to be become homeless; he had family and friends, but he was disturbed, and ended his days sleeping in an old military concrete bunker built into rock just above Tamaki Drive.
It was a sad story. It didn't have any relation to the wider issue of homelessness. No one and nothing was to blame. The man who I was interviewing had spoken to him not long before he died; we sat on the grass and looked out over the shining Waitemata. And then he pointed to a carpark on a promontory on Tamaki Drive, a horseshoe-shaped space for motorists to stop and get in some fishing on the tide.

He said, "That'll be full tonight with people sleeping in their cars. Every night. Been that way most of the year."
Displaced people. The unhomed, in cars and on couches, on the wrong side of the canyon that separates rich and poor, in the place we are all desire, in pretty, sunny Auckland, that city of accidental millionaires - the homeowners of suburbia, who woke up this year to find they were sitting on a goldmine.

I'm one of them, just another schnook who bought a house in the suburbs that rapidly doubled its value. I'm alright Jack. I'm sorted. I could sell up and join the rest of the Auckland exodus, swanning around mortgage-free in the quiet provinces or further afield - I ran into a couple this year who'd sold up in Papakura and were running a night market food stall on Rarotonga. They seemed pretty happy. I didn't see any sign they were worrying 24/7, although the concept of the Age of Trump was never far away, even in the lagoony paradise of the Cook Islands. It was there, talked about at dinner, around the pool, a subject that hovered somewhere beyond the reef.
At least we're all about to have a break from worrying about it. Christmas and the New Year in summertime. Family fun in the sun. We can forget the wretched Donald, and put our heads in the sea.

We can cheer up. It might never happen. Or we can take hope, and look to another work of art to find an expression of these times: the YouTube video of Patti Smith at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, singing Bob Dylan's A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, 1,588,686 views and counting, the world gathering around this campfire hymn written in an earlier time when the planet was teetering on the edge of disaster.
"I started crying almost immediately," wrote the best music writer in the world today, Amanda Petrusich, in the New Yorker. "The entire performance felt like a fierce and instantaneous corrective to times like these - a reiteration of the deep, overwhelming, and practical utility of art to combat pain."
She summarised the song, with its images of the apocalypse: "Who hasn't, in a moment of true desperation or fear, surveyed our world and found only ugliness?" Through tears, she found the song's purpose, as surely as Patti Smith did in her transcendent performance: "Dylan seems to be encouraging his listeners to shore each other up, to acknowledge the darkness and to bear it." Hard rain, coming, in 2017.

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