Sunday, January 27, 2013

fairness and freedom

New Zealand and the USA both have their cultural oddities.

With organised sport for school children in NZ there is an award each weekend that is called the ‘player of the day’. Seldom is it the best performance of the day which determines the recipient of the award; rather it is more about whose turn it is on the roster so that fairness prevails above all else. Last week on CNN I watched a debate about gun control. Piers Morgan was arguing with two women. The women were defending their right to own assault weapons that can fire 100 bullets a minute. The world looks on and sees the absurdity of it. And yet the Constitution enshrines the ‘right to bear arms’ – and for them that means any ‘arms’ so that freedom prevails above all else.

Neither of these specific oddities are used in David Hackett Fischer’s Fairness and Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2012)but they could have been.  They fit right into his thesis. Fischer writes the narrative of both countries, thematically and chronologically, as told through the adherence to their core values – fairness in NZ and freedom in the USA. It is readable scholarship at its best. And as a Kiwi-American (and Indian) in background, I found him articulating that for which I have grasped for years. It was such a satisfying read.

Without losing his objectivity, it is clear that Fischer has an affection for New Zealand. You see it in little ways. For example, his painting of the drama at the signing of the treaty at Waitangi – ‘one of the great scenes in modern history’ (119). Another moving description is the narrative of Dame Whina Cooper’s Maori Land March in 1975. As a Kiwi, its kinda nice to have a foreigner take the time to write a book comparing the country that is big and central to the world with one that is small and peripheral to the world. Afterall, ‘not to be heeded has always been the fate of small nations’ (Raewyn Dalziel, 262). There is the odd mistake. I am pretty sure the cover picture is Lake Matheson, not Lake Murchison (xiii).  I am not into playing patriot games – because I believe the call to be a Christ-follower is a call to see past national boundaries - but I confess to there being a proud-to-be-a-kiwi which surfaced as I read.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


The welcome I received at Yangon Airport earlier this week forced my fingers with this post. There I was in this massive queue (2500 arrivals each day now). I finally arrive at the immigration desk and face the official. He adjusts the camera with a smile. I catch myself just in time. Breaking into Hindi with 'lumba adhmee' (tall man) won't further broaden the smile on this side of the border. And then no sooner has he apologised for the queue and he announces to me, 'Welcome, Mr Paul'.

That has got to win the award for friendliest welcome ever at an airport. So my mind drifted across to a few other awards up my sleeve...

for the most remarkable transformation
from mud-hut to maharaja palace

for the most grumpy pills taken by immigration officials
Los Angeles
whatever extra it costs to go via San Francisco, it is worth it

for the most technology-adverse
Mt Hagen (PNG)    
dig away - your baggage will be in that dumped mountain somewhere

for 'I'll be back - but only if God calls me to go back'
50hr journey, dim-lights, low-flying fans threatening to behead me, guns everywhere, custom officials playing TYO 'take-your-own' with my possessions ... all helped unnerve me a bit

for oxymoronic excellence
Abu Dhabi and Dubai, a dead heat
how do these Arab airports sell so much of the worst from the west which they supposedly hate?

for the longest immigration queue (in that land which invented queues)
London Heathrow  
once it extended two-thirds of the way back to the airplane

for most surprise on hearing three words, 'international transfer desk'?
Perth (with Melbourne as runner-up)
Australia IS lovely, but some people actually do pass through the country

for having a carpet diminish an otherwise exuberant experience
never mind - the whole airport is like an airline's business lounge anyway

for having a carpet enhance the exuberant experience
New Delhi
it is mogul-coloured - how cool is that?!

for the ease with which to arouse smuggling suspicion
Bandung (Indonesia)
goodness me?! they even went through the lining of my suitcase

for most likely to inspire car-usage
'NZ is such a beautiful country - I really do prefer to drive ... 8 hours!'

for most likely to stay competitive
Kuala Lumpur
their eyes never seem to leave Singapore - and it works

for being most paranoid about security
Hong Kong
'so we go through security in London - then 12 hrs to Hong Kong, with another 12 hours onto New Zealand beckoning - and you want us to do what while we have 2 hours in transit in HK?' 'Oh right - stand in a security line for 90 minutes?!'

for being the best airport to step my feet into and stretch those hammies in a hurry
it means I'm home

[With apologies to Latin America and Europe where I have traveled very little]

nice chatting


Sunday, January 20, 2013

four more years

It is no great surprise that TIME magazine's Person of the Year is Barack Obama. The cynic in me recognises that about once every four years the President of the USA is predestined to win the award.

I don't read TIME anymore, but picked up a copy on the plane and found the article by Michael Scherer to be absorbing. And yes, as I read, it did occur to me that maybe TIME is in Obama's pocket, almost as much as Fox News isn't.

Nevertheless, Obama's win was more convincing than is readily acknowledged. Only five other Presidents have gained a majority of the popular vote twice. I do not agree with his every policy, but nor do I consider it wise to assess a leader on the basis of just one or two policies. As I read - with Inauguration Day tomorrow - I was reminded of a few things about leadership...

The effort expended on listening 
The demographic is changing so quickly. Follow the Hispanic vote over the years, just for starters. Obama's team listened long and hard and systematically - and listening builds trust. 'The President feels a responsibility to advance the values he sees reflected in the changing electorate.' In following the election, I couldn't help sense that the Republicans were trying to hang-on to something that was passing away. Like grabbing the balloon that has already been untied. It reminded me a lot of the Barna Group research project (UnChristian) which sent shock-waves through right-wing Christianity. Something seismic has been happening. Regardless of whether we like it or not, at the very least we do need to wake up and listen.

Monday, January 07, 2013

the lady

Over Christmas I spent time getting to know Aung San Suu Kyi.

I started with Justin Wintle's book, Perfect Hostage, picked up at the bookshop in the departure area of Phnom Penh airport.

Given the recent developments in the story, it is a bit dated (2007). However I found it valuable to begin my pilgrimage with a book written in the midst of the long season of hopelessness. Plus one third of the book is devoted to the history of Burma which recent events will not change - and which provide the all-important context for them.

Burma is not an easy part of the world for a mother-tongue English-speaker like me - with its names and places and acronyms being so foreign to me - and so the glossaries were indispensable.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

black caps at midnight?

Things are looking  bleak for the NZ cricket team. It feels like the darkest of midnights, with a long time until dawn. Dismissed for 45 and losing by an innings and 27 runs? Sounds pretty bad. But people are over-reacting in their criticism of the team. Here are five reasons for the darkness and why it could still prove to be 4am, rather than midnight.

1. As a sports fan living in Chicago in my early twenties, it was inevitable that I grew to enjoy American sport. One thing I learned is that when the 'front office' is a mess, you cannot expect the team to perform to their potential. If the administrators of the game and the management of the team are a bit lost, it is reasonable to expect the team to be losing as well.

The 'front office' in NZ cricket is a disaster zone. No sooner do they let John Wright go as the coach, then they have the captain of the team fired in the most shameful circumstances.  I was never in favour of Ross Taylor as captain, but the way he was removed is scarcely believable. Let's not allow this bad news in the New Year (about the team) to eclipse the much worse news before Christmas. The feet of the front office need to be kept close to the fire.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

charisma and leadership

It is not every day that the eye falls upon a book on leadership where the case studies, so charming in their sycophancy, include the likes of Mao Tse-Tung, Tito, Ceausescu, Chou En-Lai, Hodja (Albania), and Khrushchev.

But such was the case when I wandered through one of my favourite bookshops - in the departure area of the Phnom Penh airport. I've always thought the shop to be a great marketing strategy. Most visitors to the country have had their eyes and hearts filled with the worst things they will ever encounter - and so on their departure, why not give them the resources to enable their minds to catch-up with eye and heart over time? There is no shortage of choice.

On this visit I purchased two Aung San Suu Kyi books (you know you've arrived in Asia when you can spell 'Phnom Penh' and 'Aung San Suu Kyi'), one on Gandhi's leadership style ... and then my eyes saw this little red book. No ISBN number. Published by the local (state-owned?) newspaper - a sure sign of objectivity! It is simply called Charisma and Leadership. I doubt whether it will ever be carried by Book Depository or Amazon.

The book is written by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the recently deceased king in Cambodia - who was first placed on the throne as far back as 1941. That is 71 years ago! His goal in the book is to provide 'a light tribute to his friends'. He wants to expose 'the human side of great leaders of the twentieth century' - a human side that otherwise 'remains hidden inside their marble statues and monuments' (xxii).

The most revealing paragraph comes in the Foreword, the only section which the King wrote himself. In it he lists the qualities which marked the lives of these leaders.
One could list eight traits of which they shared perhaps five - charisma being the one rare quality they all possessed. The others which suited the mold included loyalty to old friends, blind dedication to an ideal, a love for their people, a desire (which did not always materialize) to improve the well-being and economic prosperity of their citizens, a wish to serve as a father figure, the aim not to take back what they had once given to their people and to instill pride, forge a unique identity (often undefined) to their nation (xviii) ... They opposed being deified but couldn't refuse to allow their people to worship them (xx).
What do these eight traits look like when placed within a biblical, or Christian, framework? It is a good question to ask. Where would the continuities and discontinuities lie with Jesus, the leader? Or, even with someone like Aung San Suu Kyi, the subject of my next post.