Christmas, (in)humanity and the inequality thing

It’s Christmastime and two journalists have something to say to us. Journalists? Aren’t they cynical, despised more even than politicians?

One I know well: Brent Edwards, director of news gathering at Radio New Zealand (RNZ).

On RNZ’s website in June Edwards, then political editor, quoted from a funeral tribute in May to Peter Conway, former Council of Trade Unions secretary, that Conway, was “soft on people, hard on issues”.

By contrast, Edwards wrote, most politicians are hard on people but soft on issues.

“As a result, what should be serious policy debates often degenerate into political and personal points-scoring,” he wrote. “That often deters or alienates people who would, but for the ‘hard on people’ approach to politics, have a significant contribution to make to Parliament.”
Edwards, in my experience respectful, decent and thoughtful — “soft on people, hard on issues” — did not excuse the media: “Politics is too often reported as sport where winning or losing is the most important aspect. The substance … (is) often overlooked.”

Well, sport has not had a good 2015, sliding into black holes of corruption, cheating, drug-taking, match fixing and payoffs. It is big business now and emissions-cheat Volkswagen showed us where big business too often goes.

Business-sport has corrupted the words of the reverberant 1897 cricket poem: now we must “pay up, pay up and pay the game”.

Words have been perverted to sanctify the slaughter of innocents. Al Qaeda and its offspring-competitor Islamic State — both incubated in the Saudi-domiciled Wahhabi sect — have cherry-picked Quran phrases to evangelise murder, rape and enslavement. They revel in atrocities in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the United States.

That is a dark side of humanity.

Now hear the second journalist (whom, obviously, I do not know): Antoine Leiris, whose wife, mother of his toddler son, was killed in the Paris jihad raids on November 13.

Leiris wrote: “I will not give you (the killers) the gift of hate.”

That short sentence is deeply sad, in the shadow of humanity’s dark side — and deeply joyous in its expression of humanity’s good side, the positivity of love and care.

A few days later in an Auckland cafe a young man in a turban was accosted by police after a woman who feared he was a terrorist had phoned them. Interviewed on radio, he did not spit anger and resentment. He spoke rationally and decently in his broad Kiwi accent — humanity’s good side.

Contrast the usually unforgiving and often vengeful victims’ court statements. They do give perpetrators the “gift of hate” — humanity’s dark side.

On that same side of humanity are United States police killings of blacks, no longer dismissible as isolated incidents. Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey said in February of such a shooting in August 2014 in Ferguson and subsequent such events that tensions could be eased if police got to know those they were charged to protect.

“It’s hard to hate up close,” Comey said.

Up-closeness was inescapable in small hunter-gatherer groups in humans’ early millennia.

But over time up-closeness eroded. The New Scientist on August 22 reported evidence of a mass slaughter of a settlement around 5000 BC, the third such finding.

The imputed explanation: crop failures, overcrowding or land pressures.

By then humans had settled into agriculture. Groupings were bigger and not so up-close. Settled living required structures, specialisation and hierarchies — and rules. The rules favoured those high in the hierarchies.

Behind the rules were fictions formalised in ritual and ceremony, including those of religion. These bound the ever-bigger groupings in common belief and cause.

One ritual in many societies was the marking of midwinter. Our Christmas is in midsummer but originated in the northern midwinter where it married the promise of spring to come with the redemptive message of the birth of Christ, prophet of love and care.

Modern Christmas has its own fictions. One is Father Christmas/Santa Claus.

Justin Trudeau, Canada’s new Prime Minister, told in October of, when 7 or 8, overhearing his parents giving away the secret of that fiction and next day telling his school friends. Most ran off crying, except for one who said his mother had told him, “because she couldn’t afford presents for me”.

That is a story of hard inequality — and a reminder of the core importance to us all of children regardless of inequality of birth, status and wealth.

Nicholas Winton, who died this year at 106, acted on that core importance. At considerable risk he rescued 669 children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia — then told no one what he had done. His wife, whom he married later, discovered it by accident in 1988.

Winton never explained his action. But in a 2014 interview he put it this way: “If something’s not impossible there must be a way to do it.”

His “something” was on the good side of humanity — a true Christmas story.