Oh alcohol, I sure drink to your health

I don’t mind a Martini now and again and occasionally I’ve even been known to drink more than’s actually good for me. But I don’t blame the booze, it’s usually a conscious decision, or in some cases, my judgement starts to lapse.

Lapses like the time I stole a bottle of vodka from a friend’s wedding party. I returned it once I’d come round and realised what a prick I’d been. Luckily my pals saw the funny side of the story and I’m not ashamed to re-tell it for a laugh now and again.

However, I am a bit upset about the political reactions to the death of Navtej Singh last weekend after a robbery-gone-horribly-wrong in his Manuwera liquor store.

The New Zealand Herald today (18 June) carries the alarming headline, Fear on the streets of Manukau.

Manukau residents are living in fear after the third homicide in the city in just over a week.

That’s a big call! But worse, now a ridiculous piece of legislation, that no politician would previously touch with a barge pole, is front and centre in Wellington and likely to be passed into law. It’s really no more than an attack on the civil liberties of a small section of society.

The aim of the private member’s bill is to make it harder for liquor stores to open in certain parts of the country. Usually this will be in low socio-economic areas. That is, it will presumably be harder for working class people to buy alcohol; while the lunching ladies and captains of industry in Remuera will have no trouble getting their hands on more quaffing wines, scotch and fine French bubbles.

Personally, I’m disgusted. I can’t see the links between three unfortunate deaths – murders that were an accidental consequence of a robbery – and the availability of booze in working class suburbs of Auckland.

It’s not going to fix anything now, or later.

I’ve posted previously and extensively on the concept of moral panic in the media. The coverage of this “alcohol breeds crime” story is a classic case. A sense of outrage and feelings of helplessness lead to “commonsense” reactions like “getting tough” on crime.

[read Pandering and moral panic]

The American journalist and man of letters, HL (Henry) Mencken first described the process of news outlets creating hysteria and then proposing a draconian solution in the 1920s. As my student Dallas wrote in an essay the other day, “whipping the public into hysteria goes hand-in-hand with being a journalist”.

This is a harsh judgment and doesn’t apply to all journalists, but as Mencken describes moral panic, you can see it all over the coverage of the Singh murder and the week’s events in Manurewa:

First scare him – and then reassure him. First get him into a panic with bugaboo – then go to the rescue, gallantly and uproariously, with a stuffed club to slay it. First fake him – and then fake him again. This, in substance is the whole theory and practice of the art of journalism. (HL Mencken 1920 [hat tip to Dallas])

So now that we are sufficiently “scared” – living in fear – are we are ready for the solution? In this case, a dimunition of our rights as consumers to buy a drink from a local liquor store.

But there’s another aspect to this story – the proposal from the New Zealand Police Service to have heavily-armed patrols in some parts of the country. Which parts? Well areas like Manuwera and other bits of “south” Auckland and perhaps those towns where so-called gangs have got a hold. They won’t be needed in the leafier and lusher suburbs.

“Armed response vehicles” would be manned by firearms specialists and provide a quick response to call-outs like last week’s shooting of Manurewa liquor store owner Navtej Singh.

The Weekend Herald can reveal a proposal for a six-month trial of the patrols is being recommended by a top-level police review.

[read Patrick Gower’s Weekend Herald “exclusive”]

Then there’s the racism. I couldn’t believe Sean Plunkett this morning [18 June] on national radio. He was actually talking up the idea that it is the fault of Asian women that they get robbed, mugged and murdered in shopping centre carparks. Why? Because they carry large handbags stuffed with cash.

[Listen to Sean Plunkett’s interviews]

For Christ-sake! Talk about stereotyping and adding to the moral panic. There is no possible statistical justification for such a theory, it’s just bullsh*t of the highest order. What’s worse Plunkett then gave National Party MP, Pansy Wong, who’s also Chinese-Kiwi, a free kick to talk up her party’s hard core policies on laura norder.

It seems “Laura Norder” is always out there prowling our streets and the dark reaches of our subconscious mind.

She is a heady mix of fact, fiction and fear and her influence is all pervasive – from the King of Talkback radio to the late night newsreader. But are we really less safe than before? Is the whole thing just fodder for irate columnists and a winner for the politicians?

[Listen to “Crime and Punishment” on ABC Radio National (Australia)]

Now there’s a fight going on in Wellington about who can be tougher on working class boozing. Labour is giving it’s MP George Hawkins a chance to get is anti-drink bill into the House and the Nationals say the government’s been weak on the issue for too long.

National is taking the Government to task over its record on violent crime, as the Beehive feels the political heat from three high profile homicides in South Auckland within nine days.

Sensitivity about the crimes was put aside in Parliament yesterday as National leader John Key accused Prime Minister Helen Clark of doing nothing to stem the growth of liquor outlets across the country, and challenged her record on law and order.

[read Paula Oliver’s NZ Herald story]

Good old HL’s once made a stinging observation about how politics works when an issue like this comes up:

one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule – and both commonly succeed, and are right

I hate it when politicians jump on the moral panic bandwagon and try to sell their party off the back of someone else’s tragedy. Mencken’s got something appropriate to say about this too:

The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office.

It’s enough to drive you to drink, except if Manurewa MP George Hawkins’ private member’s bill is passed, there’ll be nowhere to drive to to buy your booze.

“Harper, freshen the bucket! And find my that wonderful Bare Naked Ladies number Alcohol.”

2 Responses to Oh alcohol, I sure drink to your health

  1. […] the behaviour of gang members, without understanding it. It’s also the source of the media’s obsession with moral panics: By circumventing discussion of social inequality, the focus on bad parents and bad parenting […]

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