Henry Laws: Dynamic duo of dysfunctional rhetoric, or just ‘excitable boys’?

I made a bold prediction a few days ago. I suggested that Michael Laws would write a column in today’s Sunday Star Times defending Paul Henry.

Mea culpa. Laws defied my predictive powers and wrote instead about Len Brown and the Auckland mayoralty. However, Laws didn’t disappoint entirely, he has made some comments defending Henry and, along the way, he’s also now made some nasty personal and racist comments about G-G Sir Anand Satyanand.

Ah Michael, you are a paragon of certainty in this uncertain world. How will you manage without the benefit of the mayoral chains yourself. Perhaps you will be less prominent in our lives — at least for those of us who don’t listen to you talk-back drivel.

The tide of commentary about Henry is still rising and despite the absence of Laws’ in today’s papers, there’s plenty of others, including a surprising defence of sorts from Finlay McDonald.

Had Henry ventured that we might like to see, for example, a white person back in Government House, it would seem a little more clear-cut. But as every commentator was obliged to observe from the outset, by seeming to invoke some archetype of New Zealand-ness, it was logically possible he meant to include Maori as well. Straight away, then, it was a little more complicated than a bigoted buffoon running amok on state television inciting race hate. In other words, he might benefit from at least a little bit of doubt.

[Let’s draw the line between idiocy and true racism]

Sorry Finlay, I totally disagree. What ever excuses are cooked up, there was intent in Henry’s comments, just as there was in Michael Laws’ attack on Satyanand last week too.

They are birds of a feather and both deserve to be criticised for their loose lips, not given any benefit of the doubt.

Perhaps, though, if we want to excuse their ugliness, we could suggest, that they are nothing more than “excitable boys”.

I did try this week to listen to Laws’ comments about Henry, but I couldn’t get the audio to play online in my office. It just froze.

“Should Paul Henry go?” – Michael Laws – Audio Player – Audio

5 Oct 2010 Michael Laws RadioLIVE opening editorial, 5th October 2010. “Should Paul Henry go?”

I tried again this morning and I am absolutely gobsmacked at how awful Laws’ voice and diction are. Grating, horrible squawking, high-pitched, dreadful. I now firmly believe that Laws was a better mayor than a broadcaster.

In this diatribe he calls Joris de Bres “Doris” and suggests that he’s got “thrush”..”of the mind”. He truly is a disgusting animal. He then says of Satyanand “He is…He’s a darkie…that’s what Paul Henry was implying.”

He goes on to suggest that Henry “wouldn’t have a problem” with Satyanand if he had been Maori or of Samoan descent, but then this: “It [Henry’s outburst] was because he’s a Fijian Indian.” This after Laws has already pointed out that Satyanand has a “Pakeha” mother and was born in New Zealand.

The offending comments about Satyanand are not in this 8 minute segment, but thanks to a piece in the Herald on Sunday today, we can read Laws’ comments about the G-G.

Radio host Michael Laws has come under fire for calling Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand a “large, fat man” who has “never left” the buffet table.

“That reminds me of Anand Satyanand, but Anand Satyanand could never move that quickly. He is a very large, fat man,” he said.

“I don’t know why but just on an Indian it seems slightly incongruous.
“I mean, we don’t all expect Indians to be begging on the streets of New Delhi, but it’s like Anand discovered the buffet table at, like, 20 and he’s never really left it.”

Well for a start, we know that Sir Anand is not “Indian” and that Laws has acknowledged this, but still, in his own ‘defence’ Laws returns to the “fat Indian” theme:

Laws yesterday said he stood by everything he’d said. De Bres’ opinion “is so out of touch with mainstream New Zealand”, Laws said, and the uproar about Henry was exaggerated by the media.

“I didn’t realise weight was a racial issue,” he said. “I just said he’s a fat Indian man, which is true. He’s a fat Indian.”

I can’t help but think that this is deliberate on Laws’ part. It’s a form of talk-back dog-whistling. Lightly coded language that disguises the real message to supporters. In this case the message is that Satyanand is not ‘one of us’. He’s “Indian” [clearly he’s not!] and therefore fair game. By calling Joris de Bres “Doris” Laws also denigrates the office of race relations commissioner in a similar way.

In the sequence laid out above it’s clear that Laws knows Satyanand is not “Indian”, but by going back to that trope he attempts to argue it’s not about ethnicity or race at all. Then why does he keep referring to “Indian”? It can only be to pander to his audience’s prejudices while trying to appear above the racism charge.

Perhaps Laws producers also push him to be provocative as it is being suggested the Breakfast producers did with Paul Henry acocrding to Rebecca Lewis in the HoS. The bigger issue raised in Lewis’ column is whether or not Henry’s apology was adequate.

The apologies were couched in personal terms – as if the only issue was personal offence to Anand Satyanand. There was no apology for racist implications, or a wider apology for offending other people. But the issue is bigger than a personal affront to the G-G.

The Treaty of Waitangi aside, there  is a deeper issue of racism in Kiwi popular culture and within the very cultural infrastructure – morning TV, the news agenda, talk-back radio and even stand-up comedy.

All the excuse-making, or attempts to lessen the import of what Henry and Laws said on this and in previous situations, are ultimately an attempt to sweep under the carpet the bigger picture question of racism in New Zealand and to pretend that there isn’t a problem when clearly there is one.

Post-colonial settler societies (USA,  Australia, New Zealand, Canada in the English-speaking world) are riven by contemporary and historical racism. Populist figures like Henry and Laws legitimise this in popular culture by making jokes, or (as in the Laws case shown here) deliberately misrepresenting the truth to make an ideological point.

This is a debate New Zealanders have to have with themselves – as a foreigner myself I am reluctant to say this, but I do have strong opinions and as an Australian I am familiar with deeply-ingrained racism in popular culture.

So far the debate has been OK, everyone is grappling with the context and the implications of Henry’s comments, but there’s not a great deal of clarity around the key issues. Here’s a quick summary of points made to date:

Undoubtedly the opinionated Breakfast show host has committed a professional foul and exposed himself to be a racist after questioning Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand’s bona fides as a New Zealander. [Jane Bowron, Dom Post 8/10]

I don’t want to get lost in sophistry here and pretend that what was said can’t be described as a form of low-wattage racism should you so wish. But it strikes me you can also describe it as anything from dopey or weird to tragically ill-informed and irresponsible, without making that final leap into the race pit. [Finlay McDonald, SST 10/10]

Karlo Miller’s commentary in the Dominion Post is worth reading for the personal insights and reactions. I think she’s right about the ‘redneck pulse of internet trolls’ and this is an important indicator of the state of popular racism in New Zealand today:

From the prime minister to the state broadcaster, to the interesting assumptions that we want to consume these conversations, that we have a taste for exclusion and rejecting Kiwi-born people as real New Zealanders because of their ethnic background, regardless of their contribution or role.
Such assumptions from a state broadcaster suggest it has its finger on the reactive redneck pulse of internet trolls, rather than the heart and state of the nation. [Karlo Miller, Dom Post 8/10]

In the Dominion Post last week Rosemary McLeod’s position also surprised me ; likening the reaction against Henry as a witch-hunt, which it is not:

Judging by the reported thousands of complaints to TVNZ, I seem to be the only person who wasn’t gripped by instant apoplexy, and I confess that I still see Henry’s comments about the governor-general as a facetious buildup to pushing his own claim to the next appointment, on the basis that he is, in some unspecified way, a “proper New Zealander”.

He has been punished. Fair enough. He’s off the air for two weeks, which will cost him a lot of money, and he’ll be on notice from his employer, now that he remembers he has one, that such silliness won’t be tolerated in future.

Yet this is not enough for the mob. I guess they want him to be sacked. So what worries me? Well, I’m never happy about a witch- hunt.

It’s not a witch-hunt because it is important, it’s not as Michael Laws suggested, a lynch mob in Queen street. It’s a political issue that needs to be aired and there’s a groundswell against Henry. As has been shown [see EM’s previous posts for details] Henry is a serial offender and so is Michael Laws. They are licenced to be the voice of New Zealand’s racist underbelly.

The more exposure this gets the easier it is to deal with.

Martin Kay in the Dom Post on 4  October:

Paul Henry has built a career on the back of his abrasive, shoot-from-the-lip style, never afraid to offend and never far from controversy.

But he has gone way over the line with his comment that Governor-General Anand Satyanand doesn’t look or sound like a New Zealander.

This was early in the piece, but summarises nicely the reaction from many quarters.

MAORI Affairs Minister Pita Sharples has joined calls for controversial Television New Zealand broadcaster Paul Henry to be sacked over “racial remarks”.

Sharples said his party had responded appropriately.

“I’ve said publicly that it’s not on and he should go because you can’t have, no matter what you say, the underlying inference was racist therefore you can’t have that as a front person being paid by the public to do this show,” he said. [Sunday News 10/10]

There’s an interesting column from John Tamahere in the Sunday News too [What is a New Zealander?], it attempts to broaden the definition of ‘Kiwi’ as just about anyone from anywhere, Tui drinkers and jandal wearers; but it still ends up falling back onto nationalist and patriotic stereotypes.

Someone who likes to have a bit of a whinge but at the end of the day knows that being a Kiwi is the best thing in the world.

I don’t sing  Pokarekare Ana, wear jandals or drink Tui. I live here, but I’m  not a Kiwi; does that mean I don’t belong, or I don’t fit in?

The whole attempt to define ‘Kiwi’ is exclusionary and therefore a gateway emotion that can lead easily to racism. Do I have to think that “being a Kiwi is the best thing in the world”? What if I don’t? Do I have to go back to where I came from, even if I don’t want to?

Someone who wouldn’t have any other place to go to if they had to “go back where they came from”.

There has to be room for people who are different and who don’t think this place is “Godzone”. And there has to be room for hard debates on difficult topics, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Attempting to hide it all under a blanket of faux inclusiveness is short-sighted and fatally flawed as a strategy for fighting racism.

Here’s what I can sign up to:

Someone who calls New Zealand home.

Someone who thinks everyone deserves a fair go.

To me that’s enough. This is my home for as long as I choose to stay here.

I vote, I work, I pay taxes. I am committed to improving New Zealand while I’m here.

I enjoy walking along Kohi beach in the evening; I love ‘fush and chups’ from the Fish Pot at Mission Bay and I like loads of Kiwis – those I work with and those I socialise with; even most of the 1.3999 million that I don’t know.

I like my multicultural and multi-ethnic taxi drivers and I always tip them.

I understand why the Treaty is important and respect the kaupapa of Maoridom. I like and appreciate the importance of Maori and Polynesian culture, hip hop, reggae, Anika Moa and Gin Wigmore, Dave Dobyn, Tahuna Breaks, Solarosa, Diwhali and the Lantern Festival.

I don’t even mind the stench of sulphur in Roto Vegas.

I don’t like racism.

Finally, I have to rescue ‘gonzo’ from this discussion. Frances Morton’s column today describes Henry’s style as “gonzo journalism”. I can’t let this go.

Everybody knows: Breakfast television is meant to be bland. But Paul Henry’s gonzo journalism is following down the well-trodden path of shock jock infamy – and that path never ends well. [Tick tock shock jock]

I am an afficionado of gonzo and its greatest proponent, the late great Hunter S. Thompson.

Gonzo is not Henry’s buffonery, gonzo is a serious journalistic form that grapples with big issue in a humorous way, but with deadly intent.

Gonzo journalism is a style of journalism that is written subjectively, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative. The word Gonzo was first used in 1970 to describe an article by Hunter S. Thompson, who later popularized the style. The term has since been applied to other subjective artistic endeavors.

Gonzo journalism tends to favor style over accuracy and often uses personal experiences and emotions to provide context for the topic or event being covered. It disregards the ‘polished’ edited product favored by newspaper media and strives for a more gritty approach. Use of quotations, sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, and profanity is common. [Wikipedia]

Thompson cannot defend himself, but I can say with the utmost confidence that he would regard Paul Henry with towering contempt. I have no doubt HST would regard Henry and Laws as the “thieves and pimps” who give journalism a bad name:

The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.

And though he never came to New Zealand and hardly ever left America for most of his adult life, perhaps this HST quote sums up what it means to be from somewhere, anywhere in fact:

“In a nation ruled by swine, all pigs are upwardly mobile—and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together: not necessarily to win, but mainly to keep from losing completely. We owe that to ourselves and our crippled self-image as something better than a nation of panicked sheep.”


For HST: a generation of swine


And now dear reader, for your enlightenment and entertainment, another dead hero and a close friend of HST, Warren Zevon, with an anthem for the two excitable boys.

3 Responses to Henry Laws: Dynamic duo of dysfunctional rhetoric, or just ‘excitable boys’?

  1. Adam says:

    “There has to be room for people who are different and who don’t think this place is “Godzone”. And there has to be room for hard debates on difficult topics, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.”

    Hmmm, I would agree with this part.

    I think this business has got out of hand, frankly. I suspect that Michael Laws does have racist views, however I don’t accept that calling the G-G fat is racist because he has Indian ethnic heritage. He’s a nice man, and does a fine job. But he is a portly gentleman. Just like Gerry Brownlee and Parekura Horomia among others. For Laws to riff on this fact is crass, yes. Rude, yes. Unfair, considering the G-G cannot respond; certainly.
    But racist? This is buying into the McCarthyist mindset that Finlay McDonald warns against, in my view.

    And as for Joris De Bres? He cheapens his office by weighing in on the debate – and displays his hypocrisy having previously defended Hone Harawira’s now-infamous “white mofo” outburst as freedom of speech.

  2. […] “Henry Laws: dynamic duo of dysfunctional rhetoric” and related posts (ethicalmartini.wordpress.com) […]

  3. John W. Eekes says:

    The real problem with the Governor-General isn’t his size or ethnicity. The problem is his membership in the self-serving, bipartisan cohort of judges and lawyers who consider themselves born to rule this country and have done so for decades.

    Ruling classes throughout the Anglosphere co-opt whoever and whatever they can to legitimise their hold on power and give the impression of inclusiveness in what is in fact always an elite club governed by inviolable customs and shibboleths.

    Satyanand’s ethnicity might be a problem for Henry and his supporters. It’s not for the establishment who long ago accepted him and elevated him to office. What matters to them is membership in the ruling class of our very own good ol’ boys and gals. If anything, Satyanand’s South Asian origin served to make him Helen Clark’s top choice even though it aroused suspicions of tokenism.

    The only genius of the ruling class is its ability to pay lip service to lofty terms like meritocracy and public service, while exploiting the vast majority of people and convincing them that jandals, Richie McCaw and the quarter-acre section mean Godzone is something more than a lame concept invented by repressed depressives who clearly never lived or visited anywhere else.

    The debate on “who a New Zealander is” has for too long been framed by mindless stereotypes running along ideas not just of ethnicity, but lifestyle and intellect too.

    Orwell said, “Patriotism is usually stronger than class hatred, and always stronger than internationalism.” The inability to recognise the existence of the ruling class as a distinct entity is widespread even though the G-G is the best example of its existence. Kiwi anti-intellectualism, parochialism and disdain for outward-looking cosmopolitanism is also rife, and exemplified by Tamihere’s statement.

    Tamihere implies a person must unthinkingly accept that “being a Kiwi is the best thing in the world” in order to be a New Zealander. This astounding crassness reminds me of George Bernard Shaw saying “patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.”

    Tamihere reminds one of the fanatical, futile and proto-fascist “Loyal” campaign of a past America’s Cup when thousands of cars were accessorised with black flags, silver ferns and the word “Loyal” to allegedly express support for a small group of yachtsmen racing in that overblown contest.

    Tamihere’s dismissal of any recognition of this society’s shortcomings as predictable and dispensable “whingeing” is unfortunate.

    What’s also lamentable is the deliberate confusion of public service with office-holding that exemplifies the post of Governor-General. It is an unelected, parasitic position confined to ribbon-cutting, pomp and bluster.

    Laws’ only worthwhile point was mentioned in today’s NZ Herald, when he said the G-G deserves no more respect than anyone else. If he’d been elected rather than plucked from obscurity and unilaterally appointed by professional, perennial politicians like Clark, the Governor-General would command legitimate respect.

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