Get Free

Opinion is divided in the Powley household at the moment.  This isn’t unusual.  At the moment we are divided over New World’s latest promotion.


Every time you spend $40 you get a mini grocery item for the kids.  So far we have a mini plastic Vogels, Dole banana and Tip Top Hokey Pokey tub.  The divide in opinion is between  (a) this is a clever marketing campaign with cool toys, and (b) this is a pile of crap that will end up in the bin.

I’m in (b) corner with the Grinch and the Fun Police and will, of course, lose.  There is taking a stand and there is denying your two-year old daughter a toy (you cruel, inhuman bastard).  I’ve been in (b) corner all week and I think it was Tuesday that did it.


Tuesday: Lessons One and Two

I started the day at Parliament.  We take all our Year 9 classes every year when we do our topic on government.  Later on we’re going to Government House to try out their new education centre.

I was supposed to meet the class at the Cenotaph at 9.15am.  I arrived at 8.35am to find three girls were already there.  They watched me as I walked up, “you said you’d be here early,” one of them said.

“It’s 8.35.”

We were here at 8.12.”  She shook her head, then brightened, “can we go to Burger King?”

I was tempted to begin a “teaching moment” on fast food, but I let them go to Burger King instead.

I killed time with the other teacher on the trip solving the world’s problems: Syria, Iraq, and drones.  Behind us was the tall marble pillar of the Wellington War Memorial; the words over the door to the tomb of the unknown soldier spoke of the men who had died pouring out the sweet wine of their youth for immortality.  Perhaps.  Or perhaps it is making something horrific sound pretty.  Now we tend to make things horrific sound like an administrative task: “collateral damage in the target area”.  That kind of thing.

The rest of the class showed up over the next forty minutes, and then we filed up the hill to the security checkpoint at the entrance to the Beehive.

Our tour of parliament took in the House, the library, and a committee room.  The girls were cheerful, well-informed and inquisitive.  Some of their questions were good, and some of their questions really weren’t, but the guide was extremely knowledgeable and engaging and he had no problem with either type of question.  We learned that New Zealand was the only place in the world where members of the public could make submissions and appear at select committees.  That’s the kind of fact that makes me feel good about New Zealand.

In fact tours of parliament always make me feel good about democracy.  For many students I think they are little bit dull, but for some they are exciting.  One girl asked how one became the Governor General.  It is clearly a position she is lining up for herself in forty years.  Given her intelligence and motivation I wouldn’t bet against her.

Afterwards we had to go back to school and it was a bit like being a dad with 27 daughters as we walked down the hill to the Railway Station: “Can we go to McDonalds? Can we go to the dairy?  Can we walk?  Can we take the bus?  Can I go to the toilet?  Can we hurry up?  Can we slow down?”  In general the answer is no.  They should write this somewhere at the front of the teacher training manual at Teachers’ Training College.

Tuesday: Lesson Three

When we got back to school I went straight into a lesson with my Year 13 History students.  We are looking at Tasmania at the moment; Tasmania at the time of the “Black Wars”.  We watched episode two of the series called The First Australians which I cannot recommend highly enough.  I have watched this series before and I found that after each episode I had to turn off the TV and go and have a lie down.  Maybe even a cry.  Man’s inhumanity to man.  It staggers you; takes the wind out of you.  Even though I had seen this particular episode before I couldn’t really cope with the end of it and told the students we would talk about it on Wednesday.  Some of the students had been crying.

There is a woman in the documentary called Truganini.  She was an Aborigine from Tasmania.  Her story is long and very sad.  By the end of her life the Tasmanian Aborigine had become so rare, so decimated by disease, and murder, that some Europeans (incorrectly) regarded Truganini as the “last of the Tasmanian Aborigines”.  So fearful of her body being caught up in what had become a world-wide trade of Aboriginal skeletons and remains for “scientific” study and display, she told her friend to make sure that when she died she would be buried in the secret places:

“Promise me.  Don’t let them cut me, but bury me behind the mountains.”

Do I need to say that her body was exhumed when she died, and then her skeleton was put on public display at the Tasmanian Museum?  Her skeleton was put on public display.  God, what a life.  By the time she was twenty her father and brother had been murdered, her sister kidnapped, and she had seen her future husband drowned by the European sailors who went on to rape her.  In her face I see pain and resilience.


I told the students that we would talk about it on Wednesday because what is there to say?  Is this what is actually behind all the fine words and dress up of democracy?  Evil justified by the majority?  Of course, all of what happened in Tasmania was not directed personally at Truganini; if anything it was impersonal.  The impersonal forces of capitalism sweeping away peoples and cultures to turn the land to “productive” uses.  The tragedy of an individual is nothing against the trend of history.

Tuesday: Lesson Four

My Year 12 students seemed to be pretty worked up by the Blurred Lines / Defined Lines controversy.  Actually the lesson didn’t start with this, it started by looking at the plan of a group called Right Wing Resistance, to hand out anti-immigration/anti-Asian pamphlets in Auckland earlier this year.  In the article we were reading it mentioned that the Auckland councillor who had been alerting people to this fact – and was also Asian herself – had been receiving Facebook messages from the Right Wing Resistance telling her Chinese people were a cancer in NZ, and breed too much.  When she complained Facebook said it didn’t  breach their community standards.

blurred lines

And that was where the Defined Lines argument launched from.  Naturally it pretty rapidly went from who decides what about what is acceptable in an “online community”, to the lyrical content of the original song, to how the men and women are portrayed in the original song.  Towards the end I played them the Marvin Gaye groove to further annoy them.  The blurred lines in question turn out to be how hard it is for some men – married men I should add – to understand the difference between a woman dressing up in a sexy way and wanting to have sex with you

The way you grab me
Must wanna get nasty
Go ahead, get at me
What do they make dreams for
When you got them jeans on
What do we need steam for
You the hottest bitch in this place
I feel so lucky
Hey, hey, hey
You wanna hug me
Hey, hey, hey
What rhymes with hug me?
Hey, hey, hey

Um, fug me?

To be honest, aside from the Marvin thing, I sat the debate out and listened to it.  I think you can guess my views on Blurred Lines if you have read this blog before, but I don’t believe in using my classroom as a personal soapbox.  What I enjoyed about the debate was seeing what living in a democracy looks like.  A whole range of people, with a whole range of views, thrashing it out and feeling free to do so.

Well, that was my calm, phlegmatic view until Thursday when I watched a documentary about attitudes to women in India, and reflected on what we have been hearing about violence against female protesters in Egypt.  In both places the man on the street says – to justify sexual comments, assault and rape – that the women in question “brought on themselves”.  Would a decent women be (a) wearing that? (b) out alone? (c) out at all?

What do they make dreams for
When you got them jeans on?

But, you know, what is one silly video?  Aren’t you drawing a very long bow?  What’s one rape in the tides of history?

Tuesday: Lesson Five

So I sat down at my desk to plan the mayhem for Wednesday and someone had sent me this video.

Well, fug me.  I don’t know.  This is about as uplifting as what was done to Truganini in the name of civilisation and economic prosperity.  The failure of governments to escape the mentality of undiluted capitalism and continue to permit the strangulation  of our planet reminds me of a line by Martin Luther King:

“we are on the wrong side of a world revolution”.  

Martin was not talking about environmentalism, and his world revolution is something different from the planet itself in revolt and sickening, but the flavour of the message can still stand.  We see what is happening to the Earth and we look through it.

Which makes what I read on Wednesday morning desperately sad.

Last week Environment Minister Amy Adams announced proposals that would see applications for exploratory drilling go through the Environmental Protection Agency. They would be “non-notified”, which means members of the public would not get to have a say.

The proposal will be introduced to the Marine Legislation Bill, currently before Parliament, by way of a Supplementary Order Paper (SOP). This means it won’t go through a parliamentary select committee.

The move follows the controversial “Anadarko Amendment” which saw a ban on protesting at sea. It was also introduced it as an SOP, avoiding select committee scrutiny.

Sad because it strikes at the process I started the day with on my trip with my 13-year-old students.  The process where we were told that good law takes time, that the opposition is important, that the committee process is crucial, that we are the only country in the world that allows direct public submission at that stage.  Sad also because of this justification by Steven Joyce,

But Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce says attracting oil companies is vital for economic growth.

He released a report yesterday that claims the petroleum and minerals sector generates $333 per hour worked, with $380 million in levies paid to the Crown last year. Workers are paid on average $105,000 a year, more than twice the New Zealand average, Joyce said.

Maybe these workers can fly out to Midway with their new pay packets.


Exploration  for oil much of which will make plastic.  Much of that plastic is useless junk that nobody needs.  Like, to pick one example, little plastic toys given away at New World.  New World?  Now there’s a funny name.

I used to imagine explaining to people of the future why there were no trees left in the world.  I imagined this when I was living in Japan.  This imaginary conversation went something like this (it was a pretty cheesy conversation – please imagine sad piano music in the background):

Small, innocent child: “Daddy, why are there no trees?”

Me: “Because we cut them all down.”

Small, innocent child: “But why Daddy?”

Me: “So that people could have disposable chopsticks.”

Small, innocent child who knows what the word disposable means: “But why Daddy?”

Me: “Because people were too damn lazy to wash reusable chopsticks.”

Which brings me to this:


It’s a mosaic.

I have come to use the simile of a mosaic to help me understand big problems.  It has become increasingly obvious to me that individual actions are like tiny tiles in a vast mosaic, and that far too often we don’t think about what that big picture looks like.

Take Blurred Lines for example.  When I say something about how this pop video portrays women most people roll their eyes and say (or think): “jeez, it’s just a pop video”.  Or you could take another example, like when I say something about toys in Happy Meals or at New World, and again most people might roll their eyes and say: “Jeez, it’s just one little toy.”  They’re right.  Which is why the vast impersonal forces of history can seem hard to beat.

But now I realise that while each little pop video, fashion magazine, and assault – when taken in isolation – might be incidental, each little isolated piece is making a mosaic, and that this end product is not a very positive image of women in general.  Similarly, every decision by a government that promotes economics at the expense of the environment, each shopping bag I use at the supermarket, and each piece of plastic packaging that gets tossed out of every single kid’s lunchbox across the planet everyday, are all small pieces of a mosaic that adds up to a picture of a sickening planet.

Why is it, in a world of finite resources with horrific rates of pollution and ecocide, that companies are allowed to sell – in billions of units – products that come in packaging that will never breakdown and never be recycled?  Because the alternative is bad for business.  Because it’s convenient.  Because one little action by little old me doesn’t matter.

Which is why sexism, or capitalism is so hard to beat.  It isn’t one target, it’s a billion targets, embedded inside our systems and sustaining millions of decent, hard-working people.  Bleating about a Happy Meal toy to your wife in the car home makes you look like a dickhead.  In fact, you are a dickhead.  Denying your children one toy is not going to achieve anything.  The overall picture will remain the same.  You may have as much right as Truganini on your side, but you will crushed, stigmatised, or – perhaps worse – ignored, as the vast impersonal forces sweep you away.

There is only one problem with this idea.  When it comes to society there are no vast impersonal forces that are out of our control.  If people made the systems then they are in control of them.  It was in the 1970s that supermarkets began to arrive in New Zealand.  Until then “normal” was buying products at the grocer in paper bags by the weight.  Something that doesn’t strike me as enormously hard to go back to for the majority of products.

But the only way I can see things like this changing is through legislation which must be an expression of the people.  Now that would be one way that a million little pieces could make a different kind of picture, and that is why any attempt by a government to introduce change or give permissions that shuts the people out of its own democracy is wrong.  Totally and utterly wrong.

Increasingly I see that it is our duty to change the world.  This democracy is ours.  Our life on this planet too.

Get free.


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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

One thought on “Get Free”

  1. I talked about something similar not too long ago – the reluctance of individuals to engage in actions that can be seen as objectively ‘right’ since they only see the individual – then I blamed it on widespread, pervasive malnutrition. That’s not intended to be a cop out, but it is difficult to think and behave for the greater good when one’s own brain is convinced that one is starving to death. It was the only thing I could think of to explain rampant selfishness that didn’t boil down to, “people are just assholes.”
    PS: I think you’re justified in your stand against useless plastic toys. Children need play; they don’t ‘need’ toys. When she’s grown, she’ll thank you.

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