What makes you cringe?

What makes you cringe?

We know Waitangi Day makes our new Prime Minister cringe. Bill English reckons lots of New Zealanders feel the same way – not me. He threw that comment around when defending his decision not to show up and pay his respects at Waitangi – unless he’s allowed to speak on his terms.

I’ve seen some great critiques of this flawed defence – it’s like turning up at church and saying to the Minister, “I’m not taking part in this service unless I can speak when I want to”. There are protocols to follow at church, or at Parliament for that matter, and there are traditions to follow at a powhiri, especially on Waitangi Day. And, just like many church services, there are opportunities to speak after the formal bits are over – the Waitangi hosts had made it clear English would get a chance to speak without limitation, after the powhiri.

My son heard me talking about this cringing and he asked what that meant – I gave a physical demonstration but checked the dictionary for this column too. The online Oxford has two explanations: “bend one's head and body in fear or apprehension” and “experience an inward shiver of embarrassment or disgust”. That is a good description of what might be going on for English – fear of being in a situation where he’s not in charge, and discomfort, perhaps even some guilt, at New Zealand’s tense history of colonisation and facing up to criticism.

Any other cringe-worthy news from the male, pale and stale brigade? Yep, another clanger from Sir Bob Jones, bagging the homeless, describing them as “fat Maori” and calling for begging to be illegal. I should note that I haven’t read the “click bait” offered – I gave up reading Jones some time ago.

Some say make sure you’re not in an echo chamber of like-minded people and keep up with alternative views – a version of keeping up with the Joneses perhaps. I don’t need to in this case – it’s not new to have ignorant, arrogant heads of business and politics looking down on others, judging them and generalising, just being cruel.

I can’t write about rich old white guys “punching down” without mentioning the new President of the USA. To scrape at the straws of a positive angle, at least Trump makes it easy to highlight his weaknesses.

I wish I could stay in denial, in a weird parallel universe where you don’t have to take him seriously, just laughing along with Alec Baldwin’s biting parodies on Saturday Night Live, or slipping the new adjective “bigly” into conversation. There’s plenty of distractions on Twitter – one of my favs from @gaywonk: “The 7 stages of Trump grief: 1. OMG 2. This is so bad 3. Yep still so bad 4. We are going to die 5. Help 6. Somehow even worse today 7. OMG”.

But Trump now really is the 45th President of the USA. It seems truly unbelievable – I may have to wean off my news addiction, or at least set up a digital block on mentions of Trump, to get through this four-year term.

The appointment of a New Zealander, former Carter Holt Harvey CEO Chris Liddell, to Trump’s team means my “degrees of separation” from Trump shrinks significantly, becoming uncomfortably close. I worked on Project Crimson, alongside Liddell, some years ago. I’m not confident he offers any much-needed Kiwi sensibility to the Trump camp though.

Trump has prompted some powerful reactions beyond satire too, like the wonderful Meryl Streep calling him out as a bully when receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes this month. She said: “this instinct to humiliate, when it's modelled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody's life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”

Jones, and even English, could take note of Streep’s words too.