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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Pessimists living in a 'good old days' dream

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While apartheid prompted protests, it also induced the rugby union to pander to South Africa by sending all-white teams to play. File photo / APN
While apartheid prompted protests, it also induced the rugby union to pander to South Africa by sending all-white teams to play. File photo / APN

Last week's column arguing that New Zealand is a better place now than in the 1970s drew a largely dissenting response, a combination of nostalgia and the conviction that things ain't what they used to be.

It wasn't my intention to imply that everything in the contemporary garden is lovely, but to insist that the opposite is true smacks of "good old days" syndrome.

Youth may be wasted on the young, but they generally enjoy it; having shed their illusions and with less capacity for optimism for obvious reasons, many people develop an eagle eye for imperfection on reaching middle age.

In this way the ageing process generates assumptions about the past and present which might not fit the facts.

According to English columnist Melanie Phillips, "Every generation harks back to a mythical golden age of order and stability".

Several correspondents said they felt safer in the 1970s when, as one put it, "every murder was an event of national significance".

Interestingly, police statistics released in 2009 reveal that 1970 was a pivotal year.

For the previous 44 years, the murder rate had held steady at six murders per million people. It then started climbing, reaching 21 murders per million in the 1985-92 period, before declining to stabilise at about 12.

The 2010/11 total of 34 murders was the lowest since the relative calm before the mid-1980s spike.

A 2008 survey conducted by the Victoria University Institute of Criminology found 80 per cent of those surveyed agreed or strongly agreed with the proposition that crime was getting worse, yet only 25 per cent thought it was getting worse in their neighbourhoods.

This suggests, firstly, that perceptions are driven by media coverage and law and order scare campaigns mounted by political parties and lobby groups and, second, that Kiwis tend to see crime as something that happens to other people.

My point that technology had improved our lives drew a tart response from a reader who pointed out that the internet had also made life easier for paedophiles and terrorists. I challenge the glass half empty brigade to top that if they can.

The claim that this country "no longer has a functioning health system" is the sort of sledgehammer assertion you'd expect to hear at disputatious dinner parties or New Zealand First rallies. If Wellington's new public hospital isn't good enough for you, then I'd suggest there'd be precious few public facilities anywhere in the world that are.

Yes, rugby was a game then, not a business: a game which dragged us into a divisive and damaging relationship with South Africa. Having pandered to their hosts' institutionalised racism by sending all-white teams on previous tours, in 1970 the NZRU was permitted by the apartheid regime to select Polynesians and Maori. They were given the status of "honorary whites".

Rugby was played on muddy grounds in tatty stadiums, with the quality of play often matching the surroundings. When Super Rugby was still in its infancy, David Kirk observed that it routinely provided "passages of play that would have astonished and ravished spectators when I was a boy".

Of course rugby is still just a game for 99.5 per cent of Kiwis who play it. But if our leading players, many of whom don't have the benefits of a middle class upbringing, can make a handsome living by entertaining us, is that such a terrible thing?

"Are you seriously trying to say," I was asked, "that inane crap like Destiny's Child and the Bieber kid can even start to compare with bands like The Who and Deep Purple?" Well, no: leaving aside the fact that this isn't comparing apples with apples - there was plenty of "inane crap" back then, some of which was very popular - I was simply pointing out that every generation thinks their children's music is horrible. If it's any consolation, their children's children will agree with them.

Space didn't permit mention of two obvious changes for the better: the enhanced status of women and the suspension of the threat of nuclear Armageddon. We may indeed have "lived, laughed and loved in a time of impending nuclear doom" as one correspondent wrote, but plenty of us resented having to do so.

A melancholic sense that this country's best days are behind it pervades many responses. As one person put it, "I wish my 20-year-old could have as good a chance as I had".

Every generation is prey to anxiety about the sort of world their children will inherit.

Perhaps we live in unusually uncertain times but I wonder how many of today's 20-year-olds see it that way. I suspect that, as we did, they regard the future as something to look forward to.

And why wouldn't they? They've had it pretty good so far.

- NZ Herald

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