Nothing mirrored 2018 as closely as Bohemian Rhapsody. In a year that felt relentlessly confusing, baffling, uncertain, poor old Freddie Mercury (played with flair and a swollen jaw by Rami Malek) got to the root of the matter when he sang the opening lines of the title song, "Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?" What good questions!
I went to see the film at a 10.05am screening at WestCity mall in Henderson. It was a Sunday morning before Christmas. Most of the shops hadn't opened; it was quiet, deserted, kind of creepy; only a few zombies wandered around, and the warm peanut smell of Mrs Higgins Cookies filled the mall with sweetness. It was a strange scene. Like the movie, which I watched with three other lost souls, each of us alone with our hopes and fears in our separate aisles, it presented as a good backdrop for the year.
It was a year where it was very hard to get a fix on things. Actually, a lot of people found it very easy to get a fix on things: we are living in times of constant moral panic, and the quickest way out is to hold to a firm view. But which firm view is the right one? Who to believe? There were confronting issues all year and one of the most irrelevant to our daily lives but nevertheless became a white-hot moral quandary was the visit of those two so-called alt-right speakers from Canada. They were here to give a public talk, but got run out of town.
Were you for or against Molyneux and what's-her-name? I thought she looked really hot in that tight silk dress she wore during her brief stay in New Zealand but I can't even remember her name let alone anything she said. Now that sounds flippant at best but I suspect that many other average Kiwi jokers felt the same, and I don't just mean about her looks: there was something faddish about their visit, something instantly forgettable.
At the time, though, it seemed important to have a view about Molyneux and the blonde. What side did you take? Were you for free speech, or against hate speech? Were you all good with the Sunday TV programme deciding to profile two newsmakers who were of legitimate public interest, or did you have a problem that they were being – God I hate this prissy new word – "platformed"?
Who were they, anyway? Probably just a pair of grifters. Nothing too wrong with that – we all have to make a buck; this year I reviewed every episode of Dancing with the Stars – but their visit was always less about their intended message than what it said about us. It said quite a bit about us. It said that we go batshit crazy at the slightest provocation, it said that we mobilise, it said that we're hostile and intolerant and fantastically righteous... Still, the only harm done is that a minority group of alt-right scumbags were denied a catharsis.
If it was hard to know what to think about them while they were here, then former Labour activist Shane Te Pou summed up the feeling about their exit, when he told them, "Don't let the door hit you on the backside on your way out." It was kind of caring in a way.
But no sooner had they left than the issue continued to press, and press hard, on the public nerve. Don Brash – two words that carry a loud, shrieking static as soon as you read or hear the name – became the central figure in another free speech vs hate speech news event. Massey University vice-chancellor Jan Thomas refused to allow Brash to talk on campus. Batshit crazy at the slightest provocation...She did well to keep her job after that; even liberals condemned her. Brash was scheduled merely to draw on his pipe and reflect on his life in politics at the speaking engagement, not talk about Hobson's Pledge or whatever other confrontational kooky bee was in his bonnet.
That was an easy one to figure out. He should have been allowed to speak. Even so, it's hard to know what to do with Brash. I like the guy. We've almost become friends over the years. I enjoy his company and admire his courage if not his convictions. But it's as though he's regarded these days as the most dangerous man in New Zealand. He has deeply unacceptable views on the subject of race, offensive views, odious, not so much teetering on the edge of outrageousness but jumping right in, boots and all – I saw him do this in front of 100 people, and pandemonium ensued.
I stage the Hamilton Press Club media event three times a year in Hamilton. It's held over lunch. There is drink, also some food. A guest speaker makes an address to an invite-only audience of 100. In September, historian Vincent O'Malley spoke about his campaign to introduce the New Zealand Wars in the school curriculum at college; it went pretty smoothly until I conducted the audience Q + A session, and invited Don to make a few general remarks on history and race. I suppose I was stirring. History and race are the two most sensitive subjects in New Zealand life. Anyway, he said things that made people very angry, including this classic: "Māori didn't invent the wheel."
He went there. He brought out the wheel. Cue the pandemonium, the shrieking, the deep offence. But then something else happened. When the shouting died down, there were a number of very eloquent, measured responses, from audience members such as journalist Mihingarangi Forbes, Radio New Zealand chief Jim Mather (Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tūhoe), and the co-founder of Māori news site e-tangata, Gary Wilson. Everyone who wanted to had their say. No one was censored. New Zealand, where it's entirely possible, sometimes, to have a civilised adult conversation in public.
Every year is a time of change, an age of uncertainty, a foreboding that things are falling apart. Don DeLillo's great novel from 1984, White Noise, tried looking for signs of unease in his time. He includes a scene where a school is evacuated after staff and pupils mysteriously fall ill. "No one knew what was wrong," he writes. "Investigators said it could be the ventilating system, the paint or the varnish, the foam insulation, the electrical insulation, the cafeteria food, the rays emitted by microcomputers, the asbestos fireproofing, the adhesive on shipping containers, the fumes from the chlorinated pool, or perhaps something deeper, finer-grained, more closely woven into the basic state of things."
What are the unique tensions of 2018? What are the signs, where exactly are the deformations? The most obvious place to start looking is the White House. Everything comes back to Trump. He sets the tone, deals the cards we have to deal with. This is his time, his reign of disorder, building walls, draining swamps, colluding, conspiring, fiddling around with his golf clubs in Florida while liberal America burns. The midterms were wounding but haven't exactly stopped him in his tracks and within days, or even hours, he was back to his old tricks, his stock in trade - cementing the idea of fake news.
CNN is fake news. The New York Times is fake news. No, wait, I haven't got Trump's language entirely right: the failing CNN is fake news, the failing New York Times is fake news. Now and again I talk about politics and society with my neighbour, usually, he stands on his driveway and I stand on mine, and he always tells me that he's totally convinced that Trump is right, that there's a liberal media conspiracy, and that of course, I'm part of it. I like my neighbour. He's really affable and says all these things with a smile. Our cats pad over to listen in on the conversation. But then he'll start in on one of his favourite theories that Venus Williams is a man... Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
His Venus rants are probably just straight-up racism, but they touch on another confusing, baffling, uncertain moral issue that got heated up this year: gender politics, in particular, the whole thing about transgender politics. Can a man who transitions to become a woman call themselves a woman and occupy a woman's space? What side do you take? The inclusive stand of the LGBTQIA community, or the gender-critical stand, which pretty much argues that biology is destiny?
In her book Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism, University of Melbourne lesbian feminist scholar Sheila Jeffreys writes, "Women do not decide at some point in adulthood that they would like other people to understand them to be women, because being a woman is not an 'identity'. Women's experience does not resemble that of men who adopt the 'gender identity' of being female or being women in any respect. The idea of 'gender identity' disappears biology and all the experiences that those with female biology have of being reared in a caste system based on sex."
This kind of thinking created a new, scary acronym: TERFS, for trans exclusionary radical feminists. The debate got played out in the opinion factory of Twitter towards the end of this year. There were accusations and name-callings, also the sharing of information and facts. I didn't know what to think about any of it. No country for old men: at 58, it just sort of feels like none of my damned business.
Even so, I blundered into a gender politics scrap earlier this year. I ran into an old friend at an airport. I didn't recognise her because we hadn't seen each other in more than 30 years and also because back then she was a man. Anyway, it was great to see her and we had a really good chat. I made passing mention of it in a story a few weeks later – and also stated the name she went by as a male. I was immediately denounced for the practice of "deadnaming". I hadn't known I'd done anything wrong until then, and I immediately apologised and the name was removed from the story.
The incident formed an editorial in the May issue of North & South. The magazine's editor, Virginia Larson, interviewed me over the phone. She wrote, "I expected high dudgeon and got humility. He'd not heard the term 'deadnaming' but had been 'appalled' when told he'd revealed a trans person's previous identity and caused hurt. 'It said more about me and my old-fashioned attitudes,' he said. 'There are new models of behaviour; it's easy enough to be educated and not be a jerk.'"
The problem with adapting to new models of behaviour is that there's always going to be an even newer model. And soon, it won't be human behaviour. AI is coming for us.
"By 2030," writes Harvard University internet researcher Judith Donath, "most social situations will be facilitated by bots – intelligent-seeming programs that interact with us in human-like ways. At home, parents will engage skilled bots to help kids with homework and have dinner conversations. At work, bots will run meetings. A bot confidant will be considered essential for psychological well-being, and we'll increasingly turn to such companions for advice ranging from what to wear to whom to marry. We humans care deeply about how others see us – and the others whose approval we seek will increasingly be artificial. By then, the difference between humans and bots will have blurred considerably. "
God almighty. Hello? Is it me you're looking for, or a bot? Who'll be able to tell the difference? That's the thing about the future: it makes the anxieties and confusions of the present seem so damned quaint.