Three weeks ago, I wrote about a vicious bigot I'd encountered in my local supermarket; an old man who wished violent death upon Maori and homosexuals, and praised Adolf Hitler. Within an hour of that Sunday's paper hitting the streets, dozens of emails began flooding in.
OPINION: Most were extremely positive, though a few chided me for generalising about the elderly. "These views are not age specific," noted Heather from Takapuna. "I'm European, mother of three, grandmother of six, 70 years old, living in a very comfortable house, belong to the local tennis club, have a copy of the Edmonds Cook Book and occasionally even wear a cardigan. However in no way whatsoever would I ever agree with any of the views expressed by that bigoted gentleman in your article."
Barbara agreed. "I have always hated racism, but there's another ‘ism' that is prevalent in New Zealand and that is ageism. We must all resist stereotyping any minority group." I wrote back, explaining that my blather about malevolent geriatrics reading Mein Kampf between whipping up batches of scones was satire; I was overstating the case to make a point. "You may call it satire but I'm not convinced," she replied. Fair enough.
Writing from Kohimarama, 72-year-old Leonie expressed dismay that so many of her generation were so intolerant, and told of severing contact with a friend because she couldn't tolerate her partner's racist remarks.
Lynn wondered if the supermarket bigot was a visitor from Canterbury. "I'm in retail here, and after the marriage bill was passed, I was appalled by the reaction from the older white male population. Bigotry is alive and well in Christchurch."
Maggie from Waihi sent me a short story about a stranger who tried to engage her in a septic tirade about immigrants, and Brian emailed a scan of a nasty little anti-Asian pamphlet poked into his Auckland mailbox by a shadowy organisation calling itself "The Resistance".
Jane wrote a letter so long, I had to go out and have lunch halfway through. She told of a friend's father, a former POW in Japan, who had a meltdown when surrounded by Asian schoolkids on Queen St, and of her own uncle abusing an Indian doctor even though he had Indian mates. The faulty logic of bigotry was a recurring theme. "My dear old Uncle Bob was always ‘Bloody horis' this and ‘Bloody horis' that, oblivious to the fact that his best mate was Maori, who'd say to Bob, ‘C'mon, you honky bastard' as they trailed off to the Cosi Club. Oh dear, oh dear."
There was a very thoughtful letter from a woman whose parents emigrated here from Germany in 1951. Her mother had been in the Hitler Youth in the early 1930s. "I grew up in a transplanted pocket of Prussia that also happened to be located in Tawa! I remember being seven years old and challenging her breakfast-table monologues that promulgated the Final Solution for a range of people's ethnicities and beliefs. She never lost the views of her formative years but could usually keep them under wraps for Kiwi ears."
Margaret let me have it. "Your column was positively outrageous. We're in our late 60s and have a wide circle of friends, all of whom are devastated with the law changes regarding real marriage and totally opposed to the numerous advantages dealt out to the Maori. Get your facts correct before you publish such nonsense." She signed her email "Incensed Pensioner", and I imagined her fuming like a joss stick as she wrote it.
Clearly, to publicly condemn bigotry is to stir up the deep well of vitriol that exists in certain quarters of our society. I received an oddly aggressive little email from David, implying I'd made the whole supermarket incident up: "I, too, have beliefs. And my belief is that this event never occurred. Or if it did it was staged by you as a publicity stunt. Now prove me wrong. If you can."
Some charmer named George suggested I'd recently arrived in a "space ship from Mars", then listed examples of dangerous driving by Maori youth as evidence of racial inferiority. His email ended thus: "We could do with a damn sight more blue-eyed, fair-haired, law-abiding Aryans and far less brown-eyed black-haired hooligans, which would then make this a more prosperous and better place to live. I suggest you take off your rose-coloured glasses and put on some marked ‘reality', if not - shut up."
More polite, though equally distressing, was an email from Warren, a former school teacher. "I am highly educated and happen to agree with a lot of what Hitler did. My views are however not driven by fear but rather by study and research.
"People have to have a deeper understanding of the global situation back during that time rather than just target the bigotry factor. And it's just not pensioners embracing the principles of national socialistic ideology. Sadly though, there's a general ignorance linking Nazi to white supremacy." He signed off: "Thanks again for an entertaining Sunday read."
- Sunday Star Times