Back away slowly
Posted on 00:20, December 9th, 2009 by Lew
Update: This post was a response to an attack on me by Chris Trotter. Since it was published, Chris has graciously apologised for writing it, and for the general bad blood between us. He has deleted the post from Bowalley Road, and I give him my hearty thanks for the reconsideration.
I have also been culpable in this rather nasty exchange, which stretches back almost a year. For that part in it I, too, must apologise. While I retain strenuous objections to Chris’ political positions (as I’m sure he does to mine) these needn’t have become personalised, and are better discussed calmly as befits reasonable adults. While they may yet prove intractable, it should be possible for people in a free society to hold irreconcilable differences and yet remain civil. Much heat, and too little light, has emerged from this meeting of political minds, but I think there is potential for future engagement between Chris and I based on some sort of goodwill and tolerance rather than upon vituperation and political posturing, and I will do what I can to cultivate it.
While Chris has deleted his post, I do not believe in tampering with the historical record in that way. While I might regret things I’ve said, I won’t pretend I didn’t say them. And so the content of my response remains below the fold. It should be read with the subsequent context and this apology (and pledge to more constructive engagement in the future) very firmly in mind. In fact, the most worthwhile thing by far to emerge from the dispute is an unexpectedly useful discussion led by commenter “Ag” on the nature of class consciousness and electorate rationality: I commend that discussion, rather than the post from which it emerged, to the KP readership.
If I had any serious misgivings about the premises or reasoning underpinning my latest post on Labour’s ‘blue collars, red necks‘ approach to opposition, they have been dispelled by the fact that Chris Trotter has had to plumb such inky rhetorical and intellectual depths in order to substantiate his latest and most rabid attack against them, and me. For some time unwilling, and now apparently unable, to engage on the substance of topics in which we have a common interest, Chris has resorted to outright vituperation of the sort to which he once took haughty umbrage; framing me up as a race traitor and expecting me to confirm or deny my position on slavery. I would understand the lack of substantive engagement if he was just too busy, or if he thought it beneath him; but clearly neither of those are the case.
Really, the post is of such a low standard that I would ordinarily mock or simply ignore it; but since Chris has reiterated that he stands by his words and wants me to engage with them, out of what vestiges remain of my respect for the man I’ll muster one last reply. And rather than just responding to the florid rhetoric, I’ll address the substance as well.
Chris seems to have only just figured out that all the discourse between us this past year or so has really just been “haggling over where to draw the line” on matters of political identity, as he says; but also that where to draw the line is a matter of critical importance. He and I have not been arguing over whether the world is round or flat, although it sometimes seemed that way; we have been arguing matters of nuance within a wider political-philosophic tradition; the ‘big tent’ of leftist political thought. He frames his article as a ‘thought experiment’ which purports to offer a choice of paths, one of which is right and the other of which is wrong. If I follow his path I will come out opposing slavery but will have to abandon my own indigenist positions; if I follow what he claims are my beliefs, I will come out supporting slavery and he will win a moral victory. The problem is that the two paths are a false dichotomy: I’ll take what he believes as a given, but what he thinks I believe is wholly fabricated; some out of ignorance, some out of malice, some out of simple wishful thinking.
The argument’s flaws fall into two broad categories; those of form, and those of substance. Although it latches onto a flippant pair of sentences from a discourse of many thousands of words, I’ll elide critique of similar trivia.* That aside, the flaws which remain comprise major failings of understanding underwritten by the righteous pre-modernist ignorance which holds that if a learned man knows nothing of a matter, then it’s probably not worth knowing about anyway. The flaws of form are generally the nastier and more deceptive variety of rhetorical and logical fallacies, employed for the exclusive purpose of buttressing a rickety argument.
The two overarching rhetorical fallacies of the article are firstly the resort to reductio ad absurdum, picking the most extreme and ridiculous example** possible for this great show-trial of my character; replete with racial and class-based symbolism and against which no reasonable person could argue. And in that lies the second fallacy — what is referred to, if you’ll excuse the term, as the “pig-fucker” argument — suggest something outrageous about someone, knowing that it’s completely untrue but that they’ll have to stand up on their hind legs and deny it nevertheless. My objection to its use is not so much that it’s unfair — we’re apparently long past civility — but that it is intellectually dishonest. But in a way, it works. To misstate the old lawyer’s dictum; if the substance is on your side, bang on the substance; if the symbolism is on your side, bang on the symbolism; if neither the substance nor the symbolism are on your side, make up a pig-fucker argument.
On to the substance.
Aside from the (admittedly obscure) Pratchett reference as a marker for ‘don’t read too literally’, this isn’t the complete statement I made; it appears here shorn of the context which shows that I was referring strictly to the Marxist concept of ‘false consciousness’, not all consciousness.
It’s this misquote which lays the first foundation of the whole flawed argument. Chris’ play here is to paint me as a flake who believes in nothing, when the unfortunate reality is just that I don’t accept that some bloke with a cloth cap and a red book can — as a matter of certainty — know my own political needs better than I. There is a cognitive deficit and a moral hazard: they don’t know what I know about my needs; and their motivations serve their own ends, not mine. Even if they did have my best interests at heart, their claim to truth is based on insufficient information. The matter of whether it’s true or not turns on my own political needs, which an external advisor cannot know. So while it might happen to be correct, that’s different from it being categorically true, and that’s what the claim of ‘class consciousness’ and its reverse are: categorical statements of truth made without knowledge of a person’s own political utility, as if politics exists for some reason other than to allow a person or group to get their societal needs met. This is not airy-fairy postmodernism; it’s the core stuff of basic, classical Enlightenment liberalism.
Chris goes on:
False premise #1: that Māori now are the same as Māori then, and if one supports modern Māori aspirations, one must obviously be OK with the various atrocities committed throughout history. Aside from being simply absurd, especially from someone who so readily claims the ‘sins of the fathers’ defence in shrugging off his own white guilt, this shows an abject ignorance of tikanga Māori, which is no more fixed or unchanging than any other culture and in its modern form is no more tolerant of slavery than current Pākehā norms. But this would require Chris to ponder the vexed question: “when were the Māori?” His fear and a loathing of tino rangatiratanga leads him to suppose that if you scratch the surface of their indigeneity they are still just savages like in the bad old days, haven’t changed since Hone Heke chopped down the flagstaff, and are better off just becoming assimilated brown honkeys. The right to keep slaves is not a cultural touchstone for Māori any more than it is for Pākehā to forcibly confiscate the local park or golf course of a Sunday afternoon: both were part of a prevailing socio-political system which no longer abides. Some folks’ customs have moved on since the beginning of the 19th Century, thank goodness.
False premise #2: That ‘indigenism’ means ‘whatever Māori people say about themselves is necessarily true’. The idea that anything can be an identity issue as long as some Māori person wants it to be so. I used the term ‘most basic matters of identity’ to refer to the right of Māori to define their own terms of political reference, within their own existing political norms, as an alternative to eurocentric terms of reference. That doesn’t imply carte blanche to simply make things up. I used the words carefully so as to mean just what they say: most basic matters of identity. Chris has decided that ‘most basic’ can mean whatever he wants it to mean and anything can be a matter of identity; that since he doesn’t understand how tikanga Māori political culture works, then it must be arbitrary and inscrutable. In a small way, he’s right. It might not be possible for someone to gain a proper understanding of such matters while mired in a 19th Century Eurocentric class analysis which claims to be an eternal, universal truth. In order to understand any cultural system you need to engage with it. The reality is that there’s method to the apparent madness of tikanga Māori politics; even if it frequently isn’t well-executed or particularly consistent, it’s not just a bunch of people inventing as they go.
My response would be that a claim to support slavery as a matter of identity goes against what every modern Māori political movement has stood for. And even though prison labour is not really equivalent to slavery, I’d say the same about that.
Chris revisits false premise #2 here (arbitrary stuff being included in ‘most basic matters of identity’), and introduces another.
False premise #3: The idea that the self-determination represents a pure and unadulterated claim to total sovereignty. Built into this is the exaggeration that when I said ‘if they’re to have any measure of political autonomy’ (my words), I meant ‘giving Māori the fullest measure of political autonomy’ or the ability to act ‘without let or hindrance from Pākehā’ (Chris’ words). The actual meaning in law and civic custom of the part of the Treaty from which this claim arises is now pretty well established. To presume to apply it more broadly is simple appropriative concept stretching of the same sort applied in #2, trying to turn words chosen carefully for their actual meaning into Humpty Dumpty terms.
Tino rangatiratanga as used in the Treaty of Waitangi did not represent an absolute claim to authority, but a negotiated form of shared sovereignty. Moreover, (although, revisiting false premise #1, it is perhaps understandable that an archaic understanding prevails) the term, its meaning and usage, have changed substantially since that time, and its meaning is now almost entirely mediated by the legislative and judicial organs of the crown.
False premise #4: that any of what Chris imagines I believe (based on false premises #1-3) is in fact my ‘basic position’. He’s portrayed my position as that of a blind and abject worshipper at the altar of indigeneity; the sort of person he recently referred to as “fervent champions of an indigenous culture they can never truly join because, fundamentally, they despise their own” and who he accepted he was more or less calling race traitors. As if refusing to deny the historical fact of the Treaty and its now long-established legal and civic relevance, and insisting on the old Pākehā tradition of honouring our agreements was somehow treasonous.
Now we just have follow-on error; because the preceding premises are false the conclusion is necessarily false as well.
And finally, despite all the false premises, we reach the null hypothesis: that I am not a pig-fucker after all.
I’ll grant Chris one thing: if his premises had been sound, he would have had a point. If he had
… then the reasoning would have been perfectly sound. But of course, if he hadn’t have done all that he wouldn’t have had anything to write about, because he would have had to admit right at the first step that we’re basically arguing about settings, and would then have had to engage on the substance. The trouble is that Chris’ world — at least, the world expressed through his arguments with me — is Manichean black and white, cloth caps versus bowler hats; whereas mine is rather more complicated and the battle lines are much less clearly drawn. My settings are sliders, his are switches. So what we’ve gotten in his post is a glimpse of what an absolutist take on tino rangatiratanga might look like — perhaps how Chris himself might think if he were an indigenist, or a nationalist. I think we can all be very glad indeed that he isn’t any such thing.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that, rather than engaging me on the substance of my claims — something I’ve been trying to get him to do for most of the past year, admittedly sometimes in better faith than in others — Chris chose to fabricate a bunch of half-truths and perverse misunderstandings and ascribe them to me in an ugly caricature of my political views in order to construct the pig-fucker argument. There is no purpose in arguing against someone whose craven commitment to scoring points is such that they will sacrifice their intellectual honesty in order to do it. The technique has been used to great effect by a certain demagogue with whom Chris would (I hope) be horrified to share an intellectual standard: Glenn Beck, who is currently on the receiving end of just the same treatment as he often dishes out, and to which Chris has subjected me. While I could perhaps challenge Chris to defend some comparable atrocities of socialist history, I shall not do so. Part of the wider lesson I see coming from this whole debate about the Labour party’s new strategy is that it is usually wrong to ape those you claim to despise. But I think this will be the end of my engagement with Chris; at least for a while — there’s simply no point in doing anything other than backing away slowly. I suppose I should be humbled, or awed, by the extravagant lengths to which he (as a professional historian and writer) has felt it necessary to go to put a humble blogger in his place; but mostly I’m just sad, and a bit ashamed that a once-mighty tōtara of the left-wing ngāhere has become so rotten.
And there’s one other thing: quite apart from the other failings of Chris’ argument, its form and function, there’s its topic matter: the choice of slavery as the example chosen by a privileged while man to score cheap political points off race politics is distasteful to say the very least. So I’ll leave the last word to someone who actually knew what it was like to work on a chain gang.
* I said I would ignore the minor flaws, and I will do with one exception, which is too risible to leave out: the idea that I’m a libertarian (as if anyone must be who is opposed to socialism but isn’t a Tory, I suppose). As actual real live libertarians with whom I’ve argued will readily attest, I’m as much a libertarian as Chris is a progressive — which is to say, not very much of one, unless a definition of the term so broad as to be almost meaningless is adopted.
** Oh, wait — there’s one more ridiculous argument he could have used: the Holocaust. Maybe all is not lost.
Update: It seems that, in response, Chris has had no choice but to roll out the big gun: the allegation that I’m a totalitarian — “Hitlerite or Stalinist.” Truly, there is nothing more to be said.