Archive for ‘An inclusive society’ Category
In the coming years, core tenets of socialist and indigenist faith will be tested. Labour, with its recently-adopted ‘blue collars, red necks’ strategy, has struck out along a path which requires a large slice of its core constituency — Māori — to search their political souls and choose between the renewed Marxist orthodoxy which privileges class above all else; and the progressive social movements developed over the past three or four decades which have produced a society tolerant enough to permit their unprecedented cultural renaissance.
The strategy indicated by Phil Goff’s speech appears to be substantially based on the simple calculus, most forthrightly argued by Chris Trotter, that ‘social liberals’ are fewer in number than ‘social conservatives’ among the proletariat, and therefore an appeal to ‘social conservatism’ will deliver more votes than the equivalent appeal to ‘social liberalism’. This is couched as a return to the old values of the democratic socialist movement — class struggle, and anything else is a distraction. But because the new political strategy is founded upon an attack on Māori, it requires that working class solidarity wins out over indigenous solidarity and the desire for tino rangatiratanga in a head-to-head battle. Māori must choose to identify as proletarians first and tangata whenua second. Similarly, the māori party’s alignment with National and subsequent intransigence on issues such as the Emissions Trading Scheme asks Māori to privilege their indigeneity over material concerns.
An article of faith of both socialist and indigenist movements is that their referent of political identity trumps others: that all proletarians are proletarians first, and that all indigenous people are indigenous people above all else. In the coming years, unless Labour loses its bottle and recants, we will see a rare comparison as to which is genuinely the stronger. Much of the debate which has raged over this issue, and I concede some of my own contributions in this, has been people stating what they hope will occur as if it surely will. For this reason the test itself is a valuable thing, because it provides an actual observable data point upon which the argument can turn.
A spontaneous interlude: I write this on the train into Wellington, in a carriage full of squirming, shouting, eight and nine year-olds on a school trip to the city. In a (rare) moment of relative calm, a few bars of song carried from the next carriage, and the tune was taken up enthusiastically by the — mostly Pākehā — kids in my carriage.
Read into this what you wish; one of life’s little rorschach tests.**
Clearly, I don’t believe Māori will abandon the hard-won fruits of their renaissance for a socialist pragma which lumps them and their needs in with everyone else of a certain social class, which in the long term would erase the distinction between tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti. This distinction will fade with time, but that time is not yet come. For this reason I believe the strategy is folly at a practical level. Add to which, the appeal to more conservative social values was always going to be strong among Māori and Pasifika voters, so the left and right hands (as it were) of the socialist conservative resurgence seem unaware of what the other is doing: with the left hand, it beckons them closer, and with the right it pushes them away.
My main objection to the ‘blue collars, red necks’ strategy is not practical — although that would be a sufficient cause for opposing it. The main reason is because of principle, and this question turns on an assessment of the left in politics. Trotter and other old-school socialists (and presumably Pagani and Goff and the current leadership of the Labour party) believe that the left has been hijacked over the past generation by non-materialist concerns and has lost its way as a consequence. I believe that the wider social concern with non-material matters has saved socialism from its own dogma.
Largely discredited as an economic system and its legacy irretrievably tarnished by the catastrophic failure of practically every implementation, socialist-aligned parties on the left have been forced to diversify from a strict focus on what’s in the pockets of the proletariat to what’s in their heads — what they care about and who they are, their identity beyond being ‘the proletariat’. In doing so these movements have embraced liberalism, social equality movements, and environmentalism, and the resulting blend, termed ‘progressivism’ has become part of the political orthodoxy, such that the political right must now pay at least some mind to these considerations if it is to remain viable. This broadening, and the progressive movement’s redefinition of what is right by its general and gradual rejection of racism, sexism, sexual and religious discrimination, among others, has been hugely beneficial to society. For reasons of principle, it should not be discarded out of cynical political expedience.
Furthermore, maintenance of the social liberal programme has strategic, pragmatic value. It has enabled left political movements to broaden their support base and engage with groups often marginalised from politics, breaking the previously zero-sum rules. The modern Labour party has built its political church upon this rock of progressive inclusion, broadening its support base by forming strategic alliances with Rātana from the time of the First Labour Government and less formally with the Kīngitanga and other Māori groups, to which the party owes a great deal of its political success. The progressive programme has broadened to include other groups historically marginalised by the conservative establishment. For Labour to shun its progressive history and return to some idealised socialist pragma of old by burning a century of goodwill in order to make cheap electoral gains by emulating their political opponents is the same transgression many on the economic left have repeatedly levelled against the māori party, and with some justification: selling out one’s principles for the sake of political expedience is a betrayal, and betrayals do not go unpunished. In this case, the betrayal is against the young, who will rapidly overtake the old socialist guard as the party’s future; and Māori, who will rapidly overtake the old Pākehā majority in this country’s future. The socialists might applaud, but Labour represents more than just the socialists, and it must continue to do so if it is to remain relevant.
So, for my analysis, the ‘blue collars, red necks’ strategy fails at the tactical level, because it asks Māori to choose their economic identity over their cultural identity; it fails at the level of principle, because it represents a resort to regressive politics, a movement away from what is ‘right’ to what is expedient; and it fails at the level of strategy, because by turning its back on progressivism the party publicly abandons its constituents, and particularly those who represent the future of NZ’s politics, who have grown up with the Labour party as a progressive movement. It is triply flawed, and the only silver lining from the whole sorry affair is that (again, if Goff and Pagani hold their nerve) we will see the dogmatic adherence to class tested and, hopefully once and for all, bested.
* Of course, Goff claims it is no such thing. But Trotter sees that it is and is thrilled, and John Pagani’s endorsement of Trotter’s analysis reveals rather more about the strategic direction than a politician’s public assurance.
** I see this as an expression of how normalised Māori-ness is among young people, and as much as can be said from the actions of nine-year-olds, an indicator of NZ’s political future.
Reading the 2025 Taskforce recommendations as another exercise in comparative fantasising, I got to wondering yet again about why the NZ obsession with Australia, and why the constant comparisons with it. Part of my wonderment stems from the fact that those such as myself who have been trained in comparative political methodology simply do not see a valid basis for a comparison between OZ and NZ other than a shared language and ties to the UK. But Nigeria, Jamaica, Hong Kong and India can also claim those two similarities and no one thinks to compare them with OZ or NZ–or even with each other. So what is it with NZ’s constant penis envy about the continent to its West?
OZ is a mineral rich continent with 5 times the population size and well over ten times the landmass of NZ. It was settled by convicts who led generations of colonialists on a murderous campaign of indigenous cultural extermination. It has an atrocious record on race relations and endemic corruption in government, unions and business. It has a substantial manufacturing base that now outweighs primary good experts as the mainstay of the economy. It is far more diverse in its post WW2 immigration (which has contributed to some of its race problems), far more conservative politics, an aggressive foreign security policy, allows nuclear weapons to be stored on its soil, and near catastrophic environmental problems caused by draught, over-mining, over-grazing and the cultivation of water-intensive crops. Australians disproportionately excel in a range of sports from swimming to surfing to soccer, with a little cricket, rugby and league thrown in for good measure. It is a federal republic with a bicameral national legislature. It is an aspiring middle power that seeks to be the regional hegemon serving as the US deputy sheriff in the SW Pacific. It has kept a a large welfare infrastructure intact as a cushion against the dislocations of market-oriented macroeconomic reform. It has Russell Crowe and AC/DC.
NZ is an archipelago nation more than 800 kilometers from its nearest neighbor. It has abundant water, forest and pasture. It was settled by preachers and sailors, some of whom entered into the indigenous food chain before a negotiated settlement was reached with the original inhabitants. Its climate is temperate and its politics, until recently, largely tolerant. It is a unitary government with a single legislative chamber. It has a fairly good history of race relations (comparatively, if not absolutely), much less urbanization as a percentage of the total demographic, and its export-oriented economy continues to be rooted in primary good production. It has less first generation immigrants as a percentage of the population, an “independent” foreign policy, the non-nuclear posture and an admirable record of involvement in UN arms control and peacekeeping efforts. NZ has the All Blacks, the Silver Ferns, the All Whites, the Black Caps, the Black Socks, the Tall Blacks, the Black Ferns, Black Sticks and for all I know Blackbeard as well (oh, and more than a few exceptional triathletes and endurance racers). More people per capita in NZ have university degrees than their Ozzie counterparts. It has been a laboratory rat for neoliberal experimentation since the mid 1980s under a variety of governments. It had Russell Crowe and Crowded House.
The question is, given these obvious and glaring differences, why do NZ politicians, policy-makers and the public alike fixate on OZ? To be honest, the better contemporary comparisons for NZ are countries with similar population sizes, land masses and location in the global chain of production rather than colonial ties, primary language or past ethno-religious makeup. By that contemporary criteria, Uruguay, Costa Rica and other Central American republics, small European states like Belgium, Luxemburg, Switzerland, Estonia, Latvia and the Northern Tier states (among others), and even Sub-Saharan African countries like Botswana, could all serve as a better basis for comparison than OZ (and all of those mentioned are capitalist democracies). And, using that criteria, it is possible than NZ would have a better feeling about itself rather than the perennial sense of inferiority when it comes to Australia.
One way to compare NZ and OZ is to use one of the comparative methods I alluded to earlier. A “most similar” method seeks to isolate independent variables that are similar, then explain differences in dependent variables by highlighting the causal implications of intervening variables. Conversely, “most different” comparisons select independent variables based on differences, then proceed down the chain of causality to explain similarities in the dependent variables. It would seem that when it comes to OZ, a most different criteria is the better choice, although it is clear that the most similar comparisons based on language and Anglo-Saxon colonial legacies have been the historical norm.
Less it not be obvious I am being a bit facetious/tongue-in-cheek here, mostly in an effort to stir some argument about why Kiwis continue the non-sensical habit of comparing themselves as a society and nation to a far different place that just happens to lie 2000 kilometers to the West. Why not just concentrate on getting the most out of THIS society given its very unique national attributes? Why attempt to emulate the policies of larger nations that do not share those attributes or the specific constraints of a small, heterogeneous, trade-dependent island democracy? After all, most experts agree that it is not the size of the brush that matters, but the talent of the artist wielding it. On that count, as well as the stupidity of the 2025 Taskforce comparisons with Australia, Don Brash is no Van Gogh, and NZ has no need to measure itself against Australia now or in 15 years. What it does need, and all too often does not get, is talent in government. And that is not a matter of size.
Posted on 10:41, November 3rd, 2009 by Lew
In the first few days of July I began writing a post about the report of the Foreshore and Seabed Review Panel. Due to absurd busi-ness* I never got it finished. Since the government has this week responded to the review panel’s findings, two months after it undertook to do so, by kicking the issue to touch, I figure now is as good a time as any to examine the issue again.
First, let me begin by clarifying my position on the issue and the government’s handling of it. I have been vocal in my support of the māori party’s willingness to work with National in government, and their willingness to accept a range of lesser policy concessions in service of the repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act — not so much on the basis that it (the repeal) will necessarily result in a greater quantum of economic or social benefit than those other concessions might have, but on the basis that the decision is for Māori to make. The māori party, (it is often repeated, mostly by disgruntled Labour supporters) does not represent all Māori, and this is true — but inasmuch as it has kaupapa Māori foundations, it has a stronger philosophical claim to representat those māori who share that kaupapa basis than any other party in parliament; and on this issue in particular, a stronger mandate than the Labour party.
The striking thing about the review, and perhaps the reason for the tardy and incomplete response from the government, is that it is grounded in indigenist principles. It’s not the only indigenist policy document the government has kicked to touch in recent months: the NZGB recommendation that the spelling of Wanganui be corrected to Whanganui is another such thing. Indigenism, here used, is not so much ethnic nationalism (as it is usually given to mean) as a non-eurocentric philosophical basis; one which does not presuppose a Pākehā worldview or rules of engagement — a necessary quality in that sort of political action, but not in itself a sufficient quality. Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s book Decolonising Methodologies provides a clear explication of the practice of indigenist and indigenising research in the Aotearoa-New Zealand context.
The indigenist position derives largely from the choice of panellists (two of whom are Māori scholars) and from the scope of the inquiry, which explicitly gave the panel a mandate to assess the extent to which the FSA “effectively recognises and provides for customary or aboriginal title and public interests” in the foreshore and seabed. This accepted the facts of NZ’s constitutional and legal history and jurisprudence from the Treaty of Waitangi, the Native Land Court and more recently the Māori Land Court, the Waitangi Tribunal, and the Court of Appeal in the Ngāti Apa case: that there are customary rights; they are not a legal fiction or a ‘simple nullity’ as Prendergast had it. These were facts which Labour, claiming to be the natural party of Māori representation, needed a court to tell them — and they reached for the nuclear option of legislation when the court did so. This change is important because it lays the tracks for future legislative and legal events: because the review was conducted from an indigenist basis, the resultant action must necessarily take on an indigenist hue. This was the complaint levelled by all of the usual suspects when the panel was named — as if the job of assessing a dispute over historical rights and legal process could shomehow be neutrally conducted by those whose institutions were responsible for its ongoing rancour.
More than ‘One Nation’
The indigenist perspective embedded in the review process and its frame has resulted in the forthright rejection of “all New Zealanders” rhetoric and the homogenisation which that discourse implies. Diversity exists; different groups have different rights in custom and culture and in law; that reality needs to be carefully managed, not ignored or subsumed by a system which says “we all have the rights I think we should have, and not those which you value”. This is the central foundation on whcih the report and its recommendations stands. In the words of the panel:
Indeed they haven’t. And there are different conceptions of property rights issues in play here — rights of heredity and customary usage. Submitter Edward Ellison on behalf of Te Rūnanga o Otakau:
It’s the same issue which resulted in widespread alienation of land in the half-century following the Treaty’s signature: Western legal paradigms of ownership didn’t recognise collective landholdings, so they assumed that lands were the possessions of a given rangatira (or just someone who claimed to be rangatira) to dispose of. The panel, again:
This illustrates a point of framing which has shot clear through the discourse around the issue: most discussion is about entitlement or claims under the Treaty of Waitangi, underlined by the fact that tangata whenua have had to go cap-in-hand to the Crown and its authorities. This isn’t a matter of claims or entitlements: it’s about securing rights to resource access and exploitation which never lapsed. The ‘troughing modies’ argument simply ignores the fact that parts of the coast owned by private concerns can and frequently are passed undisturbed down through successive generations of landowners. Just because the resources in question have been handed down collectively in accordance with tikanga, and just because the holders of rights to those resources refuse to accept a Western paradigm of property rights, the claim should be no less valid. This is not to say, however, that the matter is strictly one of property rights. Fundamentally it’s a matter of adherence to the Treaty, which guaranteed tangata whenua the right to their cultural practices (part of ‘tāonga katoa’ from Article 2) which permit them to consider the issue in ways not limited to a strict property-rights interpretation imposed from without.
The excerpts above demonstrate a strong critique of the ‘one nation’ rhetoric, and the falsity of that discourse, in which a culture which is dominant both in terms of numbers and of power draws artificial and appropriative distinctions between transfer of rights and property which are deemed legitimate and those which are deemed illegitimate. This is the discourse which gave rise to Iwi/Kiwi and to the Foreshore and Seabed Act; they are cut from the same cloth. It is the discourse, and the self-serving assimilationism it represents against which the critique is levelled; not against the Pākehā establishment except inasmuch as the two are indistinguishable. Those Pākehā taking umbrage at the critique should, therefore, examine their own role in and allegiance to that discourse and the system which bred it; those who reject it and what it stands for have no cause for alarm from the review process.
But what’s curious is that indigenism, and indigeneity, were central to the review, and to the issue and its future solutions, but ethnicity was not itself a determinant of position among submitters to the review. The panel found that
The Foreshore and Seabed dispute is not just a dispute between Māori and Pākehā, as Don Brash and Michael Laws and Chris Trotter would have you believe: the divisions are as much within Pākehā society and Māori society as between them. A ‘clash of civilisations’ paradigm here obscures what’s really happening, it does not illuminate it.
I’ll look more closely at this point, and its cultural and constitutional ramifications, in a future post (when I get time). To be continued.
* The same busi-ness which has rendered my posts rare and largely prevented me from participating in the frequently-excellent discussions which have emerged in response to them. Please read my absence as an interested ‘points noted’, and please don’t let my scarceness dissuade you from continuing as you have been.
The country that I live in is a major exponent of the so-called “Asian Values” school. This school of thought argues that Western notions of liberal democracy are not applicable to Asia because Asian values are different than those of the Anglo-Saxon world and therefore attempts to impose Western-stye democracy are ill-suited to local conditions and, what is worse, a form of cultural imperialism.
So what do Asians value? According to the official line, they value the primacy of collective rights over those of the individual, order above freedom, material security over political voice, and economic efficiency over egalitarianism. The private sphere is reified while the public sphere is circumscribed. Family and community take precedence over the individual or narrow social group interests. These are held to derive from traditional “Confucian” values. Hence civil society is not a spontaneous expression of variegated social interests but a state-structured (and state-supportive) amalgam of overlapped sectorial agents in which “volunteerism” is imposed as a social obligation rather than freely given. Conformity is enforced as the means by which to achieve upward mobility, and although meritocracy is given rhetorical championing by the state, in practice it is often subordinated to the requirements of playing along, following orders and not challenging the status quo as given. Needless to say, this reverses most of the priorities of Western liberalism.
Asian values exponents will argue that the proof of the superiority of their system is in the pudding: individually and collectively Asia is a region of rising economic powers, with their growth only checked by foolhardy attempts to impose western-style democracy on immature populations not yet ready to accept the fact that with expanded political rights come an equal amount of social and political responsibilities. They point out the “chaos” of democratic society in the West and where democracy has been attempted in Asia, as opposed to the order found in the “traditional” East. They see social hierarchies as natural and exploitation as inevitable, with attempts to ameliorate this “natural” order of things contributing to social unrest and instability. The latter are considered to be primordial dangers to “good” society, and to be avoided or suppressed at all costs.
What I find interesting about these claims is that they mirror claims made about Latin American societies in the 1950s through the 1980s–that they operated under a different (Catholic) social code that was authoritarian, patriarchal, racially and economically stratified, state-centric, community- and family-oriented, and was therefore more naturally amenable to authoritarian forms of rule. And yet Latin America has by and large democratised with no ill-effect other than to give space to populist demagogues along with sincere politicians (as happens virtually anywhere political competition is opened up to mass appeal). But in terms of social stability, economic growth, etc., Latin America has not been discernibly hurt (or improved) by the move towards social and political freedom. It has simply evolved in a more open direction.
So what to make of the Asian values argument? Well, living in the epicenter of its practical implementation it would appear that “Asian Values” are no more and no less than the philosophical justification for developmental authoritarianism. These values are no more natural in the East than they are anywhere else–all societies put value on family, kinship, order, efficiency and stability. It is in the imposed and contrived ways in which “Asian Values” are reproduced–from the top-down, through the State and its agents, rather than spontaneously welling up from the cultural grassroots of society at large–that we see its real purpose. The Asian values argument is in reality just a cover for the maintenance of an authoritarian status quo that otherwise would be susceptible to challenge from those that it purports to represent.
That’s greens with a small g, not the party itself, though with reference to this.
Anonymous Coward at The Standard sez:
Way to isolate those political movements to the lunatic fringe.
I have myself used a similar rhetorical device before, notably in critique of Chris Trotter’s class-and-only-class dogma. But I didn’t go so far as to insist that people can’t rightly call themselves progressives unless they return their raupatu land to the tangata whenua from whom it was taken (as my family did) — only that they support, rather than hinder the overall agenda of Māori self-determination.
I’m thrilled for people to advocate lifestyle changes on the basis of their political, economic and environmental consequences, and I was right with the AC in their struggle for acceptance of their chosen lifestyle option — until it became clear that if I wasn’t with them, I was against them. It’s important to draw strong distinctions of principle and practice in your political movement, but I surely don’t need to point out the manifest idiocy of setting the bar so high as to consciously exclude four fifths or nine tenths of the population. Including toad!
In short: if them’s the club rules, then count me out, and count ‘most everyone else out as well — it’s your loss, not mine. Perhaps socialism is already marginalised in this way; but environmentalism and progressivism have a future without this sort of damfoolish absolutism. The future of those two political movements lies more with liberalism, as the preeminent philosophical force in modern Western democratic politics, than with the sort of proscriptive authoritarianism evident in that post. If they are to succeed it is with the carrot of willing change, not the stick of forced exclusion.
… and often I don’t understand it.
Pretty much every time I see the term ‘Social Engineering’ used I think the writer has got it backwards.
Mark Krikorian writes in a short post at NRO’s corner blog:
Leaving aside the merits of the US immigration debate and other aspects of Krikorian’s post*, I find the use of ‘social engineering’ here to be fascinating. I understand his point well enough, (and I’d rather not dwell on it), but what grabs me is that social engineering here can only mean the actions of his opponents, it could never be applied to his own policy. It’s a code of some sort, it no longer means just what the words say.
Obviously much of what governments do is social engineering of one sort or another. The criminal justice system is in place largely to deter and punish behaviours. Taxes are used to encourage some activities over others and so on. These sorts of things are never termed social engineering though. SE is almost always a bad thing. This much I can understand and be quite comfortable with. Whatever ‘social engineering’ is, it’s something that goes against freedom, and we are all liberals now pretty much, with the arguments being about how best to maximise (and define) liberty.
What I don’t understand is that whenever the term is actually used nowadays, it seems to be aimed at policies that remove some aspect of State control over the shape of society. In the example above, Krikorian seems to be saying that open borders would be an extreme example of social engineering. To me that is precisely wrong. A strict immigration policy, aimed at keeping a nations demographics in some sort of racial or cultural stasis would be a far better fit for the label ‘social engineering’. Given what the words mean.
If the US government was forcibly dragging non-white immigrants to the US in order to deliberately alter the demograhic mix, or refusing white applicants entry, then he’d have a point. That would meet the natural definition for SE. But they aren’t doing anything like that.
The same applies to arguments around gay marriage and state recognition of de-facto relationships. Surely when the state is recognising the relationships that people have, and not discriminating between them, then that is the opposite of what the words ‘social engineering’ actually mean.
And on the contrary, when the state did discriminate on those grounds and deliberately favoured some relationships over others, (and even made some relationships illegal), in order to foster a particular style of domestic arrangement that was felt to be most beneficial for society, then that is, quite precisely, ‘social engineering’.
So is all this just projection on the part of conservatives, or are they adding (or subtracting) some meaning to the term that I’m not seeing?
* I’ll just say that his links are interesting, as are the uses he puts them to.
I have received the following communique originated by NZ Association of Psychotherapists member Kyle MacDonald; an easy means for you to tell the Minister for ACC what you think about sexual abuse recovery rationing:
Grass Roots Political Action, a step by step recipe.
“The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”
Update: There’s also a petition, for what that’s worth.
Grass Roots Political Action Part II – Gather Support.
“In a democracy dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its
Dear friends, colleagues and supporters of counseling and therapy in
Many of you will now be aware of attempts by ACC to change the Sensitive
Now there is something you can do to help! Follow this link to an online
Please also circulate this petition as widely as you can to friends, family,
Thank you for your time,
One thing that is striking about the tone of contemporary public policy debates in NZ is the absence of intellectuals. Although various academics are trotted out by the media to give sound bites and opinion based on their supposed “expertise” in given subject areas, they otherwise do not loom large in the national conversation on issues of policy. Likewise, activists and partisans of various stripes make their views known on a number of fronts, but their contributions are notable more for their zeal than their intellectual weight. So, what happened to NZ’s public intellectuals, or perhaps better said, has there ever been a real tradition of public intellectuals in Aotearoa?
I ask this because as a relative newcomer to the country (arrived in 1997), I may have witnessed the passing from the public eye of the final generation of public intellectuals. People like Andrew Sharp, Bruce Jesson, Barry Gustafson (who is retired by active), Michael King–their likes are no longer seen in policy debates, and there does not appear to be another generation of intellectuals emerging to replace them. Moreover, due to my ignorance of NZ intellectual history, I remain unsure if theirs was the only generation of scholars who had an impact on public life, or if they are the final generation in a tradition that extends back to pre-colonial days.
To be sure, the likes of Jane Kelsey, Brian Easton (who, if from that previous generation is still alive and involved in contemporary debates), Gareth Morgan, Ranginui Walker, Sandra Coney, Ian Wedde, perhaps Chris Trotter (who is prolific if not consistent in his views) continue to agitate for their causes. Various bloggers have made their mark on public discourse, and Maori luminaries interject their insights into discussions of tangata whenua and tino rangatiratanga. But it appears that there is an anti-intellectual bias deeply ingrained in NZ society, one that has its origins in the much celebrated egalitarian ethos of the country, but which is now reinforced by the corporate media disposition to sell teenage pop fodder, “infotainment,” culturally vacuous “reality” shows and sports instead of providing even a minimum of in-depth news, analysis and debate. Although there are evening and weekend segments dedicated to public affairs on major media outlets and plenty of talkback options in which opinions are voiced, those that feature them are dominated by policy dilettantes or, worse yet, journalists, society celebrities or ex-politicians talking to each other (in a version of the Fox News syndrome of mutual self-promotion via staged interviews on personality-driven shows). There is even an academic version of this, in which individuals who are purported experts in “media studies” are brought out to pontificate on how media covers politics and social issues. No need to consult those that actual work in these subject areas–all that is required for public consumption is someone who looks at how the media covers how sociologists, economists and political scientists track issues of policy. That is enough to make definitive judgements on the matters of the day. Add to this the fact that many media guest talking heads are paid for their appearances, or if not, wish to keep their mugs on the society pages, and what passes for informed public scrutiny of policy cause and consequence is nothing more than a collection of glib retorts and one-liners. This is the media equivalent of comfort food.
The pandering syndrome has infected the political classes. Personal image and party “brand” is more important than substance. Market research drives approaches to policy. And nowhere is their an intellectual in sight to serve as critic and conscience of society. Instead, “opinionaters” from all parts of the political spectrum pass shallow retrospective judgement on matters of import, and in the measure that they do so they rapidly fade from the front lines of the degraded public debates. Small wonder that political debates often tend towards the banal and trivial.
I am therefore curious as to whether there has ever been a robust tradition of public intellectuals in NZ, and if so, why has it all but disappeared? The 2007 book Speaking Truth to Power (Auckland University Press) decried the dearth of public intellectuals, and the situation appears to have gotten worse since then (good reviews of the book can be found here: http://www.listener.co.nz/issue/3493/artsbooks/8641/that_thinking_feeling.html; and here: http://www.stuff.co.nz/sunday-star-times/features/feature-archive/163908/Smart-thinking-NZs-public-intellectuals).>>Sorry, I am having trouble placing the links in shorter format<<
The word “intellectual” itself has become a focus for ridicule and derision, and professions in which intellectual labour is the norm are denigrated as the province of losers who otherwise could not get a “real” job (hence the tired saw that “those that do, do, and those than don’t, teach”). This is odd because in other societies intellectual labour is valued intrinsically, and in NZ there has been at least rhetorical championing of the move towards a higher level of public discourse. What happened to the “knowledge economy” and the effort to turn NZ into a value-added, innovation-based manufacturing platform? Is there no role for public intellectuals in that project, to say nothing of more lofty efforts to argue and impart a normative as well as positive theoretical framework for the ongoing betterment of Kiwi society? Are intellectuals indeed just pointy-headed bludgers ruminating about how many angels can fit on the end of a pin from the obscurity of their ivory towers and smoke-filled staff rooms? Or is there something amiss in the larger society that denies them a public role?
I shall leave the answers to you.
Upon hearing the news that Ted Kennedy’s death has meant the “end of the dynasty” for the US equivalent of political royalty, I got to musing on why the “dynasty” is done. There are dozens of Kennedy children and grandchildren running about, and a few–Teddy Jr. and Joseph (son of Robert) in the House, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as lieutenant govenor of Maryland earlier this decade–have served in elected office. Thus there is enough biological material to keep the dynasty going. Why then, is it not?
The answer may be in the universal tendency of genetic decline in influential families. The logic goes like this: the first generation of any modern dynasty is characterised by “lift-from-the-bootstraps” ambition, entrepeneurship, innovative thinking, cunning, risk-taking, and flat out smarts. Through ruthlessness and hard work the progenitor of the dynasty emerges out of poverty and proceeds to achieve money, power, influence–or any combination thereof. As s/he ascends (it usually is a he), the first generation achiever moves out of his/her lower class station and begins to mingle with the hoi paloi. Eventually, as s/he reaches upper class status they breed with members of the established aristrocracy who are long on manners and etiquette and short on real achievement or talent. There begins the slide.
The first generation of children produced by this mix tend to have the progenitor’s determination and drive, as they hear first hand about the suffering and work it took to get them the silver spoon. They tend to reproduce the progenitor’s ambitions in politics, finance, enterprise or military affairs. They share the progenitor’s flaws but better reproduce his/her talents, which when coupled with the material advantages afforded to them, reinforce their positions as part of the elite. They proceed to breed with other members of the elite–some old school, some hereditary, some new blood, and go on to produce the third generation of aristocrats.
That is where the dynastic decline takes on momentum. 50 or so years removed from the hardships of the progenitor, his/her grandchildren live in the rarified air of the elites. They go to elite schools, they have maids and chauffeurs, they play with the most expensive toys, live in opulent houses, summer in beautiful vacation spots, jet around the world for pleasure, go to the best parties, sleep with the most handsome or beautiful people, and would not know a hard day’s work if it smacked them in the face (even though they are appointed to corporate boards and trusts). Most importantly, they can buy themselves out of trouble, and because they can, they do. Coupled with the lack of drive derived from their comfortable status, and with their ambition gene diluted by inter-marriage with members of established elites, this is the generation of decline.
The story of the Kennedy’s is well-known: bootlegger father with a penchant for the ladies and fascist inclinations. A generation of sons that included war heros (at least as far as the story goes), an assassinated president, an assassinated presidential front-runner and Senator, and Ted. Lest it be forgotten, it included Eunice Kennedy, the founder of the Special Olympics, who arguably may have influenced as many lives as did her brothers. Then came the grandkids—Maria Shriver, Robert Jr. Joseph, Kathleen, Teddy Jr and a a host of others. It is those others that matter here because they have done virtually nothing to advance the fortunes of the family or the community. In fact, many of that generation, and their fourth generation children, are most known for their celebrity antics and criminal transgressions and ability to escape the type of justice usually meted out to the less fortunate.
The Kennedy’s are not alone. Think of the Hilton dynasty. Think of the Rockefellers, Gettys or Carnegies. Think of Saddam Hussein’s sons. Think of Kim jung-il and his off-spring. Or European and Arab royalty. Everywhere one looks, regardless of culture or creed, the universal law of genetic decline is hard at work turning the off-spring of the mighty into social parasites and elite bludgers. Some will argue that it is not a genetic condition but the way in which they are socialised that brings about the decline. That is probably true, and since I am not a geneticist I cannot argue against the idea that it is nurture, rather than nature that produces the effect. But what I can say is that I see this process as a good thing.
The reason I believe that the universal law of genetic decline is a good thing is that it puts a natural shelf-life on any modern dynasty. Dynasties are to social life what monopolies are to capitalism: they stifle creativity, ambition and innovation, to say nothing of egalitarianism and equal treatment. Anything that breaks up these hierarchies is thus a public good, as it forces renovation, if not rejuvenation of elites by circulating new blood into them, blood that often times comes from lower rungs on the social totem pole.
So let us mark the end of the Kennedy era by honoring the things that Teddy and his family have contributed to US political life, and be thankful that their influence has apparently come to and end. Now the question remains, what about the status of the NZ elite? Or, more specifically on one issue: Old money has found its way into the National party presidency, whereas it is new money that leads its parliamentary wing and government. Is that sign of things on the upswing or things in decline for the blue side of the political spectrum?
On the 1st of April this year I got a nice cheery tax cut because, according to our National ACT government, people like me on the top tax bracket are the hardest working and most deserving. As a private sector worker earning a good wage, paying my mortgage with some to spare, and barely noticing the recession I suspect they’d say I was exactly what success looks like to them.
Oddly, though, under the current policies of this government I’d probably still be on the sickness benefit able to work only 5-10 hours in a good week.
Not so long ago, due to health and crime circumstances beyond my control, that’s exactly where I was. Getting me back on my, “successful”, feet was a combined effort of systems, organisations and people; a genuine welfare system. I was fortunate to receive good welfare support from the benefit system, counselling through ACC’s sensitive claims, awesome care from the public health system, support from a state sector with a commitment to equity and workplace reintegration for people with chronic illness and disability, an open accessible education system, and a first class public transport system. Not to mention the variety of public servants in a wide range of organisations with the time and mandate to help me through.
How many of those systems will survive the current policies? How many face cuts that make the services useless or impractical? How many of those good people have been made redundant by the state sector cuts? Or overloaded by work from their departed colleagues? Or operating under new “guidelines”?
National and ACT may laud people like me who succeed in their eyes, but they’re taking away the small pieces of support that make our success possible.
So the next time you see the politics of envy rhetoric, think of me: given a tax cut I didn’t need and wishing that every cent had been put into the services that we all rely on when things go wrong.