Archive for ‘Language’ Category

Polysemic text, context and objective meaning

datePosted on 14:16, July 11th, 2009 by Lew

If a door is closed, karate chop it open.

If a door is closed, karate chop it open.

The basic critique I and others have made about the s59 referendum question is that it only makes sense if you accept the implicit assertions with which it is loaded. Linguistic or semiotic texts don’t have wholly objective meanings – their meaning is partially subjective to the interpreter, and meaning approaches objectivity only to the extent to which people can (or will) agree on the interpretation of a text. What we call ‘objective’ meaning in a text really describes a particularly strong agreement on interpretation within a notional audience, and frequently what we call an absence of understanding or comprehension of a text really just describes an absence of agreement on the interpretation between one part of a notional audience and another. It’s easy to overstate this: usually within a given audience there is a reasonable degree of agreement on interpretation, and this is particularly true with regard to ordinary or mundane language or imagery. Some texts are more complex than others, and some are more controversial and will tend to divide the agreement of an audience more than others, but this is not a pure subjectivist or hyper-relativist argument that there is no useful meaning in anything or that definitions or the understanding of common referents are irrelevant or somehow unattainable. Just to say that meaning is not strictly encoded in a text but is as much a function of interpretation. Texts with more than one reasonable reading for a given notional audience (such that ordinary people within an audience group can reasonably differ on interpretation) are called ‘polysemic’, which is just a fancy technical way to say they have multiple meanings.

Broadly speaking the task of a propaganda campaign, or of political speech in general, is to pose a monosemic question or scenario – one which a reasonable person from within the target audience group can only read or answer in one way. This often relies on loading one’s text with as much implicit context as possible so as to avoid the possibility of part (or all) of your audience misreading it; shipping with instructions, as it were. In a strategic sense, it is not the text itself which is the payload – the frame and its implied norms enable the propagandist to construct (manufacture) the audience’s consent for their preferred reading of the wider text.

Returning to the s59 referendum question, it is a fair and credible attempt at freighting a question with an implicit value judgement which renders the answer obvious if the question is read naïvely. But it goes too far; reasonable people don’t need to try very hard to see the payload, which is the implication that (a) a smack can be part of good parental correction and (b) such a smack is a criminal offence. In a successful propaganda campaign of this nature, the textual agenda is more obvious and the contextual agenda less so, and the referendum’s supporters have been working very hard to try to shut down contrary readings of their campaign in order to de-emphasise the frame and context, and emphasise the naïve text. They’ve failed in this, but it is instructive nevertheless, and that isn’t to say they haven’t achieved any of their objectives. The problem is that the referendum question and campaign is essentially preaching to the choir – it makes sense to a conservative segment of the population who care a lot about this issue and are riled up by the constraint on their “freedom” to smack, and it speaks to them because they already accept its premises. But it isn’t much use as a polemic device because, for those who don’t accept its premises, it just looks like a stupid question. This is the problem with developing political strategy in an echo-chamber – just because you believe your own hype doesn’t mean everyone does. To pervert Schneier’s Law: anyone can design a political campaign so clever that he or she can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t agree with it. This feeds back into my ongoing critique of the state of Labour politics: toward the end they believed their own hype, in much the same way as the AAS lobby believes theirs.

Campaigns which employ symbolic or propaganda methods, whether for beneficial purposes or not, are ultimately about social control. A society which responds uniformly and predictably is, all else equal, easier to control than a diverse society, so a great deal of effort is put into the crafting of messages, delivery systems, textual and contextual input to a society which will generate predictable output. Public campaigns, to be successful, require their audience to share strong agreement about interpretation and common understanding of context for their payload to be effective. Robbed of context and freighted assumptions, even something as apparently intuitive, important and uncontroversial as a FEMA public readiness campaign can be highly puzzling and confusing if read naïvely.

Edit: And sometimes, when the context seems obvious, it’s not:

Get the context at BAGnewsNotes or YouTube. If you read the video right, he’s being a gent, not a cad.

L

Welcome Standardistas

datePosted on 11:18, June 26th, 2009 by Lew

Lynn has linked through to us while The Standard is down – thanks. I won’t have time today to put much up, so in order that you’re not disappointed by the relative lack of content, here are a few other unusual suspects worth your attention:

  • BAGnewsNotes, because politics sometimes needs to be seen to be believed.
  • The Dr Seuss propaganda cartoon archive.
  • My old mate Gabe runs a radio show on FleetFM called Playing Singles, Drinking Doubles, dedicated to outlaw country, honky tonk, gospel, rock & roll, western swing and the blues.
  • The Objective Standard, whose watchword is Exploit The Earth Or Die. Magnificent in its delusion. Even the ad links on this site are interesting – here’s one to a book called The Values of Harry Potter: Lessons for Muggles. Who knew Harry Potter (by implication: JK Rowling) was a Rand cultist? Or wait, is it that Rand cultists are actually wizards? Clearly, since I can’t figure this out, I’m a muggle.
  • Here’s a wonderful montage of Fox News screengrabs. It’s a big file, but truly the gift which keeps on giving.
  • Save The Media – career journalist Gina Chen blogs on how old media can learn from new media.
  • The Peoples Cube – life behind the irony curtain. So overdone it initially made me wonder whether it was propaganda or ironic counter-propaganda, but nevertheless, an almost-endless trove of remarkably original material. Particularly righteous is the Pascal’s Global Warming Wager.
  • Submit on the Auckland local government reforms. Last stop today; train’s going to keep on rolling until it reaches the end of the line or the engineer dies.
  • Why Obama really won the Democratic primary.

Add your own unusual suspects in comments, if you like.

Cheers,
L

[If anyone has a post they’d like us to put up please email us (kiwipolitico @ kiwipolitico.com) and we’ll get it posted! Anita]

Civil disobedience is not an attack

datePosted on 12:10, May 28th, 2009 by Lew

Paul Henry led TV One’s Close Up the other evening with disbelief that GetAcross – “just a few protesters” – could bring Auckland to “a virtual standstill”, and that the police were “powerless to stop them – almost unwilling to stop them”.

Yes, that is amazing.

But he goes on:

But that’s what happened yesterday when protesters broke through barriers and walked across the Harbour Bridge, raising the spectre of just how vulnerable we are to civil disobedience.

Hang on a minute. “Vulnerable” denotes susceptibility to attack, and this construction therefore defines “civil disobedience” as an attack on society, or at least on Auckland. But civil disobedience as a form of activism, an agent of social change or a means of engaging people in the wider political process is by definition not an attack, but one of the `institutions of societal democracy’ referred to in Pablo’s recent post on the topic; a civic duty, to use Thoreau’s formulation, rather than an act of social destructiveness. That the police didn’t – or couldn’t – prevent it by force seems to me a good thing for our society, and I might add a refreshing change from former attitudes toward peaceful protest.

This wasn’t an attack which weakened society, it was an action which could strengthen it by demonstrating that when you want something, there’s no better way to get it than to make your views known. The GetAcross action didn’t result in violence, property damage, serious disorder or anything of the sort – all it did was show up a critical weak link in Auckland’s infrastructure chain. When a couple of thousand – at most – people on bikes can cause tens of thousands of people to become stuck in traffic just by crossing one bridge, once, there are more serious problems than the protest action. If by simply adding a lane two metres wide, ARTA could prevent this from ever having to happen again – then why wouldn’t they? If not, then aren’t they asking for the weak link to be tested, again and again?

L

Update: To my great delight, James at Editing The Herald has skewered Garth George’s latest set of authoritarian mutterings about this topic on the sharp spike of the the black civil rights movement. Party on, James.

Although I have enjoyed participating in this weblog collective, I was unprepared to deal with the inability of many commentators to construct a proper argument in the debates about posts. By “inability to construct a proper argument” I do not mean those that  resort to ad hominems and vulgarity (whom we have thankfully excised via moderation). Nor do I refer to those who substitute opinion for fact and make statements or claims on subjects that they clearly know little about.  Instead, I am referring to those otherwise thoughtful commentators who misuse concepts and terms when making their arguments. I refer not to those who deliberately do so to be polemical or provocative, but to those who inadvertently do so. The main problem for the latter is the inability to distinguish between conceptual transfer and conceptual stretching.

Conceptual transfer refers to the process by which a concept or term is taken from its original context and applied to a new situation without appreciable loss of definition or meaning. Conceptual stretching refers to  the distortion of the original concept in order to apply it to a different situation or context. The first is a legitimate argumentative exercise; the second is intellectually dishonest or (most often) lazy.

Let me offer some examples. “Socialism” is a 19th century concept that refers to an economy in which the direct producers of wealth in a society appropriate the common surplus generated by their labours and distribute it according to egalitarian principles rooted in commonly accepted notions of need. Decisions on distribution take into account the need to reproduce the economic form via savings and reinvestment, so current individual allocations are balanced against the common interest in future allocations. This concept can be taken out of its 19th century context and applied, without loss of definition, to 1970s Israeli Kibbutzim, Spanish agricultural cooperatives in the 1990s or post 2002 Argentine worker-owned factories. In all of these instances, the concept was transfered to the new situation without distorting its initial meaning; in each instance workers make democratic allocation decisions about the surpluses they generate. On the other hand, calling the Obama administration’s fiscal stimulus package or progressive tax policy “socialist,” or referring to Labour’s macreconomic policies as “socialism,” betrays either profound ignorance of the concept or bad intent on the part of those who make such claims. In the latter cases, the concept has been so badly stretched so has to render it meaningless other than as some type of pejorative.

Take another example: “fascism.” Fascism was a particular inter-war political phenomena. It emerged in response to the Great Depression among the so-called “weak links” of the imperialist chain, former great powers or empires that were being eclipsed by emerging powers. Fascism was characterised by an industrial state capitalist economic project directed by a one party mobilizational authoritarian regime dominated by a charismatic leadership that used inclusionary state corporatist vehicles for mass participation in grand nationalist projects that included the military reassertion of empire. In all cases fascism was a “passive revolution” in that it sought to stave off perceived Marxist-Leninist advances in the countries in which it emerged. European fascism had three variants: Austro-Germanic, in which the core constituency of the national socialist regimes was the lower bourgeoisie; the Italian version, in which the core constituency was the urban working class (Mussolini’s black shirts); and the Spanish version, which grouped monarchists, the agrarian oligarchy and rural peasantry against the urban middle and working classes. In the first two variants, efforts to re-assert their imperial status ended in military defeat. In the Spanish version, the self-recognized inability to re-assert imperial dominance allowed the Franco regime to survive until 1972. As for the Japanese, their version of fascism was an amalgam that had the most cross-class bases of support for monarchism, militarism and imperialism, but without the party mobilizational apparatus used by the European variants.

The point of this extended discussion of the concept of “fascism” is that it was a political form specific to a particular historical moment in the early 20th century, one that can not be replicated simply because the material and political conditions of existence are no longer those that gave it life. The closest parallel to fascism–Latin American populism of the 1940s and 1950s–emulated some but not all of the political features of European fascism and did not have the same economic base. All other recent forms of authoritarianism evidence differences far to great to even remotely call them “fascist.” And yet people do, repeatedly. General Pincohet’s regime in Chile was and is still said to be “fascist” even though his political project was demobilizational and his economic project neoliberal. Commodore Frank Bainarama is called a fascist because he led a coup and rules by fiat in Fiji. Mugabe is a fascist because, well, he is.  What is true is that all of these individuals were and are authoritarians, as are many others, civilian and military alike. But that does not make them “fascist.” To label them as such is to undercut any argument for their removal.

In extending the term “fascist” to other forms of authoritarianism that do not share its structural or political features, the term has been stretched to the point of insignificance. It is now just an insult without intellectual justification. It is, in other words, argumentatively useless.

There are plenty of other concepts that come to mind when the issue of conceptual stretching arises. “Hegemony” and “imperialist” are oft-abused, stretched and distorted concepts. “Nazi” (as in German national socialist) is another popularly distorted term. The list is long, and it appears all to often in the writing/commentary on this blog. I would simply ask that people do their conceptual stretching elsewhere–DPF’s blog is a good start.

Even astute writers can fall prey to conceptual stretching. In his otherwise insightful post on Agenda Setting below, my colleague Lew refers to the likelihood of “a more militaristic, less community-based approaching to policing–in international relations terms, a more strongly realist law enforcement posture” in the aftermath of the Napier shootings and siege. The trouble with his invocation of realism is two-fold: as an international relations theory, realism maintains that the international environment is a Hobbesian state of nature in which anarchy abounds. Absent a Leviathan such as those that exist within nation-states, international actors seek to accumulate and use power in order to a) achieve security and b) pursue national interests. Power in such a view is not simply military might, but includes economic resources, diplomatic influence, moral or ethical leadership–the particular mix of what goes into the notion of “power” is complex and variable, as well as contingent on the objectives being pursued or defended. Power is not exclusively “militaristic” nor is it necessarily anti-community–the formation of alliances and use of supranational organisations for conflict resolution is part and parcel of the realist approach.

Lew’s use of realism to describe a likely police response is doubly flawed because it has been stretched to describe a particularly military approach to law enforcement within a liberal democracy. In other words, both the context and the approach are completely different to those in which realism is applied to international relations.

This is not meant to cast aspersions on Lew. To the contrary, I admire his work and appreciate his insights. Instead, this post is an attempt to point out this very common argumentative flaw among otherwise thoughtful readers and commentators, so that we can avoid repeating them in future debates. In the mean time I shall ponder whether to write about another pet peeve: the inability of people to establish a “chain of causality” between independent, intervening and dependent variables when making their case.

Trotter: more on the h

datePosted on 00:03, April 7th, 2009 by Lew

This blog is almost becoming Kiwipoliticoh, since given my limited time at present I’m having to pick my battles.

I’m pleased Chris Trotter has come to terms with his inner racist. His characteristically torrid column is basically a rehash of the bogus arguments I discredited here, which Chris has apparently not bothered to read, much less answer the questions I pose in it. His latest column makes explicit what I wrote in the first post on the matter and discussed in more general terms in another post – that people pick an ideological side on matters like this and employ whatever post-hoc rationalisations they need to convince themselves of that position. I freely admit I’ve done the same in this h debate – to me, as to most, it just seems obvious which side is in the right, and that’s a sure sign of ideological knee-jerk. The difference is that my position has some weight of philosophical and legal precedent and linguistic and geographic fact behind it, not just settler ideology.

The column is not pure rehash, though – it’s got some new hash thrown in for good measure, and none of it any more useful than the first lot. It is the canard that by changing a European name back to a Māori name the former is somehow “obliterated” or “expunged” from history. The very examples Chris gives to support this absurd contention disproves it, and moreover it shows the naked settler racism of the position.

Names are important, and to his credit Chris does not succumb to the smug `haven’t those maaris got more important things to worry about’ rhetoric, hoever he over-eggs his pudding a bit here. If, on its own, changing a name genuinely did obliterate and expunge it from history and this was a necessarily bad thing, then Chris ought for consistency’s sake to form a club to protect Beaulieu, Bewley and Baldie Roads, in danger of being so obliterated and expunged by the nefarious newcomer Bowalley Road. The fact is that those names have not been lost – they have faded from common usage but remain a part of the fabric of local culture, to be remembered and celebrated, as they are. If the change goes ahead, nobody except the fearmongers such as Trotter and Laws are suggesting that all historical references to Wanganui be struck from the records, or that a great terminology purge be conducted. The name and the fact of its usage for a century and a half will stand in the documentary record, as it ought to. The generations currently living here will mostly go on using Wanganui, and even many businesses will not bother to change their stationery, out of a dogged loyalty to the identity or out of simple inertia.*

Instead of mourning the loss of Beaulieu, Bewley and Baldie, Chris lionises the upstart Bowalley Road in the very name of his blog. This reveals that Chris accepts that some names have more intrinsic value than others, and on this point I agree with him. Where we disagree is on the basis by which we determine which of an exclusive pair of names should take precedence over the other, a simple matter of logic which I covered in the first post.

Now for the racism: having accepted that some names have more value than others, and having chosen to privilege the colonial name over the traditional name, Chris and others like him essentially say “the settler tradition is more valuable and important than the Māori tradition”. If the case were a marginal one, or if there were two equal competing claims, this would be fair enough – I’m not suggesting that all or even most names ought to be Māori names by right – but in a case where there is a clearly and obviously correct name which isn’t being used in preference to a clearly and obviously incorrect name, the implied statement changes from “the settler tradition is more important than the Māori tradition” to become “settler mistakes are more important than the Māori tradition”, which is much more pejorative. It essentially says “our ignorance is worth more than your identity”, and that, right there, is colonialism in a nutshell.

The battle will be an fierce one, and the troops are massing. The NZGB has signalled that numerical advantage – `preponderance of community views’ – isn’t enough to prevent the change, but it also grants significant weight to those views. In a bald attempt to strengthen their crude majoritarian argument before the NZGB, the Wanganui District Council (which, oddly, will not have to change its name even if the city name changes) has decided to seek a legal opinion on the NZGB’s decision, and to hold another referendum on the spelling of the name. As if there is such a thing, they plan to “conduct a neutral information campaign” on the matter beforehand, though it isn’t clear how they plan on ensuring even a fig-leaf of neutrality – will the council (who voted against the change) argue the sans-h case while Te Runanga o Tupoho (who brought the petition to the NZGB) argues the h case? Will the council pretend it can be neutral on this matter? And what is the purpose of an information campaign anyway, when they, better than anyone else, know that this isn’t a matter of logical, dispassionate assessment of facts and history – it’s a matter of picking sides. I watch the carrion birds circling with interest.

L

* Incidentally, the Wanganui Chronicle had a good laugh at itself and its readership on April 1 with a front-page story announcing that the name would be changed to the Whanganui Chronicle. Good on them! A few days later the editorial apologised to all those who had been taken in, saying that they’d thought the story too absurd to be believable.

NZGB to settlers:

datePosted on 14:28, March 31st, 2009 by Lew

Matters of linguistic and geographic fact are determined by meritorious debate, not majoritarian opinion.

Yesterday the New Zealand Geographic Board announced that there is a valid case for the name of the city of Wanganui to be spelt in its correct rendition of Whanganui. (I posted on this issue twice recently.)

The NZGB explicitly rejected the majoritarian argument, stating that the debate was important, not just the show of hands:

The Board noted the results of a referendum held in 2006, when a considerable number of Wanganui residents indicated their preference to retain the current spelling. However, the Board was conscious that declining the proposal at this point would not allow views both for and against to be expressed

Michael Laws has predictably come out calling this an attack on democracy. Unfortunately for demagogues like Laws (fortunately for the rest of us) facts are not democratically determined. Facts are defined by their relationship to reality, not by their relationship to majority opinion. Democracy is good for a very large number of things, but it’s very poor indeed for determining matters of actual factual observable and demonstrable reality.

But the really important aspect of the NZGB’s release are the implications of the following two statements:

“Wanganui, the name given to the town to reflect its position near the mouth of the Whanganui River, was spelt incorrectly and has never been formally gazetted by this Board or its predecessors. It is therefore not currently an official New Zealand place name.”

[…]

“While the Board acknowledges the historical transcription was based on the local pronunciation, the mechanics of standardising a previous unwritten language, together with its full meaning/translation, signal that the name was intended to be ‘Whanganui’. This is about correcting a mistake made more than 150 years ago.”

In these statements Dr Don Grant suggests that a local council may not by simple fiat enshrine an error as a norm – the origin of that error matters, and if its correctness is disputed then the intention of those who originated it becomes relevant. This implies a burden of proof on those wanting to retain the current no-h spelling to demonstrate that those who originally spelt the name that way intended to do so – thereby coining a new word. That is an untenable position held only by those with no genuine arguments of merit, whose leader Laws stated that people who didn’t like the current spelling could go to `Fuckatanay’ (as he pronounced it), neatly highlighting the crass idiocy of the position.

It is also an important matter of precedence. My arguments have been based on the idea that the current spelling of `Wanganui’ is the correct spelling in law, while Dr Grant made quite clear that it has no legitimacy, having never been formally recognised by the body properly constituted to do so, which is not the Wanganui District Council. Because of this, the decision the NZGB needs to make is not whether to confirm the de jure status quo spelling as the settlers suggest, but whether to give the de facto spelling precedence over the de jure status quo, which (since no alternative spelling has been approved by the properly-constituted body) can only be Whanganui. The core of the settler position is this claim to the status quo, that possession is nine tenths of the law and that since the name is currently in settler possession it is theirs to define and use as they wish without consideration to others or to the historical, linguistic and geographic facts of the matter. The status quo in this case is clearly on the side of the h: if the settlers cannot convince the board of their claim it will not remain as Wanganui but will revert to the correct spelling. That’s a huge difference.

Submissions open in mid-May. If you have an argument you want heard on this, make a submission. The debate matters.

L

Greatest good versus least harm, and the money proxy

datePosted on 23:12, March 11th, 2009 by Lew

It seems to me that the main difference in principle between Labour and National-based governments in NZ is an old question of utilitarianism – whether one should work toward achieving the greatest good or toward ensuring the least harm. The two philosophical positions are sketched out reasonably well in the wikipedia article on utilitarianism.

In principle, the difference boils down to a strategy of positive ambition versus negative mitigation. The former sees achievement as the highest goal, and failure as a necessary collateral effect of attempted achievement. They grade a society by its upper bound, by how much success its leading members achieve. In this regard, the ideology emphasises ambition, celebrating that qualities as the most beneficial to society while disregarding the worst consequences of its failure – destitution, disease, starvation, etc. The caricature of an ambitionist, if I may coin the term, sees the world as humanity’s oyster, and humanity in positive terms – as potentially successful and satisfied and healthy and secure, and considers that anyone who does not achieve these things has simply not tried hard enough, or for long enough, or lacks the innate characteristics needed to achieve those things and is therefore not entitled to them. Entitlement accrues to a person on the grounds of their success. In symbolic terms, the way to appeal to these people is in terms of opportunity, advantage, individuality, and the idea of just desserts for effort rendered.

On the other hand, the caricatured mitigationist (to coin the opposite term) grades society on its lower bound, by the extent to which the least successful members of the society are allowed to suffer by the more successful. They see the world as a dangerous, inhospitable place in which the default state is abject meanness, and humanity in negative terms of limiting those inhospitable forces, keeping out the cold and the hunger and the disease, while anything else is a bonus. Entitlement accrues to a person on the grounds of their humanity alone. The way to appeal to these people symbolically is in terms of compassion, brotherhood, sacrifice, cooperative achievement and that principle that none should suffer needlessly.

Although it may sometimes seem so, the world is not made up of caricatures, and this is my round of defence against complaints of false dichotomy. Both of these two broad positions hold some resonance for each of us, and it seems plausible that the balance of that resonance has a strong determinant effect on our political preferences. The problem, as always, comes with implementation, and the primary problem of implementation in the society we have is that money is used as the main measure of success and therefore as a proxy for a person’s innate value. This is perfectly acceptable to the ambitionists, whose ideological basis enables them to embrace money just as easily as they might embrace any other measure of human importance, but it’s not so attractive to mitigationists, who argue that entitlements accrue to a person on the grounds of their innate status as human beings and members of society, regardless of their achievements.

Push comes to shove at times like this, when things (in terms of that prevailing measure of success, money) are tight. When many people are deprived them, the human necessities of health, comfort and dignity can more readily be achieved by an idea of the common good than by the burning desire of ambition. However, when things get good again, it’s a terribly hard ideological position to peel back, and inasmuch as the common good can constrain the urgency of effort required for success it can be counter-productive, entrenching mediocrity. Indeed, without the incentive of individual reward for ambition, it could be argued that society would never pull out of any trough. But contrary to what the Randroids say, this isn’t an absolute constraint. In good times it’s easy to emphasise the greater good because a reasonable minimum standard can be expected to exist or be trivially provided for the few who need it. None need suffer except by a relative standard. In hard times, however, when raw success is less achievable, mitigating harm at the temporary expense of ambition becomes more valuable by its easy achievement.

The case in point is the Key government’s recession strategy, which gives a great deal of consideration to maintaining ambition but little to mitigating harm. It’s a tacit acceptance of a certain amount of harm in service of a longer-term good. If not from the policy itself, you can tell this from the terms used to talk about it. That’s a complicated philosophical and utilitarian question for a supposedly non-ideological government to be tackling.

L

`Iwi tax’ propaganda fail

datePosted on 09:13, March 10th, 2009 by Lew

Despite Fairfax papers the Dominion Post and the Waikato Times cheerfully running their “iwi tax” racist propaganda line, eel fishermen working (or not working, presently) in Lake Ellesmere/Te Waihora now claim in The Press it’s nothing to do with race:

“It’s not a Maori-Pakeha issue, but a bullying corporation treating some small people badly.”

That’s Clem Smith, the same person to whom the `iwi tax’ line was attributed a few days ago. What appears to have happened is that their `iwi tax’ line didn’t get as much traction as they expected – even the normally-rabid comments section on the original article was fairly split between the rednecks and the propertarians – and a Ngāi Tahu former Treaty negotiator came out in their defence, making their anti-Māori position somewhat untenable.

Still, it’s good that they’ve backed down. I still believe the levy is a legitimate means of raising revenue to clean up the waterway, but I also agree with Rik Tau’s argument in principle that Ngāi Tahu ought to act within the spirit of the agreement rather than exploiting it strictly to the letter. The fundamental problem in Māori-Pākehā relations isn’t a lack of agreements, it’s a lack of goodwill in their implementation. Including the first one – the Treaty.

L

`Iwi Tax’ – top-drawer race propaganda

datePosted on 11:12, March 6th, 2009 by Lew

Hard on the heels of my article about giving the overworked minions of the Corporate News Machine ready fodder to work with, The Dominion Post this morning proves my case by running ready-made racist propaganda soundbites from the fisheries industry.

The linked article makes it quite explicit that the fee levied by Ngāi Tahu is nothing to do with them being Māori and the fishermen being Pākehā – it’s to do with them being the owners of a resource which they (as owners) consider to be in need of investment. Their business model is to extract a rent from that resource, and they have decided to raise that rent by constraining commercial access to those who are prepared to support continued investment in the resource by paying a commercial use levy. This is no different in principle than the Transit Agency increasing road-user charges to increase investment in roads, or from a landowner charging higher fees for Fonterra producer-shareholders to graze his property because he wants to adhere to the Clean Streams Accord (and that costs money), or from a resort owner increasing his fees in order to improve the quality of the accommodation.

The fisherfolk and their lobby group the Seafood Industry Council are not trying to play on the economic issues, because they know they have no case. So they’re playing this on symbolic issues – the (coincidental) facts that the product of the lake (tuna) is a Ngāi Tahu tāonga, and the fact that Ngāi Tahu are Māori, they (the commercial fishermen) are (I assume) Pākehā, and the ownership of the lakebed is the result of a Treaty settlement. None of these facts are actually relevant to the case in point – there’s no evidence that there is any discrimination, and it doesn’t matter by what legitimate means the owners acquired control of the resource. Just because it’s the result of a Treaty settlement doesn’t mean they somehow have less right to extract rents from it. So Ngāi Tahu’s case seems invulnerable on material grounds, but it is vulnerable on symbolic grounds. The commercial interests here are cynically trying to leverage the undercurrent of anti-Māori-development racism, pushing the Iwi/Kiwi button in service of their legally invalid cause.

It’s not an `iwi tax’ – it’s a `conservation levy’, and only payable by commercial users. They can’t come out and declare themselves anti-conservation, but it seems that in NZ it’s just fine for them to come out and declare themselves anti-iwi.

L

Fear itself

datePosted on 20:37, February 28th, 2009 by Lew

Chris Trotter seems to think I’m being culturally precious and pandering to Māori separatism with my post on the h issue. He misses the point, and fearmongers about vague Orewa-like shadows of a savage threat to the settler way of life.

While it did a lot of describing, the purpose of the post was not descriptive, (is) but normative (ought). The question was not whether Wanganui has become the de facto and de jure name of the town; it manifestly has, a fact I acknowledge by using that spelling throughout that post and this one.* The question was whether those who made it so had the right to make it so, and whether they have the right to keep it so against the will of those who retain rights to the name and its usage – rights granted in principle (but not necessarily enforceable in law) by the Treaty of Waitangi.

Chris seeks to derail this by reference to the changing nature of language, but his example hardly addresses the point, far from invalidating it. The `ought’ I’m arguing is that those with a legitimate historical, linguistic and cultural claim to a name – nobody disputes that they do – which forms a core aspect of their whakapapa and regional identity and who have been actively working to maintain that name for generations should not have that claim summarily invalidated by the whim of a majority whose sole attachment to the word is the ignorance of colonial hegemony – wanting to control whatever aspect of the local culture they can for fear of their own insecure identity. The Bowalley Road example, while interesting, is fundamentally different from the case in point for two reasons: first, it is a name which was attached to a place by individual fiat rather than from long-established common usage; and second, nobody seems to care that it has been changed. My argument rests firmly on both these considerations, and they lend it legitimacy: if it were a made-up name, and if nobody cared, my claim would clearly be invalid. The proponents of retaining the current spelling also appeal to both these grounds for legitimacy, so the question is not which of the two causes is legitimate – it is which of the two spellings should take primacy over the other. Who gets to exercise cultural control – rangatiratanga – over the name? Its originators, whose regional and whakapapa identity is tied to in it, at whose pleasure the original Pākehā settlement was founded, and who have since been systematically excluded from its affairs to the point where they are now outsiders on their own historical lands; or the settlers, whose cultural and linguistic dominance is already evident in myriad ways, who are responsible for the marginalisation of the tangata whenua, and who fight tooth and nail against every attempt at reconciliation or reparation unless it is on their terms and their terms alone. The two claims to primacy have the same grounds in principle – it’s just that the grounds of one are stronger than the grounds of the other.

The second part of Chris’ article is worse, though, because rather than misunderstanding the point and its arguments, he misstates the cause and repeats a divisive propaganda line about the dangers of allowing the natives to exercise any authority. Although Chris might not agree, this kite about the Māori radicals in the closet just waiting for their moment to disrupt the nice harmonious race relations we have in NZ is not too dissimilar from that flown by Don Brash five years ago at the Orewa Rotary Club. Let me deal with the two paragraphs in turn:

What’s more, Ken Mair’s demand that the pre-colonial appellation be restored is, I strongly suspect, part-and-parcel of a much more ambitious plan to reclaim his people’s sovereignty over the entire region. To do that, however, Ken and his people would have to fight the colonial wars of conquest all over again – this time emerging as the winners.

Why didn’t we see through their nefarious plan?

1. Change the name.
2. ?????
3. Declare the Mairist Republic of Whanganui.
4. Profit!

The assertion is beyond preposterous; comparing it to the Underpants Gnome business model almost does the model a disservice.

The goals of tino rangatiratanga ceased to be cession/secession, revolution and mass reoccupation by force generations ago. Tangata whenua – and particularly those of the Whanganui region – have embraced the legitimate governmental and judicial processes at their disposal, so much so that one of their daughters is a minister in the current government.

So perhaps the “grasping settlers” Lew condemns are smarter than he is willing to admit. Perhaps they see right through Ken’s seemingly harmless demand that the spelling of the city’s name be changed. Perhaps, by resisting this little challenge today, the Wanganui District Council and its Mayor can avoid resisting much more dangerous challenges tomorrow.

I never condemned the settlers as stupid – I freely admit that they’re not; they have very smartly and efficiently suppressed almost all Māori resistance, to their great advantage. I condemned their actions and attitudes as unjust and counterproductive in the long term. Chris’ whole argument here begs the question that there’s a race war on, and this is the fundamental assertion that the logic of Orewa and of the iwi/kiwi billboards and of the underclass and the warrior gene expects us to accept – for without it, the edifice crumbles. The entire assumption rises from that same grasping settler mentality I identified – fear of the other, fear of scarcity, fear of losing control, the constant feeling of being embattled and under siege and somehow insecure.

If one accepts – and there is copious evidence for this – that there is no intractable race war, and Māori no longer want to fight, but to retain rangatiratanga over the things they still have, and gain control – mostly symbolic, rather than material – over a tiny fraction of what they lost, there’s no argument to be had here. Work with them, rather than against them, treat in good faith and look to the future, and the future begins to look a whole lot brighter.

Today, 28 February, is the anniversary of the 1995 occupation of Pakaitore, the grounds upon which the Wanganui District Courthouse stands, known formerly as Moutoa Gardens in honour of the `loyal Māoris’ who defended the settlement against a Hauhau assault at Moutoa Island in 1864. The occupation lasted nearly three tense months during which the settlers thought their town had been invaded – my wife’s cousin phoned from London in the middle of the night to make sure she wasn’t in any danger; of course, she wasn’t because there was no violence beyond the usual which happened between the Rutland and Commercial Hotels. The occupation centred upon the claim that the land had been expropriated by the city, not sold by tangata whenua. On this same day in 2007, the Māori Land Court returned the block to iwi, who now receive a rental from the Ministry of Justice, whose courthouse continues to operate undisturbed. The land remains publicly accessible to all, although the statue of John Ballance no longer stands. Today, in the wind and rain, there were tents set up selling fry bread and hāngi and raw fish and home-grown veges and artwork; people standing around talking and kids playing. Ken Mair was there; he doesn’t know me and I’m just about as white as can be, but he greeted me warmly and bid me welcome and we chatted for a moment. There was a big tino rangatiratanga flag, but no chest-thumping or politicking or nationalistic fervour – it was a marketplace, on the site of a historical marketplace. The only problem was that there were hardly any white folk there, and those who were there looked guilty and suspicious, like they thought they were trespassing. The people selling the raw fish were embarrassed that they had trouble producing change for a $20 note. A girl of about seven wanted to know where I was from, and when I told her `Wellington, but I grew up here’, she asked `why don’t you live in Wanganui any more?’ What’s needed, and wanted, is more understanding, not the entrenchment of colonial ignorance or its endorsement as a valid way of life.

So, Chris, beyond the vague shadows of Orewa, what `dangerous challenges’ might the latter-day settlers of New Zealand face if they allow tangata whenua a bit of symbolic and linguistic authority over their own names and history?

L

* I use the spelling `Wanganui’ because this spelling currently has primacy. While I believe the spelling should be `Whanganui’, it’s not good enough to just have it become the de facto spelling. In order to recognise rangatiratanga, it must be made official – ariki ki te ariki, tangata ki te tangata.

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