Posts Tagged ‘identity politics’

My partner and I are reaching the end of our sojourn in Greece and will be back in SE Asia by the end of the week. Her data collection and interview schedule have provided the follow-up material needed to finish the Greek chapter of her book (which includes Ireland and Portugal as the other case studies, a comparative project she started five years ago and long before anyone else noted some of the bases for comparison that now occupy so much attention). For my part, I have managed to glean some preliminary observations about civil-military relations in this fragile democracy, and in doing so have developed an idea about undertaking a comparison of post-authoritarian Greece and Argentina (although the specific focus of the project is still unclear and it will have to wait in any event until I manage to finish the current, long delayed book project as well as some articles in preparation or revision).

At this point I would like to reflect on an issue that I have previously written about in this forum (Sept 2009): the notions of Entitlements and Rights, in this case as they apply to contemporary Greek democracy.

If one thing comes across to this foreign observer, the Greeks have a tremendously developed sense of entitlements and rights. In fact they see them as one and the same. But they also have little sense of social responsibility. The prevailing attitude appears to be they everyone is entitled to express their opinions however they see fit regardless of whether it infringes on other’s security or dissent.  Everyone is also entitled to extract as much as they can from the state without having to help pay the costs of public goods (say, by paying taxes in full). The expressed view is not only that people are entitled to these attitudes (seen as a combination of opinion and behaviour), but that they have the Right to them.

Of course, this is an over-generalisation. Many Greeks do not impose their views on others and retreat into parasitic survivalism outside of their involvement in the public sphere. Yet at least when it comes to the intersection of political and civil societies, the tone is often “me/us first, the rest of you can get stuffed.”

What is interesting about this phenomena is 3 things: 1) that this notion of collective and individual entitlement is construed as a Right of all Greeks. Although nowhere is it written in the Greek constitution that people have a right to storm parliament, attack the police, property and standers-bye, or thrown molotovs into banks during demonstrations, it is generally accepted that such is inherent in the Greek way of expressing dissent or dissatisfaction with the status quo. These types of direct action are not seen as insurrection or low-level guerrilla warfare, but as something disgruntled Greeks simply do.

This attitude–that Greeks not only are entitled to get agro when they protest but have a right to, and that it is their right to not be held to criminal account for their violent public actions–is a product of the days in 1973-74 when the university student movement was instrumental, via violent clashes with the security forces, in bringing down the so-called colonel’s dictatorship that had usurped Greek democracy in 1967. Many of the leaders of that movement are now senior figures in politics, unions, the civil service and higher education. For them it was the resort to direct action, at considerable physical risk to themselves, that was THE decisive factor that restored Greek democracy. As a result, the role of direct action, including violence, has been mythologised in modern Greek political folklore, and even if stylised and ritualised in many instances, it remains central to the formation and reproduction of Greek political identities. In other words, to be staunch in the streets is to be Greek, and nothing can infringe on this inalienable right of all Greeks (immigrants are another matter). In a country that reifies its warring history regardless of win or loss, this is a powerful glue.

That brings up the second interesting aspect of this entitlements-as-rights phenomena: the government, including security forces, agreement with that logic. It is remarkable how the government accepted, for example, that the attempted storming of the Greek parliament on May 5 was a “right” of the protesters. Although it denounced the murders of three bank workers caught up in the demonstration violence, it did not specifically condemn the burning of the bank in which they were trapped.  Instead,  the government ordered that the parliament building be defended so that the debt rescue package could be voted on, but it clearly instructed the riot police to deal  lightly with the protesters and to not enforce basic criminal statutes outside of the immediate confrontation zone around parliament itself (and as I mentioned in a previous post about the general strike, may have negotiated with the communist-led unions to ensure that this occurred).

Nor was there a massive police cordon erected around the city centre, or police roadblocks and checkpoints erected at major road and rail access nodes to the downtown area even though it was a foregone conclusion that armed fringe groups were headed to the scene (and I must say that some of the Greek militant factions have truly marvelous names, such as the “Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire” held responsible for two bombings this weekend in Athens and Thessaloniki). In other words, with full knowledge of what would happen, the government confirmed the perception of entitlements-as-rights by ordering that security be limited and light.  Hence, for the moment, the military has played no role in internal security, which is left to two layers of riot police (one to prevent, the other to respond to violence), regular cops and plain clothes detectives and intelligence agents. However, if the pace of agitation continues, that attitude of military non-involvement in domestic security could well change (and it does not have to be overt, just decisive).

In effect, all political actors accept this particular interpretation of the Greek “me/us first, the rest be stuffed” broad entitlements-as-rights argument. Perhaps that is because there is also a fundamental Greek belief in the powers of collective and individual self-control. But nothing I have seen in the Greek streets suggests that self-limitation is a widely accepted national trait. To the contrary, the general attitude on the streets, both in the daily routine as well as during demonstrations, is that one gets away with what they can absent countervailing or superior power.  For those who have had the experience with them, Athenian street market vendors and taxi drivers are cases in point (and yet the market for both persists).

To put that in a comparative perspective, imagine any group in NZ claiming the right to throw molotovs, wreak storefronts  and storm parliament, and have that “right” not only accepted by any government of the day but also have that government order the police to refrain from using undue force on said protesters in the event they turn violent (to include limiting the number of arrests). Would that ever be feasible? For those so inclined, spurious comparisons with “wreakers and haters,” spitters, bum flashers, flag shooters and burners or street theater anarchists simply do not cut it.

That brings up the third, and most troubling aspect of the broad Greek interpretation of entitlements-as-rights (which if readers may remember my post on the subject last September are clearly not the same thing, nor should they be). Nowhere in this logic is there any notion of social responsibility, be it collective or individual. The entire argument is framed simply in terms of expected treatment and permissible behaviour, not in terms of social costs or collective mitigation of harm in pursuit of the common good. The absolutism of the claim of entitlements-as-rights and the absolute lack of relativity or regard for consequence are quite astounding. It is remarkable to watch and listen to people proclaim zero responsibility for societal ills, collective dysfunction or personal injury while demanding that their expanded notions of public and private rights be held sacrosanct. For this observer, the gap between what is demanded and what is offered in return is canyonesque.

And that is where my personal disconnect lays. As someone who recognises the legitimacy of violent direct action in the face of oppressive regimes, I fully understand the public need to physically confront the powers that be. But I also understand that there are costs involved in that form of expression. When one contravenes established  criminal law–often on purpose because it is a symbol of tyranny or class rule–one accepts that s/he has placed themselves outside of the law-as-given. One is thus a self-recognised “outlaw,” defined in old American Western parlance as “outside of the law.”  Being outside of the law of course means that one is liable to extra-judicial retribution, or at least criminal charge. Guerrillas  and counter-hegemonic activists of of all stripes understand this as they enter the fray and they fully understand the downside consequences of their decision to act (the Waihopai 3 notwithstanding). Having said this, it strikes me that the Greek state is more obese and arthritic than malignant and oppressive, so the resort to violent direct action on a near daily basis seems symptomatic of  a malaise not solely attributable to the Greek state.

And yet in contemporary Greece most everyone has a state-centred grievance and no one has a a claim on blame (or at least accepts even partial responsibility for social costs involved in the claim to entitlements-as-rights). For Greeks, collective costs are acceptable so long as immediate personal injury is avoided (this applies to bank managers as it does to unemployed youth). Rights of voice and expression are believed to be unfettered and encumbered only by individual preference, the consequences of which are to be borne by others.  Outside of exceptional cases involving ongoing public interest, public or private contravention of the law-as-given is generally held to be non-liable. A petrol bomb here, a bribe there–everyone is entitled to express their self-proclaimed rights in their own way and others should beware and steer clear. There is collective tolerance of that view. Governments come and go indulging such attitudes as the miminal cost of rule. Greeks that understand democracy as a substantive and procedural compromise can only ponder this, shrug their shoulders, and silently weep.

All of that may change now that the crisis is upon the Hellenic Republic. What may have been permissible in better economic times may no longer be so as the burden of sacrifice begins to wear on the fabric of Greek society. As austerity bites into the great mass of Greek workers the resort to survivalist alienation in the private sphere may give way to a defensive overlap between collective and private notions of entitlements-as-rights, drawn along lines reminiscent of 1974. Should that occur (and there have already been calls from ultra-nationalist groups for the military to act), the logic of entitlements-as-rights spawned by the events in 1974 could well be replaced by a military counter-version in which it is entitled, and has the right, to intervene in government in order to “save” the nation from itself, even if on a temporary basis.

Improbable as that may seem (and it is), such could well be the future price Greeks might pay for confusing a broad conception of entitlements with civil rights devoid of civic responsibility. Let’s hope not.

Epilogue: This concludes my posts about Greece. I may have more to comment on this fascinating country down the road but for the time being I must contemplate a return to the authoritarian (yet efficient and clean!) tropics. Which brings up the question: is it better to live peacefully and comfortably without real voice under authoritarian aegis, or is it better to suffer disorder and inefficiency in a democracy in which voice matters more than anything else? That is the perennial question of transitional political societies.

PS: My partner says that the syndrome is much more individual than collective, and that participation in collective action is a convenient cover for individualist self-projection using the ideological justification of rights to unfettered voice (rather than a genuine concern with collective gains). I disagree to some extent because I think that repeated involvement in direct action modifies the very notion of self (for better or worse), but that subject is for another discussion. In the meantime I defer to her superior knowledge of all things Greek.

They have to want it as much as you do.*

datePosted on 06:51, April 27th, 2010 by Pablo

I spoke with an old Pentagon friend today (a person with whom I shared strategic planning duties in a specific area of concern, and who went on to far greater things than me), relating to him my early observations about Greece in crisis. I mentioned that the Greeks, who have a public sector that dwarfs the private sector, in which the public sector average wage is far above that of the private sector, have a huge sense of collective entitlement and natural rights. For example, university students (as public entitles) are currently demonstrating daily against proposed cuts in their free lunch and bus pass benefits, but not at the university. Instead, they disrupt downtown traffic. Tomorrow the seafarers, bus drivers and railway workers go on a 12 hour strike to protest wage freezes or labour market infringement  (the train and bus workers are public servants facing wage freezes and the seafarers are striking to protest non-EU ships being allowed berthing rights in Greek ports. Their combined walkout will paralyze the transportation network for 8 hours ). 

But media coverage of the issues is somewhat odd. Rather than look inward, the popular press is full of anti-German rants because the Germans will determine the conditions of the Greek debt bailout (which only delays the inevitable default), and the conditions imposed by the Germans (as majority holders of Greek debt) are considered to be the reasons why Greek workers will not get their entitled, perfunctory raises.  All the while  life goes on–the cafes and supermarkets are full, people crowd the trains, there are few demonstrations outside downtown. People do not appear to connect the impending default to their lifestyle.

Usually wages are tied to productivity, which means that if the public service is well paid it is also efficient (such as in Singapore). But in Greece it is not. From what I have observed and what my Greek interlocutors have told me, nothing gets done or it is waste of time to demand action. For example, on Saturday an illegal gypsy market spung up on the street outside our apartment building. It closed the street to vehicular traffic and vendors camped out on the apartment footsteps. The neighbours shut the front entrance doorway, which is usually propped open, out of fear of robbery. I asked my landlord if that was commonplace and she said that yes, although illegal the gyspy market had run for years because neighbours had zero success in complaining and bribes may have been paid for the authorities to look the other way (which indeed they did–I saw not a single cop during the entire afternoon the market was running).  In other words, Greek public service is as much a hindrance as a help to civil society, hence the proliferation of grey and black market activity. The curious thing is that this situation is tolerated by both of the dominant Greek parties, respectively left and right centre as they may be, because public sector employment and benefits is a common source of patronage and clientilism. Neither one wants to upset that apple cart (even if the latter is foreign debt-bought and effectively owned). 

Mind you, not that all Greek public services stink. When compared to the Auckland raillway system, for example, the Athenian Metro is stellar. There are few delays on the six inter city lines, complete integration with buses and suburban rail lines, and close integration with ferry and airport schedules. The only visible problem, from my non-expert viewpoint, is that there appears to be way too many people (or too little, depending on the station) doing nothing in pursuit of this goal. Then again, I tried the Henderson-Auckland (before and after Britomart) route for years, before and after it was privatised,  and the public-controlled Athens Metro system has it beat by a country mile.

Not that the Greek private sector is a beacon of innovation and entrepeneurship. To the contrary, it is mostly low skilled small holdings with no growth or technological ambition (think butchers, cosmetic vendors and locksmiths), and the political-economic elite (they are the same, crossing familial ties in many instances) in this rigid two party system have no interest in promoting the sort of capitalist ambition that would erode their joint lock on power. Cuba is similar in this regard, because in both cases oligarchic control supplants popular innovation as the motor of progress and majority consent is bought with public sector employment (not that I am drawing a direct line between the two regimes as a whole).

Which is to say, Greek economic backwardness is cultural, contrived and perpetuated by the Greek status quo. The elite see no need to change because deficit spending is a double edged sword, as many US banks found out to their dismay. Deficit-laden countries intimately locked into the European financial system such as Greece will not be allowed to collapse  becuase if they do the financial run is on given that Spain, Portugal and Ireland are all in the same predicament–too much debt, too little ability to pay within IMF/ECB guidlelines.  Hence, Greece may default, but it will not be allowed to financially collapse if for no other reasons than that the repercussions would be catastrophic on the European banking system itself.

Which is where my fomer Pentagon friend comes in. I noted to him that the problem with EU expansion is that the leading EU economies, France and Germany, viewed EU monetary expansion into Southern and Eastern Europe as a development project in which the lagging peripheral economies would be modernised by virtue of their connection with the European core (first via labour-intensive investment, then by value added industrial growth). The Euro giants emulated the US when it engaged Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s under the rubric of modernisation theory: just expose the backward masses to a little capitalist entrepenurialism and all will eventually be right.

Err…wrong.  As my friend noted, the locals have to want the change as much as we/you (external agents) do. And that is a cultural issue more than anything else. 

Developmentalist views such as that of the EU and US ignore the cultural component of investment climates. National preferences are different, cultural mores vary, and collective notions of rights and entitlements are not transferable across borders. The Germans and French may have thought that lending money to Greece to fund the Olympics would promote its modernisation, but like the Yanks in Latin America, they failed to understand that Greek culture–what it means to be Greek–supercedes any IMF/European Central Bank prescriptions. Hosting the Olympics was temporary; to be Greek is forever, and that is not reducible to a current deficit repayment schedule. To the contrary. It is reducible to notions of rights and entitlements crafted over milleniua and mytholoigised as such. That bottom line is not within an IMF  or European Central Bank purview.

Which is why my friend Ray’s point is well taken: an external actor can only help as much as the locals want to help themselves. There is no point in offering assistance and prescriptions if the locals do not see the need to change. Absent a local consensus on the need for change (which can be influenced by externally driven media manipulation but which ultimately has to resonate in the hearts  of the citiznery) better then  for external actors to cut bait than to engage in futile hope that the local conditions will change.

In fact, the opposite may be true: the less a country is propped up by external actors and the more it is forced to look inside itself for solutions, then the more it may eventually address the root causes of its backwardness, decline or stagnation (New Zealand could well be a case in point). In any event, only after internal failure is acknowledged that external assistance will make a difference in Greece or elsewhere, and that difference is not material but attitudinal.

 According to my buddy, that fact is as true for Greece as it is for Somalia, Irag and Afghanistan, and in the latter instances, the stakes are arguably much greater. I disagree with his summary assessment as it applies to Afghanistan (as I believe that there is more at stake than local self-realisation), but cannot help but recognise the truth in his words. At the end of the day in this age, no matter the degree of previous exploitation and subserviance, the root problem of backwardness lies within. Or to put it in my friend’s terms, “if the locals do not want to do it, it aint gonna happen.”

There is truth in that view and no amount of good intentioned external help will resolve the fundamental issue.

*Update: For a jaded by humorous view of Greek politics check this out.

Consider the birds

datePosted on 21:55, March 27th, 2010 by Lew

In the USA, the Spotted Owl evokes the spectre of trivial busybody environmentalism. This species has been extremely well propagandised by the forestry lobby and other anti-environmentalists as a symbol for “putting other species ahead of humanity”. But it is not so in New Zealand (although there is Powelliphanta augusta). For a hint of what the public response to Gerry Brownlee’s plan to mine Schedule 4 of the conservation estate could be like, look no further than the firestorm which has erupted over the YouTube video showing Norwegians shooting protected native birds, among other things.

kererū

This has been a pretty persistent story. It’s been at or close to the top of the Stuff “most read” list for going on three days now; at the time of writing, it’s #1. It’s third on the NZ Herald website’s NZ section. It was in almost every dead-trees paper with a national news focus in the country on Friday. It’s featured prominently on One and 3 News (and consequently RadioLIVE), Radio NZ National, Newstalk ZB, and is at present the third-placed story on English-language Norwegian news website News and Views from Norway and has made Norwegian-language mainstream news there too, as well as action from Norway’s own environmental agencies. It’s drawn outraged official comment from DoC and the Conservation Minister; but notably not (as far as I can see) from the Minister of Tourism. There are 400-plus infuriated comments on the original YouTube clip, and 300-plus on the Fish’n’Hunt Forum, the oldest and most popular NZ internet site for discussion of hunting and fishing topics. Stuff.co.nz has a poll up, and the results are quite clear, for what they’re worth:
stuffkererupoll

This outpouring of righteous fury has not come about because of the death of a few birds. None of the species shot by these hunters are so close to extinction that the loss of an isolated handful of individuals will critically harm the population. The reason for the response is that this sort of thing offends us deeply and personally. It is antithetical to who we are as New Zealanders, and it is as if a little part of each of us dies with those birds.

I wrote a few days ago that the task for the opposition, for conservationists and those who love the land and its wildlife was to relegate mining Schedule 4 to the “political too-hard basket”. More specifically, that task for those people — and for the 74% of (notoriously reactionary) Stuff respondents for whom these events are a grave injury — is to see the proposal to mine Schedule 4 as the same thing on a much greater scale, which it ultimately is, and to respond in kind.

Update 30 March: A vivid event like the one discussed above often primes the media and public to pay closer attention to similar events which previously might not have been newsworthy. Dog attacks are a case in point. So it is with this case: the release and eventual death of a weka, hardly endangered but well-loved, from Hagley Park, is now news.

L

Yours, not mines

datePosted on 10:08, March 25th, 2010 by Lew

Labour’s campaign against mining Schedule 4 land looks strong, especially at the iconographic level.

The slogan and to an extent the photo frames the issue as a matter of identity, echoing Phil Goff’s “the many, not the few” and Phil Twyford’s “not yours to sell” (though the visual style has come a long way since that campaign, and there’s some subject-object confusion). It also echoes Iwi/Kiwi, undoubtedly the most effective campaign of this sort in recent memory. The hard economic matters — the cost-benefit analysis between mining and tourism and so on — are there, as they should be, but backgrounded to the symbolic concerns.

Goff is clear that he’s not anti-mining, but wants to focus on the 60% of mineral resources outside the DOC estate. That’s the crucial point to make because it draws a bright line between acceptable and unacceptable which is still well north of Schedule 4 — to cross that line the government must first gain electoral consent to mine DOC land, and having done that must gain consent to mine the most precious areas of that estate. The point isn’t that mining is all bad; the point is that mining conservation land is worse than the alternatives. The job of the opposition, environmentalists and anyone who loves the fact that NZ still has wild places which are sacrosanct, or who thinks of those places as a part of them, is to relegate the idea of mining them to the political too-hard basket.

Labour and the Greens are also well-coordinated on this, with Metiria Turei pointing out the government’s duplicity in not revealing its intent to mine areas on Great Barrier Island which are under Treaty negotiations. The māori party should get in on this, as well. It looks good.

L

The “I” thing

datePosted on 09:06, February 9th, 2010 by Lew

iAs much as there are great expectations on John Key’s statement to Parliament today, the pressure on Phil Goff is only slightly less. He may not have the responsibility of running a country, but that’s the problem: little or nothing indicates he will have a country to run in the foreseeable future, the optimism of the activist left notwithstanding. Goff’s reply needs to be a game-changer; it needs to reframe the past year, foreshadow the coming “middle year” when the policy engine runs at full noise, and it needs to demonstrate that Goff has got some game and is willing to bring it.

It looks like Labour have just such an event in mind, but I have substantial misgivings about Goff’s planned reply to Key’s throne speech.

If the article in the Sunday Star Times is to be believed, the speech’s greatest asset will also be its greatest weakness: it’s to be delivered in the first person. There’s going to be a lot of “I have failed to” and “I should have” sort of statements coming out of Goff’s mouth which will undoubtedly be taken out of context, and on a more subtle level, it will reiterate the fact that Goff is in a pretty impotent position at present. Labour is disconnected from key constituencies, and there remains a perception that it still doesn’t really get why it lost. People will more naturally associate “failure” and “sorry” and so on with Labour than with National. The task of this speech and the coming months is to turn that around, but it will be hard work to sufficiently remind the audience that these things relate to Key rather than Goff himself, given that they’re coming from Goff’s mouth and because it runs counter to the established narrative about Key and what people want to believe about him.

He’s staking his own personal and political appeal against that of the PM. It’s a big risk, but hey, boldness is what’s needed. It’s not as if Goff has much to lose, and if he can make it work, it has potential to reframe the debate from being about the opportunities of the future to the missed opportunities of the past.

L

In January and February 2008 my wife and I did a road trip the length of the country, twice — from Wellington to Bluff, back to Wellington, up to Cape Reinga, and back to Wellington again. For most of the trip, we flew a small Tino Rangatiratanga flag, one of those small ones which clip onto a car window. It was partly a matter of literally “flying the flag” of my political views at this time of year — I must note, with some misgivings on her part — and partly an experiment to see what response it would get.

Photo by Adrienne Rewi.
(Photo by Adrienne Rewi — because its surprisingly hard to take a shot of your own car-flag while driving and we didn’t take one. Used without permission but with thanks — I’ll take it down on request.)

Most obviously, traffic seemed to treat us somewhat differently, though this might be down to regional and seasonal driving variations. Some cars honked, some flashed their lights or waved; others rode closer behind or seemed to overtake more aggressively. Many times I saw drivers staring or otherwise reacting with surprise at seeing a couple of Pākehā in a white station wagon flying such a flag. Truck drivers were particularly well-represented in all these reactions; the road is their territory, and visual vehicular statements of identity or loyalty mean a lot to them.

This was especially true when driving around Otago and Southland with my ZZ Top-bearded and bemulleted uncle in the car. Mostly in the South, though, people were cool but not hostile, and too polite to mention anything they might have thought. The response, both positive and negative, was strongest in the central North Island, Northland and the Bay of Plenty. In Taumarunui we got into town late and a group of local Māori were drinking and singing karaoke at the hotel where we stopped. They were intrigued and after a few friendly waves and “kia ora bro”s a couple of kuia came over to suss us out — asking us who we were, where we were from, and so on. Learning that we were from Whanganui, and that I have family connections to Jerusalem put it in context and they treated us with easy amiability. Their only mention of the flag was to remark that it was probably a pretty good guard against theft; said with warmth and irony and humour. There were several of these sort of encounters. Later, stopping for side-of-the-road hāngi on the road between Wellsford and Whangarei, the young guy gave us $2 off and claimed it was because it was the last, though I could see there was plenty left and it was only just lunch time. Especially in the Far North, and through the Bay of Plenty from Te Puke through Whakatane down to about Rotorua, Māori pedestrians and kids playing near the street would shout and point and wave. Usually, this was in run-down areas, and the people waving and shouting “chur bro!” often wore gang colours.

The “anti-theft device” line was replayed unbidden in Tauranga while visiting some in-laws, though this time in all seriousness, with none of the warmth of the Māori in Taumarunui. This was combined with a rather heated debate as to the relative merits of the Clark government, Foreshore and Seabed Act and general state of the bicultural nation. The two events were on consecutive days, and the contrast could not have been more stark.

In a couple of cases — once in Lyttelton in the carpark of the Wunderbar, and again outside a petrol station in Whitianga — we were asked by random strangers if we were Māori, and if not, why were we flying the flag. In Lyttelton this was good-natured and curious; in the other case, the question was asked with gruff suspicion, and the answer — an explanation of what the flag means and its origin — didn’t cut any ice with the chap who looked and seemed rather like Garth George. I’ve encountered that sort of reaction before — once a guy called me a “race traitor” in Molly Malone’s because I was wearing a Tino Rangatiratanga hoodie — and that one didn’t even have the flag, just the words.

But on a trip of 7,500km on the busiest roads in the country, passing through all the main population centres at the time of our national holiday, in an election year, not long after the Urewera Terra arrests and with issues of racial separatism and colonialism very squarely on the agenda, the thing which was most obvious was how little such a statement changed anything. It reiterated to me that New Zealand is a pretty tolerant and easy society, as long as that tolerance is not stretched too far. Another example of this was this evening’s “Great Debate” on Māori TV between celebrities and comedians and such folks on the moot “now is the time for Aotearoa to close the immigration gates”. I won’t spoil the result, because it really is worth watching (and I assume Māori TV will put up a video), but while the moot was robustly (and often very personally) contested, it was all done in wonderful good humour. The same good humour as of a Māori joking ruefully about Māori crime — and the opposing siege mentality the following day. Happily, I think the former predominates in this country, and provides a sound basis for the ongoing development of a bicultural — and eventually multicultural — society.

L

A little sanity from Laws

datePosted on 10:50, January 27th, 2010 by Lew

I often find myself thinking of a saying which I’ve seen variously described as Arabian, African and Chinese, but which I’m pretty sure every culture has in its own version:

At the hearth: me against my brothers. In the house, me and my brothers against our cousins. In the village: me, my brothers and our cousins against our neighbors. Outside: me, my brothers, our cousins and our neighbors against the world.

Michael Laws and the formerly-divided Wanganui District Council have unanimously condemned the adoption by media (TVNZ, Radio NZ and other outsiders) of the standard Māori pronunciation of “Fonganui”, while quietly endorsing the new “Whanganui” spelling as an official alternative. In an expression of the last phrase of the proverb above, the council also resolved to “work with local Māori leaders to draw up a guideline for national media and organisations as to how the city should be pronounced.”

Quite apart from being an almost unprecedented — and very welcome — indication of goodwill from Laws and his settler-majority council toward tangata whenua, this also marks a subtle shift away from the bombastic demagoguery of the h debate to a sort of diplomacy, perhaps a realisation that civil society solutions to complex political identity problems come about by education and negotiation; they require change by consent. This was the fundamental difference between the pro-h and anti-h arguments in the great h debate of oh-nine: the anti-h position was presriptive, insisting that it had to be a “Wanganui” for everyone with no tolerance for dissent. The pro-h position was about recognition, insisting that “Whanganui” be acknowledged as having preeminence, but not enforcing this usage in an absolute fashion.

But ultimately (although Laws and the council may not have gotten this point) pronunciation is a different question. Pronunciation and dialect in Māori remains an expression of a speaker’s rangatiratanga. Māori was, and to a large extent remains a dialectic language where howyou say something provides important context about who you are and what you’re saying — a concept somewhat unfamiliar to many Pākehā New Zealanders who are used to a reasonably homogeneous accent, but one which will be very familiar to anyone familiar with the USA or the UK. This is why you’ll hear Māori from elsewhere in the country pronouncing it “Fonganui” without much objection from Whanganui Māori, and why you’ll hear Whanganui Māori pronouncing “Whakatane” as “Wakatane”, as well as “wānau” or “ware” or “wakarongo mai”, and while it may draw sniggers from speakers of other dialects, it is generally recognised as a manifestation of Whanganuitanga to speak this way. For their part the Whanganui (and Taranaki*) Māori are proud of their dialect much as Texans or Geordies are. Tariana Turia, in speeches, has described just such situations, such as when visiting relatives from the Tongariro region, the children teased her for poor pronunciation. Far from being ashamed by this, it was a small source of pride for her and a matter of her own mana and Whanganuitanga, a recognition of the small differences between relations which throw the much more important commonalities into sharp relief.

All this is a somewhat roundabout way of saying that, while it’s wonderful that Laws and the council have seen the need to ally with their cousins and neighbours against the world, and moreover have (apparently) seen the need to do so in a diplomatic and non-coercive manner, this is a battle they simply may not win because there is an important distinction between standing on your own mana and trying to force others to adopt your ways, requiring them to sacrifice their own mana in doing so.

L

* Māori Language Commissioner Ruakere Hond is leading the campaign to promote the Taranaki dialect.

Back away slowly

datePosted 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.

L

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‘Blue collars, red necks’: triply flawed

datePosted on 14:27, December 4th, 2009 by Lew
To those who stick up for their identity, socialism sticks up two fingers!

To those who stick up for their identity, socialism sticks up two fingers!

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.

Tūtira mai ngā iwi (aue!)
Tātou, tātou e.
(In English:
Line up together, people
All of us, all of us.)

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.

L

* 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.

Identity is more than class

datePosted on 17:49, June 24th, 2009 by Lew

Marty mars, commenting at The Standard, nails down the problem with Eddie’s and IrishBill’s latest bit of anti-māori party propaganda in one brief sentence:

You cannot fix any class issue until the race issue is sorted and that won’t be sorted while you are still working everything from the class angle.

Until the Marxist left realises that Māori have their own political identity and generally don’t (won’t and shouldn’t) identify en bloc with non-Māori political movements which require their Māori identity to be subsumed by a transnational class identity, it can’t reliably count on Māori support, and can’t really consider itself an inclusive movement.

Substitute ‘Māori’ for other political minorities if you like – the internationalist movement will only be successful when it learns to accommodate diversity and turn it to political advantage, rather than trying to squash it.

The Clark Labour government’s fundamental inability to realise this (by passing the Foreshore and Seabed Act, most notably) is why the māori party is trying other options. They and their people have had seventeen decades worth of out-of-touch honkeys telling them how to achieve the sort of political and economic progress they want, and at the same time largely denying them the resources with which to achieve such progress. Time for a new strategy, and creating a bidding war between the two main ideological blocs doesn’t look like a bad one, to me.

Hone is right, though – the party is going to have to get a lot more than they have if they want to retain their people’s loyalty and not be seen, come 2011, as the Brown Tories.

L

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