Posts Tagged ‘Idiot/Savant’

Why Throw in the Towel?

datePosted on 16:23, August 20th, 2014 by Pablo

In the wake of Nicky Hager’s latest revelations, Chris Trotter has penned a cynical defense of dirty politics as being the norm. For Chris, when it comes to politics “(t)he options are not fair means or foul: they are foul means or fouler.”

Idiot Savant at No Right Turn categorically rejects this view. I agree with him and can only add that either Chris has lost his ideological bearings or has consciously decided to join the Dark Side.

The Standard reprinted the NRT post and I commented on it there. Here is what I wrote:

The stability of democracy is based on mutual contingent consent, not only between capitalists and workers but between opposing political factions. Mutual contingent consent requires that all actors accept mutual second best outcomes (that is, no one gets their preferred outcome all of the time), something that is evident, for example, in compromises over wages and employment conditions at the bargaining table or in the lobbying of political parties over legislation. “Winning” is therefore temporary and tempered by the pursuit of self-limiting strategies in pursuit of the mutual second best. Otherwise the political game descends into zero-sum self-interested maximisation of collective opportunities. That is not democracy, even if there are those within the democratic system who adhere to such views.

This is why Chris is wrong. He mistakes the venal pursuits of a political few for the general substance of democracy as a political form. The pursuit of dirty politics represents a fundamental corrosion of democratic principle and practice. It reflects a fundamental contempt for the foundational tenets of this type of governance. That this contempt is channeled into underhanded tactics by some does not undermine the core values upon which democracy rests and in fact serves to underscore what democracy is not. That the resort to dirty politics in NZ has at its core a group of people with pathological tendencies and profoundly disagreeable personalities is further proof that their style of play is not politics as usual.

Chris may be a bit jaded by years of fighting the good fight in losing wars. He seems to given up all hope that politics can be played cleanly. But he and many others (including some on the Right) would not have fought, and continue to fight, if they did not think that there was a better way to do things in pursuit of a just society. Mr. Slater, Mr. Ede, Mr. Bhatnagar, Ms. Odgers, Judith Collins and John Key clearly do not, but that does not mean that democracy as a whole is reducible to their contemptible view of politics.”

Let us be crystal clear. There is no moral equivalence between what the Left does or may wish to do versus what the organised dirty tricks cell centred around Cameron Slater does. Moreover, what Slater and company do centrally underpins not just how National engages politics, but how ACT has done as well. In contrast, Left activist groups may sputter about “direct action,” hold demonstrations and on occasion undertake animal liberations or environmental defense by climbing into trees or blocking trains, but they do not systematically attempt to uncover dirty laundry in order to smear, blackmail or undermine opponents within and outside their partisan ranks. They do not take covert money in order to cut and paste ghost written attack columns supplied by others. They do not get favoured backdoor access to sensitive government documents based upon their partisan, when not ministerial, connections. Perhaps that is why they are less effectual than those on the Dark Side.

The institutional Left centred in the Labour Party may gossip about their rivals across the aisle and backstab each other in factional disputes, but even then there are limits to where they will go in the pursuit of “winning.” The Slater-led dirty tricksters have no such limits.

Whatever his motivations, Chris needs to reconsider his position. There still is room for the good fight to be fought fairly even if the opponent does not. Contrary to what John Key believes, that applies as much to politics as it does to sports.

Today the President of the United States of America came out (if that’s the right term) in support of gay marriage. Hours later, The leader of the New Zealand Labour party did likewise. The responses they got could hardly have been more different. Obama’s statement was greeted with a worldwide ripple of excitement; Shearer’s with a localised wave of criticism. Aside from the obvious difference in scale, we can make some sense of the difference in valence by looking at two main factors: the content of their respective messages in political context; and the media and moment in which they were made.

Substance and political context

Allowing for the differences in political context, Obama’s and Shearer’s statements were reasonably similar. Both expressed support for gay marriage in principle, with reservations about implementation. In Obama’s case, the reservations were constitutional. The President can’t unilaterally pass an act permitting gay marriage; it has to go through two federal houses and most aspects of marriage are still, ultimately, determined by the states. Obama’s statement was symbolic and aspirational. First of all, it was a means of defining who he is, politically — a rebuttal of suggestions that he is timid or not liberal enough, and a means of illustrating a sharp distinction between his administration and the caricatured culture-war conservatism of his Republican opponents. It was also an opportunity to reinvigorate the American political left. David Frum said it well:

The statement changes everything because it galvanizes flagging liberal enthusiasm for this president—while subtly corroding even further the Republican hold on the next generation of voters.

(You should read Frum’s whole piece, it’s short and articulates clearly why this was a strategic coup.)

Shearer’s statement was, if anything, less equivocal than Obama’s; he merely said that he “would like to see the detail of any legislation before giving formal support”. In purely rational terms, that’s totally reasonable; nobody signs a blank political cheque. Much of the criticism has centred on the assumption that any such law would be introduced by Labour, so Shearer would not only get to see it but would get to vet it before declaring support. This isn’t really so; Labour are in opposition, and barring extreme exigencies they will be for at least 2.5 years to come. Given the Greens’ long-standing commitment to gay marriage and remarkable success in the member’s ballot, there’s a better-than-even chance that a hypothetical same-sex marriage bill drawn at random would be theirs.* There are plenty of potential pitfalls in such a bill, if badly drafted, and it is reasonable to hold reservations.

Other criticism of Shearer has centred on the argument that Obama’s political context is much more hostile to gay marriage, and his declaring in favour of it constitutes a genuine act of political bravery, while it’s a rather less contentious issue here. Also not entirely fair; of course, that difference in political context exists, but Obama is in power, and (largely due to Republican infighting) in political ascendancy, while Shearer is in opposition and in the doldrums. It is also very unlikely that any gay marriage bill would pass the current NZ Parliament, especially now that social-conservatives like NZ First are back in.

So on the merits, criticism of Shearer for appending this seemingly-innocuous qualifier seems a bit unfair. But there are two better explanations for hostility: first, he misread his medium; and more importantly, he misread the moment.

The medium and the moment

Obama made his statement in a medium and situation that afforded him considerable control over how his message would be transmitted and received, and that enabled him to articulate his position both from a personal perspective and politically. Good Morning America was a sympathetic venue; morning TV is warm and nonconfrontational, on the ABC network even more so than usual. It is not strictly time-controlled and interviewers generally do not play hardball. Its audience is more liberal, more female, and more inclined to respond favourably to expressions of personal warmth and reflection such as this one.

Shearer chose Twitter to make his announcement — the most constrained medium possible, one that permits no contextualisation, no emotional or personal connection. Given his performance to date as leader of the opposition, and the NZ Twitter left’s activist bias, it’s probably also one of the more hostile media open to him. It’s not talkback, but in some ways it’s worse: a lot of people who really want to like you, but are already frustrated and disappointed and are beginning to despair can be a harsher audience than your outright enemies. Twitter also means that you are expected to be spare and to the point, and to only include detail that is significant. By hedging, he signalled that his position was not firm or genuine. The medium is the message, so the inclusion of an obvious redundancy like “need to see the detail” when characters are so limited doesn’t look like understandable prudence, it looks like fuzzy-headed waffly-thinking at best, or political cowardice at worst. David Shearer mistook a platform for slick, aspirational one-liners as the venue for earnest political positioning.

And that leads to the most crucial point of all: Shearer misread the political moment. Obama’s declaration in personal, philosophical terms of his “evolution” from someone who did not support gay marriage to someone who does was a watershed moment, a genuinely epochal event: when the President of the United States of America supports your cause, all of a sudden it looks a lot more like happening. A loud shot was fired in the culture wars; it instantly became global news, and with the news came a wave of liberal euphoria. This was, as Russell Brown noted, the best possible moment to note Labour’s progressive history and rededicate to the goal of marriage equality, but it was not a time for wonkish quibbling about details, or careful delineation of party policy. The moment was one of joy, of celebration, of possibility — of hope and change — and any response had to be congruent with that. Shearer’s wasn’t. The contrast jarred, and made the other, lesser, deficiencies in the message and its presentation more evident.

Substance, context, medium and moment. You can’t really afford to be without any of these, but if you’re trying to catch a wave of public sentiment, you really have to get your moment right.

This is symptomatic of Labour’s ongoing failure to articulate its vision: a lack of mastery of the tools and techniques at their disposal. Shearer’s lack of authenticity and his inability to speak clearly and unequivocally from his own position, that I touched on in my last post on this topic, was depressingly evident in this episode, and it may be that he’s still being tightly managed. A more concerning possibility is that this is the real David Shearer: lacking in virtù, like his predecessor.

But despite everything, I think this was a good experience for Labour — hopefully it has demonstrated to them that sometimes being timid is worse than being silent. If “go hard or go home” is the only lesson they take from today, it will have been worth it.

L

* Hypothetical, because none are in the ballot at present, though I expect that to change soon. Idiot/Savant drafted one some years ago, and it would not be an hour’s work to get it in.

Hearing no evil

datePosted on 22:25, January 17th, 2012 by Lew

A few days before the November 26 general election, TV3 aired Bryan Bruce’s documentary Inside Child Poverty, and I posted on the depressingly predictable response of the usual right-wing subjects.

And now NZ On Air board member Stephen McElrea (who, in Tom Frewen’s marvellously dry turn of phrase, “also happens to be John Key’s electorate chairman and the National Party’s northern region deputy chairman”) has used his dual position of authority to demand answers from the funding body and, simultaneously, make implicit but forceful statements about what constitutes “appropriate” policy material for such a funding body to support.

There has been some outrage on the tweets about the obvious propaganda imperative here — agenda-control is pretty crucial to a government, never more so than during election campaigns — and I agree with Sav that this shows a need for NZOA to be more independent, more clearly decoupled from the government, not less so. Stephen McElrea, after all, is not simply a disinterested member of a crown funding agency — he is a Key-government appointee to the NZOA board, a political actor in his own right, and has a history of advocating for broadcasting policies curiously similar to those being enacted by the present government, such as in a 2006 column titled “Scrap the charter and get TVNZ back to business”.

I may write more about this as it develops, although it seems likely that the ground will be better covered by people much more qualified than I am. But what I will do is return to my initial point, to wit:

a documentary about child poverty, covering the appalling housing, health and nutritional outcomes borne by children in our society, and the immediate response is to launch a ideological defence of the National party and deride the work as nothing but partisan propaganda. … I haven’t heard a peep out of National about what they plan to do about the problems since it aired. Isn’t it more telling that National and its proxies immediately and reflexively go on the defensive, rather than acknowledging the problems of child poverty and renewing its commitment to resolving them?

I still haven’t heard that peep. Given the fact that the National party leader feels at liberty to dismiss attempts by David Shearer and others to make child poverty alleviation a matter of bipartisan consensus, and that a senior National party official so close to the leader feels at liberty to throw his weight around in this professional capacity, I rather despair of hearing it.

L

Like a fox?

datePosted on 21:02, March 29th, 2011 by Lew

Lynn at The Standard has a nothing to see here sort of post about how the Darren Hughes scandal isn’t important. True to form, he misses the fact that that the ‘Labour footsoldiers’ for whom he claims the scandal is an irrelevant distraction are the least-important players in this particular game. What matters is the public, and in that regard the views of the media and the ‘beltway creatures’ matter plenty. So while he might be right that it’s a beat-up and there’s nothing in it, that doesn’t really matter — if Labour treats this as a matter of ‘business as usual’ the results will be deservedly catastrophic.

But one thing which struck me while watching the news coverage of the Dunedin stand-ups before and after the front bench meeting today: he looks happy and confident and genuinely at ease; even effusive. As some wag on twitter said: “Phil, leave some kool-aid for the rest of the caucus!” Looks like he did, because the front bench response of solidarity also looks like it’s for real. If you watch it with the sound off, it’s the very model of a party holding a unified front.

The trouble is that what Goff is saying — that his leadership is stronger now than it was before the Hughes scandal broke — is totally barking mad. It simply doesn’t make any actual logical sense that it would be, that it could be. My instinct is that the fact the caucus and the advisers are letting him bark in this way indicates an utter dereliction of duty on the part of the advisers, and a complete lack of political nerve and sense on the part of the caucus. But, as I argued the other day, as bad as Labour is, I don’t think they’re that far gone. So maybe there’s an explanation other than mass political psychosis: maybe he’s banking on this strategy being just barking mad enough to work. This response, for all its other failings, does hint at the Machiavellian characteristic of virtù which I/S (I believe correctly) diagnosed as lacking in Phil Goff’s leadership. It is nothing if not audacious. It is certainly not a ‘business as usual’ response.

So maybe he’s hoping to catch the government on the hop by simply pretending his situation isn’t as dire as it is and hoping that the pretence is infectious. Perhaps it’s actually not pretence; perhaps he really does have that support. Perhaps he’s relying on people ignoring the waffly words and inept deeds and simply taking their cues from the appearance of functionality which Labour is trying to present.

This might not be as far-fetched as it sounds: Lynn does make a good point that people don’t pay close attention to the details; and it’s an old trick to watch political TV appearances with the sound off to get a feel for how a naïve viewer might perceive it and to look more closely at the underlying messages about the political actors and organisations which appear in them.* This sort of presentation of functionality is also a pretty good indicator of eventual success: Drew Westen documents cases where random voters could predict with reasonable accuracy the outcomes of political contests by watching brief segments of silent footage and simply observing the political actors’ nonverbal cues.**

So are they crazy like a fox? Yeah, nah, I don’t really believe it either. The hell I know. Good luck to Phil, and all of them, because they’re going to need it.

So, setting aside the conventional wisdom that Labour is just marching into an electoral abyss, what are your theories as to what they’re up to at present? Wackier the better.

L

* There’s a bit of this sort of analysis done on US political events, such as Sarah Palin’s blood libel speech — see here for example. Though not really the same thing, it’s also worth you googling “breath libel”. Scary.
** I’ve lent my copy of The Political Brain to someone, so I can’t substantiate this at the moment, sorry.

Who are the next generation of NZ Left Thinkers?

datePosted on 17:18, January 24th, 2011 by Pablo

I almost choked on my chardonnay when I read over the weekend a quote from Chris Trotter stating that Bomber Bradbury represented the future of NZ Left thinking. Martin is a genial enough, alternative-minded, progressive niche market entertainer with strong opinions, generally good intentions and a decent grasp of current affairs. But Chris must have dropped an E to be that generous in his assessment of Bomber’s contributions to NZ’s Left intelligentsia. He also mentioned Jordan Carter as an up-and-coming Labour strategist, which seems to be less a product of party drug induced rapture and more of a wide-spread consensus amongst Lefty consignieri (and Labour Party consiglieri) about Jordan’s talents as a party strategist.

That got me to thinking about who are the next generation of NZ’s Left thinkers. I have had a fair share of young progressives pass through my classes while engaged in university teaching in Aotearoa (including, I believe, both Jordan and Bomber), which makes me wonder who in the under 40-generation will inherit the mantle that Chris, Matt McCarten, Laila Harre and very few others currently represent (not that I think that the over 40′s are finished in terms of their contributions to activism and Left political thought–it is the future of the ideological school that has been piqued in my mind by Chris’s comment). Note that I am not thinking exclusively of activists, academicians or politicians, and am trying to get an idea of the wide swathe of young Left thinkers that may be out there.

I of course am biased in favour of my colleagues here on KP Anita and Lew, who I think represent the sharper edge of Left-leaning bloggers. Idiot Savant is another blogger who seems to fit the bill, as do some of the authors at The Hand Mirror, and some of the folk over at the Standard exhibit intellectual depth beyond their obvious partisan ties. Bryce Edwards might be one who straddles the gap between blogging and academia (although truth be told, I know little of Bryce’s scholarly writing and am quite aware that there are very few quality Left academicians in NZ social science departments–most are po-mo or derivationist navel-gazing PC knee jerkers with little to offer by the way of contribution to modern Marxist, neo-Marxist or post-Marxist debates). There are bound to be young Maori who can contribute to future Left debates from more than a reflexive, grievance-based perspective. Of the neo-Gramscians, Kate Nicholls is a personal favorite of mine, but I am too close to her to be fully objective. For their part, I do not think that Stalinist or Trotskyites represent the future of NZ Left praxis, much less thought.

The issue is important because unless the NZ Left can rejuvenate itself intellectually and separate its scholarly tradition from the base practice of partisan politics and street-level activism, then it will cede the field of reasoned debate to the intellectual Right, something that in turn will have negative consequences for the overall prospects of progressive change in the country. In other words, the Left needs to reproduce itself intellectually as well as politically if it is to compete in the market of ideas that in turn influences the way in which the very concepts of politics, citizenship, rights, entitlements and obligations are addressed.

I therefore pose the question to KP readers: who would be on your short list of young NZ Left intellectuals who represent the future of progressive thought in Aotearoa?

Justice delayed, now denied.

datePosted on 18:02, December 31st, 2010 by Pablo

Rather than ring out the old year and ring in the new year with the usual inane rubbish about new beginnings and fresh starts, annual lists, countdowns etc., how about we use the occasion for a reality check, in this case a reality check on the state of the NZ judiciary using one very important case.

On October 15, 2007 a number of individuals were arrested on a variety of charges, including planning terrorist attacks. Others were arrested later, and collectively they have come to be known as the Urewera 18. On May 30, 2011, three and half years after they were arrested, the majority of these defendants will finally go to trial (three defendants will be tried separately).  Not only is the delay largely a result of the Police and Crown trying to introduce new charges after the fact and argue for the admissibility of evidence obtained under the Terrorism Suppression Act that was ultimately not invoked against the accused. Now, in a decision which has had its reasoning suppressed by the court, the Urewera 15 have been ordered to have a trial by judge. You read correctly: not only have they been denied  the right to a prompt trial but are now denied a jury of their peers. To that can be added holding the trial in Auckland when most of the defendants live elsewhere and their purported crimes were committed outside of Auckland.

Between the delays, venue and judge-only trial, the Crown and judiciary is engaging in a blood-letting exercise designed to drain the defendants materially and emotionally long before they enter the courtroom on May 30. Arguing under section 12 that the case is too complex, with too many defendants, with too many side-issues and matters of procedure to be considered adequately by a panel of laymen and women is an insult to the NZ public as well as a thinly veiled attempt at juridically saving face in a case that was over-ambitious, politically-motivated and legally flawed from inception.

This is further evidence of the ingrained authoritarianism and lack of accountability rampant in the judicial system. Judges act as if they are above the laws they are supposed to uphold. The Crown vindictively prosecutes cases without regard to their merits or costs because political interests are at play (remember that the NZ wikileaks cables show NZ government officials telling the US embassy in Wellington that theZaoui case was not winnable–then saw the Crown go ahead for another two years arguing for Zaoui’s incarceration or expulsion until the SIS finally dropped the pretext that he was a threat to national security). Elites are given name suppression for the flimsiest of reasons and judges protect their own when these transgress. This is exactly the sort of judicial attitude in dictatorships.

And yet, it is the attitude in NZ as well. Meanwhile, not a single mainstream media outlet has raised the subject of the long delayed and now jury-denied Urewera trial since the decision on the latter was announced in early December. Not a single right-wing blog has raised the obvious civil liberties and rule of law implications of the case. The Left commentariat has been largely silent as well, with the notable exceptions of Idiot Savant and Russell Brown.

Why is this? Is this silence a result of the fact that the accused are an ideological minority that are easy to scapegoat and persecute? If so, that is exactly the reason why the full spectrum of democratic commentators should be protesting the case: in a democracy it is not mainstream, “normal,” “nice guys” who deserve the most legal protection and rights of redress. It is the ideologically suspect, reprehensible, marginalised, ostracized or otherwise outcast who deserve the full protections of law precisely because they are at the mercy of the majority–a majority that is often ill-informed or manipulated by authorities when it comes to evaluating the merits of any given case against anti-status quo political activists. The majority may rule, but free, fair and impartial trials are the minority’s best bulwark against its tyranny.

That is another reason why a jury trial is deserved by the Urewera 15. A  jury, selected from the public mainstream, can listen to and observe the prosecution evidence and the defense against it in detail, first hand, then deliberate on the merits of each. That ensures that no judicial bias or hidden quid pro quos enter into the process. As things stand, the judge who hears the trial is vulnerable to such accusations, which is more the reason to bring an impartial jury into the process.

I am not entirely sympathetic to the causes being espoused by the Urewera 18. I do believe in their right to act militantly in defense of them subject to the penalties of  law should they act in ways that contravene criminal standards (as hard as it is to say, I extend this belief in the right to militant activism to neo-Nazis and skinheads as well so long as no harm to others results from it). Here I disagree with some distinguished Left commentators, who have seen something sinister in their activities and who believe that the political motivations of the defendants makes the case “special.”

I have already written at length on why politically-motivated crimes should not be treated as a special category so will not belabour it here. But I am sure that those who see sinister intent in the Urewera 18  will agree that the way this prosecution has gone is wrong on several levels. Even if the Urewera defendants are in fact complicit in something more than activist fantasy-ism and role-play, they deserve to be treated fairly according to the rule of law consistent with the foundational principles of a free society. Yet they have not, and nary a peep has been heard about that from those who should know better and who ostensibly are champions of the democratic ethos.

This attitude is shameful and should be repudiated by all fair minded people regardless of ideological persuasion.  The trial-by-judge decision must be appealed as a denial of due process and publicly repudiated by those who believe in the democratic ideal.

How’s that for some New Year’s resolutions?

Lessons from The Hobbit: more unionisation, not less

datePosted on 17:59, October 22nd, 2010 by Lew

The Hobbit saga has been an ugly but edifying lesson in the realities of how industrial action interacts with political posturing and national identity. My own view is that Actor’s Equity did their industry and their country — I would say ‘their membership’, but when they set this ball rolling they didn’t have one — an enormous disservice. Lacking a mandate and any legal standing, they undertook almost the worst possible course of action of calling an international SAG boycott. They attempted to hold a national icon and his nationally-iconic production to ransom at the apparent behest of an Australian union (the MEAA) with a history of this sort of aggressive mismanagement and who stands to gain from any reputational damage suffered by the New Zealand film industry. Their cause is worthy, but they picked the wrong fight with the wrong person at the wrong time, on the wrong basis, employing the wrong tactics, and did so without the support of their industry. Almost everything they could do to lose this battle, they did.

But too much has already been written on that topic, and I won’t add to it any further. The point I’d rather make is that the incompetence shown by AE in this dispute would never have thrived in a more robust industrial relations culture: that is to say, one in which union membership and participation was the norm rather than the exception, in which more workers had an understanding of what their union was there for and the union in question understood their industry’s needs and agenda better.

Fundamentally, the entire problem here is AE’s lack of a mandate: even leaving aside the fact that they had no legal standing as a NZ union until this time last week, the trouble is that they represent a tiny fraction of the actors who form a tiny fraction of those responsible for the production of any film, and yet they have the apparent ability to blacklist that entire industry (whom they don’t represent). Even the most ardent trade unionist can surely see the moral hazard here. All those who we’ve seen fronting AE have been the best-respected and most-established actors; actors whose careers aren’t in material danger regardless of the outcome of The Hobbit. But what of those actors who are genuinely struggling, whose faces don’t appear in tens of thousands of living rooms every Tuesday night, and who don’t top “best-of” lists? And what of the silent legions of drivers, designers, artists, labourers, riggers, electricians, carpenters and caterers who are the real motive engine behind the film industry? Are their needs well-served by the actions of a few prima donnas who represent them without their consent? Apparently not, which is why a thousand of them turned out to protest the actions of that unelected few. Orcs, Chris Trotter called them; useful idiots said Idiot/Savant.

To an extent it’s their fault for not being adequately organised to mount a counter-insurgency against AE’s hijack of their industry. And that’s why my suggestion is for film industry workers to arm themselves and prepare to fight for their needs. Whether it’s in separate unions by sector or a single, unified screen workers’ union doesn’t much matter, as long as there is strong and robust organisation behind it which elects leaders who hold a genuine mandate to speak for the real needs of their industry. Nature abhors a vaccuum, and the only way that a handful of pretty faces and household names with little or no industrial relations experience and an Australian carpetbagger with a reputation for mischief-making get to speak for an entire industry is when the alternative is nothing. Conventional wisdom — particularly from the government — is to de-unionise, and already the veiled threats about the consequences of a general strike during the 2011 Rugby World Cup are beginning. But de-unionisation at a time like this simply cedes the field. Efforts must be redoubled — not only to negotiate the sorts of concessions gained by Irish actors for collective bargaining among independent contractors, but to ensure that whoever claims to have a union mandate in future has the crowd with the torches and pitchforks following them, rather than chasing them.

L

PC priorities

datePosted on 21:06, October 12th, 2010 by Lew

The media beat-up du jour is the non-story of Te Papa Tongarewa “barring” (or “banning”, “forbidding”, other such absolute terms) pregnant and menstruating women from entry due to the nature of some tāonga on display.

Except they’ve done no such thing. The “ban” isn’t actually a restriction at all — they’ve been clear that it’s a request, not an ironclad edict; and in any case, the exhibit isn’t open to the public, but to staff from other museums. It’s an invite-only behind-the-scenes tour. And the crucial point is that the tāonga in question have been given to Te Papa on condition that this advice is given to prospective viewers. Let me be crystal clear: nobody would be barred from attending on the grounds that they are pregnant or menstruating. If someone wanted to turn up and say “bollocks to all of that, me and my unborn child are going to see those taiaha!”, it’s been made clear that she would be permitted to do so. That might be inflammatory and offensive, like farting in church or wearing a bikini to a funeral, but nobody is forbidding it. And that’s as it should be: Te Papa is our place and nobody should be barred outright. If the condition required exclusion, then that would be fair enough on the part of the owners — who can reasonably impose whatever conditions they please — but quite explicitly not ok for Te Papa, who would be better to decline the opportunity outright to maintain its public mandate.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped everyone with a platform from winding up to rage against the imposition of archaic, alien superstitions upon their civil liberties. But almost without exception, the restriction-which-isn’t-really-a-restriction doesn’t apply to them, since — as far as I’m aware — none of those objecting are in fact museum staff who would be eligible for the tour. And amongst this vicarious umbrage there’s an awful lot of squawking about misogyny and imposition of cultural values, and much more uncritical repetition of the misleading language of “bans” and such. It goes as far as idiotic and lurid suggestions about personal searches using sniffer dogs, for crying out loud.

All this has manifested as a soft and rather opportunistic sort of anti-Māori racism, where Māori are the casualties of our sticking up for the rights of pregant and menstruating women. There’s a common implication that they are the oppressive stone-age patriarchy using whatever means they can to victimise our women; and “forcing” their rude barbarian culture into our civilised and noble times. This is understandable from the usual PC gone mad crowd who’ve suddenly — conveniently — found their inner feminist, but somewhat more disappointing from those who would often be described as the hand-wringing PC liberals, people who ought to know better that it is possible to reconcile conflicting cultural values of this sort in an amicable fashion via the standard tools of live-and-let-live liberalism. And while those same hand-wringing PC liberals do rail against the worst excesses of those illiberal institutions which make up mainstream NZ society — chief amongst them the Catholic church — the response to this case has generated anger out of all proportion. Te Papa had to make the decision: take the tāonga on with the advisory condition, or not at all. Perhaps those objecting to this policy would prefer that nothing of this sort ever go on display. There is a genuine cultural conflict here, but it can quite simply be resolved: those pregnant and menstruating women who believe their right to attend trumps the request to the contrary may do so then and there. Not only are they not prevented from doing so by those hosting the tours, they actually have the right to do so should they choose, and that right should be defended. Those who do not may do so at another time which is convenient to them. The tragedy is that for most of the liberals in this battle of PC priorities, women must be given categorical superiority over Māori. They are arguing for their own culture to be imposed across the board; the very illiberalism they claim to oppose.

There are (at least) two people who are making good sense on this matter: Andrew Geddis, whose liberal argument is very close to my own views, but much better formed; and Lynne Pope who, almost uniquely among the bullhorns sounding around this topic, is a Māori woman who’s actually been on the tour in question. Neither of them have lapsed into the myopic, reflexive Māori-bashing which is the most unbecoming aspect of this situation.

The lesson for New Zealand’s liberals is this: it isn’t necessary to trample on the cultural needs of Māori to accomodate the needs of women. Liberalism itself provides tools to reconcile these differences. They just need to be used.

Update 20101018: As usual, Scott Hamilton makes good sense on this topic.

L

Perspective and colonial counterfactuals

datePosted on 08:55, April 14th, 2010 by Lew

It’s hardly the stuff of rigorous historico-social investigation, but Simon Schama sees much to celebrate in NZ biculturalism — particularly in comparison to our Anglo comparators:

But it’s the story of Maori and pakeha, the settlers of European origin, that – for all the pain, betrayals and suffering – still deserve to be known and celebrated as offering a different model of cultural encounter than anywhere else in the world. [...] Of course there have been serious problems of unequal social opportunity, of street gangs. But if there is anywhere in the post-colonial world where two cultural worlds truly live an engaged life alongside each other, it’s in New Zealand.
Such stories don’t come along very often. Cherish them. Chant them. Dance them.
Upane upane, kaupane, whiti te ra! Up the ladder, up the ladder, the Sun Shines.

This is broad-brush stuff, and minimises the genuine grievance and disquiet which exists on both sides of the cultural divide — his “divided no longer” caption to a stock photo is altogether too pat. And his assessment of Paul Holmes as a “tough” and “a reproach to dozy thinking” is marginal at best. But Schama’s observation that what we have in this country is quite unlike any other postcolonial nation is exactly right. It provides a glimpse at what might have been been elsewhere, and what might have been here if the post-Treaty settlement had been undertaken in better faith.

This raises a question Pablo and I discussed in email after he wrote this post (I didn’t want to hijack the excellent discussion there): do those who hate and fear Tino Rangatiratanga and consider the Treaty a “simple nullity” really believe that the people of Aotearoa — of all colours — would be better off if the typical colonial counterfactual were true — if Hobson’s marines and settlers had simply driven the natives into the sea or exterminated them as animals? In my email to Pablo, I wrote:

I’ve often argued (as a wind-up or a devil’s advocate position) that the Māori are ungrateful whingers who don’t appreciate what an incredibly good deal they got from Hobson, and that NZ would have been better off if Europeans had just landed with boatloads of armed soldiers and done to the natives what they did in the rest of the world. Anything for a peaceful life. What’s interesting is that, even when discussing the topic with people who genuinely believe that the Treaty is a gravy train and the natives are taking the piss and actually are ungrateful, they generally balk at this suggestion. That consent [given by the colonised to the colonisers], however fraught and limited, is important to how we see ourselves. That’s one of the reasons I’m generally pretty hopeful about the bicultural future.

I expressed somewhat similar views in comments to this post of Chris Trotter’s a short time later. Neither Chris, nor the other commenter to that post (RedLogix, with whom I’ve had robust but usually cordial disagreements on this topic) responded to my comments, which I took as a sort of confirmation of my thesis.* As I say, this is the usual response to the argument I’ve made many times before — all but the most unrepentant rednecks are repelled by the view that colonialism NZ-style was worse than what might have happened if we’d undertaken it Australian-style. This indicates to me that even for those who are highly critical of it grudgingly accept that the Tino Rangatiratanga movement, Waitangi Tribunal and attendant concessions to Māori in our political and social systems are better than the counterfactual alternative of a white monoculture in the South Pacific, even if it were more peaceful. The importance of this for a bicultural future is profound.

L

* I don’t want to put words in Chris and RL’s mouths, though — it may be that they simply thought my remarks too ridiculous to bother engaging with. Happy to accept clarification on this point.

(Schama article via Tim Watkin at Pundit. Thanks! And as it happens, Idiot/Savant at No Right Turn has excerpted it as well.)

Torpedoes?

datePosted on 12:21, March 25th, 2010 by Lew

Paula Bennett’s damn-the-torpedoes attitude toward the Attorney-General’s advice regarding the Bill of Rights Act — and Idiot/Savant’s observation that this is just the latest bit of policy in breach of that act — has me wondering. What happens if there are torpedoes?

What happens when a widower has his benefit cut by WINZ, having refused a work test which a woman in identical circumstances would not be required to undergo? Surely he has recourse to sue WINZ for that breach. If that’s so, and it seems like in a civil society governed by the rule of law it should be so, the government will surely open themselves up to considerable legal liability by implementing and enforcing this sort of policy (quite apart from the symbolic side of such cases getting hauled through the courts, and so on).

Can some of you lawyerin’ types out there in the internets give me a pub-argument explanation of the issues in this situation?

L

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