Posts Tagged ‘Michael Laws’

Lawsome

datePosted on 14:29, June 5th, 2009 by Lew

David Haywood has posted a mighty mashuptastic bit of Lawsery on the Richard Worth case which you should all read. Judging by some of his (Laws’, or should that be Lawses?) comments on the wireless this morning, I’d say it’s not too far off the mark.

L

Update: The actual column is somewhat, err, flaccid by comparison.

Gang whack-a-mole

datePosted on 00:52, May 7th, 2009 by Lew

actpower1This evening, the Wanganui District Council (Prohibition of Gang Insignia) Bill passed its third reading, by a narrow margin of three votes – three votes cast by the three members of the ACT caucus who represent the authoritarian faction which has edged in on the libertarian faction and now looks likely to consume it. Two of the votes will come as no surprise – the reactionary populist John Boscawen; and card-carrying hang-’em-and-flog-’em brigadoon David Garrett. Most surprisingly Rodney Hide – perhaps in a bizarre sort of solidarity with his two newest MPs, because I thought him better than this – also voted for the bill. The other two members – Sir Roger Douglas and Heather Roy – remained true to their liberal principles and voted against.

Let it be understood right away that I agree with the bill’s purpose in principle: to keep the residents of Wanganui free from intimidation by gangs. People have a right not to be intimidated, and that right must be secured by the government. But in this case, the cure is worse than the disease because it does nothing to actually treat the disease, only its smallest symptom; and because it fights arbitrary coercion with more arbitrary coercion.

The bill prohibits persons wearing certain things – `gang insignia’ where `gang’ is essentially at the Wanganui District Council’s discretion, and `insignia’ is determined as an issue of fact by a judge in a given case by recourse to the Evidence Act – from being in certain `specified places’ of the Wanganui district.

This is a weapon long-sought by the authoritarian populists who control Wanganui’s local politics – it enables them to outlaw groups who oppose them, or whom they would otherwise have to deal on more even terms. Practically any group could potentially be declared a gang under the right circumstances – the criteria are that the group, or some of its members be engaged in “a pattern of criminal activity”; that they be commonly identifiable by some sort of symbol which can be recognised well enough to ban; and that the ban be deemed necessary to prevent intimidation. Historically this could have applied to HART protesters, striking longshoremen, tangata whenua occupying land in protest at unjust systems of redress and uncooperative local government bodies. Today it could apply to those campaigning for the h to be put into Wanganui, if the protests become heated enough, which they could well do if Michael Laws carries on the way he has been. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, after all.

But for all that, it won’t matter a damn to the gangs themselves. When you try to constrain identity by legislating against its expressions, you engage in a running battle which cannot be won without continual escalation to more and more illiberal measures. Subcultural systems which are forced to adapt to the norms of a majority culture will always find loopholes – the more constraint imposed, the smarter the subculture gets. The Chinese are finding this out from the Song of the Grass-Mud Horse (video with full-colour English translation here), and the parents of tweens are finding it out from Britney Spears, and media content owners are finding it out from filesharers. If a broad ban on patches is enforced then the definition of what constitutes a gang symbol will change. Bandanas, coloured clothing, and so on will be worn instead of patches, but will convey the same intimidatory meaning. What then? Either the law is an ass, having failed to prevent what it seeks to prevent, or the definition of what constitutes insignia in law must change to match the definition in usage. I own the typical blue-and-black checked swanndri – should I be barred from wearing it in public in Wanganui, lest someone feel intimidated? Should my sister, who owns a red one? Talk of banning all blue and all red will be decried as reductio ad absurdum, but ultimately that’s the only way the policy will work, for the two main gangs which operate in Wanganui anyhow.

Or perhaps they’ll just ban those colours when they’re worn by Māori men of a certain build, and there’s the rub. Fundamentally, culture and class and inequality are the issues over which gang insignia are mere wallpaper, and banning it no more addresses the problem than changing the wallpaper stops the walls of a leaky building from leaking. Fix the alienation problem and you fix gangs – something that driving those at the margins of civil society further out into the cold will never achieve.

Update: Former Detective Sergeant in charge of the Auckland gang unit Cam Stokes made the same argument on Nine to Noon this morning. He goes further, arguing that the ban could make the work of Wanganui police more difficult by robbing the police of some intelligence-gathering capability, and could make convictions for some offences difficult to secure.

Another update: At The Standard Eddie reveals that Hide’s support for the bill – despite categorically stating ACT would never support it – was a trade-off for National supporting the 3 strikes bill. Filthy political lucre!

L

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

`H bombs’ and the grasping settler mentality

datePosted on 12:53, February 25th, 2009 by Lew

I spent my school years growing up in Wanganui, and for the time being I’m back here, taking care of family matters. Having grown up here as a Pākehā with strong connections in Te Ao Māori, I can say with some authority that the region is mostly populated by unreformed Pākehā racists who loathe Māori out of fear bred from profound ignorance. I say mostly – but not entirely; there is an understandably large Māori population, and some more tolerant Pākehā. This fear and loathing is both the cause and the result of the fact that Māori in Wanganui are poorer, less-well educated and more likely to be involved in crime than non-Māori. Not so different from the general mentality of NZ as a whole, but stronger.

The Wanganui District Council yesterday voted against recommending to the NZ Geographic Board that the name be changed to its proper spelling – Whanganui, endorsing a 2006 referendum in which 82% of respondents favoured retaining the spelling. This post comprises two parts: first, an argument as to why retaining the name without the h is an absurd example of the grasping settler mentality; and second, an explication of how this morning’s front-page article on the topic frames the issue as a crisis, and promotes the same sort of fear and ignorance by marginalising and ridiculing the voices and opinions of those favouring the change.

Grasping settlers
Many will baulk at my referring to the 21st Century residents of Wanganui and its district as `settlers’, given that the settlement was one of the original four established by the New Zealand Company in 1840. Most of them would refer to themselves as `battlers’, and that’s almost as appropriate. What marks people out as settlers is the grasping siege mentality of scarcity – they came here with nothing, they have to get whatever they can get, and damned if they’ll let any of it go. Generations on, and even among those whose families weren’t settlers, this mentality remains. They live here, and they grasp, but generally they make few and feeble attempts to engage with tangata whenua, seeing them as outsiders, as enemies, and as competitors because on some level there is a recognition that they retain a moral claim to resources, discourse and authority. The settlers, despite this recognition, consider that it is their land, and their river and their town, and any arguments or evidence to the contrary are met with hostility and the rhetoric of assimilation.

Mayor Michael Laws:

Wanganui is not a Maori name. It has assumed an identity, a heritage, a history and a mana of its own.

You’ll go far to find a more convenient statement of revisionist ignorance in NZ identity politics. This forms the sole and entire argument in principle against the name change: it’s been that way for ages, so the word no longer means what it once meant – or more plainly, it’s an old mistake so it’s no longer a mistake. If this were to hold everywhere, then the mis-transliteration or misspelling of any word would necessarily destroy any connection to the original in every case: a patently idiotic idea. The fact is that Wanganui is a Māori word, misspelt by the original transliterators because the local dialect drops the `h’, pronouncing `Whanganui’ and `Wanganui’ practically the same, with a Wa sound, not a Fo sound. It’s not a new word – it’s the old word misspelt but pronounced correctly. This is a critically important example of the damn-fool ignorance I’m talking about: most of those against the change complain that they don’t want to have to pronounce it with a `F’, not realising despite mostly having lived here all their lives that nobody would. Hardly anyone pronounces the name of the river – which name is spelt with the h – as such; just ignorant but wanting-to-be-culturally-sensitive Pākehā, or other Māori wanting to make a point about the superiority of their dialect over the local one.

So, the argument in principle is invalid, and the argument of practicality is equally invalid. Why are people so opposed to the change? Because the local Māori want to exert their rangatiratanga by insisting the name of the settlement on the river be rendered correctly, as a symbolic matter, and the settlers are opposed to any assertion of rangatiratanga for fear that they might lose control over their identity and their community, or become hori-fied, as Dam Native put it. Spelling, pronunciation and other such matters are important symbolic markers of identity and authority, and the river and its surrounds physical manifestations of that. As local iwi say: Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au – I am the river, the river is me. That such a central part of their identity may be grasped and mutilated and withheld as if it no longer belonged to them is almost as grave an insult as is possible.

This grasping settler mentality is the fundamental reason why Māori have to endure a decades-long, frightfully expensive and time-consuming judicial process under a foreign system weighted against them, generations after the fact and opposed every step of the way by the crown, business, the media and the settler public, in order to get a fraction of one per cent of the reparations to which they might otherwise be entitled. It’s the same principle which prompted the Iwi/Kiwi ignorance, and the same which recently led to the rhetorical backlash against the vesting of Ka Mate in Ngāti Toa Rangatira, about which I wrote recently. It grasps things of value, and then refuses to return them, or share them, or relinquish any control over them, no matter how slight, and even when such a gesture of goodwill would be the basis for more meaningful and harmonious engagement with the settled outsiders and a route to a more peaceful future, not the opening of the floodgates feared by the settler majority.

Village idiocy
Wanganui has a provincial village mentality, and this is quite strongly reflected in its media which are highly conservative, in the sense that they reflexively endorse the status quo and the opinions of the majority, to the exclusion of heretodox voices which are characterised as fringe radicals of one sort or another. The daily Wanganui Chronicle in particular is the local Pollyanna – its motto is `Love this place!’, and its news follows one of two forms: local-folks-done-good, or bad-things-threatening-our-way-of-life. This reinforces the settler mentality, and it’s not too harsh to call the Chron a settler paper.

The Wanganui Chronicle‘s lead story this morning was headlined `H bombs in crucial vote’, with the `H’ in red lettering, alongside a large photo of Māori protesters (although the secondary story `Protesters on the march’ notes that most protesters were Pākehā). The corresponding story on the Chron‘s website has the same photo, but the more sedate `Council split over ‘H’ in Wanganui’ headline. Message: locally, this is war. For the rest of the country, it’s just another bit of local government trivia. The headline both minimised the importance of this issue as a symbolic matter of rangatiratanga and amplified its importance as a site for dispute between settlers and outsiders. People know they have to fight against it, but don’t know why.

The story lead with the fact that the vote was closer than expected – five councillors (of thirteen, including Laws) would not vote for the existing name. Prominent share of voice was granted to those five councillors, mostly making the arguments above, that the change was the correction of a historical inaccuracy and not `bending to the whims of radicals’, but the highlighting of these five councillors as opposed to the 82% majority in the referendum clearly framed them as the radicals in council – outsiders, out-of-step with their electorate. This was reinforced by three other points: first, one councillor said he was `ashamed’ at the response to the referendum, being as it was based on ignorance, fear and misunderstanding – the message in the context of his decision was that he was ashamed of the electorate, directly at odds with the adjacent `Love this place!’ vox pop of a cute girl talking about why Wanganui is so great, a variation of which is repeated daily on the front page.

Second, other than Laws, only one councillor who voted in favour of the existing spelling was quoted on the matter, saying that she was elected to `represent the views of her community, as expressed during the referendum process’, almost identical wording to that used by Laws, and a strong statement of normative majoritarian orthodoxy.

Third, Laws said, with somewhat wolfish magnanimity, that `it was comforting to see elected officials take an unpopular stance’, echoing other councillors who `acknowledged they could lose votes’ for refusing to endorse the existing name. Not a principled stance; an unpopular one; which represents them, not us. Message: If you’re not with us, you’re against the community, and if you’re against the majority, you’re the enemy by definition.

Against this background, there sometimes seems no hope for race relations in Wanganui, or perhaps even for NZ at large. At ANZAC weekend, I will be attending the launch of a book by Canterbury University scholar John Newton, at Hiruharama up the Whanganui river, which I expect will argue the opposite: that the spirit of goodwill and compromise and understanding exemplified by the relationship between poet James K Baxter and his associates and local Māori during the 1960s and 70s provides a model for NZ race relations, opposed to the majoritarian settler orthodoxy which now dominates.

L

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