Tag Archives: identity

On Liminality.

For some time I have been pondering the issue of liminality. It is a term that appears in cultural studies and all sorts of post-modern rubbish posing as theory, but in this instance it resonates with me and seems to accurately depict a social condition that is increasingly evident in a multi-globalized world. “Liminality” refers to state of intermediacy or even indeterminacy. It is a condition of being caught in betwixt and in between, of being in two or more places at once but not being fully settled in any one of them. It is different from and more than hybridity, which is a combination rather than a condition, although hybridity can lead to liminality in some instances (say, a mixed race person moving between the different class and cultural backgrounds of parents).

In my frame of reference liminality is the condition where a person who has lived for significant periods of time in more than one country finds him/herself saddled with affections and aversions from each, leading to overlapping loyalties, and more importantly, a sense of relativism that destroys any notions of cultural absolutes or ideals. For example, the more the individual lives in different places, the more it seems to me that it is hard to get seriously nationalistic about any one of them. Even such small issues as sports loyalty can be a complicated matter. I, for example, follow Argentina in soccer because I grew up there. I root for Barcelona because it has a genius Argentine forward and a very Argentine style of play, but support Portugal as a national side in Europe because I lived in Lisbon for while and watched several of their players live as part of the experience. I support the ABs in rugby but switch allegiances to the Pumas when the play each other. I support the US in things like baseball and basketball, but then again tend to root for Greece in basketball because I lived in Athens for a while and the Greeks are crazy about b-ball, and cannot help but cheer for any small Latin American country when they play against the US in either sport (and truth be told, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have great baseball traditions and Argentina and Brazil have beaten the US in international basketball competition. Yay for them!).

Although I am not sure that they are sports rather than games, I have taken an interest in and support Singapore in table tennis and badminton because, well, I lived in Singapore for a few years and that is the only thing that they do well when it comes to international “athletic” competition (truth be told the national sport in Singapore is shopping, but they do not award medals for that). When not rooting for Argentina my default options are Chile (where my family lived for several years and where I subsequently conducted field research), Uruguay (where my family vacationed for extended periods during our time in Argentina and where I conducted field research in later years) and Brazil (where I lived episodically in the 1980s).

The sports angle is a minor one. The more serious issue is that as more and more people travel and settle across international borders, the more liminal they become. In many instances this occurs on top of an urban-rural disjuncture, whereby people transplanted from one to the other find themselves (at least initially) alienated and out of synch with the rhythm of life in their new locale. Think of a Laotian peasant or Somali refugee arriving and settling in Auckland. As with most new migrants, particularly those that are involuntarily re-settled, the pull of nostalgia for what was culturally lost very often overwhelms the urge to integrate and accept new values, mores and customs. It is only subsequent native-born generations that feel grounded in the new culture, but even they are often caught in betwixt and in between. One solution, particularly if the native population is hostile to new settlers, is to retreat in parochial defense of the “old” country or way of life. But even that eventually gives way to mixed feelings of loyalty and obligation to the old and the new.

Liminality occurs at the sub-national as well as the international level, both of which have been impacted by the revolution in transportation and telecommunications. There are consequently more and more people living in a liminal condition or state of mind. It therefore seems to me that “liminality” should be included in policy debates about things such as immigration, although to do that correctly we will have to wrestle the term away from the cultural relativists and other intellectual poseurs who think that trafficking in big words is equivalent to practicable and useful social research.

I am no expert on the topic so mention all of this merely as a subjective reflection. It is prompted by the July 4 celebrations in the US and comments by friends back there about how the US is the greatest country on earth etc. Yet most of these folk have never lived outside the States for an extended period of time, so how would they know? From my perspective it certainly has many merits and offers many opportunities, but in the end that is as much due to the its continental size and relative insulation as it is to the particularities of its people, politics and culture. Mind you, I feel certainly loyalty to the US as the country of my birth and whose government I once served, where my children and siblings reside, but that competes with my childhood loyalty to Argentina and current loyalty to NZ (which is where I expect to end my days. That raises an interesting sidebar: how many people actually think about the country or place that they would prefer to die in? I can say one thing for sure. Among other unhappy places, Afghanistan is not on the top of my list, with all due respect to the Afghans that I have known).

Who is to say that Canada, Costa Rica, Norway, Estonia, Turkey, Bhutan or–the goddess forbid–Australia is not the “greatest” country? How is universal “greatness” as a nation defined? One would have had to have lived in many places and have done many different things in order to make such a distinction (I do not mention Aotearoa simply because we all know that it is Godzone). And if one did in fact live in many places doing many different things, it is more likely that s/he would be at a loss to pick one single place as being above all of the rest in every respect. That is what liminality can do to a person–it makes it impossible to speak about culture or nationality in absolute or definitive terms. I say this even though I am fully aware of the canard that states that “there is no place like home,” whereby expats use the experience of living abroad to reaffirm their loyalty to their nation of origin (my parents did this for most of their lives). That may be true in some but not all instances, and I would argue that the more countries one lives in the less able s/he is to make such an assertion.

In any event, I write this as a person born in the US, raised and subsequently lived as an adult in Argentina and other Latin American as well as European and SE Asian countries, who resides permanently in NZ while continuing to travel to Australia, the US and elsewhere for professional and personal reasons. That pretty much defines my liminality, which I am not entirely sure is a bad thing.

A Response to Chris

Chris Trotter has written a response to the previous discussions regarding the Treaty, titled Talking Past Each Other (a crisp description of the comments threads on both prior posts). I would usually respond there, but Blogger comments are presently down and I have time now, so here it is. It’s a bit more than a comment, at any rate.

I think Chris’ post is intended as a critique of my political and historical naïveté (a common theme), and a perception that I’m treating the history of Aotearoa as a ‘morality play’, to borrow Scott Hamilton’s phrase. In spite of that I find in it quite a lot to agree with. In particular, the characterisation of the agendas of the parties to the Treaty, which captures well the diversity, lack of cross-cultural and long-term perspective, and motive chaos within each camp; and the final affirmation that, whatever the history, the future of Māori and Pākehā must be together. The final paragraph, especially; I cannot agree more strongly.

I also have some problems with the piece; in particular the argument that violating the Treaty was necessary to the establishment of a functional colony and that, ultimately, it was for the best that the Crown did breach the Treaty because we ended up with this lovely country. I don’t agree, and to my mind this sort of let-bygones-be-bygones, it-all-turned-out-for-the-best thinking is a very convenient position to take when it’s not your land which was taken. But our differences on this point are well documented and I don’t intend to relitigate this disagreement here (or in comments; honestly, there’s enough of it on the other two thread!s)

Nevertheless, I do also think the piece mischaracterises my position. There are two main aspects to this. First, Chris says it is naïve to view the Treaty as a contract — and I agree, if it is to be viewed only as a contract. My framing of the two preceding posts in these terms was deliberately simplistic, as I noted to Hugh in comments to the first. But it was deliberate inasmuch as there exists such a paucity of understanding of the actual historical context of the Treaty as it actually occurred, and of its significance as a founding or mediating document, that a simple and clearly Pākehā frame of reference is needed to explicate it. It was not just a contract, but the Treaty was among its other roles, a contract laying out the grants and consideration of an agreement to colonise undertaken between the Crown and local rangatira. Viewing it as a contract, I think, forms a useful minimum basis for understanding, and in particular for the establishment of expectations of what should and could have occurred following its signing.

Of course, history isn’t so simple as that, and this gives rise to the second point: Chris (and others, particularly the commenters on the posts) seem to have interpreted my call for the Treaty to be honoured in the most literal terms — that, if my argument is true, Pākehā have a responsibility to return every square foot of raupatu land; pay reparation for every man killed in the Land Wars; and that Pākehā in 2011 must beat their breasts and prostrate themselves before the descendants of those fortunate enough to survive with whakapapa intact. I mean nothing of the sort. What I mean is that, even if it were for the best, even if breaches were necessary, there exists a moral responsibility to recognise these breaches. I disagree that admission of breaches is “accurrate but trivial”, as Chris puts it; if the agreement was made in good faith (as, having been authorised by the Queen, we have a right to assume it was) then the breaches matter, and give rise to an obligation on the part of the party in breach. Where my point has been lost, I think, is that this obligation extends to making reparation for the breaches to the mutual, minimal satisfaction of both parties. Māori, as I have kept pointing out, have not been unreasonable in this regard, invariably accepting reparations of a tiny fraction of the value of the initial breach, or of no economic value whatsoever — settling for symbolic gestures, apologies and recognition. The obligation, I argue, is to negotiate in similarly good faith. Inevitably, neither party will be entirely happy, but that’s not a realistic object — the object may be to reach a state of ‘minimal satisfaction’, a solution which, although merely tolerable to both parties, does enough to prevent further disputes.

And the end goal of this is the same as what Chris hopes for — a future together. By demonstrating good faith and making just reparation, we make progress toward solving two significant problems: one is the cultural and material circumstances in which Māori find themselves, largely as a consequence of successive governments’ lack of adherence to the Treaty. The other is the status of Pākehā society, which by acting in such poor faith has too long denied its own kaupapa; successive leaders, including the odious Prendergast, denying the existence and authority of a Treaty signed in the name of their own sovereign; and even having eventually recognised it, doing so only in a mean and grudging fashion. These circumstances — both the material circumstances and the lack of good faith by Pākehā — give rise to the ‘attitude’ problems among Māori referred to extensively in the prior comments by Andrew W and Phil Sage, which they argue creates a cycle of dysfunction. The same circumstances give rise to the Pākehā guilt to which Chris refers, and of which he has accused me in the past of being victim.

But I say again: this isn’t about guilt; none of us Pākehā held the sabre in hand or pulled the trigger. Many of us, myself included, have no ancestors who were here at the time of the Treaty’s signing and its most egregious breaches (mine were still in Skye, Kerry, Eindhoven and Brabant labouring under their own troubles at the time). But as Chris says, we have — and our society has — grown and prospered at the expense of the country’s original inhabitants, and we share in the responsibility to make that right. It’s not about dwelling in the past — it’s about moving into the future, which we cannot only do once the misgivings of the past have been settled. Although Pākehā have tried to do so, it should be clear now that we cannot force Māori to forget — and nor should we. But we can work together — as much as possible without self-flagellation or haughty defensiveness — toward squaring the ledger, purging the bad blood and cleaning the slate so that we can go forward, unencumbered, into a future as iwi tahi tātou.


Sleeping dogs

Tim Watkin usually writes good sense, but with the latest post on gun control it’s clear he just doesn’t know his subject. Toughening gun control in NZ is basically a hiding to nothing, both in policy and in symbolic terms. It’s pointless for three main reasons:

  1. We already have pretty sane firearm laws and gun culture which regulate legitimate gun owners, and constrain the sorts of weapons most useful to criminals;
  2. As a country, we own a lot of guns, and they’re important to our way of life and identity, and this importance is the subject of bipartisan political consensus;
  3. We have very low rates of gun-related crime already, and any regulation which would be effective would be very costly, both in financial and political terms.

Just to preface this: I own a hunting rifle, and as a bit of a propaganda geek I’ve paid close attention to gun control as a matter of symbolic politics (alongside abortion, it’s a leading “touchstone” rhetorical issue in US domestic politics). I’ve been watching the way NZ is beginning to develop a (rather amateurish, but effective enough to not be laughable) US-modeled gun-ownership lobby with interest as well. But I’m not one of those “don’t tread on me” gun nuts who thinks bringing a loaded assault rifle to a town hall meeting is a core part of the democratic process. Owning a firearm is useful, but it’s not an absolute right — rather one which must be weighed against other consequences, including those which stem from arming communities. But I object to knee-jerk policy proposals which misoverestimate the problem, won’t solve it in any case, and will come at considerable cost.

What problem?
The most significant objection I have to Tim’s analysis is that he assumes gun crime is a serious enough problem to warrant harsh regulatory consideration; and seems to think that tackling it like the government has “tackled” knife crime is a sensible approach. I reckon both are suspect assumptions.

According to a UN survey from 2000 (the most recent I can easily access), 13% of our homicides (including attempts) were committed with a firearm, at an annual rate of 0.18 per hundred thousand population. That is a rate slightly higher than the UK (0.12 per hundred thousand, with much more strict firearm laws); just over half the rate of Australia (0.31, also with much more strict firearm laws, including a hugely expensive buyback programme undertaken in 1996 with the intention of solving the problem). I don’t think things have changed all that much; in 2009, the year of Jan Molenaar, the figure was 15% of our recorded murders (incl. attempts). You can use the Statistics NZ tools to get data here. You can also compare a bunch of countries’ rates here, but be sure to read the disclaimer. The bottom line is that we have extremely low gun crime rates by world standards, especially given that we have very high gun ownership rates. By far the highest proportion of gun-related deaths in NZ are suicides — I don’t have the numbers to hand but I recall it being above 70%. That’s a consideration, since suicides are usually committed with weapons of opportunity, and a firearm is particularly effective. But this is not the argument being made.

Knives are a much more serious problem, accounting for about twice as many homicides in NZ, and “other weapons” and “manual” which I assume includes unarmed homicides are also generally more common than firearm murders. The government has seen fit to “crack down” on knife crime by trying to prevent youths’ access to knives at the retail level using a voluntary code of practice. This is pure security theatre. Everyone credible knows it won’t make a blind bit of difference because kids don’t go and buy a knife from a shop, they just take one from the kitchen drawer or the toolbox in the garage. Firearms are already much more heavily regulated than this, and as a consequence people wanting one but who lack a license don’t roll into Hunting & Fishing and buy one — they get them illegally because we have no idea how many there are or who owns them (more on this later). So the comparison between guns and knives, while tempting, is bogus. Knife crime is much more serious than firearm crime, much less-heavily regulated, and the trivial additional regulation proposed won’t change anything — but it also won’t cost anything.

What guns?
Part of the reason gun crime is such a minor problem in NZ is due to our history and culture with guns, and in particular the fact that “personal defence” has never been a justification for firearm ownership. Tim also gets this wrong: citing “personal defence” as a reason for needing a firearms license will mean you get denied one, especially if you’re trying to apply for a restricted weapons license (which is the example he uses).

Excluding the post-settlement period, firearms in NZ have generally been conceptualised in law and culture as tools rather than weapons — for hunting, sport shooting, or the defence of the realm. Most in existence today are .22 calibre rabbit guns, or bolt-action ex-infantry rifles from the first and second world wars, passed down from father to son, or modern firearms based on near-identical designs, or shotguns designed for gamebird hunting. Partly due to length, partly due to action design and calibre, these are pretty useless for self-defence except for the appearance of threat and as clubs. By the same token, they are far from ideal for offensive use. Part of the reason criminals are rarely armed with firearms is because they are nearly impossible to conceal (which makes carrying or using them a riskier proposition than, say, a knife), and if sawn off below the regulation length of 30 inches, they are still not very convenient, and give police instant cause for book-throwing if discovered.

There are relatively few pistols or assault rifles in NZ, and those which are owned are very tightly controlled, with extremely high standards required of the owners. The NZ Police apparently operate a “sinking lid” policy on restricted weapons: to gain permission to import or produce one, you need to destroy another. This has driven the market price of such weapons through the roof, putting them out of the reach even of many legitimate collectors; although it must be said that the distinction between a “military-style” semi-auto and any other semi-auto is largely (not entirely) cosmetic, and one is no less deadly than the other. As the rather grim saying goes, the seven-round magazine restriction on an ordinary semi-auto centrefire rifle just means that if you want to kill more than eight people, you’ll need to reload.

Firearm licenses, especially those for restricted weapons like military-style semi-automatics and pistols, are issued at the discretion of an Arms Officer on the basis of the applicant being of “fit and proper” character. The threat of losing the license acts as a firm constraint on legitimate gun owners’ behaviour, with most hunters, collectors, etc. living in fear of having their license revoked. This constraint comes into force, for example, when deciding whether to keep a firearm for self-defence purposes in a country where most potential assailants, burglars, etc. are not themselves armed: if you happen to use it as such, you must then explain to your arms officer how come you had it handy, rather than locked up in its safe, with the bolt and ammunition separated. Most people comply to avoid this inconvenience, and because they know that the chances of a family member actually meeting a life-or-death situation are much higher with a loaded firearm lying around than otherwise.

In general (and again, I don’t have the figures to hand) the vast majority of gun crime in NZ is committed by people without a legal right to own or use a firearm in the first place (being not “fit and proper”). Jan Molenaar was just such a person, so using him as an exemplar of all that is wrong with the system is a bit misleading. It’s certainly an indictment on police procedure following the last shake-up of gun laws. Probably the biggest failure in our gun licensing regime is the lack of a registration system for specific firearms. It’s expensive, time-consuming and bureaucratic but would have been of some use had it been implemented when suggested by the Thorp report, even if just to draw a clear demarcation line between compliant and non-compliant owners. I think that horse has bolted now.

As for the matter of private internet sales of arms and ammunition — Tim clearly hasn’t used Trade Me for this purpose. It’s considerably more robust than any comparable method other than a brick-and-mortar shop (and many B&M shops use the same methods to sell nationwide). Anyone can view restricted auctions, but to bid or ask a question you need to enter your firearm license number. Repeated failure to do so (or entering made-up numbers) gets you blacklisted. If buying otherwise than by a face-to-face meeting, you are required to complete a form designated by the Police for this very purpose, and have it counter-signed by your local Arms Officer, who sights your license. The first step (needing to enter your number) prevents anyone without access to a license even bidding or making contact with a seller. This is probably the most effective safety mechanism in the system.

Sleeping Dogs
These are policy and cultural reasons which explain why trying to crack down on gun ownership in NZ is likely to be pointless. But Tim’s post was largely about the political aspects of the issue: the tension between the imperative to be Tough On Crime and the danger of getting tarred with the Nanny State brush. In symbolic terms, I reckon gun control is a loser for both of the major parties because, unlike the knife measure which is empty theatre, any meaningful changes to the gun ownership regime will come at a considerable costs. One important consideration with this is that in NZ (and Australia), unlike in the USA, gun control is seen as a matter of bipartisan consensus, with both National and Labour generally occupying the middle ground (and ACT and the Greens taking up the flanks). This means there’s little or no partisan advantage to be gained by either side.

The first of these costs is purely financial. A registration, licensing audit, inspection-reclassification or buyback scheme to remove firearms (or certain firearms) from circulation (or from the hands of those not “fit and proper”) is hugely expensive. The Australian Federal Government raised a special tax for the purpose and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its buyback scheme, and even given the dramatic reduction in gun crime rates which resulted, it was generally seen to be wide-open for rorting. In New Zealand, with a much lower baseline level of gun crime, much less money and much more pressing law and order policy issues, this simply wouldn’t fly. Quite apart from the money, the drain on already-stretched police time would make a mockery of the government’s pledge to deliver resources to the front lines and away from the “bureaucrats”. And for all of that, it would still predominantly capture guns possessed by licensed owners: the “good guys” who, of all people, should retain their gun-owning privileges.

The second, and probably weightier cost is about the NZ identity. As I’ve argued before, wild places matter to us in identity terms. While most New Zealanders don’t own firearms, and never will, many more than the 250,000 who do like to think of themselves as potential outdoorsfolk who might go and shoot a possum and do their bit to save the rata. I don’t want to overstate this, though. Gun owners and hunters are viewed with considerable ambivalence by the general public, and with some cause. The gun lobby doesn’t do itself or the more reasonable branches of the sporting community any favours, and to a large extent they’re thought of in similar terms to Jan Molenaar and the various flavours of SHTF nutters.

But Nanny State also comes into this. Tim suggests that Labour couldn’t afford to do this for fear of strengthening the narrative established by the last term of the Clark government (I agree), but that National might just be able to get away with it. I disagree. Half of National’s support base are farmers or rural/semi-rural men of above-average income who are generally law-abiding and consider themselves responsible citizens in partnership with the authorities — of the view that the government “works for us”, rather than the view that the government is an agent of their oppression. (There are exceptions to this last, but mostly they vote for ACT and are thus irrelevant to this calculus.) This is almost exactly the same demographic which wants to be able to take care of his own rabbit problem and hunkers down in a cold maimai before dawn on the first weekend of winter for a laugh, and they greatly value the illusion that doing so is an inalienable right akin to that laid down by the Second Amendment. They tolerate (often with considerable reluctance) the existing licensing regime partly as a pragmatic solution to the social problem of crime, and partly because it accords them the status of being officially deemed “fit and proper”. But they will not tolerate further incursions on these privileges, and it is this demographic whom the gun lobby, with its US-imported “armed society is a polite society” rhetoric, is targeting using the present hysteria about violent crime as a springboard. These are the guys who already feel under threat from policies like the ETS, which prevents them from buying the V8, forcing them to settle for the V6.

This demographic might be the sort of people who could be persuaded to support tighter restrictions if there were a strong crime-reduction case to be made for it. But since there’s so little to gain, and since the existing regime is already at the margins of what is acceptable, National rouses these sleeping dogs and permits their radicalisation at its peril.


Pink things/blue things

Pink and blue are the canonical respective colours of femininity and masculinity, right? Always have been, and across cultures? Well, I’ve known for ages that blue was a traditionally feminine colour in the Judeo-Christian tradition, at least since the Virgin Mary apparently wore a blue cowl. JeongMee Yoon, in her Pink and Blue Project, argues it was the opposite until post-war. Since then, however, the change has been resoundingly reinforced by a powerful consumer feedback loop; nowadays girls want pink things because pink things are for girls and girls are marked as girls by their pink things. Substitute `blue’ and `boys’ for the converse.

Two of Yoon’s stunning images from The Pink and Blue Project illustrate this: