Thursday, February 04, 2016

Strange beasts on Queen Street

Early this week Aucklanders began to share a blurred photograph on facebook and twitter. The photograph seemed to show several large military vehicles - were they armoured personnel carriers? - riding through the city's business district on the back of a truck. Some of the people who saw the photograph believed that the vehicles had been brought to Auckland in preparation for the signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement on February the 4th. Trade ministers from a dozen Asian and Pacific nations would be gathering for the signing at the Sky City convention centre, in downtown Auckland, and opponents of the agreement had promised to not only march down Queen Street but blockade Sky City. Could the Key government be planning to clear a path through central Auckland with steel and guns?

As it turned out, the sinister vehicles belonged to the army of Singapore, and were en route to the vast and bleak forbidden realm in the central North Island known as the Waiouru Military Base. Soldiers from the city state have long visited Waiouru to drive tanks and armoured personnel carriers on uncongested roads and fire mortars and machine guns into empty spaces.

Some commentators might chuckle at the panic that blurred photograph prompted on social media, but I wonder whether the sight of strange vehicles moving through Auckland streets didn't induce collective memories of 1913, the year that hundreds of farmers armed with horses, long batons, and booze stormed into the centres of New Zealand's cities and attacked the striking wharfies who had occupied and blockaded ports. The farmers, who were given the half-satirical, half-honorific nickname 'Massey's Cossacks', were supported by police armed with pistols, rifles, and the odd machine gun. The wharfies and their fellow members of the 'Red' Federation of Labour had a few guns of their own, and shots were heard for days in Auckland and elsewhere.

When the industrious James Belich slogged his way through the archives of New Zealand's hospitals, he discovered that in 1913 folks with gunshot wounds were suddenly occupying beds. Belich likened the New Zealand of 1913 to the Russia of 1917; his fellow historian Len Richardson talked about 1913 as a year of 'revolutionary turmoil'.

In 2013 a few middle-aged men attempted to reenact the great clashes of 1913 in central Wellington. They grew long moustaches, put on uncomfortable clothes, climbed laboriously onto the backs of a few bemused horses, and made half-hearted lunges at equally bemused tourists and journalists. In twenty-first century New Zealand the horse has become an absurdly anachronistic machine; when dropped into the middle of a large city it looks either cute, or vulnerable, or both. In 1913, though, the horse still had some of the majesty and menace that made it a protagonist of so many classical and myths and martial songs. Massey's Cossacks used horses every day on their farms, and could ride and guide the animals at high speeds. Many of them belonged to hunting clubs; a few had ridden down Boers and blacks on the African veldt.

The police who confront protesters in Auckland today will not be riding horses, but they will be wielding long black batons that are descended from the weapons Massey's horsemen used to break the ribs of wharfies in 1913, and they have access to tear gas and plastic bullets. The sense of menace that the wharfies knew in 1913 remains, and accounts for the response to that sinister blurred photograph.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, January 28, 2016

David Garrett and the peace of the dead

In a short, satirical novel written near the beginning of his career, Don De Lillo described the atomic obsessions of an American college football star. The hero of End Zone liked to relax before big games by imagining the world's cities being destroyed by nuclear missiles. Because they can end human life on an unprecedented scale, De Lillo seemed to be saying, nuclear weapons can be imagined as the agents of a sinister peace. All of the world's contradictions and conflicts could be made irrelevant by a nuclear war.

I thought about De Lillo's satire when I read about former Act MP and right-wing activist David Garrett's latest ideas. Writing on Kiwiblog, the website of National Party pollster David Farrar, Garrett expressed enthusiasm for Donald Trump, and suggested that a Trump administration might like to implement a 'Garrett peace plan for the Middle East':

Turn the entire region into a nuclear wasteland uninhabitable for one hundred years - with plenty of warning...My solution is not so much 'mass murder', it is to make the Middle East uninhabitable - and to make the sacred sites that shared - or not shared - by the various groups who claim exclusive rights to them nothing but radioactive pieces of sand. Maybe some of them would still be stupid enough to fight over those...but then the occupiers would get radiation sickness...

Garrett's proposal would probably make sense to Don De Lillo's nihilistic hero. The Middle East is the size of Australia, and has over four hundred million people. Thousand of nuclear warheads would have to fall on the region, if it were to be rendered uninhabitable. So much radiation would enter the atmosphere that the human species would soon become extinct. The world would be at peace.
David Garrett has for years been an obstreperous opponent of Muslim immigration into the West in general, and New Zealand in particular. He has warned of the dangers of the current outflux of refugees from Iraq and Syria, and used a recent column at Kiwiblog to call for New Zealand to close its borders immediately to migrants from majority Muslim nations, including refugees from Syria. It is something of a surprise, then, to see Garrett urging a policy that aimed to create not a few million but a few hundred million refugees from the Middle East.

Garrett became indignant when several Kiwiblog readers queried his 'peace' plan. He denied that the Middle East was such a big area, insisting that it was not much larger than the North Island of New Zealand. He suggested that his nuclear campaign would be aimed at Arabs and Jews, but not at other ethnic groups in the Middle East, like the Persians of Iran. Garrett defended his plan by saying that the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews had no other possible solution:

Being a political animal, I think about such problems all the time...along with hundreds nay, thousands of political thinkers and statesmen over the last sixty years who have applied their minds to solution has ever eventuated. 

It would be comforting to consider David Garrett an isolated crank, and ignore his ideas. But for a decade now Garrett has had regular access to New Zealand's mass media and to popular right-wing websites. He publishes opinion pieces in the New Zealand Herald, had a column in Ian Wishart's Investigate magazine, and is a fixture at Kiwiblog. Despite leaving parliament in disgrace in 2010, when his enemies inside the Act Party revealed that he had been convicted of stealing a dead child's identity and creating a fraudulent passport, Garrett has maintained a following on the right.

Garrett is not the only activist on the New Zealand right excited by Donald Trump. In America, Trump has split the Republicans by substituting a sort of populist ethnonationalism for the neo-liberal policies preferred by the party's traditional elite (in an important article for The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty has shown how Trump's statist populism can be traced back to the campaigns that Patrick Buchanan ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1992 and 1996). Trump has won support from angry and demoralised white working class voters by promising to use the guns and nukes and tariffs to reverse America's decline in the world.
David Farrar and other figures close to the top of New Zealand's National Party seem to share the distaste of most Republican leaders for Trump. But many of the readers of Kiwiblog and of Cameron Slater's Whale Oil blog seem to admire Trump's attacks on Muslims, Mexicans, and liberals.

David Garrett's advice for Trump might seem extreme, but it is not so different from the eliminationist rhetoric that is becoming common when both the American and the New Zealand right discuss the Middle East. In the aftermath of the failure of George Bush's invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, conservatives who once dreamed of remaking the Middle East in the image of America have denounced the region as ungrateful and irredeemably barbarous. Whether because of culture, religion, or blood, the Arabs and other peoples of the Middle East are, an increasing number of right-wingers insist, a permanent danger to the rest of the world. They must be quarantined, or nuked, or both.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, January 22, 2016

Trump's fascist theatre

Is Donald Trump a fascist? The Philadelphia Daily News thinks so. When Trump called for Muslims to be banned from entering America last month, the Daily News covered its front page with a photograph of the billionaire giving a Hitleresque salute, and added the headline 'The New Furor'.

As Trump maintains his poll lead over other contenders for the Republican nomination for president, an increasing number of journalists and scholars are debating whether he deserves the adjective fascist.

In the 1920s and '30s fascist leaders like Mussolini and Hitler promoted extreme forms of nationalism, denounced various minorities as a threat to the purity of their nations, won the allegiance of impoverished workers as well as some opportunistic capitalists, and raised streetfighting armies.

Those who consider Trump a fascist, like historian Richard Steigmann-Gall and journalist Jeffrey Tucker, insist that he is preaching a twenty-first century version of the ideology of Mussolini and Hitler, and leading an increasing militarised movement. Others, like the Berkeley sociologist Dylan Riley and the Washington Post's Rachel Orr, disagree. They suggest that Trump's rhetoric is opportunistic and incoherent, that his followers are an erratic rabble, and that he lacks any support from America's economic elite.

Trump's main campaign slogan is 'Make America Great Again'. He looks back fondly on the bellicose United States of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with its imperial conquests in Asia and Latin America, its usurpation of Europe, and its supposedly harmonious class and race relations. He laments the fact that his country 'doesn't win victories anymore', and names a series of scapegoats for America's economic and geopolitical decline. Freeloading foreign allies have relied upon American troops and loans to protect them, draining the imperial coffers; violent and sexually deviant Mexicans have breached the Rio Grande in huge numbers, breaking laws and taking natives' jobs; and African Americans have made parts of many American cities no-go zones with their gangs and guns. All of these forces have been encouraged by anti-American liberals and an anti-American media. Now Muslim invaders are entering an almost fatally weakened America. In mosques across the country they are forming terror cells and preparing to impose sharia law on their Christian neighbours.

According to Trump, the Democratic Party is controlled by liberals, and therefore in league with America's enemies, and the leaders of the Republican Party are hypnotised by the regulations and rituals of representative government, and afraid to act boldly in defence of the nation. An outsider needs to take control of the state, and use it to crush America's enemies. The mass internment and deportation of aliens, the extrajudicial killings of the families of terrorists, the registration of every Muslim living in America, the closure of large parts of the internet: all of these measures and more may be necessary. 'We're going to have to do things that we never did before', Trump warned last November.
Few of the commentators on Trump's campaign have discussed the unusual and sinister structure that his rallies have taken. Some of the features of a Trump rally - the ubiquitous American flags, the drawn-out introductions by faded country music stars and B-movie actors, the prayers and the national anthem - are familiar from other presidential campaigns.

What is remarkable, though, is the role that Trump's adversaries have come to play in his rallies. In arena after arena, protesters have risen from their seats to challenge the billionaire, waving placards and shouting slogans and attempting to distribute leaflets. Rather than ignore or speedily dismiss these hecklers, Trump has made them the focus of a series of extended denunciations. He has branded them agents of the Mexican government, supporters of ISIS, and liberal journalists in disguise, and encouraged his audiences to confront them. At a rally in Birmingham, Alabama, Trump denounced a black protester; the man was soon knocked to the floor and beaten. In Vermont Trump told his security personnel to throw a group of hecklers out into the cold without their coats, as his audience cheered. In Las Vegas Trump supporters shouted 'Sieg Heil' and 'Light that motherfucker on fire' when several protesters were dragged away. On the rare occasions when his rallies have not attracted hecklers Trump has seemed disappointed.

It is hard to watch footage of Trump's rallies without thinking about Oswald Mosley, the Anglo-Saxon world's most successful fascist. At the rallies that Mosley's British Union of Fascists held in the 1930s, protesters were treated to a meticulous violence. As Mosley denounced Jews, reds, and liberals from his podium, his uniformed private army of 'blackshirts' would aim a spotlight on anyone who shouted or held up a placard during their leader's speeches. As Mosley paused and his supporters cheered, protesters would be beaten and dragged away by blackshirts. At an infamous rally in London's Olympia stadium in 1934, the blackshirts injured dozens of dissenters, one of whom lost an eye.
In her essay on Hitler's film maker Leni Riefenstahl, Susan Sontag suggested that fascist aesthetics involved a 'contrast between the clean and the impure...the incorruptible and the defiled'. Fascism relies, Sontag said, on an  'irresistable leader' to enforce and maintain purity.

The promise of ruthless, ritualised violence helped to draw huge crowds to Mosley. For the ten thousand angry Britons who filled the Olympia, the men and women who were spotlit and beaten by the blackshirts were the embodiment of all the evil forces - Jews, communists, socialists, race mixers - responsible for their country's malaise. By beating the protesters, the blackshirts were taking a sort of symbolic revenge; by removing the protesters from the audience, they were performing a symbolic act of purification.

Like Mosley's events, Trump's rallies are a sort of fascist theatre where an imagined national community purifies itself by identifying, punishing, and expelling pollutants.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Consider the lotus

Oh dear, oh dear: I think some Tongans need to talanoa with the maker of this video clip. The clip is either an exceedingly good exercise in po-faced, Duchampian surrealism or a serious, and seriously bad, attempt to say something about Tonga and its maritime chiefdom (go on, call it an empire if you'd like). Parts of the clip are - unintentionally, intentionally? - very funny. I loved the bit about Tongans having a religion named lotu, a religion based upon the adoration of the lotus flower.

Paul Janman's latest video clip is, I would like to think, less egregious. Using footage he shot with Ian Powell and fragments of radio interviews, Paul has compressed the ten day, two hundred kilometre journey that he and I made up New Zealand's least salubrious road into three rather beautiful minutes. Watch it here. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Seleka in the Waikato

At a gym on the edge of Hamilton artists from across the Pacific have been drawing and painting and sculpting for a fortnight. They have been guests at an art hui organised by Don Ratana, a lecturer in education at the University of Waikato. I visited the hui on Sunday to see Tevita Latu and Taniela Potelo, members of Tonga's avant-garde Seleka art club.

When Taniela approached me, stepping carefully around the paintings that his peers had left to dry on the floor of the gym, I noticed that he was wearing what looked like a large shell or a small patu around his neck. He came closer, and I saw that the object was a computer mouse. In their hometown of Nuku'alofa the Selekarians, as they call themselves, are known for their ingenious and sometimes irreverent reinventions of Polynesian tradition. Members drink kava from a toilet bowl in their lagoonside clubhouse, and listen to dub and techno while they paint and draw.
Don Ratana encountered Latu and Potelo last year, when he attended a conference of the Pacific Arts Association in Tonga, and invited them to the Waikato, where they have been mingling with Tahitian, Marquesan, Kanak, Hawai'ian and Maori artists. On a couple of signs beside the entrance to the university gym a series of phrases - 'Wanna go for a cigarette again?'; 'You're working hard mate'; 'Do you like sculpture?' - had been translated into Tongan and French.
In between working, the guests of the hui have been swimming in the two pools - one of them long and dark blue, the other small, with the pale blue colouring of a tropical lagoon - that sit beside the gym. When I jumped in one of the pools with Tevita Latu he explained that his stay in the Waikato was changing his art. In Tonga, where art materials are formidably expensive, he had to paint on cardboard or ngatu cloth with a few colours. At Waikato he could have as much canvas and as many colours as he liked.
The Selekarians have always been ferociously eclectic, so it was no surprise to find them ingurgitating the styles and imagery of other artists at the hui. One of the canvases that Latu had leaned against the wall of the gym showed a figure that resembled like a hei tiki stirring a bowl of kava. He'd made the image, he explained, with the help of a Maori artist. Another work featured what looked like a tuatara with a crucifix for a tail and the pendulous breasts typical of traditional depictions of the Tongan goddess Hikule'o.
If you're quick, then you can see some of these extraordinary paintings, along with work by other guests of the art hui, at the Creative Waikato gallery in central Hamilton.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Christopher Middleton's briefcase

Christopher Middleton, who died last week at the age of eighty-nine, was one of the great outsiders of twentieth century English poetry. In the 1950s, when Philip Larkin and his cohorts were writing verses full of dour and sour realism, the young Middleton turned away from England towards the Dadaists and Surrealists and Expressionists of continental Europe. He travelled through Europe and the Middle East, translating and imitating German, French, Turkish and Arabic poetry, before eventually settling in Texas, where he taught German literature and published books with beguiling titles like The Lonely Suppers of WV Balloon and Twenty Tropes for Doctor Dark.

When I hear news reports about planes falling out of the sky and men exploding in crowded rooms I sometimes think of Middleton's elliptical and eerie poem 'Briefcase History'.

Briefcase History

This briefcase was made on the Baltic coast
in 1946
some prize pig was flayed for the leather
metal strippedf rom a seaplane
silk for the stitching picked from parachute cord

People say where did you get that singular briefcase
and then I notice it
people ask how much did it cost
and when I say fifty cigarettes not many understand
once the leather was flying wrapped
around seaplane fuel tanks the space between
wadded with two inches of rubber
this briefcase might stop a bullet I wonder

For twenty-five years I have carried in it
books of poems battered or new
cosmic mountain notebooks plays with broken spines
bread and cheese a visiting card from Bratislava
and a pliable cranny for anything to be pocketed
at the last moment

The handle ribbed with stitches of parachute silk
anchored by clasps of seaplane metal
is worn shiny and dark with sweat
the whole thing has an unspeakable grey colour
running a finger over a surface
leprous one might say
various tones of grey flickering mould green
the scored leather looks to me like the footsole
of an old aboriginal bowman earth in a space photo
nerve webs of a bat's wing

The two side pockets have their seams intact
two straps happily slip through buckles and hold there

Furthermore this briefcase has contained
a dynasty of shirts mostly now extinct nothing to declare
my Venus relics old stones believed
animal figures carved back of beyond in France

this briefcase has been with me somehow
I find reason to celebrate it today

Briefcase helping friend
ploughshare beaten from the sword
briefcase bag of tricks peaceful seaplane spirit
ocean wanderer
you have never contained an explosive device
never have you contained an explosive device

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Who's censoring Peter Wells?

In a blog post and an interview with the Herald Peter Wells has accused Creative New Zealand of interfering with his newest book, Journey to a Hanging. The book tells the story of Kereopa Te Rau, a member of Te Arawa hapu Ngati Rangiwewehi and evangelist for the syncretic, anti-colonial Pai Marire religion. After members of his family were killed by British troops during the Waikato War, Te Rau went to the Bay of Plenty, where he instigated and oversaw the slaying and mutilation of Carl Volkner, a missionary who had been spying on Maori rebels for the colonial government in Auckland. Volkner's death outraged Pakeha, and when Te Rau fled from the Bay of Plenty into the Urewera heartland of the Tuhoe people colonial troops soon followed him. Te Rau was eventually apprehended, tried and executed.

Wells says that, in exchange for funding him, Creative New Zealand insisted that he talk with the descendants of Kereopa Te Rau about his plans for Journey to a Hanging. He complains that he was made to feel ‘paranoid about getting the facts right’. He thinks that Creative New Zealand's keenness for him to consult with Ngati Rangiwewehi was a symptom of the 'political correctness' that afflicts New Zealand. This 'political correctness' has, according to Wells, made New Zealand's colonial history a 'taboo' area for researchers and writers. 

I think that anyone who is writing non-fiction should be paranoid about getting their facts right, and anyone writing about one of the most notorious series of events in New Zealand’s nineteenth century history should be particularly paranoid.

I'm puzzled that Wells thinks Creative New Zealand was somehow burdening him when it tried to get him to talk with the descendants of the man whose life he was researching. I can’t think why any researcher wouldn’t want to acquaint him or herself with the oral traditions surrounding the subject he or she was researching.

I read Journey to a Hanging a few months ago, and I remember being surprised when Wells declared that he hadn’t looked at any of the Maori accounts, either in oral tradition or on paper, of the slaying of Volkner, the hunt for Kereopa Te Rau, and the trial and execution of Te Rau. I was even more bemused when he followed this confession with some knockabout criticisims of the supposed political correctness of unnamed historians who had studied the killing of Volkner and the trial of Kereopa Te Rau. How can you decide these interpretations are biased, I thought, when you haven’t looked at half of the story yourself?

I’ve just written a short book about another terrible series of nineteenth century events, the slave raids that some New Zealanders and Tasmanians made on Tonga in 1863. I researched the book in the archives of New Zealand, looking at old newspapers and at missionaries’ letters and diplomatic despatches – but I also went to Tonga and sat around kava circles and heard what the descendants of the slave raids had to say, and looked at old Tongan publications. It’s not too hard to do all this, even if you don’t have command of a Polynesian language. Most Tongans, let alone Maori, speak English, and many oral traditions have been translated into English. Dictionaries are wonderful things.

I've blogged in more detail about Kereopa Te Rau and the killing of Carl Volkner here and here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]