Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The inescapable politics of rocks

When Paul Janman flew to Wales recently he thought he was leaving behind, for a few weeks at least, the politics of rocks. 

As he worked with me on a book and a film about Auckland's Great South Road, Janman had spent hours in the Bombay Hills, on the southern edge of Auckland, where a handful of rocks sit on a strip of land between the road and the newer southern motorway. 

For geologists, these rocks are the unexceptional, randomly positioned detritus of an ancient volcanic eruption. For a set of right-wing political activists and conspiracy theorists, though, the rocks are known as the 'Bombay Obelisk'. According to Martin Doutre, the author of a frequently baffling tome called Ancient Celtic New Zealand, the obelisk was an ancient astronomy, and its carvings of snakes and runes  offer dramatic and irrefutable evidence that a technologically sophisticated European civilisation had established itself in New Zealand many thousands of years ago. 

Doutre's opinion has been publicised loudly and persistently by the Franklin E Local, a giveaway magazine published a few kilometres from the obelisk in Pukekohe. When Maori TV ran an investigation into the Celtic New Zealand theory and the links between its proponents and the neo-Nazi and criminal fraternities, Doutre brought reporter Iulia Leilua to the obelisk, so she could have a firsthand experience of the glories of this country's ancient white culture. 

Because we believe that history is made with fantasies and hallucinations, as well as facts and artefacts, Paul and I are devoting some of our book and film to the strange story of the Bombay obelisk. Paul and cinematographer Ian Powell have taken photographs and shot footage of the obelisk and its environs, and last year they showed off some of these images at the Papakura Art Gallery. 

Paul and I have in the past linked Martin Doutre and other proponents of the Celtic New Zealand theory with the anxiety many Pakeha Kiwis feel about their place in the world. Thousands of miles from their European motherland, surrounded by alien flora and the earthworks of ancient Maori pa, some Pakeha have sought comfort in imaginary histories that grant them indigenity. 

When Paul Janman reached the imperial motherland recently, though, he made a disconcerting discovery. After crossing the world, he'd found himself witness to another angry argument about another group of stones. Here's a message Paul sent me, shortly after arriving in the land of his ancestors:

Bore da Scott, (Good morning in Welsh...)

I am in remotest Wales and the most exciting thing that has happened to me this week is finding myself in the middle of a local archaeological conflagration over whether or not the inner circle of bluestone at Stonehenge came from ancient quarries near our village. Some English archaeologists have suggested they do (I saw them talk at a pub tonight) and they have baited the local Welsh nationalists with the thought that this may be evidence for an early Welsh invasion of England! This thesis is hotly contested by a local intellectual who also makes candles up the road in the Gwaun valley. Our village is called Newport, Pembrokeshire. The Welsh name is 'Trefdreath'. The purported quarries can be seen here. This site is about 6km southeast of our village. 

This guy is the main dissenter against the theory stones that came from here. Either way, the controversy has given me great food for thought about my personal relationship to these ancient rock outcrops as well as to crackpots like Doutre and even the movement of stones from Uvea to Tonga. Attached is a picture of me and our ancestral mountain Mynedd Carningli - the Mountain of Angels - quite a weird and exciting place that I am filming avidly. 
Hwyl fawr am nawr (pronounced 'huel vawur am nawur', it means goodbye for now).

It is not hard to imagine a political context for the arguments Paul reports. Wales' pro-independence party Plaid Cymru took nearly a fifth of the votes at the last election to the country's assembly, and has been encouraged by the recent massive gains of Scotland's nationalists. Like their Scottish counterparts, the Welsh nationalists argue that England has for centuries dominated its Celtic neighbours in the British Isles. The nationalists' critics consider this sentimental nonsense, and charge that, far from being English colonies, Wales and Scotland have been equal partners in the United Kingdom and were equal partners in the British Empire.

Stonehenge was built four and a half thousand years ago, long before either England or Wales existed as cultural or political units. The monument nevertheless seems to have been drafted into arguments about Welsh and English history and identity. The defenders of Britain seem to want to discredit claims that the Welsh were a victimised people by suggesting that the ancient Celts were ranging aggressively over what is now England, and raising expensive monuments there. For their part, some Weslh nationalists seem offended by the notion that their very distant ancestors might have been primitive imperialists.

It is easy to see parallels between the attempts to use Stonehenge against the Welsh and the way that right-wing Pakeha use the notion of an ancient white civilisation against Maori. According to the likes of Doutre, the European colonists who supposedly thrived in New Zealand for thousands of years were eventually conquered, enslaved, and eaten by the ancestors of Maori. Far from being a people victimised by Euroepan imperialism, then, Maori are, in Doutre's strange universe, the imperialist victimisers of Europeans.

The anti-Welsh and anti-Maori arguments I've been discussing rely on some ironic assumptions. Both suppose, for example, that conquest and colonisation are bad things. But a century ago, during the era of British eminence that many opponents of Maori and Welsh nationalism idealise, wars of conquest and colonisation were seen as virtuous, and perhaps even divinely ordained, events. For Cecil Rhodes or William Massey, the alleged victories of ancient Celts and Maori would have counted in those peoples' favour, not against them. Imperialism and militarism became such compromised ideologies in the second half of the twentieth century that even reactionaries like Martin Doutre now attach their arguments to narratives of victimhood.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Who's to blame for John Wanoa?

John Wanoa was all over newspapers and television news bulletins last week, after he and a group of uniformed men raided an office in downtown Auckland and forced the men and women working there outside. After he posted footage of this 'eviction' online, Wanoa was quickly arrested and charged with trespass, forcible entry, and assault. 
Wanoa's been described in the media as a 'Maori rights protester' pursuing some sort of Treaty claim, but he is actually a paranoid eccentric who has borrowed conspiracy theories about ancient civilisations from the far right of Pakeha politics. 
When I encountered John Wanoa back in 2009 he was claiming to be Moriori rather than Maori, and was busy recycling a set of myths and stereotypes that had been the stock in trade of Pakeha rednecks for a century. I wrote this post about Wanoa's attempts to appropriate Moriori history. Wanoa responded with a series of decreasingly coherent messages. He told me about his plans to build a tidal power generator, and informed me that the famous stone statues of Rapa Nui are able to levitate and move about that island. 

More recently, Wanoa has taken to claiming descent from a technologically sophisticated civilisation that supposedly existed on Rapa Nui and in Africa thousands of years ago. He has also suggested that the Treaty of Waitangi historians and lawyers acknowledge is a fake document. According to Wanoa, a secret, long-suppressed version of the Treaty confirms his worldview and entitles him to political and economic control over New Zealand. Wanoa currently claims to be the king of New Zealand and Britain, and has somehow attracted followers in both countries (here's a surreal statement by a supporter in Brighton). 
I don't think it is a coincidence that right-wing Pakeha conspiracy theorists like Martin Doutre like to talk about elaborate and forgotten ancient civilisations on Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, as they invariably call it, and that Doutre and co insist that the true version of the Treaty of Waitangi has been hidden from New Zealanders. 

Wanoa may soon find himself moving from prison to the Mason clinic, or some other psychiatric facility. When Clare Swinney, another New Zealand author of elaborate conspiracy theories, was committed to a psychiatric ward a few years ago, she condemned her treatment as politically motivated. In an interview with an American conspiracy theorist, Swinney described the hospital where she was treated as a 'communist' institution, and complained that the New Zealand government was attempting to brainwash her. Wanoa's supporters would probably be credulous enough to accept a similar claim from him.

John Wanoa has no more to do with Maori activism than Clare Swinney. Like Swinney, he's the victim of a subculture of conspiracy theory and paranoia that has flourished in New Zealand like some exotic and noxious weed.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, October 01, 2015

From Francis to Visesio

Spare a thought for the more conservative members of the Catholic church - for the folks who hold Latin masses in the Titirangi backwoods, smash up wiccan accessory stores at Glastonbury, and consider a progressive tax system a sin.

Over the last fortnight these folks have had to endure the dethroning of Tony Abbott, the man who sometimes seemed to think he was principal of a Marist high school, rather than Prime Minister of Australia. As if Abbott's fall were not enough, there have been the polemics against neo-liberal capitalism and warning about global warming delivered by Pope Francis during his tour of the United States.*

And now New Zealand's Catholic News has decided to celebrate the work of the heretical Tongan artist Visesio Siasau. Catholic News has run an article about Siasau's recent victory in the Wallace Art Awards, and included some words from me about the man's penchant for mixing Polynesian and palangi gods and saints.
It'll be fascinating to see how Catholic audiences respond to Siasau. In New Zealand and in Tonga, the church has traditionally been more tolerant of the sort of 'heathen' imagery, dances and rituals that Protestant sects repressed. One of Tonga's most ancient and magnificent dances, the me'etupaki, was banned by Wesleyans but preserved in a few Catholic villages for a century, before being reintroduced to the rest of the kingdom.

Siasau comes from a pious Catholic family and attended Apifo'ou, Tonga's largest Catholic high school, but he is no Tony Abbott. During a 2013 discussion about religion that I reported in this essay for Landfall, he resisted palangi scholar Maikolo Horowitz's attempts to argue that Catholicism had exerted a liberal and liberating effect on Tongan society, and insisted that the religion, at least as it has been practiced in the Friendly Islands, has had a 'totalitarian' quality. When he juxtaposes images of old Polynesian gods with the Virgin Mary and her long-suffering husband, Siasau seems to be challenging monotheism, that necessary condition of official Catholicism.

But there are tendencies within the Catholic church - the current led ideologically by the prolific theologian Huns Kung is perhaps an example - that seem prepared to reconsider the notion of God's singularity, and to rehabilitate some of the pagan deities that missionaries denounced and dispersed after they came ashore in societies like Tonga.

Perhaps Visesio Siasau's art is a sort of sanctuary, where some of the motifs and symbols associated with Tonga's ancient religion are being preserved and renewed, so that they can one day be reintroduced to the world?

*As strange as it may sound, there were people who thought that the previous Pope was guilty of Marxism.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Occultation of Lisa Reihana

Maori have constitutional and legal privileges denied to other New Zealanders. These privileges and a series of Treaty settlements have helped Maori become a wealthy and powerful capitalist class. Maori are exploiting Pacific Islanders, who lack their privileges and their wealth. A class war between Maori and Pasifika is beginning, as the islanders resist their Maori overlords.

These claims come not from John Ansell or the One New Zealand Foundation or some other source on the right-wing fringes of New Zealand politics, but from veteran artist and lay Buddhist monk Terrence Hanscomb. In an essay for EyeContact called 'The Occultation of the Sun', Hanscomb moves from his allegations of Maori privilege into a condemnation of Lisa Reihana's work In Pursuit of Venus, which has been on display for months at the Auckland Art Gallery. 

A video made to look like a vast stretch of moving wallpaper, In Pursuit of Venus depicts some of the earliest encounters between European mariners and traders and Pacific peoples in places like Aotearoa and Tahiti. The work has attracted big audiences and garnered praise from many reviewers; for Hanscomb, though, it is an expression of the privilege Reihana enjoys as a Maori. As an 'imperialist' and an 'entrepreneur', she is, according to Hanscomb, exploiting the history of the same Pacific peoples that Maori today oppress.

In the comments thread under Hanscomb's review, Ralph Paine and I have taken him to task for his analysis of contemporary New Zealand society and his lack of interest in Pacific history. I don't find Hanscomb's responses to our criticisms at all convincing - but I would say that, wouldn't I? Read Hanscomb's review and the discussion it has generated here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A report from the liberated zone

Over at the online arts journal EyeContact I've written about Vataulua, the massive and mysterious immersive environment created by hundreds of painters at a gallery in downtown Nuku'alofa

Vataulua is full of contradiction, controversy, and joy, and some of its panels take defiant aim at violent cops and misogynistic ministers. I've contrasted the work's egalitarian spirit with the openly anti-democratic rhetoric that the theocratic opponents of 'Akilisi Pohiva's fledgling government are increasingly adopting. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Corbyn's silence

It has been fascinating, and very enjoyable, to watch Britain's political and media establishments melting down in response to the election of radical left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as Labour's leader.

Corbyn's only been running Labour for a couple of days, but he's already being damned to hell for a variety of offences, including his refusal to sing 'God Save the Queen' at a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Corbyn released a statement before the ceremony praising the fight against fascism in World War Two, and remembering his own parents' role in that fight, but he didn't move his lips when the national anthem was played. 
The Daily Telegraph was upset by Corbyn's wardrobe, as well as his silence. The staunchly Tory paper complained that the Labour leader had insulted the queen and war veterans by wearing 'mismatched jacket and trousers' and a 'shirt unbuttoned at the top'.
Corbyn is an atheist and a republican, so if he had lustily sung along to 'God Save the Queen' he would surely have been accused of hypocrisy by papers like the Daily Telegraph.
Historically, demands that members of parliament acknowledge god and the queen have been ways to restrict democracy in Britain. In the late nineteenth century some of the first atheist MPs to win election were prevented from taking their seats in parliament, because they wouldn't swear an oath on the Bible. Many Irish republicans elected to Westminster have never taken their seats, partly because they refuse to swear allegiance to the queen. 'God Save the Queen' hasn't just alienated atheists and republicans: the song's call for the queen to 'crush' the 'rebellious Scots' doesn't go down well in Glasgow.
'God Save the Queen' was New Zealand's national anthem for many decades. Kiwis who went to a cinema for a night's entertainment had to stand and sing along to the dirge before they could watch a film or newsreel, and those who tried to remain in their seats risked being beaten up by members of the RSA. Pioneering republican Bruce Jesson became renowned for remaining mutely in his seat when the anthem was played, and suffering the attentions of drunken ex-servicemen.
I suspect that a lot of Britons will applaud Jeremy Corbyn's refusal to be bullied into performing a song whose theocratic sentiments he doesn't share.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

From flags to money: another conspiracy theory

New Zealand Attorney-General Chris Finlayson joked last week about a peculiar conspiracy theory that is percolating through facebook, twitter, and the comments threads of left-leaning blogs. The theory's proponents insist that John Key will gain 'unparalleled power' if Kiwis decide to remove the Union Jack from their flag in the upcoming referendum. The Union Jack apparently represents something called 'due authority', and without the protection of its ancient symmetries New Zealanders will lose their democratic as well as legal rights. 
But it is not only the left that has been busy making conspiracy theories out of changes to national symbols. Recently I whiled away an hour or so talking with a group of commenters at the right-wing Kiwiblog who believe that evidence for a sinister and secret campaign to 'Maorify' New Zealand can be found on the set of revised banknotes recently released by the government. They have noticed that, on the back of these notes, this country's name is given as 'Aotearoa New Zealand', rather than simply 'New Zealand'. 
The terms 'Maorify' and 'Maorification' were of course coined by John Ansell, the adman and former advisor to the Act Party who attempted to set up an anti-Treaty party in 2012. 
Here's the exchange I had at Kiwiblog:
Longknives wrote:
‘Aotearoa’?? Did I miss the Referendum where we voted to change the name of our Country? 
Odakyu-sen wrote:
I didn’t know that Maori had a reserve bank. I guess Aotearoa's a synthetic term created by a language committee years ago. If so, then Maori as a language is doomed. Once a language withers away to the point where academic committees (and not native speakers of it) formulate new vocabulary for it, i.e., the language itself has too weak a gravitational pull to draw in words from other languages into its orbit, then it’s pretty much beyond the point of no return.

SH wrote:
Aotearoa was created by a 'committee' hundreds of years ago. King Tawhiao, who was featured on the original NZ banknote series of 1934, was running a bank in the 1880sIt looks like some people still haven’t reconciled themselves to the Maori Language Act. Once the Act made Maori an official language more of the Maori language began appearing in official documents and on state symbols.
Jack5 wrote:
“Aotearoa” now shares the billing with “New Zealand” on the notes. First, the flag, then the Republic of Aotearoa.

SH wrote:
If you look at the original New Zealand banknotes, which were issued in 1934, you can find the visage of King Tawhiao, leader of the war against the British Empire and printer of his own currency! 
I think that those who claim that the new notes are evidence of some sort of ‘Maorification’ of the New Zealand state are unaware that, historically, the state has tended to appropriate and reuse images associated with Maori sovereignty and separatism. The very name New Zealand is a case in point. It was of course coined by a European, but for many decades it was almost always used to refer to Maori and Maori society. Only towards the end of the nineteenth century did it begin to have a wider usage. I suspect that the meaning of Aotearoa is now broadening, in much the same way.
Jack 5 wrote:
This time, Scott, it’s part of a political agenda. There are moves, backed by many in the MSM, to change the official name from “New Zealand”. No doubt, the idea is to retain “New Zealand” for trade purposes. The fact that National is starting to be blamed for it, or at least going along with it, should cause some reflection. How long can the country count on Winston Peters providing a safe diversion for those unhappy with the trend?

SH wrote:

Surely there were also political considerations involved in earlier revisions of the name for these islands, and in earlier decisions to use Maori symbols and names for official purposes? The name of these islands and the symbols used to represent them have historically been subject to change, and I suspect they’ll continue to change. I think it would be a mistake to equate the use of Maori words or imagery with some sort of change in power relations. A century ago most Pakeha referred to this country as Maoriland. I doubt whether that reflected Maori hegemony.
Jack5 wrote:
However, to me it seems the Left and liberals (in the American sense) are pushing towards renaming the country from “New Zealand” to “Aotearoa”.
It’s interesting that the Reserve Bank, one of the most powerful State institutions, should of its own volition move to give “Aotearoa” billing with “New Zealand” on a new series of banknotes.
Unlike the Federal Reserve System with its governors, committees and 12 banks, there is little counterbalance to the power of the RBNZ governor (at present, Graeme Wheeler). The Reserve Bank board doesn’t seem to vote on the OCR level for example. Perhaps the “Aotearoa” move isn’t Wheeler’s but the board trying to show it has some useful role (it’s sometimes justified as providing reassurance and general moral backing to the governor).
SH wrote:
Have these islands ever had an official name, in the sense that you imply? The Geographical Board was set up to settle the official names of places within New Zealand, but it hasn’t given official names to a huge number of places, including some of our largest cities and islands. I notice that the Geographical Board uses the name Aotearoa as well as New Zealand in its self-description. I suspect that, once Maori became an official language in 1986, the name New Zealand came increasingly to be given alongside Aotearoa, which was treated as its Maori translation.
But the point I’d make is that it’s rather ironic for Pakeha to treat New Zealand as some sort of besieged symbol of the European parts of the country’s past, when the name New Zealand, or Niu Tereni, was for so long associated with and used by Maori. It’s like the Aussies claiming pavlova.
The lack of understanding of the history of the name 'New Zealand' leads many Pakeha to misinterpret the Treaty of Waitangi. The English version of the Treaty refers to 'natives of New Zealand', a term which today might be used to refer to anybody, Maori or Pakeha, who was born in these islands. In 1840, though, 'New Zealand' and 'New Zealanders' always referred to Maori people and their society. It is a mistake, then, to read back into the Treaty a reference to the multi-ethnic society that has developed in these islands over the last one hundred and seventy or so years. 
I like the name Pig Island, which was used by whalers and sealers in the nineteenth century and then revived by James K Baxter.
Jack5 wrote:
You’re not impressed by “New Zealand” as the name of the archipelago. Well the second word is the Danish spelling of a Netherlands province, and the first is English. Would you be happy with New Sealand, or just Sealand?
I prefer to keep “New Zealand”. It’s sort of grown on the place, I feel. It’s certainly our export trade mark, and gives a fairly distinctive abbreviation – NZ. How would you abbreviate Aotearoa? Ao? Aa? At? And Aotearoan would be a mouthful when someone asks where you come from.
With English the current dominant international language, “New Zealand” fits into it more easily than “Aotearoa.”
SH wrote:
I don’t mind 'New Zealand' at all, specially if those who use it are aware of its history as an effectively Maori name, but I don’t mind Aotearoa or Maoriland or Pig Island either. I like the idea of keeping multiple names alive, because these names remind us of the complexity and contingency of our history.
I’ve been reading Tony Ballantyne’s book Webs of Empire, which makes the point that New Zealand isn’t something that stepped complete onto the stage of history, but rather the product of a whole series of accidents and improvisations and compromises. I was recently trying to find out something of the history of Stewart Island/Rakiura in the early 1860s, and was amazed to learn that the island was not even a part of New Zealand until the middle of that decade. Parliament had to pass a deed of annexation to get the place.
The Kermadecs came decades later, in an annexation that set the stage for the expansion of New Zealand into the tropical Pacific. To all intents and purposes, Rarotonga was a more integral part of New Zealand than the Ureweras in 1900.
Here’s a paper given in 1885 by WH Blyth to the Auckland Institute on the subject of the name New Zealand. The author notes the very close connection that the name has to Maori when he says that:
‘The Maori, by his native worth, has made the name so conspicuous in the past that its expungement would almost seem the symbol of the effacement of this most interesting of the native races’.
Blyth examines Zealandia, South Britain, and Britain of the South, which were popular names for these islands in the 19th century; Australbion, which was apparently advocated by the Rev Richard Taylor; and Cooksland, which was put forward by Haast. He finishes, though, by polemicising in favour of yet another name: Hesperia!
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]