Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Greens, Easter Island, and holocaust denial

The recent Green Party conference was an important political event. The conference saw the Greens announce the election of a new male co-leader, Russel Norman, to fill the vacuum left by the death of Rod Donald.

The Greens also used the conference to make a determined effort to rebrand themselves as a 'centre' party that could form a government with either National or Labour. In her speech to the conference, female co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons called left and right 'old-fashioned political labels', and said that her party had important things in common with National.

Fitzsimons' remarks were echoed by the conference's keynote speaker, Australian political commentator David McKnight. McKnight is an ex-Marxist who now supports the US occupation of Iraq and insists that Green politics is 'not about the rebirth of left' but about 'a new kind of conservatism'. In a book he published last year called Beyond Left and Right, McKnight pointed to the supposed 'historical universalism of the market as a democratic force' and claimed that 'it makes environmental sense to use market mechanisms'.

McKnight and Fitzsimons set the stage for Russel Norman's first speech as co-leader of the Greens. Norman has always been regarded as one of the more left-wing members of the Greens, so many people were surprised when he spoke to the conference in tones that echoed Fitzsimons and McKnight. Praising the 'undoubted power of the market', Norman confirmed that the Greens were open to deal-making with National as well as Labour. Norman even reached out to Simon Upton, architect of the health 'reforms' of the last National government, by saluting Upton's support for a regressive tax on carbon use.

Responses to the speeches by Norman and his comrades Fitzsimons and McKnight have not been slow in coming. Editorialists and commentators in the mainstream media have applauded the 'political maturity' and 'realism' the Greens have supposedly shown in jettisoning left-wing labels and opening the door to National. On the other hand, many on the Kiwi left have been horrified by the Greens' exercise in rebranding. Activists who had looked to the party as a parliamentary bastion of left-wing policies have been sadly disappointed.

All the fuss caused by the Greens' latest move to the right has meant that little attention has been paid to the finer details of Russel Norman's conference speech. This is a pity, because Norman's speech tells us a great deal about the ideology that underpins the Greens' political agenda. Titled 'Learning from Easter Island - Crunch Time for Planet Earth', Norman's speech attempted to draw a parrallel between the supposed fate of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the trajectory of modern Western society. Using Jared Diamond's bestselling book Collapse as a source, Norman claimed that Easter Island was depopulated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries because of the way its Polynesian inhabitants had treated their environment.

The way that Norman tells the story, the small population and devastated landscape that greeted European visitors to Easter Island in the eighteenth century were 'chilling' products of a 'hierachical' culture that had become obsessed with building giant statues at the expense of the environment. The famous stone heads that cover the island are examples of waste and decadence. Norman warned that unless the Greens get their way 'our civilisation will collapse into resource wars and famine just like Rapa Nui'. Norman's speech received a standing ovation when it ended, and the Green Party website is proudly offering it to visitors in text and audio formats.

But Russel Norman's use of Easter Island history deserves to be criticised, not acclaimed. Norman has advanced a view of the island's history that makes its people responsible for their own suffering, but there is overwhelming evidence that these people were victims rather than villains. Easter Islanders suffered genocide, not the self-induced 'ecocide' Diamond and Norman describe. It was Europeans, not Polynesians, who killed the islanders in such numbers that they were brought to the brink of extinction by the end of the nineteenth century. Jared Diamond's account of Easter Island history may have impressed Norman, but it has been demolished by academic historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists. These experts have shown that Diamond was guilty of ignoring a vast amount of textual, oral and archaeological evidence when he wrote the chapter of Collapse that deals with Easter Island. In his paper 'From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui' social anthropologist Benny Peiser summarises the case against Diamond:

While the theory of ecocide has become almost paradigmatic in environmental circles, a dark and gory secret hangs over the premise of Easter Island's self-destruction: an actual genocide terminated Rapa Nui's indigenous populace and its culture. Diamond ignores, or neglects to address the true reasons behind Rapa Nui's collapse. Other researchers have no doubt that its people, their culture and its environment were destroyed to all intents and purposes by European slave-traders, whalers and colonists - and not by themselves! How did the once well-known accounts about the "fatal impact" of European disease, slavery and genocide - "the catastrophe that wiped out Easter Island's civilisation" - turn into a contemporary parable of self-inflicted ecocide? In short, why have the victims of cultural and physical extermination been turned into the perpetrators of their own demise?

Drawing on dozens of sources, Peiser describes in meticulous detail the atrocities visited upon Easter Islanders by Europeans - atrocities that Norman completely ignores. Pesier's conclusion is that Diamond and his co-thinkers are guilty of something close to holocaust denial:

It is extremely unlikely that the oral traditions of violence, deportation and genocide belong to the pre-European era, that is, two hundred years before the 19th century era when the natives experienced real attacks, violence, genocide, abductions, and deportations...Diamond's theory of the island's self-destruction holds up only as long as the legendary traditions of violence and genocide are relocated to a time before the island's violent encounters with European visitors and raiders. That is why he disregards explicit testimony by the survivors of Rapa Nui's genocide.

Peiser reveals that Diamond's account of Easter Island history was invented by Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian adventurer and author who believed that the Polynesians came from South America. Heyerdahl's theories were discredited by experts on Polynesian culture and history decades ago.

Peiser's arguments have been reinforced by the conclusions of a study completed last year by a team of American archaeologists and anthropologists. Working with Easter Island's museum staff, the team conducted extensive digs on the island over several years. They found that population decline on the island was caused by the slave trade and European diseases, and that deforestation was caused by rats rather than islanders. Reporting the team's findings to a conference of the American Anthropological Association, Botson University archaeologist Patricia McAnanay noted that theories like Diamond's 'essentially blame the victims'.

Russel Norman has been responsible for conveying a completely false picture of Easter Island history to his New Zealand audience. How has he managed to so misrepresent the subject? It is difficult to believe that Norman, who worked for many years as a professional researcher and has a long-standing interest in history, was not aware of the criticism that Diamond's account of Easter Island history has received from experts. It seems likely that, like Diamond himself, Norman has chosen to ignore masses of incovenient evidence because the myth of a Polynesian 'ecocide' suits his worldview and his political agenda.

Like Jared Diamond, the Green Party has a tendency to blame all manner of environmental and social problems on the choices that ordinary people make about what goods and services they consume. Most of the Green Party's policies are designed to discipline working class people into consuming 'politically correct', 'green' goods in order to solve social and environmental problems. Not coincidentally, many of these 'green' goods and services are provided by the 'green' businesses that help fund the party and provide a chunk of its membership.

A good example of the Green approach to environmental problems is the tax on carbon use Russel Norman is keen to promote alongside Simon Upton. Like GST, the proposed carbon tax would be an effectively regressive tax, because it would pay no attention to the different incomes of the people it is aimed at. A freezing worker in Otahuhu earning $30,000 a year would pay the same rate of tax as an organic farmer making $100,000 a year in the Coromandel.

The Greens' domestic policy of using the state to discipline the working class and to promote locally-owned 'green' businesses implies a certain approach to foreign policy. Although they usually oppose US foreign policy in faraway places like the Middle East, the Greens strongly support the interventions of the Australian and New Zealand governments in the Asia-Pacific region. These interventions are typically made to protect the interests of the locally-owned businesses that the Greens support against the 'big bad' capitalists of countries like the US.

The Greens' support for Anzac interventionism is symbolised by the role they have played in promoting the ongoing recolonisation of the Solomon Islands by Australia and New Zealand. In 2003 the party gave its wholehearted support to the Anzac troops that landed in the Solomons to enforce neo-liberal IMF 'reforms' at the point of a gun. Green support for the intervention has never wavered, despite the fact that the RAMSI occupation force controlled by John Howard's government has taken control of all important government ministries, imprisoned 2% of the Solomons population, cut the public sector workforce by a third, used its firepower to stop strikes, and suppressed protests against electoral corruption with teargas and batons. Green foreign affairs spokesman Keith Locke boasts that 'New Zealand forces have done a very good job' in the Solomons, and in April of this year Locke's fellow MP Metiria Turei visited the Solomons to declare the farcical elections overseen by RAMSI 'free and fair'.

Russel Norman's distortion of Easter Island history fits the purposes of the Green Party in two ways. In the first place, it puts the blame for environmental and social problems squarely on the shoulders of ordinary people, avoiding any tricky references to concepts like capitalism and imperialism. The Polynesians of Easter Island suffered disaster because they were greedy and stupid; today, the working class of New Zealand will suffer a similar disaster if it does not submit to the wise guidance of green capitalism and its political representatives.

On a deeper level, the myth of Easter Island reflects the Green Party's racist attitude toward the Polynesian and Melanesian peoples of the Pacific. The patronising argument that the natives of countries like the Solomons need the 'help' of white Australasia if they are to avoid disaster chimes with Norman's story of a stupid Polynesian people who had spoiled their island paradise by the time Europeans arrived.

The racism of Russel Norman's account of Easter Island history is a reflection of Green Party ideology, not some sort of aberration. Everyone on the left should reject the ideology of 'green capitalism' along with Norman's lies about Polynesian history.


Anonymous Mike B said...

There's a review of McKnight's book here:

It sounds crap.

3:12 pm  
Blogger slog said...

Scott why not send this off to labortribune?

5:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you don't mind, I'll post this article on the Labor Tribune website. It's a good yarn. Please email me if this is OK.


Marcus Strom

12:32 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

This is excellent -for me the Greens have always been dubius (but of course they are preferabe *so far* to most other parties) - ok there are many liberals in the Greens etc -but there is a strong tendecy for them to skew toward the Right - especialy if they avoid strong and intelligent political theory- the ideas of McNght are right wing drivel - we need to support any actions by any Iraqis against US Ipmerialism.

The Greens' core philosophy is anti -People. Most of their policies are not well founded - even their ecolgical stance - there is not even much evidence that global warming is even a problem - however - the protection of environment and many other concepts are good -there is a core or group of Greens who are very good people.

But they lack consistent politics - tey do not understand Capitalism - the Greens support Capitalism and ultimatley a return to war and atrocities (of course most poeple who vote Green don't see that and the Green party is somewhere that liberals can 'go' to and I can see the good sides of it -but inevitablly - they are moving to the Right -

Eatser Island - I liked Heyerdahl's books - great books -but his there is a dubius undercurrent -it is strange that Bronowski - the great liberal intellectual (he was a mathematician and biologist (wrote "The Ascent of Man" - a great book - and a book about Blake)) philospher/scientist and champion of the advance of science /civilisation etc - cites Easter Island as kind of example of failure and "the end of the road" - the statues are stupid - it all shows a backward state -he shudders to think what would happen if European civilistaion were wiped out - he wasn't Green -he was a great man in many ways - but he was indeed Eurocentric - a mate of Harold Bloom's (of The Great Books)(notonebook or cultural thing from Africa or any where much outside Europe is any good to Bloom) - and yet he has some very deep insisghts into knowlege and science and humanity - the Greens' Philopsphy seems to me to be portenilly even more 'wobbly' than Bronowski's* (aberration it almost sems) about Easter island and Europe...I love those statues -it shows another side to the great polynesian culture and human diversity.

*But his comments/criticisms about every right wing John von Nuemann ( somewhat like Teller - all for preemptive nuclear strikes agasint the USSR etc) lead into some interesting observations on the dangers of fasciscm.
This is a great entry Scott.

1:36 am  
Blogger Make Tea Not War said...

Very interesting.

I've been dubious about certain strands of the Green movement for a while. Namely its conservatism or rather, as I see it, the strands in it that are Luddite and puritanical: Thou shalt use public transport, thou shalt not enjoy consumerism, thou shalt support local businesses even if they are crap employers and provide a more expensive, lower quality product. And if you presume to question this world view then you must be a bad person who doesn't care about the planet.

Oh for an active Viridian Green Party in this country that I could feel comfortable voting for.

2:07 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a green activist I have to reply to this.

The true history of Rapu Nui is a red herring, it was an analogy. It is true that the resources of the earth are finite, and human economy has become big enough to consume them to the point where the economy becomes, itself, untenable. That is the point.

This comment by Scott was truly bizarre:

> he Green Party has a tendency to blame all manner of environmental and
> social problems on the choices that ordinary people make about what
> goods and services they consume. Most of the Green Party's policies
> are designed to discipline working class people into consuming
> 'politically correct', 'green' goods in order to solve social and
> environmental problems.

No. The Green Party places most of the blame on the paradigm of "unlimited growth". This is not the fault of the People (working or middle class) it is the fault, and to benefit, the ruling elites. When criticising the Greens, it helps to read their material first!

It is important to remember that the Green Party is a green party, not a left party (or a right party). It remains uncolonised by the right or left. I know this is frustrating to the left who have no party and hoped that the Greens would be it, as it is frustrating to the Liberals who also have no party (now that National has been taken over by Act activists and Labour lurched to the right), but that is tuff. The Greens have their own kaupapa.

As for supporting capitalism this really irks me. The Green Party of Aotearoa is a political party. It is in politics. Duh! Politics is the art of the possible, not the ideologically pure. Pure ideology has it's place (an important place) but it cannot survive in the political system. Compromise is the name of the game.

I am not a Green because I believe in every green policy, every green pronouncement. I do not.

I am not a Green because the greens only have good and sensible people. It does not.

I am a Green because I believe in the fundamental kaupapa. Social justice, ecological wisdom, appropriate decision making and non violence. The time has come for these ideas to dominate our society. Without them we are screwed. We will destroy our ecology, including our society which I view as a part of ecology, through greed. It makes no difference if you are a leftie and share your greed around or you are a capitalist and keep the fruits of your greed as your own personal property, we are all screwed. Screwed together.

The art of the possible. Non-violence. Put these together and what are you going to do with capitalists? If you are going to abolish capitalism (as a cultural, rather than economic phenomenon) what are you going to do with capitalists? Far better to develop a society that is not ideologically pure but is sustainable, just and democratic. The capitalists will need a place to play, let's let them play, but stop them screwing us. Not easy, but possible. An ideologically pure anarchist society sounds good to me, but how do we get there from here? I will settle for sustainable and just.

As for the racism charge: Just read what the Greens have to say about it (google "solomons"). Scott critisises the Howard governments policies in the pacific (which are terrifying) and calls them green. Illogical to the point of stupidity. Enough said.

It is time for lefties to get over the fact that they failed to colonise the Greens. (The right wing gave up 20 years ago). Get over it. Make up your mind weather the Green's political project is worth while. If you think so, vote for them (us). Yay! But if you do not, vote for some one else. Boo! Or do not vote at all (voting for anybody votes for the system).


11:00 am  
Anonymous Louis Proyect said...

My review of "Collapse":

5:15 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

What to do with the Capitalists? - They are sent out into the cold world to work for a living.

But Capitalism doesn't disappear overnight - first Socialism replaces Capitalism and indeed trading etc continues -the main thing is to sieze the means of production so that the people of the world have control of their own resources.

Read Marx etc

1:34 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

The Greens have good aspects - that is undeniable - eg protection of forests etc

The Greens I think -unlike Labour actually sent an MP to see Ahmed Zaoui when he was waiting trial (in Mt Eden jail).

But the present leadership has changed direction I feel - Scott's points on this are revealing.

1:45 am  

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